2014 and 2015 FR/EU reviews:

Iphigénie en Tauride in Geneva (February 4, 2015)
Idomeneo in Lyon (February 2, 2015)
Tristan et Isolde in Toulouse (February 1, 2015)
Guillaume Tell in Monaco (January 25, 2015)
Peter Grimes in Nice (January 24, 2015)
Idomeneo in Montpellier (January 4, 2015)
L'elisir d'amore in Marseille (January 2, 2015)
Aureliano in Palmira in Pesaro (August 15, 2014)
Il barbiere di Siviglia in Pesaro (August 14, 2014)
Armida in Pesaro (August 13, 2014)
Trauernacht at the Aix Festival (July 16, 2014)
Il turco in Italia at the Aix Festival (July 19, 2014)
Winterreise at the Aix Festival (July 12, 2014)
Nabucco at Orange (July 9, 2014)
Ariodante at the Aix Festival (July 3, 2014)
The Magic Flute at the Aix Festival (July 2, 2014)
La traviata in Marseille (June 21, 2014)
Rusalka in Monte-Carlo (January 29, 2014)
Lucia di Lammermoor in Marseille (February 6, 2014)
La Favorite in Toulouse (February 16, 2014)
Carmen in Bilbao (February 18, 2014)
L'elisir d'amore in Monte-Carlo (February 26, 2014)
The Tender Land in Lyon (February 1, 2014)
Coeur de Chien in Lyon (January 30, 2014)
Eugene Onegin in Montpellier (January 17, 2014)
Cosi fan tutte in Montpellier (January 9, 2014)
Otello in Genoa (January 3, 2014)

Iphigénie en Tauride in Geneva

Iphigénie puppet, Anna Caterina Antonacci as Iphigénie, female chorus puppet
All photos copyright Carole Parodi, courtesy of the Grand Théâtre de Genève

Hopefully this brilliant new production of Iphigénie en Tauride from the Grand Théâtre de Genève will find its way to the new world now that Gluck’s masterpiece has been introduced to American audiences.

(The Metropolitan and Seattle operas production directed by Stephen Wadsworth made it to Live in HD in 2011, and Robert Carsen’s 2006/2007 production was seen in San Francisco and Chicago.)

Gluck’s 1779 opera is a strange work, its libretto based on the 1757 tragedy of the same name by Claude Guimond de la Touche who had lifted entire sections of his play from earlier opera librettos based on Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia in Taurus. La Touche was a Jesuit for 14 years, but left the order to be a full-time poet.

Gluck’s French operas are through-composed solemn events, well respected in the troubled times that lead to the French revolution. But Gretry’s comic operas of the same moment with spoken dialogues and pretty airs were far more pleasurable to audiences. Maybe some of Gretry’s easy sentimentality made its way into Gluck’s tragedy in the questionable relationship between Oreste and his companion Pylade. The 1997 Glimmerglass production simply made them gay lovers.

If the Carsen production was dismissed as euro-trash by a critic on Resmusica* (blood covered walls, all actors in black tunics), and the Wadsworth production according to the critic on The Classical Review seemed fearful that its audience might be bored (hyper-ventilating ballets) the new Geneva production hits the nerve center of the opera by listening to the music. The production hears its solemnity, participates in its individual dramas, and illustrates its pantomimes — there is not a single second when the stage action departs from the absolute directness of the storytelling. The Gluck genius was to make music drama, and it was pure in Geneva.

Alexey Tikhomirov as Thoas and male chorus puppets

Gluck’s rediscovered tragic unities are relentlessly upheld in this production staged by German born, culturally French informed stage director Lukas Hemleb and Berlin born, European and American formed sculptor Alexander Polzin. There was no ballet. Instead every principal actor had his double. A life-size puppet. Every blacked-out chorister, forty of them, held his life-size, black puppet. The set, astounding in scope, was a heavy Greek theater made of huge cut stones. It too had its double, an equal construction that had been yanked from the earth, suspended above the stage for the final scenes of the opera.

The concept was to step back from action, to allow the actors react to the story and to themselves as the story unfolded. Body movement was abstractly linear, the movement of mechanically motivated limbs. The results were constructions of motion that mirrored the brutal melodic lines of this morbid tale, and the abruptness of harmonic and theatrical structure, The actors were the music, and it was always a theater, theater itself, that we saw, and felt, from within and from without.

For the third act there was no set, only a bowl in the middle of the stage into which plummeted bits of the presumed dead Oreste. Oreste was Italian baritone Bruno Taddia who in the second act had fallen away from his puppet double onto the forestage to deliver, alone, his agonized recitative “Dieux protecteurs de ces affreux rivages!” In the emotional immediacy, rare in Gluck, of this outburst he became his puppet, moving in jerks and spasms as if operated by an exterior force. This force was Gluck’s music and the tragic muse.

Bruno Taddia as Oreste, Steve Davislim as Pylade, their puppet doubles

Mr. Taddia gave an over-the-top performance in warm, secure voice. His extreme performance was matched to a much lesser degree by the Iphigénie of Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci (remember that this was a Maria Callas role so the stakes are already impossibly high). Her physical involvement was gratefully more measured (much more) than that of Mr. Taddia, her voice securely if not easily or opulently carved Gluck’s emotional recitative “Je cede à vos désirs” and air “D’une image, hélas, trop chérie!”

Oreste’s companion Pylade was sung by Australian tenor Steve Davislim. At the final performance, perhaps exhausted from the run of six performances this fine artist was unable to take his air “Divinité des grandes âmes” to its melodic heights, though it was otherwise sung in beautiful voice. Pylade, unlike Oreste and Iphégenie is tormented only by human love (for Oreste), and not by divine forces.

As the tyrant king Thoas bass Alexey Tikhomirov threatened appropriately if without distinction compared to the powerful performances of Iphigénie, Oreste and Pylade.

