Posts Tagged ‘Théâtre des Champs-Elysées’

Among Richard Strauss’s operas, it is probably Ariadne auf Naxos the one that gave the composer more trouble to complete. First of all, there was the unpractical idea of having it as the divertissement in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, what made for one of the longest nights in the theatre in one’s lifetime. Then there was Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s tug of war with the libretto, which the composer felt as obscure and nonsensical, while the librettist insisted that even his servants could follow its neoclassical, proto-psychologic imagery. And finally there was the problem of rewriting it to extricate it from the Molière by devidong a prologue that theoretically would propose the musical motives already developed in the opera inside the opera.

Director Katie Mitchell is right when she affirms that the work in its final form has a flaw: the first part does not go seamlessly in the second. The Composer and Zerbinetta’s duet hints at something that never happens, her quick appearance in the last scene seems like an afterthought, not to mention that the mise-en-abyme feels like a torso if we don’t have something like a final scene, even if it were a relatively short ensemble as in the finale ultimo of Don Giovanni: the tenor is happy he got the last scene, the soprano promises never working with the composer again, but he does not care for he has discovered new possibilities in Zerbinetta’s “talents”. She has probably already set her thoughts on someone else, the richest man in Vienna perhaps. Who knows?

That is exactly what Ms. Mitchell tries to do here – not only we have a glimpse of what happens after the end of the opera, but also we are able to witness what goes on in the audience while it is being performed. The Composer is trying to conduct a score edited in haste and is desperate with the intrusions of the buffo actors. My admiration for the director’s many interesting ideas – most of all, Zerbinetta disguised as a doctor (and later as an intellectual), as one would see in any -etta role, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes in the highly distracting and very ineffective decision of including the cross dressing lord and lady of the house in the story, interfering with the action in ways that could be described as all the variations of silliness. I will not call it the staging’s worst idea, for there was the fact that members of the “audience” would speak as loudly as they could over Richard Strauss’s music in a way nobody would have in real life, ruining some beautiful and expressive pages of this score. That is the moment when Ms. Mitchell should have followed the advice of a man who understood everything about structure: Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more”.

Until this evening, Jérémie Rhorer was a Mozart conductor with noteworthy sense of rhythm and drama. The fact that his Straussian credentials were unknown to me have an explanation: this is the first time he conducts an opera by Richard Strauss. It is, therefore, more puzzling that in this most Mozartian among the Bavarian composer’s operas Mr. Rhorer’s instincts have proved to be so wrong. As heard  this evening, the score sounded at its most square, unvaried, unclear and devoid of theatricality. Karl Böhm would marvel that Strauss could make a relatively small group of musicians could alternately sound as a the continuo of baroque opera and as a full Romantic orchestra. Not this evening – even when the music demanded impetuosity and richness, the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris insisted in dwelling within a very restricted sound palette.

Camilla Nylund started the opera with the wrong foot. The lower tessitura did not flatter her rather colorless middle register (the extreme low notes themselves were actually very good) and her lack of slancio made Es gibt ein Reich sound quite dull. She would fare really better in the final duet, where her long breath and pellucid pianissimo gave an elegant if still cold impression. For a change, she did not need to fear the competition from Olga Pudova’s unsubtle, metallic Zerbinetta. The Russian soprano is not familiar with the style, the German language and what she sang in some moments is not really what Strauss wrote. It has been a while since Roberto Saccà included the part of Bacchus in his repertoire and he still sounds healthy and secure in it, but the voice has become even grainier and more glaring than it used to be. In any case, it was refreshing to hear a voice that could pierce through the orchestra without much ado.

Kate Lindsey’s extra-light mezzo soprano had reserves of colors I did not know. Although the part requires everything she has to offer, she makes little of her own limits. Her singing this evening was secure, expressive and beautiful. Her ease with high mezza voce made her get away with very difficult passages and gather her strengths to the exposed high notes in the end of the prologue (when one was forced to recognize that a little bit more volume would make all the difference in the world). Even sailing through a rocky shore, she still found the opportunity to show off exemplary breath control and let go breath pauses that normally stand between almost every other singer and asphyxia. Brava.

Among minor roles, Huw Montague Randall displayed a firm and warm baritone as the harlequin and Lucie Roche super dark low notes in the part of the dryad sounded really promising.


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This current run of performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (a new production later to be reprised in Rome) in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées did not seen to be unmissable in a first look: no big names in the cast (Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne being too ubiquitous to be regarded as such), which also happens to be a tad exotic and a conductor who has a difficult relationship with the Parisian public (a long difficult relationship, since he has been the musical director of the Orchestre Nationale de France for eight years).

