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Posts Tagged ‘Opéra de Paris’

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is an example of what makes Italian art great: its unique blend of funny and touching. I would say that in these days when the news are so depressing all over the world, going to the theatre to see the triumph of goodness can be reassuring. In his new production for the Opéra de Paris, director Guillaume Gallienne, however, proves to be skeptical. In his view, happy ending is only for those short of memory. Here, Cinderella is serious about her intent to make herself nobler by her good actions when she forgives her stepfather and sisters, but she cannot forget. In her new found splendor, she thinks only of her sad days of abuse, poverty and unhappiness. Although this is an intelligent view of the story by a director new to the world of opera, Mr. Gallienne makes the #1 mistake of directors not acquainted with the genre: the idea that it should be rescued from its obsoleteness and stuffiness. This invariably involves keenness on naturalistic action, a decision challenged by music’s own tempo, especially in operas the numbers of which are composed in forms that involve recapitulation. Directors of the “rescuing” type invariably resort to extras with parallel subplots in order to supply some interest while the helpless tenor and soprano are singing their boring arias. When they can indeed act, keeping them overbusy is inevitable. As much as this approach requires lots of imagination and cleverness, in the end it only alienates an audience who is already used to the peculiarities of operatic staging and ready to savor everything it has to offer if given enough time to do that.

I am not sure if I like the visual aspect of the prodiction. The idea of showing this as a Neapolitan comedy is apt, and the idea of sun-soaked decayed palaces fits the plot. But there are problem is: the director does not seem to know what the Neapolitan attitude is. The singer who succeeds in portraying that is, predictably, the Italian buffo. Also, the sets are frankly ugly and adapt themselves awkwardly to the dramatic action, especially in the scenes in the Prince’s palace. Costumes are also uncharacteristic and not particularly beautiful either.

In terms of theatre, what makes this staging special is the acting of French mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa. She seems to have gone deeper than the director in Cenerentola’s predicament, by the way she established not only her scenic persona but as she sings it too. Her whole performance glows with a rather dark light. She has payed close attention to the text and portrays a girl traumatized by years of ill-treatment and neglect. When the Prince asks who she is and she answers she is nobody, she means it. When her stepfather says she is dead and she says to herself “They are speaking of me”, she does sound as she had already died. When she implores to go to the ball, it is a cry for help. It’s either seeing a light in the end of the tunnel or succumbing. The trauma informs even the happy scenes – her entrance in the Prince’s party is everything but flashy. The glamor has no effect on her, she has been in the dark for so long that she has become blind to it. She is there only to grab onto her last hope – the valet to the prince who had SEEN her although she was covered in ashes. Ms. Crebassa’s singing was similarly self-contained and introvert. She dealt with the coloratura in absolutely adept but unspectacular way. It had nothing of the narcissism usually associated to technical display. She sang her runs as a pianist playing a nocturne by Chopin, purely as an expressive tool. To say the truth, the part is a bit in the end of her possibilities, especially in what regards climactic high notes, but she even used that for her interpretation purposes. This Cenerentola did not explode in bright high notes, but rather relished her warm, fruity and disarming low register. I have to confess that having sung Olga Borodina in this part made me a bit immune to the charms of Mozartian or Handelian mezzos lost in this repertoire, but Ms. Crebassa made something so unique here that she will be stored in my experience as sui generis.

Lawrence Brownlee’s acting abilities are not up to Marianne Crebassa’s level. Maybe that is why the director made him use a splint on one leg as a way of portraying some sort of fragility. It might have worked, for I found him less self-conscious in his leading man routine than elsewhere.  His tenor a bit less dulcet than last time I heard him, but the trade-off came in the shape of a slightly more heroic quality to his singing. As expected, he does not even flinch before the coloratura and the very high notes. In terms of singing, however, it is Florian Sempey who deserves pride of place. His is a naturally big voice, warm and firm and unproblematic. Even if he indulges in ga-ga-ga coloratura à la Christina Deutekom, how many Dandinis actually tackle their divisions a tempo as he has done? Most of all, he is a stage animal, ready to give his 100%, as if he felt energized by the audience’s appreciation. Bravo. He partnered veteran buffo Alessandro Corbelli to perfection. The Italian bass is still in firm, flexible voice and, if he goes for all the buffo mannerisms, he does it with aplomb. Finally, Adam Plachetka is an unusual choice for the part of Alidoro. The sound is not very Italianate, but he sang his difficult aria in a rich, full voice and complete commitment.