The proceedings were presided over by Dresden born conductor Hartmut Haenchen, who magnificently managed the score, integrating its orchestral, choral, balletic and solo voices into the tragedia messa in musica that Gluck imagined. It must be said that one did not hear the orchestra separately from seeing the stage. Gesamtkunstwerk indeed.

Casts and production information

Iphigénie: Anna Caterina Antonacci; Oreste: Bruno Taddia; Pylade: Steve Davislim; Thoas: Alexey Tikhomirov; Diane: Julienne Walker; Un Scythe: Michel de Souza; 1ère Prêtresse: Mi-Young Kim; 2ème Prêtresse: Marianne Dellacasagrande; Une femme grecque: Cristiana Presutti; Le Ministre du sanctuaire: Wolfgang Barta. Chœur du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Conductor: Hartmut Haenchen; Mise en scène: Lukas Hemleb; Décors: Alexander Polzin; Costumes: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer; Lumières: Marion Hewlett; Collaboration chorégraphique: Joanna O’Keeffe. Grand Théâtre de Genève, February 4, 2015.

Idomeneo in Lyon

Elena Galitskaya as Ilia, Kate Aldrich as Idamante
All photos copyright by Jean-Pierre Maurin, courtesy of the Opéra de Lyon.

You might think you could go to an opera and take in what you see at face value. But if you did that just now in Lyon you would have had no idea what was going on.

Totally confused by the Uzi bearing thugs [sigh] that herded distressed costumes on and off the stage, and, well, by the mezzo-soprano in concert dress standing extreme stage right (singing Idamante while voiceless mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich walked the role on the stage) luckily I found the insert in the program book at the intermission that would enlighten me. The Opéra de Lyon had come to a belated conclusion that this new production by German director Martin Kušej (koooo-shy) might not make any sense.

Mr. Kušej’s dramaturg, Olaf A. Schmitt, explained that Idomeneo lives in fear of the future established by the diminished chords of his Act II aria “Fuor del mar.” Furthermore that the D major tonality of this aria was the same as the first chords of the overture thereby establishing Idomeneo as the sovereign. The aria is old-fashioned, the da capo form, and this proves that Idomeneo is captive of an out-of-date, unchangeable system.

To make a long story short, Idamante is also captive, both the old and new sovereigns hold their repressive power by embracing and exploiting a religious system. This is proven because D major is obviously Idomeneo’s tyranny, and then this tonality is adopted by Idamante in his supplications to be sacrificed to the gods in order to save his people.

This rationale seems to have been constructed so that in the dénouement of the opera the resignation of Idomeneo may occur with him alone on the stage. He is writhing in emotional agony in what must now be a prison (the set was a revolving platform of repeating doors). He in fact has lost his power, and there has been no sacrifice. Furthermore the old, unchangeable order remains. The final celebratory chorus is grimly sung by drably dressed (old “Eastern-bloc”) choristers. At least they were not playing with the little fishes that had earlier served to demonstrate calmed waters.

This sea monster of the first act gave way to the playful little fishes of the second act mentioned above.

Did I get this right? More or less?

Well, it might have worked, and in fact the final Idomeneo scene was a powerful coup de théâtre that might have been convincing theater had the Opéra de Lyon provided a persuasive cast of singers, and more than perfunctory conducting.

As it was the voiceless Kate Aldrich was the only convincing presence on the stage, this fine artist here acted this travesty role with surprising masculine force (she physically attacked Idomeneo when she wanted him to do her bidding — note how this supports Mr. Kušej’s concept).

Mme. Aldrich in fact had the flu and could not sing (the flu had been passed around the cast, evidently you never knew who would be down for which performance). Her words were beautifully sung by Russian mezzo Margarita Gritskova who sometimes could not help becoming dramatically involved (musically). But we needed the artistic maturity of la Aldrich to make Idamante alive.

The balance of the cast, all fine singers, did not have the force of character or the physical presences to make a convincing case for this off-the-wall, politically naive, theatrically forced concept. It was a long, very long evening.

We can only shutter at our premonitions of what Mr. Kušej and Mr. Schmitt may attempt with Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Aix Festival this coming summer.

Casts and production information

Idoménée: Lothar Odinius; Idamante: Kate Aldrich; Ilia: Elena Galitskaya; Electre: Ingela Brimbert; Arbace: Julien Behr; Voix de Neptune: Lukas Jakobski. Orchestre et Choeurs de l’Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Gérard Korsten; Mise en scène: Martin Kušej; Collaborateur artistique à la mise en scène: Herbert Stöger; Dramaturgie: Olaf Schmitt; Décors: Annette Murschetz; Costumes: Heide Kastler; Lumières: Reinhard Traub. Opéra Nouvel, Lyon, February 1, 2015.

Tristan et Isolde in Toulouse

Robert Dean Smith as Tristan, Elisabete Matos as Isolde
All photos copyright Patrice Nin, courtesy of the Théâtre du Capitole.

Tristan first appeared on the stage of the Théâtre du Capitole in 1928, sung in French, the same language that served its 1942 production even with Wehrmacht tanks parked in front of the opera house.

But ten years later, 1952, Kirsten Flagstad sang Isolde in Toulouse, in German of course. The then director of the opera, tenor Louis Izar was a celebrated Ring Mime, and the then mayor of Toulouse, Raymond Badiou himself was big friends with Wieland Wagner. Toulouse had become known as Bayreuth-sur-Garonne (the river that passes through Toulouse).

Tristan und Isolde however disappeared from the Theatre du Capitole after the 1972 production (Herbert Becker and Klara Barlow), not to reappear until 2007 in a production by Nicholas Joël, remounted just now with American tenor Robert Dean Smith as Tristan and Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos as Isolde. At the first intermission a tall gentleman strode through the bar loudly proclaiming in hoch British that it was “better than Bayreuth.”

Elisabete Matos as Isolde

Most of us have not been to Bayreuth so we cannot know, but it was indeed certain that this Tristan was already an ultimate experience, and that was well before the Tristan delirium that was the musically shattering climax of the performance. The conductor was 62 year old, Leipzig born conductor Claus Peter Flor, known in the U.S. as the guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony (1999-2008). While no stranger to the opera pit his program booklet biography reveals him to be primarily an orchestral conductor.

