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Posts Tagged ‘Opéra Comique’

Adolphe Adam’s claim to fame is the ballet Giselle, but for a while he was also known – in France and in Germany – as the composer of the tenor aria with a written high d  from an opera called Le Postillon de Lonjumeau. It has been famously recorded by Nicolai Gedda, but also by Helge Rosvaenge and Joseph Schmidt. However, the opera itself has very rarely been performed. Curiously, the occasional stagings would appear even in Germany but not in the venue of its première, the Opéra-Comique, where it was last heard in 1894 before today’s performance.

Of course, this opera’s raison d’être is the tenor, and the long-standing relation between the Salle Favart and American tenor Michael Spyres explains this long due revival, and all involved are to be thanked for unearthing this hidden gem. To say that the plot is convoluted in an understatement. Chapelou is a coachman in the town of Lonjumeau who is too proud of his personal charm and his singing voice. It is the day of his wedding with the beautiful innkeeper Madeleine, a scout from the Royal Opera happens to hear him and promises fame and success in Paris. He does not think twice and abandons his wife before the honeymoon. Ten years later, they would meet again in court. She has received an inheritance and is now a glamorous socialite with whom he falls in love without realizing he is already married to her. Shocked by his complete oblivion of her, Madeleine decides to encourage him and, when he proposes, she accepts it as part of her revenge. When he is about to be taken by the police for bigamy, she decides that the whole thing has gone too far and reveals herself. He is overwhelmed by his own luck, but she reminds him that he had left her for the theatre before . His answer is “and now I am leaving the theatre for you”.

The score does not loose time with pretentiousness – everything is glittery, catchy and endearingly quaint. The second act has its best music, with wonderfully witty parodies of grand opéra for both tenor and soprano.

This is the first time I hear Michael Spyres live and it could not be a more relevant occasion. Mr. Spyres has made his name singing impossibly florid music and for his supernatural ease with in alts. Although his high extension is based on a very well connected falsettone stretching roughly from a high b flat to a high f above tenor’s high c, the main part of his voice is rich and warm, and his low register is surprisingly solid. In this moment of his career (he has recently sung operas like Carmen and Fidelio), he still can shift to his special-effect lighter and brighter high notes, but one feels that his “regular” voice is dying to blossom. This evening, he sang his aria’s high d without flinching and offered all kind of optional high notes, even higher than that, but one or other high c seemed to fall in the wrong slot and grated a bit. When I write this, I mean no criticism – it was a fabulous performance – but as a promising sign of development in his repertoire. Mr. Spyres is an extremely musical singer, with crystal-clear diction, sense of style, perfect trills and the sense of vocal narcissism so rare these days. He spoke his lines in good French and proved to have sense of humor too.

The role of Madeleine may sound secondary, but it is actually as difficult as the tenor one. It requires a high coloratura soprano, and the most recent complete recording features no one less than June Anderson. I was not able to find a copy before the performance and got acquainted with the work in Jules Gressier’s CD with Janine Micheau. Canadian soprano Florie Valiquette cannot compete with the famous French lyric soprano in creaminess and roundness. Hers is a very high voice, almost soubrettish and it simply lacked tone in its middle register, but her fioriture are more nimble and exciting than her predecessor’s. She managed very well to show the difference between Madeleine the innkeeper and Madeleine the heiress in purely musical terms too.

Under the expert baton of conductor Sébastien Rouland, the chorus Accentus and the orchestra of Opéra de Rouen Normandie were entirely at home in this music, and Michel Fau’s supercolorful pseudo-baroque staging was funny without making fun of the text and the music.

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The operetta is a genre that thrived from the cultural exchange between Paris and Vienna. The libretto of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus is an adaptation of the French play Le Réveillon by Meilhac and Halévy and the very origins of operetta itself is arguably connected to the style of musical theatre established in the Opéra Comique. Director Ivan Alexandre has decided that a performance of this work at this very theatre should be special: a new French translation by Pascal Paul-Harang has been commissioned and the staging takes place in a highly stylized version of our days (sets and costumes are a bit confusing though). Although the music loses a bit when divorced of the very particular rhythm of the German language (you just need to compare Mit dem Profil im griech’schen Stil/Beschenkte mir Natur/Wenn nicht dies Gesicht schon genügend sprichst/So seh’n Sie die Figur with Regardez ce front, ce nez ce menton/Comme ils sont dessinés/Vous le voyez bien, vous ne trouvez rien/Qui ne soit distingué), the French text is faithful to the spirit and adds a very French sense of humor to the proceedings. As for the staging, much of what Mr. Alexandre creates is delightful: as usual, the ballet in Orlofsky’s party is not used, here replaced by a power shortage that has the audience retire (for the interval) only to be compensated by some offering by Prince Orlofsky – a couple of dances by Johann Strauss and his own impersonation of Cecilia Bartoli in Vivaldi’s Agitata da due venti from Vivaldi’s Griselda (I wasn’t very keen on this one but after two seconds I was laughing my heart out) – and the Frosch with a social conscience. Although the idea that Alfred is so infatuated by himself that he does not realize that Rosalinde would not require much of an effort of seduction is funny, but makes Rosalinde too much of a hypocrite. Anyway, this is evidently carefully conceived Personenregie and the cast is top level in the acting department. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I had fun.

I was not so taken by the musical side of the performance. Although Marc Minkowski had already conducted this work in Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic, I was surprised by how little idiomatic his conducting sounded this evening. There was very little flexibility with tempo, to start with. Then the strings lacked the necessary suppleness and charm – I understand that the idea was to highlight particular colors in other sections of the orchestra, but the result was a little military-band-like. I was surprised to hear an orchestra used to rapid passagework in Handel, Rameau and Gluck so imprecise in this music. All things Viennese had this ambiguity between seriousness and humor. When you listen to the Brüderlein und Schwesterlein ensemble in all recordings in Vienna there is this inimitable mélange of melancholy and sensuous playfulness – here it sounded just serious. In any case, although charm was very restricted, there was forward movement and animation.

Although the cast had many interesting singers, almost none of them were truly well cast. Chiara Skerath has an appealing smooth voice, flexible enough and ductile in lovely mezza voce, but she is helplessly light for this role: whenever things get low or high and fast or requiring louder dynamics, she sounds off focus and colorless. She should have avoided in alts in any case. I am not a fan of the idea of a countertenor Orlofsky. Kangmin Justin Kim has some naughty ideas about how to mix his chest voice in and finally has done better than most, but Brigitte Fassbaender, for instance, surpasses him in everything, even androgyny. He does deserve praise for his Bartoli-caricature – it is almost frighteningly accurate… Although Philippe Talbot’s extreme high notes are a bit tight, it is an extremely pleasing and natural tenor voice – and he phrases with elegance. Stéphane Degout is, of course, an impressive singer who deals heroically with the high tessitura of the part of Eisenstein… but you have noticed that I have written “heroically”? Precisely. Florian Sempey (Falke) sounded a bit grey-toned in the beginning but he developed later an almost Hermann Prey-ish velvety-toned charm for the Brüderlein and Schwesterlein scene. I leave the best for last: when Sabine Devielhe learns how to control the overmetallic quality of her in alts, she is going to be a perfect singer. As she is today, she is only very, very good: her soprano is delightfully bell-toned, her diction is exemplary, she phrases musicianly, has exciting coloratura and is also a terrific actress with looks to spare.

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