Even if the house orchestra is not really at ease with Rossinian phrasing, conductor Evelino Pidò managed to go beyond the imprecision and thickness to produce the necessary ebullience by choosing very fast tempi that left every musician in the pit on the edge of their seats. It must be said that he was able to do that without making violence to his cast, giving them enough leeway to truly communicate… and to breathe.

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When I told a friend who lives in Paris that I was going to see Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris at the Opéra, he asked me right away if I knew that this was Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging. He did not know that I had seen his Un Tramway… with Isabelle Huppert in 2008 (?) and survived to be surprised by his fascinating Frau ohne Schatten in Munich a couple of years ago. Back in 2006, though, this Iphigénie, as far as I understand, was his first take on directing opera. And one can see that.

Dramaturg Miron Hakenbeck makes, in his text in the booklet, valid and insightful points in traumatic events in the context of family and war and also about family ties in times of war and how one survives and eventually finds healing. However, what one sees on stage is too contrived for one to make all that out. What is truly clear is that there is a woman in a retirement home reminiscing about sad events in her family, probably the consequences of the incestuous relationship between her mother and her brother (the part about Orestes and Pylades I’ll leave out, because this is hard to overlook in the text as it is…). The whole affair of Iphigenia’s duties as a priestress makes very little sense in the context: the moment a knife appears in her hand seems completely nonsensical for someone who had never seen this opera before. To make things worse, Warlikowski is not fond of choristers and one listens to their singing (and also every small role) off stage, what makes the last scene (when the Greek priestresses and the scythians fight over Orestes) impossible to follow (musically too). In any case, the director’s worst offense in an opera that can be low in dramatic tension was letting it be very low in dramatic tension. One just needs to check Youtube to see the excerpts from the performances at the Theater an der Wien and in Salzburg to see the difference.

Although the Palais Garnier had seen period instrument groups in its pit, this Iphigénie has the house orchestra under all-purpose conductor Bertrand de Billy. His approach was almost invariably valid in terms of tempo and accent, but the orchestra often sounded colorless, undistinguished and unclear. And the off-stage chorus is a something no serious conductor should accept.

Véronique Gens’s soprano is tailor-made for the role of Iphigénie, and she sings it with unfailing sense of style, clarity of diction and dramatic engagement – even if her high notes took a while to find the ideal focus. I had read a great deal about Stanislas de Barbeyrac and was curious to hear him live. It is indeed an interesting voice – rather big for a Mozart tenor, but curiously baritonal in color. One can understand why reviewers tend to imagine him in heavier roles, but he still has to figure out his high register, which sounds a bit tight and grainy. His ease with mezza voce, however, is praiseworthy, as well as his phrasing, musicainly and expressive all the way. Replacing Stéphane Degout, Etienne Dupuis offered an ideal performance as Orest both in terms of voice and interpretation. Bravo. I’ve read that Thomas Johannes Mayer would sing the role of Thoas with some surprise. Although his bass-baritone is not truly smooth, his singing did not make violence to classical style and the rough edges made sense for the role of the bloodthirsty king. Curiously, he sounded a bit out of sorts in the last act.

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Director Dmitri Cherniakov has written that, for a long while, he had understood nothing in Verdi’s Macbeth.  Judging from his staging for the Opéra de Paris, I wonder how much progress he has made. It seems that the Opéra Bastille has a tradition of mixing opera and internet – always for dismal results.  This time the stage is covered by a screen on which we can see something like Google Earth showing a contemporary suburban neighborhood where Macbeth seems to be some sort of mayor. Why does he wear an uniform or why would he have an army at his disposal – those are questions left for our imagination. In any case, we are shown the same The Sims-like images of Macbeth’s house and of a square where poor people apparently live in what looks like dog houses.