The maestro concentrated his attention on the famed Toulouse orchestra, here strings 12/12/10/8/6, triple winds but 6 horns, with the full backstage complement of 6 horns and 3 each trumpets and trombones. There were two harps for the mesmerizingly beautiful second act love tryst, Brangäne gorgeously intoning her admonitions. The exquisite minor third trills of the clarinets had already laid the foundations for Wagner’s eternally quivering passions.

If seventy six orchestra players and two heroic voices can be said to whisper this was the intimacy of the second act. In fact the first act as well was developed in personal rather than mythical voices, the oboes, flutes and English horn working to color Isolde’s despair, Brangäne’s (in black spectacles) deception, and Tristan’s indifference. The first act love duet was surprise more than passion, preparing us for the musico-psychological treatise on nineteenth Romantic century love that was the second and third acts.

Metteur en scène Nicholas Joël hovered between the real and the magical, his production sometimes staged and sometimes semi-staged. Wagner’s first act sailors were 8 supernumeraries [figurants] (the chorus was hidden) in formal concert dress (tails) who reappeared at the end of the opera as King Mark’s soldiers. The second act swords drawn, Melot’s thrust was symbolically received, Tristan fell, isolated on the other side of the stage. At the end of the opera Kurvenal’s thrust was symbolic, not actually touching the jealous traitor, Tristan’s friend Melot.

Elisabete Matos as Isolde
All photos copyright Patrice Nin, courtesy Opéra de Toulouse

Elisabete Matos as Isolde, Robert Dean Smith as Tristan

Finally Tristan lying dead, Isolde rose, walked down stage center (the soldiers, the dead Kurvenal and Melot as well as King Mark had all slipped off stage). This was the liebestod for the brilliant-red gowned Isolde, in concert now. It was, as intended, a panegyric to love. It was not the end of an opera.

The coup de théâtre occurred at the beginning of the third act. The curtain rose on the wounded Tristan hanging over the front point of the now sharply elevated triangular center platform (the stage set was three platforms that in the first act had moved up and down as the wave motions of the sea). Arms and head dangling into the emptiness high above the orchestra pit Tristan remained there for maybe ten minutes (through the English horn solo and Kurvenal’s scene with the shepherd).

He awoke to deliver his great mad scene, always perched on this point, and somehow balanced philosophy with emotional rawness, rationality with irrationality. It was in this delirium that the maestro let loose with the great (and here the biggest) orchestral climaxes of the entire opera. It was the cerebral drama of this extended tract that made the Joël concept of Tristan become the masterpiece Tristan und Isolde is said to be — we both understood and felt love as if we were a Romantic poet.

Robert Dean Smith is of strong, secure and virile voice, his dramatic and musical intelligence apparent, well able to effect the considerable challenges of this mise en scène. He has already established himself as one of the important Tristans of our day on the world’s important stages. Elisabete Matos has performed Isolde once before, in 2011 at Barcelona’s Liceu. In the prime of voice she is able to soar to and beyond the enormous climaxes never compromising her richly colored sound. Her familiarity with the great Verdi dramatic soprano roles lies under her Isolde, the liebestod far more intimate and personal than heroic. The vast emotional vistas and philosophic scope of this production were perfectly realized in her performance.

German mezzo-soprano Daniela Sindram well fulfilled the requirements of this production, her Brangäne a very present figure in Wagner’s conceptual preparations. Costumed in white German baritone Stefan Heidemann made a very present Kurvenal, his rather loud, darkly colored voice a welcomed contrast to the refined Heldon tenor tone of Robert Dean Smith. German bass Hans-Peter König was a perfunctory King Mark.

Conductor Claus Peter Flor created this remarkable musical vision that fulfilled the complex theatrical vision of Nicholas Joël. The stage and pit were remarkably synchronized, the maestro focused on his orchestra, the stage very sure of itself.

Casts and production information:

Tristan: Robert Dean Smith; Isolde: Elisabete Matos; King Mark: Hans-Peter Koenig; Kurwenal: Stefan Heidemann; Melot: Thomas Dolié; Brangaene: Daniela Sindram; Un Jeune matelot / Un Berger: Paul Kaufmann; Un Pilote: Jean-Luc Antoine. Choeur du Capitole, Orchestre national du Capitole. Conductor: Claus Peter Flor; Mise en scène: Nicolas Joel; Scenery and costumes: Andreas Reinhardt; Lighting: Vinicio Cheli. Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse, February 1, 2015.

Guillaume Tell in Monte-Carlo

Peasants revolt amidst a sea of Ferrari and Maserati's.

Nicola Alaimo as Guillaume Tell, Celso Abelo as Arnold
All photos copyright by the Opéra de Monte-Carlo

There was the usual automotive hardware in front of Monte-Carlo’s magical opera house. The peasants were all on the stage of the Salle Garnier, an embarrassment of riches, most notably Nicola Alaimo as Guillaume Tell and Celso Abelo as the lovesick Arnoldo. In fact the entire cast beginning with Mekeldi Atxalandabso as Reudi whose hymn to Swizerland “Accour dans ma nacelle” that opens the opera upheld the high level of singing that defined the evening, Basque tenor Atxalandabaso’s warm and easy high “c”’s only the first of the many vocal pleasures of the evening.

Music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo Gianluca Gelmetti presided over his orchestra for this occasion, an opera he conducted twenty-years ago (1995) at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro to enormous critical acclaim. Much has transpired in his career since 1995. He is now famous for the Italian post-Romantic repertory perhaps explaining the massive sonic scope he found in the Rossini score for the Salle Garnier, and the warmth of tone he infused into the orchestral sound firmly persuading us that Guillaume Tell was a new, sentimental Rossini, and a unique Rossini — it is the last of the Rossini operatic oeuvres.

