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Posts Tagged ‘Stéphane Degout’

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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The Music Director Emeritus of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, has inscribed his name in the performance history of Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande with his recording from Montreal, a reference for those who want this work at its least “operatic”, and he conducted it most recently in 2012 at the Verbier Festival with Stéphane Degout as Pelléas. For someone who is not very keen on opera, Maestro Dutoit has conducted some key XXth century stage works in Japan:  Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero, the Japanese première of Szymanowski’s King Roger and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. This afternoon, he offered the Tokyoite audience a concert performance of Debussy’s only complete opera with an all-star cast.

Although Dutoit is still faithful for his strictly-demi-tintes approach, eliciting very subtle and colorful playing from the NHK SO in flexible but never rushed tempi, some may find the orchestral sound a little bit more embracing than on his CDs, although weight is a word no-one would ever think of here. In comparison, Claudio Abbado sounds almost Verdian in his urgent and theatrical DG recording, in which the Vienna Philharmonic dazzles the listeners in kaleidoscopic orchestral effects. In any case, provided you have a cast as impressive as the one gathered here today, the Swiss conductor will be proved right in giving Maeterlinck’s text all the time and prominence it deserves.

If I had to be picky about the choice of soloists, I would say that Karen Vourc’h is one or two millimeters below her colleagues. Although her voice has an appealing shimmering femininity à la Ileana Cotrubas, it acquires a certain graininess above mezzo forte and the low notes are mostly left to imagination. On her favor, there is not a word in the text the meaning of which she does not fully understands – even if her approach is surprisingly sincere. Other singers could find a bit more sensuousness in this role, and I am afraid I have finally got used to that, especially in Mes longs cheveux, sung today without any hint of mystery or seduction. Stéphane Degout is simply the best Pelléas of his generation. First, it is vocally flawless; second, it is crystalline in diction; third, it is entirely devoid of affectation and unusually “masculine”. There is something extremely honest and direct about his performance that makes the role extremely believable. Vincent Le Texier is a forceful and intense Golaud. He is the less aggressive or fatherly Golaud I have ever heard and one can see why Mélisande agreed to marry him in the first place. Midway through act III, when the writing becomes somewhat heavier, Le Texier started to increasingly show some signs of fatigue, but he managed to channel this into his performance. Nathalie Stutzmann and Franz-Josef Selig as Geneviève and Arkel are the dictionary definition’s of embarras de richesses. Khatouna Gadelia and David Wilson-Johnson were ideally cast as Yniold and the doctor.

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The much awaited début of Guy Joostens’ production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette has been talked about in the media as the Natalie Dessay’s Met début in a serious role (if I am not mistaken, her roles in the house have been so far Fiakermilli, Zerbinetta and Olympia). Maybe because of that, her last minute cancellation has thrown an awkward atmosphere in the whole production. It is not that Maureen O’Flynn has spoilt the show. She proved to have nerves of steel on stepping in in circumstances like that. Dexterous as she is, she still has a slightly acidulous voice and her sense of pitch leaves something to be desired. However, her tone is penetrating enough for comfort and she looks gracious enough for the role. The problem is that the whole show has been concocted for Dessay’s acting abilities – and her absence left the remaining singers/actors uncomfortable – and that may account’s for the overall reticence in the rest of the cast. Finally granted its Juliette, the whole performance seemed transformed – most of all conductor Bertrand de Billy. While his account of the score on Monday seemed a bit contrived and miscalculated, he showed a mastery of his orchestra and a sense of vitality on Thursday to an extent that someone might take him for another maestro.

And there was Dessay. Although the voice has these days a tendency to spreading on top notes, this is not really bothersome in the theatre. On the contrary, it is a most charming, entirely musical instrument that gives life to every bit of melody in the part of Juliette. Her native French, her tone colouring col testo, her legendary flexibility and accuracy with roulades, runs and trills – there is no doubt that she deserves her reputation and her moving into lyric roles is most welcome. Most noticeable of all was the wealth of stage movements and character building that filled scenes which looked uneventful on Monday. Her Juliette is spirited and whole-hearted in fun and in woe. Accordingly, Ramón Vargas responded more ardently to this Juliette, although his legato seemed to be more thoroughly knit on Monday. His voice is also entirely suited to this role – his dulcet tenor has enough volume for the most exposed moments, although this must not be confounded with the heroic quality one might expect from him considering his recent choice of roles. He sang with grace, sensitivity and sense of style and proved to be comfortable with his acting in a way few tenors in this repertoire do. The other tenor, Dimitri Pittas, in the role of Tybalt, is firm-toned and rightfully incisive to depict the character’s sense of pride and self-importance. Stéphane Degout’s Mercutio is similarly forceful, but also idiomatic and – thank God – unexaggerated. Kristinn Sigmundsson has the right gravitas for the role of Frère Laurent and Joyce DiDonato is a vivacious Stéphano.

As for the production, it is lots of ideas – most of them innocuous but inoffensive. Having the action set on a display of a clock with astrological/astronomic associations seems to imply the idea of ill-starred lovers taken to an untimely death, but that’s too intellectual to guarantee an extra amount of feeling. It certainly looks beautiful, though. I am not a Gounod-ian, so I have seen this opera only once before, in Munich (with Angela Maria Blasi and Marcelo Álvarez), in a wonderful modern production that actually added insight to the story, but my “default” is the MacKerras video in which everything simply looks like Romeo and Juliet. Maybe I’ve missed that.

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