It seems that the Macbeth plot has been reduced to a burgeoisie vs. proletariat (yes, I know – so last-century…), but setting the action in a bainlieu does not make any sense. First of all, high politics are rarely done in bainlieues. And Macbeth involves state ceremonies and a coup d’état. Second, proletarians and bourgeois rarely live at the same neighborhood. In any case, low-income families in European urban areas tend to live in crowded apartment complexes and not in dog houses. Third, why  would the Macbeths kill people for… nothing? After Duncan’s death, they live at the same shabbily decorated house (they are not even allowed a dining room for their dinner-parties), wear the same frumpy clothes and have the same old and tacky guests. To make things worse, the supernatural elements of the plot are altogether deleted from the story – apparently the proletarians have a collective power of foreseeing things, for anytime Macbeth appears at their dog-house square, the chorus have always new forecasts to give.  Ah, I leave the worst for last – since the Macbeths’  living room is too small, there is no space left for choristers. But you can still hear their voices from… the beyond? I was waiting for the moments when Macduff would say Ihr Unsichtbaren saget mir, lebt denn Duncano noch? Also, when the presence of a soloist on stage does not go with the director’s designs, he or she is heard from backstage through a microphone…  It is said that, when a staging is really bad, we say good thing about the costumes and sets. But not here – Mr. Cherniakov has also created them and, if I were Lady Macbeth, I would kill him for making me look like a hag.

All in all, Violeta Urmana must be a very gracious person. She tried to hold her dignity together while doing magic tricks (this seems to be a new cliché in Regietheater) or singing her Sleepwalking Scene in untidy white pijamas. Although she has dealt quite commendably with Lady Macbeth’s tricky fioriture, trills and dramatic high notes, the role is so distant to her personality that she cannot help sounding unconvincing.  Her best moment would be a high d-flat-less Sleepwalking Scene, sung without any hint of craziness but abounding in rich warm velvety phrasing. Stepping in for Carlos Álvarez, Greek baritone Dimitris Tiliakos has a plausible voice for Macbeth, with a hint of Renato Bruson but too often off-focus in its high register for comfort. As he had little leeway, his performance tended to the monochrome. Unfortunately,  Ferruccio Furlanetto was not in his best voice – but that did not prevent him from offering the most spontaneous rendition of the text (in his native language, an advantage not shared by the soprano and the baritone). The audience’s favorite was, however, Stefano Secco, whose bright tenor and ardent delivery made for a young-sounding Macduff.

It seems that conductor Teodor Currentzis has in Paris the reputation (or rather the notoriety) of being the poorman’s Sinopoli. Although his tempi are always faster than the ones adopted by the late controversial Italian maestro, both do share the fondness for highlighting hidden niceties in the score at the expense of general coherence. I found his beat often whimsical but I tend to view Macbeth as a conductor’s score and it is always refreshing to have someone with ideas rather than a traffic cop on the podium. Nevertheless, all his curiosity did not help him to produce true excitement in the opera’s great ensembles if we are not speaking of sheer loudness.

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In the booklet to his performances of Beethoven’s Fidelio for the Paris National Opera, Sylvain Cambreling explains why he believes that some ideas in early versions of this work (usually referred to as Leonore) are, in his opinion, more effective than the definitive alternatives settled in the composer’s final 1814 version. Naturally, Beethoven’s own ideas of what is more effective are irrelevant compared to Cambreling’s, but let’s not talk about that. The edition performed at the Palais Garnier this evening featured the graceful Leonore I instead of the much loved and highly dramatic Fidelio overture. Also, Marzelline’s aria comes before the duet with Jaquino, which is followed by the trio Ein Mann ist bald genommen. In any case, replacing Beethoven by Beethoven might be debatable, but hardly matter for disappointment. The problem involves the replacement of the original functional if (refreshingly) self-effacing spoken lines by Martin Mosebach’s foolish dialogues which are supposed to connect every loose end in the plot by pseudo-smart explanations full of pocket philosophy and over-the-bar-table psychology.

 

One could say that these replacements could limit the musical and dramatic strength of Beethoven’s Fidelio, but lightness seemed to be the bottomline here – Cambreling ensured that the house orchestra offered clear, warm sounds in the context of a well-balanced and behaved performance. Although accents were firm and rhythms tended to be forward-moving (with the exception of a whimsical beat for Rocco’s “gold” aria), pride of place seemed to be given to shapeliness and correctness. The quartett Er sterbe, for example, never suggested anything wild or dangerous, but rather a certain orderliness. Accordingly, Johan Simons’s production offers us the pasteurized version of this prison drama – sceneries are aseptically white, inmates are dressed in pastels, Florestan is monitored by surveillance cameras. It takes some time to adjust to this Biedermeier version of Beethoven’s humanist drama in which blood and guts are replaced by the political correctness featured in Marie Claire magazine, but once you do that, it does fit one’s general ideas about classical elegance and balance. If you really don’t get my meaning, do yourself a favour by buying Karl Böhm’s CDs with Gwyneth Jones, James King, Theo Adam and the Staatskapelle Dresden.