Before all else Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is French grand opéra as its extended dramatic recitatives attest, though Rossini could not keep himself from breaking into some coloratura from time to time, a lapse effortlessly and beautifully absorbed into the musical flow by the maestro. Rossini discovered the pleasures of the rich French low mezzo-soprano voice in Hedwedge, the wife of Guillaume, dissolving this voice into a sublime trio with Guillaume’s soprano son, Jemmy and Mathilde, his savior, with its intricacies rendered by the maestro in rich delicacy. Though Gelmetti had already pummeled us with the fiery Rossini we know so well when Guillaume and Walter Furst shamed Arnold into fighting for his fatherland.

Nicola Alaimo as Guillaume Tell, Nicholas Cavallier as Walter Furst, Celso Abelo as Arnold

There was the spectacle of typical grand opéra, the maestro endowing the classic Rossini storm with truly terrifying proportions (even though it was the same storm we know from the Roman comedies). And there were the magnificent complexities of the Rossini ensembles we know from the later Naples tragedies, the defiance of the peasants to the strength of the Hapsburgs magnified by Gelmetti in the repeating brass motifs in the orchestra, each time louder until it could not become louder. But it did, shattering the acoustic of the Salle Garnier.

At last Rossini resolved the opera’s conflicts into a huge, uncharacteristically pastoral ensemble evoking the beautiful cello elegy of the overture with its singing oboe echoed by flute — the majestic serenity of the Alps’ mountain valleys restored. But only for a short while, the peasants finally rushed forward shouting “liberté, liberté!” as loud as they possibly could.

One could not help recalling that it was in 1910 when the Monegasque Revolution forced the prince of Monaco, until then an absolute ruler, to proclaim a constitution.

What we missed in Monaco were the ballets, an economy that saved us one and one half hours of time, compacting the above musical riches of the opera into a brief three hours twenty minutes. Other less obvious economies took their toll as well, rendering the storytelling sometimes oblique and other times incomprehensible. The adage that the full ballets are integral to the dramatic integrity of Guillaume Tell was again proven in Monaco.

Décors by Eric Chevalier, Costumes by Françoise Raybaud

Monaco-born Jean-Louis Grinda, the metteur en scène (and general director of Opéra Monte-Carlo) knows that the complex musico-dramatic structures of the Rossini tragedies resonate in abstract formulae, either conceptual (like the museum dioramas of the 2013 Pesaro production) or in the physical architecture of the set itself. In this new production Grinda’s designer, Eric Chevalier, evokes the Helvetic mountainous setting in hazy images projected onto an imprisoning box structure of small repeating panels that open and close, the back wall of which disappeared into the brilliant dawn-of-freedom light. Costumer Françoise Raybaud provided threatening teutonic patterns of the late nineteenth century for the Hapsburg characters.

Movement for the chorus action was in purely geometric terms — lines and circles. Images were few, simple and powerful. Guillaume Tell himself pulled a plow, like a beast, across the stage during the opening chorus (a shocking and confusing image), there were two dance pantomime sequences in which a ballerina and a ballerino were attached to one another in a kiss (like two animals stuck together in the mating act — another shocking and confusing image) — choreography by Eugénie Andrin. Arias and duets were delivered standing front and center, as in concert format. Grinda provided a basic context and basic movements for the opera, but did little to illuminate the story evidently relying on the genius of Rossini and the brilliance of the performances to fire the evening.

And that they did.

Italian baritone Nicola Alaimo is a gigantic figure, appropriate to a mythic hero of William Tell proportion. His voice and presence are warm, powerful and encompassing, in short he is a convincing Guillaume Tell. His antagonist Gessler, the Hapsburg governor, was sung by French bass Nicholas Courjal in threatening, black toned vocal color, with a vividly present figure. Spanish tenor Celso Abelo as the fickle tenor Arnold had high “c”’s to spare, squarely hit and held rather then finding place in the musical flow. Just when you thought no human could have the stamina to hit another, he hit the final one of his showpiece aria and held it forever. Mr. Abelo is an accomplished Rossini performer.

Annick Massis as Mathilde, Élodie Méchain as Hedwidge

French soprano Annick Massis was Mathilde, a role that only sometimes requires the Isabella Colbran dramatic coloratura model of Rossini tragedies. Mme. Massis indeed well held the stage as Hapsburg aristocracy, riding crop in hand, though her showpiece arias were powerful her coloratura was not convincing and her high notes were of a spread tone that defied identifying any one individual note. French contralto Elodie Méchain sang Guillaume Tell’s wife Hedwidge to absolute perfection, and Russian soprano Julia Novakova as his son Jemmy provided the appropriate upper edge to the ensemble textures.

The only disappointment of the evening was the staging (lack of) for the arrow and apple.

Casts and production information:

Guillaume Tell: Nicola Alaimo; Hedwige: Elodie Méchain; Jemmy: Julia Novikova; Arnold: Celso Albelo; Melchtal: Patrick Bolleire; Walter Furst: Nicolas Cavallier; Gessler: Nicolas Courjal; Mathilde: Annick Massis; Rodolphe: Alain Gabriel; Leuthold: Philippe Ermelier; Reudi; Mikeldi Atxalandabaso. Chorus of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Direction musicale: Gianluigi Gelmetti; Mise en scène: Jean-Louis Grinda; Décors: Éric Chevalier; Costumes: Françoise Raybaud; Lumières: Laurent Castaingt; Chorégraphie: Eugénie Andrin. Salle Garnier, Monte-Carlo, January 25, 2015.

Peter Grimes in Nice

André Cognet as Swallow, John Graham Hall as Peter Grimes
All photos copyright Dominique Jaussein, courtesy of the Opéra de Nice.

Nice’s golden winter light is not that of England’s North Sea coast. Nonetheless the Opéra de Nice’s new production of Peter Grimes did much to take us there.