Actually, the whole venture is more adventurous than I hinted at: this is the first time Daniele Gatti conducts Tristan. Considering my experience with him, I braced myself for “loud and slow “. Gatti, however, states that he has been preparing himself for that for a long time – and I cannot say he has not. The first impression I had from the prelude was how structurally clean and musically organized it was, even when the articulation in his string section could be more clear. It was the work of someone who really took the pains of determining how to present every layer in the texture and, most importantly, and which one is the Hauptstimme. The rest of act 1 confirmed my first opinion: accompanying figures propelled the performance in almost Verdian manner and “a tempo” (not slow neither fast – let’s say “natural”) seemed to be the rule, volume rather restrained to allow clarity.

My enthusiasm would be tested in the second act: the opening scene straight jacketed in the rigid beat suggested the mechanical rather than the energetic, and once Wagner’s concept begins to become more  fluid, Mr. Gatti’s weapons of choice too began to miss the mark. Act III is even more elusive and requires something that would gradually prove to be missing this evening: a vision. In his masterpiece, Wagner does not accept solutions “from the outside”: one really has to understand in his or her heart was this music is about before one sets his mind at work to discover how this “emotional truth” allows itself to become “music “. I don’t mean that Daniele Gatti is incapable of having this vision; it is just his first experience and the “infrastructure ” is already mostly there.

I saw Rachel Nicholls in 2008 in Kobe, singing Bach with Masaaki Suzuki. Then I wrote that it was pleasant to hear a big-voiced Bach soprano (although she was too loud for the orchestra and the venue). One or two years later I read an interview where she declared she was training to sing Wagner. As I couldn’t recall a precedent, I eagerly read her explanation of how there is only a difference in intensity but not in procedure: the Wagner sound being a development from her Bach sound, both beginning from the same core. This is a very good piece of advice (provided you really have the natural volume and stamina) – and I wanted to see if she was true to her explanation. However, her dramatic soprano career seemed restricted to regional opera houses and festivals. Until Emily Magee cancelled her participation in these performances.

After what I heard this evening, I must understand that this is the inevitable beginning of her international career. To put it simply, I had only heard a soprano sing Wagner’s dramatic roles with absolute legato and the same kind of “cantabile” one would expect in Verdi in recordings with Frida Leider or Florence Austral. Although Rachel Nicholls’s voice is not as imposing and big as these formidable ladies, it is absolutely natural, cleanly and easily produced as theirs were. She sings PHRASES, not groups of notes, her high c’s perfectly integrated to what happened before and after, all exposed acuti seamlessly and effortlessly connected. It is rather a high than a low voice, but the low register is natural and hearable. Furthermore, it is a young-sounding voice, almost too sweet for this role. But no – I have thoroughly enjoyed this feminine take on it. All that said, Ms. Nicholls’s Wagner, enticing as it is, is still work in progress. She has a very tame nature and, while she seems to be aware of that and evidently works hard for attitude, this is something she still has to discover. Also, her German, acceptable as it is, is still a bit cautious. And she has to figure out why her “a” often sounds like “ä” when things get high and loud.

Torsten Kerl too is a young sounding Tristan who produces unmistakably tenor-ish tones throughout. His voice has fine projection, but when Wagner demands truly heroic singing from him, he seems to shift to one invariable “Heldentenor”-gear, where the voice has a hint of a snarl. In any case, he sang with animation, clear diction, rhythmic alertness and got to the end of the opera almost as freshly as he started. Maybe if he too had more of a vision, his Tristan would have been a little bit more than getting to the end without fatigue, an “athletic” accomplishment not to be snobbed anyway.

At first, Michelle Breedt sounded a bit too smoky, but she settled into a compelling performance, with beautifully floated mezza voce in act II. Brett Polegato was a firm-toned, congenial Kurwenal, probably the all-round most interesting musical/dramatic accomplishment this evening. I cannot unfortunately say something similar of Steven Humes’s King Marke, nasal in tone, erratic in pitch and dramatically dull.

I have always found Pierre Audi’s productions on the decorative side – and not even to my taste. The rusty iron naval structures in act I did help to create some atmosphere, but the set of act II looked like the carcass of a whale and I could not see the point of the night-club decoration of Tristan’s “room” in Kareol. The costumes too were idiosyncratic, but the main problem was the fact that the director overlooked his cast’s acting limitations and just pretended this would sort itself out. It had not: these singers diligently followed gestures and attitudes they did not seem comfortable with and the point of which seemed to elude them entirely.