Above any discussion about stylistic approach is the paramount quality of the cast gathered here. Angela Denoke has received some harsh criticism on her Leonore in Simon Rattle’s recording for EMI some years ago for excessive detachment and undernourished vocalism. Even if her Fidelio is still rather cool, it does feature the kind of Gundula Janowitz-like shapely sculpted phrasing even in the most hair-raisingly difficult moments that matches to perfection Florestan’s idealized vision of an angelic Leonore. Her voice is at once firm, radiant, pure-toned and surprisingly forceful – I sincerely doubt that there are many other singers around who can sing the role as musicianly as she does these days. Moreover, she looks believably boyish and offers acting of disarming sincerity. It is always difficult to find the right Marzelline when the singer taking the title role has such a beautiful voice – and casting Julia Kleiter is an evidence of good judgment. Not only does she have one of the loveliest lyric soprano voices in our days, but also boasts an engaging and charming stage presence.

Jonas Kaufmann is also a skilled actor. He convincingly portrayed Florestan’s physical debilitation even when this involved singing difficult music in very uncomfortable positions. His opening aria, for example: he risked to attack his initial high g on almost falsetto-like mezza voce only to slowly develop it into a very dark fff lying on the floor with his legs crossed in a truly disturbing manner. In the ensuing aria, he sang with sensitivity and imagination and negotiated its difficult second section with unusual accuracy. At this point, any doubts about his ability to sing heroic repertoire should be dispelled. I have seen Alan Held sing the role of Pizarro many years ago and again in Rattle’s EMI recording, but never better than this evening. His voice has acquired a darker hue but still has the necessary concentration to pierce through the orchestra, especially in high higher register. Ideally, the part requires a heavier and larger voice, but operating close to the limits does not prevent this singer from offering a satisfying and reliable performance. Franz-Josef Selig is again a most sensitive and rich-toned singer – only poor focus on high higher notes stands between him and complete success. Ales Briscein is a most pleasant Jaquino, while Paul Gay is a bit modest in sound and attitude for Don Fernando. Last but not least, although the Paris National Opera chorus still lacks some discipline, the final scene was effectively grand in sound and animated.

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First seen at the Opéra Bastille in 2005, Peter Sellars’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde has become famous for the projection of videos by Bill Viola, while the action takes place in a dark setting with no props or other pieces of scenery. It is true that the videos might be an efficient tool to create atmosphere, on showing exquisite images of the ocean or woods etc, but the fact is that they can also be distracting while depicting actors lighting candles, walking or just getting naked. They can also be unnecessary as showing images of fire when the libretto has words like “ardor”, for example. In any case, I did not feel that they highlight the action itself, which is poorly lit and in the end most people are just following the video presentation.

And the truth is that the performance seriously needed atmosphere. The Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris is not truly noble-sounding – wind instruments are not very distinctive and the sound of its string is not full, rich and supple as one would like to hear in a Wagner opera. It does not spoil the fun, but a  stronger-willed conductor than Semyon Bychkov would be of great help in that department.  Most people point out the fact that he tends to opt for slow tempi, but in his defense I would say that he knows when some animation is needed and more or less knows how to make such transitions work. The problem, however, is the absence of a structural backbone. Act I, for example, seemed incoherent and rather loose – even the dramatic tension seemed to escape through the cracks of a poorly structured reading. In act II, truth be said, Bychkov’s justifiable main concern was to help his soloists through the difficult writing – only the final act would benefit from a palpable sense of development, although the Liebestod would prove to be quite tame.