A new production of Peter Grimes is always news, in fact any production of this first Britten operatic masterpiece beckons travel from afar. Nice Opera artistic director (since 2012) Marc Adam was the metteur en scène for this new production for which he has collaborated with born-in-Algiers, raised-in-Nice, Juilliard School trained conductor Bruno Ferrandis. Mr. Adam previously collaborated with Mo. Ferrandis for a Wozzeck (Gurlitt) at the Opera de Rouen in 1997.

Much of Bruno Ferrandis’s career has transpired in Canada and the U.S. He is currently the music director of the Santa Rosa (California) Symphony.

Mr. Adam assembled an excellent cast. English tenor John Graham Hall as Peter Grimes possesses an appropriate voice for Britten heros, not the dramatic tenor often associated with Grimes, but the lighter, character voice that characterizes the Aschenbach of Death in Venice, another of Mr. Hall’s Britten roles. Mr. Hall has an affecting presence and the vocal stamina to have seen the role through this production’s expressionist requirements.

Fabienne Jost as Ellen (left lower corner)

French soprano Fabienne Jost sang Ellen. An ensemble singer at the Berne Opera and previously at German theaters, she offered a purity of voice and a musicality supported by fine technique that made this Ellen very pleasurable, in fact memorable.

Swallow was effectively portrayed by Marseille born, veteran bass-baritone André Cognet. French baritone Vincent Le Texier did not find the humanity of, or any softness for Balstrode, often barking his lines rather than singing. We were left unfulfilled by his character. Among the well cast smaller roles Marseille born tenor Edward Mout was especially effective as Bob Boles, all these rustic characters linguistically colored by carefully produced English sounds.

Among the more effective moments of the production were the black and white projections on the scrim covered proscenium that occurred during Peter Grimes’ famous orchestral sea interludes (of course Britten purists would have preferred no visual distraction from the sounds of these magnificent pieces). At times the images were the boiling sea, as well there were affective moments when the costumed actors were seen in pantomime through the foggy images. Puzzling however was the ascent to Grime’s cottage, rendered in images of industrial steel construction (the back side of the semicircular set unit was Grimes' hut).

Set design was entrusted to Roy Spahn who works primarily in German theaters. It was a strange semicircular multi-level abstraction of windows placed on a revolving stage. Installation of the revolving stage evidently necessitated a raised stage platform (about 60 cm [2‘] high) that was faced with incongruous black and white squares that looked a bit like Halloween decorations. The floor of the stage was not visible from the seats in the orchestra.

A further complication of the raised platform was the necessity to raise the conductor’s podium to give him view of the stage. This seemed to separate the maestro from his orchestra with the resulting impression that the orchestra was at adrift and rudderless, eviscerating the complex, ambiguous, sensual, cruel, tender, passive musico-dramatic world that is genius of Benjamin Britten. From time to time the maestro did take his eyes off the stage and engage the orchestra. These moments supplied brief impressions that the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice was capable of creating the magic of the Britten score when asked.

It was perhaps an artistic choice of the director and conductor to strip the opera of its colors, moods and ambiguities, and focus the drama on the words and outward behavior of its actors. While this did create a theatrical atmosphere, often of great intensity, it stripped the opera of its emotional focus, rendering its protagonist as mentally unbalanced rather than as a complex human character adrift in a threatening natural world and outside an alien and uncomprehending human world.

Casts and production information:

Peter Grimes: John Graham Hall; Ellen Orford: Fabienne Jost; Balstrode: Vincent Le Texier; Tantine: Manuela Bress; Première nièce: Hélène Le Corre; Deuxième nièce; Anne Ellersiek; Bob Boles: Edward Mout; Swallow: André Cognet; Mrs Sedley: Sophie Fournier; Le recteur: Frédéric Diquero; Ned Keene: Bernard Imbert; Hobson: Thomas Dear. Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice; Choeur de l’Opéra de Nice. Conductor: Bruno Ferrandis; Mise en scène: Marc Adam; Décors: Roy Spahn; Costumes: Pierre Albert; Lumières: Hervé Gary; Chorégraphie: Pascale Chevreton. Opéra de Nice, January 24, 2015.

Idomeneo in Montpellier

Vestiges of a momentous era . . .

A legacy of ousted Montpellier general director Jean Paul Scarpitta, the staging of Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece remained entrusted to Scarpitta’s assistant Jean-Yves Courrégelongue. Both Scarpitta and Courrégelongue are stage directors whose artistic formations were with Robert Wilson. Both have developed strongly individual voices, Wilsonesque only in so much as they both cultivate an extreme minimalism. Of these two Montpellier directors Courrégelongue is more imagistic, Scarpitta is more satiric.

Courrégelongue and his designer Mathieu Lorryy-Dupuy used a chair, a curtain, a table and a swimming pool to bring alive Mozart’s tale of sacrifice. This was not to update an ancient story’s Baroque retelling so much as it was to purge a Mozart masterpiece of extraneous, misleading detail (the trappings of an anachronistic opera seria for example) and to make it what it is — a dramatic action in music, and nothing more.

And yes, there was still the spectacle that is so strikingly created in Mozart’s score. It was squarely minimalist where less is more — an all the more terrifying appearance of the beast of the deep in the symbolic form of a sacrificial table exploding in white light. High tension had already been created in the blackouts that exploded into the sudden appearances of Idomeneo and later the crowds of terrified Cretans.

Courrégelongue hit sacrifice hard, depriving the opera of its obligatory happy ending. Elettra not only longed for death, she sacrificed herself to the love of Ilia and Idamante holding the sacrificial knife and disappearing through the crowd into swimming pool.

At last the gods having been appeased and the crowd having cleared the pool of detritus (plastic bags, old tires, etc.) deposited by the storms, Elettra’s body, victim of the opera’s emotional storms, was retrieved and laid out to Mozart’s orchestral epilogue. The sacrifice we had fought all evening had become real, it was a sacrifice more real to us than the averted opéra seria mythological filicide. And it was pure Mozart.