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When Jérémie Rhorer first started his Mozart opera series in the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, he was not exactly a household name, but now that it is close to reach its end, he has become something of a sure deal for Classical repertoire. I’ve had the luck to see the Così fan tutte in this series and I realize that it wasn’t only Rhorer’s reputation that has increased since then, he himself has developed as a conductor, most notably in the sense that he has found a more fine balance between his ideas and the means available to carry them out. It is curious that I’ve had the same seat both evenings, and the impression of the orchestral sound could not be more different: today, all sections of the Cercle de l’Harmonie were in perfect balance and, if the strings have a touch of astringency, this was put to good purpose in a punchy, vivid sound picture. Actually, if these performances deserved to be recorded (probably in studio, with cast changes), the main reason for that would doubtlessly be Rhorer’s conducting. This was probably the best conducted TIto I have ever heard (including recordings) – the Overture sounded entirely fresh to my ears, with wonderful interplay between strings and wind instruments and truly theatrical flair. His management of tempi proved to be ruled by the quest for the right balance between musical and theatrical values and the eschewal of empty effect. Soft affetti were treated with unusual care – the Servilia/Annio duettino exquisitely touching, while the orchestra could provide Vitellia with some of its most stingy and nervous sounds. I have been often let down in the finale ultimo, but this evening it has surpassed my expectations in the perfect matching of soloists, orchestra and chorus (which could be a bit short in tenor and bass sound during the whole opera).

Everybody wondered how further Karina Gauvin would be singing exclusively on the cream before moving up to the full glass of milk of her lyric soprano. The choice of the formidable role of Vitellia seems like a bold step into a future of new possibilities, even if this deserves some consideration. First, I was surprised to see how wholeheartedly she has embraced the virago attitude, spitting her recitatives with panache and chewing the scenery as if her life depended on it. However, she does not have the physique du rôle for a seductress, especially when sabotaged by an unbecoming gown strangely provided by no other than Christian Lacroix. Second, if Gauvin could delve most naturally in chest voice for the very low notes required by Mozart, she lacks either training or the instincts or even the spiritual disposition when things get high and loud. She tiptoed through every incursion above high a and produced a truly underwhelming account of the acuti of Vengo… aspetatte… . There is no “third”: other than this I’ve found her Vitellia really enjoyable in her rich, flexible soprano. She tackled many difficult runs unusually accurately and showed no reluctance before trills and sang a sensitive and heartfelt Non più di fiori.

Kate Lindsey too was a sensitive Sesto, singing with beautiful sense of line and true ease with mezza voce. Her mezzo remains, though, light for the role and heroic moments took her to her limits, most notably in the end of Parto, ma tu ben mio, when her fioriture left a lot to be desired. Julie Boulianne (Annio) proved to be more generous in the vocal department, her velvety and homogeneous voice easy on the ear. Julie Fuchs has Mozart running through her veins. Her voice is very reminiscent of Barbara Bonney’s, but she finally offered a Servilia even more touching than Bonney’s in both her recorded performances. Robert Gleadow was a positive Publio with very clear divisions, but there is a rattling, nasal quality suggesting the musical theatre rather than the opera that disturbed balance in many ensembles.

Kurt Streit was, for many years, a model of Mozartian singing, as one can sample in his many recordings in this repertoire, but these days seem to be behind him. It is true that the sense of line, the imagination for ornamentation, the elegant phrasing and the clean fioriture are still there, but passaggio is now handled in a glaringly open tone and, when he has to cover his high notes, they turn up tremulous and effortful. His handling of the text was extremely artificial, as if Tito were talking to small children during the whole opera, what made him seem insincere and studied and a bit dull. And that is not the character devised by Metastasio.

Director Denis Podalydès, from the Comédie-Française, had many interesting ideas – starting the performance with a very expressive actress (Leslie Menu) delivering Bérénice’s farewell verses to Titus in Racine’s tragedy before the overture and setting the action in a hotel, where the high echelons of government seem to be interned during a political crisis while the ruler’s authority is being restored. There are too many extras, though, and some intimate scenes sound overcrowded and too many secrets are being recited to an audience of silent roles. The Personenregie is very detailed and all members of the cast keenly follow it, but I am afraid that the Sesto’s mental unbalance after he has set fire to the capitol is too much even for well-intentioned opera singer.

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In the context of a program called “Festival Mozart”, which featured an Idomeneo last year, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has invited French conductor Jérémie Rhorer for a Così Fan Tutte staged by Eric Génovèse, a member of the Comédie-Française. This last information is of some relevance if someone has seen any staging of classical plays in the venerable institution in Paris. Sets and costumes are elegant and functional in an almost neutral manner – actors take pride of place in order to show their almost formulaic impeccable technique and even the more relaxed moments seem somehow calculated. So it was this evening. This description may suggest boredom, but no – its charms might be a tad bureaucratic, yet pleasing in an undemanding way. Especially with a cast so adept in the acting department.