The reader might be asking him or herself if I am not going to describe the positive effect Waltraud Meier had on the proceedings. Those who have seen her video from La Scala know how she can electrify a performance, but, alas, that would not be the case here. Probably because she might be still recovering from the illness that troubled her during the first evening in this run of performances, this admirable German mezzo-soprano seemed overcareful in the first act. She still seemed mistress of the situation then, pouring forth gleaming tone and hitting firm if somewhat clipped top notes.  One may remember more gripping accounts of the narration and curse by this singer, but she still has no rivals in her know-how of mood-shifting through tone colouring and perfect diction. Unfortunately, act II and III were mostly a matter of surviving to the end. There were long stretches of inaudibility, imprecise pitch and other needs for adaptation, requiring a lot of help from the conductor, to the loss of orchestral tonal refulgence.

On the other hand, Clifton Forbis was in extremely healthy voice. Although his tenor is basically throaty, he effortlessly produces powerful notes at the top of this role’s range. His act III monologues were not necessarily subtle, but particularly intense and, it is never enough to say that, reliable. Ekaterina Gubanova could be a refreshing Brangäne – she has a young-sounding yet rich and velvety mezzo and is at ease with Wagnerian style, but the very velvetiness which made her act II calls from the watchtower ethereal did not help her to pierce through heavy orchestration. Alexander Marco-Buhrmester was a particularly sensitive Kurwenal, exploring softer dynamics than most exponents of this role, but Franz-Josef Selig must be singled out for his King Marke – he used his chocolate-coloured bass with Lieder-singing expressiveness and good taste.

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Although the production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte presently performed at the Opéra de Paris has been warmed-up several times since its première at the Opéra Bastille in 2005, it still elicits some booing.  It am not a partisan of such public demonstration of dislike, but I can certainly understand why that happens. It is true that Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto its hardly a masterpiece, but experience has shown that those who tried to improve it have only disgraced themselves in the enterprise. Alex Ollé and Carlos Padrissa, from the Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus, are responsible for what happened to be, in my experience, the most unfortunate attempt of interpretation of Mozart’s Zauberoper. Apparently, the ambiguous nature of the dichotomy “good/evil” is for them something of a novelty worthy of heavy underlining – beside the three genii and three ladies, we have also three dancers half-dressed as Sarastro and half-dressed as the Königin der Nacht… So you see, now you can un-der-stand the plot.

However, adding is something of an exception in this production – basically every element in the plot is replaced by a combination of gigantic air mattresses and video projection of texts featuring the cheapest version of pocket philosophy slogans. In other words, we have a completely white stage with some twenty people dressed as lab researchers carrying around the transparent mattresses  while the words “good-evil”, “beautiful-ugly” are projected all over the place.  Also, the original dialogues are often replaced by what is supposed to be psychologically insightful lines.

Let me give an example: before Pamina’s “suicide” scene, we have to wait two minutes while the  lab people sweat their way along mounting a pyramid of mattresses. Because the libretto instructions are Das  Theater  verwandelt sich  in einen kurzen Garten, I thought that the pyramid ought to be very important. Pamina had to climb on it and try not to fall to her feet while singing. In the end, she climbs down and the lab people jump like madmen on it to deflate the whole thing.  

The silliness was unfortunately not confined to the visual aspects of this production. Conductor Thomas Hengelbrock has a fancy for pointless acc. and rit.-effects and unpolished orchestral sound. The result was more mannered than dramatic and more unattractive than revelatory. In the undernourished overture, different sections of the orchestra rushed to follow the beat and singers were often caught short by the inappropriate tempi. As usual, the most serious victim was the Queen of the Night.

Although Erika Miklosa is still very impressive in her high staccato singing, her passagework was uncomfortable and unclear. Moreover, her voice seems a couple of sizes more modest than it used to be and her low register is left to imagination.  Soprano Maria Bengtsson did not seem comfortable either as Pamina. Her basic tone is not really appealing and requires the art of phrasing to work its charm. She did pull out a sensitive and stylish Ach, ich fühl’s crowned by breathtaking mezza voce, but elsewhere she seemed either squally or curdled-toned or even shrewish or a combination of all that. American tenor Shawn Mathey was far closer to the mark as Tamino – he sang with naturalness and purity of line, offering a charming account of Dies Bildnis. Russell Braun clearly knows what the role of Papageno requires from him, but the tone too often lacks repose and/or focus and the results are sometimes rather graceless than artless. Kristinn Sigmundsson is an experienced Sarastro – I have seen him more connected to the proceedings in other occasions – but who can blame him?

I leave the endearing detail for the end: taking what is supposed to be a farewell role, José Van Dam was still an expressive and firm-toned Sprecher.

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