In Idomeneo the young Mozart had made an immensely powerful opéra seria, and here we discovered a hidden depth of humanity to surprisingly illuminate this masterpiece. It was fully realized musically in Montpellier by French conductor Sébastien Rouland whose considerable career seems to be centered in big house productions of Baroque repertory (contemporary perspectives, not historical re-creations).

Mo. Roulard brings bite and high drama to Mozart, suppressing the neo-classicism (balance of tension and relaxation) that informs the symphonic Mozart and his soon-to-come comedies. The appropriate (reduced) forces from the Orchestre National de Montpellier eagerly responded to the maestro’s demand for edgy tone and sharply defined shapes. The orchestra melted into transparent pianissimos for the prayer of Idomeneo creating transcendent musical magic, then roared with frustration in Electra’s final aria. Rare sonorities of orchestration sang out, most notably the fine horn quartet.

Anna Manske as Idamante, Marion Tassou as Ilia

Mo. Roulard’s tempi were at once dramatically pointed and solidly within reach of the young cast. The three women were well matched in vocal color and accomplishment. Ilia was sung by French soprano Marion Tassou with beguiling purity of tone, Idamante was sung by Austrian mezzo Anna Manske who found a charming male/female compromise, and Elettra was sung by Swiss soprano Clémence Tilquin who raged with conviction in her aria begging for death. Robert Wilson costumer Yashi (single name) provided a simple dress for Illia, a shapely male business suit for Adamante and a slinky pants suit for Elettra, simple attire that spoke volumes about character.

Clémence Tilquin as Elettra

The male voices were under par for a Montpellier Mozart opera, all over-parted, i.e. either unable to fulfill Mozart’s vocal demands or too inexperienced to be convincing, or both. An announcement was made that American tenor Brendan Tuohy as Idomeneo was “soufrant” and would not be at his best. While an appropriately imposing figure as Idomeneo his lack of experience to take on a major role on an important stage was glaring.

Casts and production information:

Idomeneo: Brendan Tuohy; Ilia: Marion Tassou; Idamante: Anna Manske; Elettra: Clémence Tilquin; Arbace: Antonio Figueroa; Nepture priest: Nikola Todorovitch; Neptune: Jean-vincent Blot. Chorus and orchestra of the Opéra Orchestre national Montpellier. Conductor: Sébastion Rouland; Mise en scène: Jean-Yves Courrégelongue; Scenery: Matthieu Lorry-Dupuy; Costumes: Yashi; Lighting: John Torres. Opéra Commedie, Montpellier. January 4, 2015.

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L'elisir d'amore in Marseille

Paolo Fanale as Nemorino
All photos copyright Christian Dresse / Opéra de Marseille

There were hints that L’elisir is one of the great bel canto masterpieces.

The Opéra de Marseille revived the 2004 Toulouse production of L'elisir d'amore as its holiday season confection. And quite a confection it is. Former Nicholas Joël assistant Arnaud Bernard and his designer William Orlandi envisioned Donizetti’s hyper sentimental story as a series of early twentieth century photographs (a sepia tinged silver color palate), and took the concept a step further by constructing a stage that was a series of shutters (complex flats that moved somewhat like the shutter of a still image mechanical camera).

There were complicated, sometimes amazing scenic moves, that included a disintegrated figuration of the shutter flats when we learned that Nemorino had become rich. Of course there were many visually splendid freezes, some self consciously posed for an on-stage old fashioned larger-than-life prop camera.

Set and costume design by William Orlandi

Yes, of course there were period bicycles that circled the stage (including a precarious ride by the diva), and there was was the antique automobile that brought on Dulcamara, an absolutely splendid car by an unidentified luxury maker that had been structurally reinforced to permit actors to climb all over it (Nemorino was exceptionally agile), and yes, of course there was the miniature model of the car as well, parked upstage with its tiny highlights on to oversee the consummation of the story (that Adina and Nemorino do in fact love one another).

Bel canto operas are indeed about singing, and Elisir is a series of arias, duets and trios that easily convince you, at least for the moment, that this opera must be the epitome of the style. Metteur en scène Arnaud Bernard’s snap shot concept at best set the stage for the singers to present themselves in specific musical moments to be remembered (i.e. visual moments where the bel canto could really rip). At worst the complex staging overwhelmed if not ignored Donizetti’s easy, satisfying sentimentalism.

The singers therefore had the challenge to live up to the production. Nemorino, Italian tenor Paolo Fanale, came the closest. While Mr. Fanale may not possess the sweetness of voice or character to be the ultimate Nemorino, he does possess the artistry to have delivered an absolutely exquisite “Una furtive lagrima,” the highpoint of the performance well recognized by the audience. This fine artist gamely executed the considerable antics required by the stage director.

Paolo Fanale as Nemorino, Inva Mula as Adina

Veteran soprano Inva Mula who recently sang Desdemona both in Marseille and at the Chorégies d’Orange competently managed the vocal and histrionic demands of Adina (as she had in San Francisco Opera’s 2008 Elisir when she had had to find her way through middle American cornfields in some heavy handed Americana). Her impressive vocal technique served her well though it revealed the strains of maturity when she did not secure satisfying pitch for her high notes, and it came across as mere competence in Adina’s spectacular “Prendi, per me sei libero,” not the joyous exuberance of singing so many notes so fast.

Argentine baritone Armando Noguera sang Sargent Belcore, late in the evening displaying some lovely coloratura in an otherwise underweight performance. The same may be said of the Dulcamara of Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna, a veteran of many roles at Pesaro’s Rossini Festival who well displayed his fine buffo instincts but who was dwarfed by his automobile and his magician costume. Gianetta was nicely sung by French soprano Jennifer Michel, evidently cast because she could sing the role rather than create the character.

It was not clear what was going on in the pit. Italian conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli seemed to be trying to conduct Donizetti’s opera while the stage was laboring to do Mr. Bernard’s production. The stage seemed to have the upper hand, after all it took a lot to execute all those antics — and while the shutters moved flawlessly they might not have. There was little synchrony between the pit and stage, and there seemed to be little synchrony between conductor and the orchestra players, who seemed reluctant or maybe technically unable to enter the bel canto spirit.