The conductor has an important share in this performance’s effectiveness. Rhorer is an alert Mozartian, keen on athletic yet spontaneous rhythms, clarity and expressive phrasing. It is just a pity that his orchestra, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie lacks a more rounded sound – violins were particularly recessed (even for someone in a seat close to first violins, such as I had this evening). This alone has spoiled a great deal of the fun for me, and my mind was often busy filling in the blanks left by the orchestra. That said, I couldn’t help imagining how this would sound with, say, the Vienna Philharmonic. Even under those circumstances, some moments sounded truly original. Despina disguised as the notary read her contract in fascinating interplay with the orchestra, such as I had never heard before, for instance.

I had seen Camilla Tilling only once as Susanna in Munich. Then I found her rather small-scale and have read that she would be this evening’s Fiordiligi with misgivings. Soon to be dispelled. Although the voice is light for the role, she sang it with dexterity – creamy tone, crystal-clear divisions and plausible low notes. She has natural feeling for Mozartian phrasing, and only a reluctance to float mezza voce, a difficulty with trills and some effort that passed for emphasis when her voice could not supply more volume stood between her and success. Michèle Losier is a gifted actress, but her voice lacks a distinctive quality necessary to bring Dorabella to the fore. Claire Debono was a vivacious Despina, a metallic edge in her voice notwithstanding.

Bernard Richter has a pleasing natural voice, more German in style than what we tend to hear in this role these days. He can sound a bit nasal now and then. He certainly knows Mozartian style, but wasn’t truly at ease in Un aura amorosa. Markus Werba was a solid, not very mellifluous Guglielmo and Pietro Spagnoli was a firm-toned, funny yet menacing Don Alfonso.

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Before I say anything about this evening’s performance, I must warn you that I cannot say that I really like Verdi’s Falstaff. I acknowledge the ingeniousness and creativity, but the music does not really pluck any string in my heart. The last time I have seen it live in 2005 at the Met, I remember I wrote that, if James Levine’s irreproachable performance had not convinced me to like it, I would probably never do it.  Although that performance has many similarities to the one I have seen today at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, I can say I am getting closer to enjoy the work than I thought.

First of all, as much as James Levine, Daniele Gatti is a conductor with a symphonic approach to this work. If my memory does not fail me, there is one crucial difference – while Levine’s rich-toned almost-Straussian performance gave pride of place to musical values, setting the orchestra as the real “soloist”, Gatti achieved the right balance between dramatic and musical values, rendering the graphic effects in the score with almost unfailing precision and taking care never to drawn his singers in thick orchestral sound – and yet the Orchestre Nationale de France produced multicoloured, translucent, expressive sounds.

As much as in the Met performance, a British singer took the title role. Curiously, back in 2005, Bryn Terfel was indisposed and could barely sing the final act. Unfortunately, Anthony Michaels-Moore also happened to be sick today, but agreed to sing nonetheless. The similarities between these singers end here. While Terfel was an extremely affected and heavy-handed Falstaff, Michaels-Moore scores all his interpretative points in subtlety. Even if the flu has robbed his velvety baritone of colour and overtones, one can see it is a round, rich and pleasant voice with a varied tonal palette, keen on fluent legato. Because he never overdid any comic effect, his Falstaff always sounded convincing in his aristocratic self-delusion and particularly funny because of that. To make things better, he possesses natural talent for comedy and had the audience on his side at every moment. Baritone Jean-François Lapointe too was announced indisposed. Although his low register was not really functional, he had no problem with the high end of his range and produced some firm top notes. Paolo Fanale’s tenor is rather open and lacking roundness, what made him a not entirely seductive Fenton, but he proved he could effectively soften his tone in his big solo.

This was my first experience with Anna Caterina Antonacci in the theatre – and all I can say is that she more than fulfilled my expectations. Her voice is both richer and smoother live than in recordings and the way how she inhabits the text, colouring each word as if she herself was speaking her own lines made her a particularly spirited Alice. This is a role that tends to take second place in most performances of this opera – not this evening. She was ideally matched by the fruity-toned Meg of Caitlin Hulcup and the not entirely Italianate, but ideally delicate Nannetta of Chen Reiss, who floated haunting pianissimi as if it were the most natural thing in the world. If Marie-Nicole Lemieux lacks the solid middle register of an Italian mezzo, she does have impressive low notes and a really engaging stage presence. Minor roles were cast from strength in the veteran butstill  fresh-toned Raúl Gimenéz (Dr. Cajus), Patrizio Saudella (Bardolfo) and Federico Sacchi (Pistola).

Mario Martone’s Victorian staging could not be less imaginative – although Ursula Patzak’s costumes were quite beautiful (if conventional), Sergio Tramonti’s sets were particularly unconvincing in the use of a fire-escape-like staircase as a fixed element around which props were added for every scene.  The closing scene especially gave an impression of carelessness and limited budget. That said, the direction of actors itself was refreshingly up-to-the-point and spontaneously yet precisely rendered by this gifted group of singers.

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