Finally Mo. Rizzi Brignoli and tenor hit it off magnificently in “Una furtiva lagrima,” and the maestro seemed at last to capture the spirit of Donizetti with his orchestra. Any hope for synchrony with the stage remained futile.

Casts and production information:

Adina: Inva Mula; Giannetta: Jennifer Michel; Nemorino: Paolo Fanale; Belcore: Armando Noguera; Dulcamara: Paolo Bordogna. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Roberto Rizzi Brignoli; Mise en scène: Arnaud Bernard; Décors/Costumes: William Orlandi; Lighting: Patrick Méeüs. Opéra de Marseille (France). January 2, 2015.

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Aureliano in Palmira in Pesaro

The year is 1813, Rossini is 22 years old. He has two huge successes in Venice — L’italiana in Algeri, his first big comedy (there were seven smaller ones before), and Tancredi, his first big serious opera (there was two previous smaller ones). But on December 26 his next opera seria, Aureliano in Palmira is a flop at La Scala. [These are reminders for Rossinians.]

The libretto of Aureliano in Palmira is by La Scala’s librettist, the prolific Felice Romani who provided the librettos for all three Rossini La Scala commissions — Il Turco in Italia (1814), and Bianca e Falliero (1819) make the three. Romani is best known and appreciated for his many librettos for Donizetti and Bellini.

Michael Spyres as Aureliano

Most Romani librettos were set by multiple composers, though the three Rossini librettos were only set by Rossini. The turco in Italia libretto is dramatically quite complex enabling a stage director to produce it just now at the Aix Festival as Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, a concept it wore perfectly. The libretto Aureliano in Palmira is no less complicated, compacting three or more major battles and their motivations and aftermath into two confusing acts. As is opera’s wont the libretto transforms documented military history into affective opera history which we Rossinians find far more real than mere history anyway.

The Aureliano in Palmira libretto by Felice Romani was famously the cause of the failure of the opera. The librettist felt the need to defend his work, saying that he was never “discostato un momento dal verosimile” meaning that his story at least always seemed real, or that it could have been real. It was up to Rossini then make it real. The contemporary perception was that he did not, the fault of the singers, said Rossini. But it was a big job — they had to deal with the undying love of the Prince of Persia and the Queen of Syria thwarted again and again by the might of the Roman Empire led by the Emperor Aureliano who lusted intermittently after the Syrian Queen while never wavering from his military objectives.

Jessica Pratt as Zenobia

It is hard to fault the quality of the music of Aureliano in Palmira because Rossini simply recycled it two years later into Il barbiere di Siviglia which was a flop too. But only at first. It quickly became one of the repertory’s more esteemed masterpieces. So Rossini was right, there was nothing wrong with the music.

The Rossini Festival had given us a simply splendid Barbiere the night before, so all of the tunes and colors were fresh in our ears. It befell the American conductor/scholar/critic Will Crutchfield to transform these musical lines and colors into intense periods of amorous passion, passionate rejection, heart breaking sorrow, vivid denunciation, etc. Miraculously he succeeded more or less. He did securely ground the performance in opera seria, transferring the onus upon us, the audience, to forget what we know so well. It was not always possible.

The Rossini Festival entrusted the production of this difficult opera to director Mario Martone who couldn’t quite fit it onto the stage of the Teatro Rossini, clumsily spilling a Roman column and a throne out over the orchestra pit. Gratuitously some entrances onto the stage were made through from the audience, plus the chorus was often spread out onto the stage apron and left there, exceeding the boundaries of imagination imposed by the proscenium. These naive attempts at theatrical immediacy gave way to claustrophobia.

Filmy panels of various sizes flew in and out to make mazes, tents, battlefields, palaces, and mountains. Plus there was an elevated walkway hidden behind the brown backdrop that from time to time revealed soldiers, refugees, etc., trudging to and fro. That was it. Except for four real, live goats who burst onto the stage during a lovely chorus (though Asia may be in flames peasants rejoice in the freedom and poverty of their fields). Yes, one goat squatted to pee thereby adding a river.

Lena Belkina as Arsace, Jessica Pratt as Zenobia

The emperor Aureliano was sung by American tenor Michael Spyres, a believable general, a believable actor and a very good bel canto singer. Mr. Spyres does not possess the high notes to make Aureliano a Rossini hero. Zenobia, Queen of Syria, was sung by statuesque Australian soprano Jessica Pratt. Mme. Pratt has strong, secure high notes that impress audiences. She does not move easily on the stage. Arsace, the prince of Persia, was sung by Uzebekistan mezzo Lena Belkina, an accomplished singer who projects the feeling that she wishes she were somewhere else, or at least that you were not looking at her. The production did not make it clear who Publia was. Sung by Raffaella Lupinacci, Publia suddenly professed to be in love with Arsace in her one aria, and for a moment we had the hope that she and he would get together, that Aureliano and Zenobia would get together and the opera would end. It didn’t.

Cast and production information:

Aurelliano: Michael Spyres; Zenobia: Jessica Pratt; Arsace: Lena Belkina; Publia: Raffaella Lupinacci; Oraspe: Dempsey Rivera; Licinia: Sergio Vitale; Gran sacerdote: Dimitre Pkhaladze; Un Pastore: Raffaele Costantini. Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini. Conductor: Will Crutchfield. Metteur en scène: Mario Martone; Scenery: Sergio Tramonti; Costumes: Ursula Patzak; Lighting: Pasquale Mari. Photos courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro, August 15, 2014.

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Il barbiere di Siviglia in Pesaro

Ossia Il barbiere di Siviglia. Why waste a good tune.

Both by default and by merit Il barbiere di Siviglia is the hit of the thirty-fifth Rossini Opera Festival. But did anyone really want, and did the world really need yet another production of this old warhorse?

The Rossini Opera Festival’s answer to this question was inspired. Its conceit was to stage a semi-staged Barber, stripping the production of any pretense of importance, and avoiding the thankless challenge to some unfortunate stage director of discovering a brilliant new perspective (there are those who remember the Pesaro staging some years ago by Luigi Squarzina — he placed the action in the Teatro Anatomico [the medieval dissection room] of Bologna’s famous, ancient medical school).

So now in Pesaro there was not even a stage director, but a class from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino who conceived, staged, designed and executed the physical production (an un-named professor did admit to some coordination). There were approximately thirty twenty-somes who took a bow.

The production, and it was a fully staged semi-staged production, alternated between hijinks, caricature, slapstick, assault, nonsense and genius utilizing every inch and orifice of the Teatro Rossini to get us through the score we know so well. Most of it occurred on the floor of the platea (the orchestra section), deftly finding its way onto the stage apron for the big arias. “Largo al Factotum” and “Una voce poco fa” for example were delivered concert style but in magnified visual relief — Rosina clothed/costumed in a discrete concert black dress, Figaro decked out like an adventurous audience member clothes horse.

The big ensembles of course occurred on the stage, presentationally, and lest we forget that we were observers we watched a lone observer, patently passive, eternal, seated on the stage watching as well. The boxes in the walls of the Italian horseshoe theater were integrated into the action, audience so seated had to get out of the way when the action trampled through their box, the walls of the tiered horseshoe even transformed themselves into lighted scenery making the world a stage.

The staging was a series of lazzi (commedia dell’arte visual tricks) blown up to supersized proportion, and you were in the middle of it. This was the concept and it worked marvelously. It was a masterpiece of casting —excellent, matched singing actors who animated the Rossini magic of great music working through the age-old comic process — youth outsmarting age. And this production was just that — the creativity and exuberance of these Urbino students dismissed the experience, perspective and intelligence of a metteur en scène.

It was also the limitation of this extraordinary evening.

Juan Francisco Gatell as Almaviva, Chiara Amarù as Rossina

It was platinum casting. Young French baritone Florian Sempey may as well be named Giacomo Rossini. He is the spit and image of the twenty-four year-old Rossini of 1816, overflowing with musical energy and unfettered fun. His Italian was perfection, his patter exceeded the speed of light. In short he is the Figaro of your dreams. Upstaged, and then only briefly by Italian bass Alex Esposito as Basilio who in a simple black cossack fingering his rosary oiled his way onto the stage to deliver “la calunnia” knelt in fervent prayer, roaring divine strength and terror to Dr. Bartolo, confessionally kneeling as well. The Basilio of your dreams.

Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna achieved unusual presence as Bartolo, and won us over to a real understanding of a man obsessed by the delights of his table and his fear of germs. He was a not too old, not too ugly, just a fully humanized Bartolo whose obsessed patter too exceeded the speed of light, But he was foiled by the truly dumb antics of his coltraltino (a light voiced, high Rossini tenor) competition — what operatic tenors lack in intelligence they make up in fervor. This was Argentine tenor Juan Francisco Gatell who obliged Rossini’s idea of articulate, gurgling youth to the maximum.

Rosina, Sicilian mezzo Chiara Amarù, needless to say stood in box overlooking the stage (displacing its inhabitants) while she was serenaded by Almaviva. She wore a big post-adolescent smile all evening, except when she sang, and then it was replaced by deadly serious, positively astonishing coloratura. The depth of casting included a sixty-some Berta, that of sixty-some Italian soprano Felicia Bongiovanni, and even a strong voiced Fiorello, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, who displayed intimidating smarts and later, as the Ufficiale, entered the auditorium astride the full-sized rolling horse we saw in the lobby as we entered the theater.

Not to forget the male chorus, members of the local amateur chorus, the Coro San Carlo di Pesaro, who filed on and off the stage, concert style, to wheezily debunk whatever possible sense of fancy opera that might still be present. This wonderful Coro completed the sense of community — Rossini, artists, audience — that the perpetrators of this evening succeeded in creating.

It was finally an evening about words, every word of the comedy clearly articulated and understandable. This was made possible by the perfection of the pit. Young Italian conductor Giacomo Sagripanti coaxed the members of the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna to an always comfortable level of delirium that supported and completed the delirium of the singers and the staging. This careful balance in fact made the young Rossini the true star of the show.

Cast and production information:

Figaro: Florian Sempey; Rosina: Chiara Amarù; Count Almaviva: Juan Francisco Gatell; Bartolo: Paolo Bordogna; Basilio:Alex Esposito; Berto Felicia Bongiovanni; Fiorello: Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore; Ambrogio: Alberto Pancrazi. Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Coro San Carlo di Pesaro. Conductor: Giacomo Sagripanti; Concept/projections/scenic elements/stage movements/video/costumes: Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino. Photos courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro, August 14, 2014.

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Armida in Pesaro

Armida (1817) is the third of Rossini’s nine operas for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, all serious. The first was Elisabetta, regina di Inghilterra (1815), the second was Otello (1816), the last was Zelmira (1822).

The San Carlo was the world’s most important theater at that time. Its legendary caffe waiter turned opera impresario Domenico Barbaja had not only the famous mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran (his mistress, later Rossini’s wife) on his roster but also three splendid baritenori [literally baritone tenors] — the baritenore, the contraltino and the tenore di grazia represent the Italian high tenor voices of the time. Plus the San Carlo possessed a sizable stable of dancers, an accomplished orchestra with excellent solo players, and, not least, a stage endowed with the latest in technical innovations!

With Elisabetta (anticipating Sir Walter Scott) and Otello (Shakespeare) Rossini had ventured into dramatic territory new to opera. Two masterpieces resulted. But in Armida Rossini returns to the imaginary world of chivalry and its heros, specifically the knight Rinaldo and his captor, the beautiful witch Armida (the late-Renaissance poet Tasso’s intense version of Ariosto’s Alcina, both derived more or less from the Ariadne myth we know so well from the Richard Strauss opera).

Like Tasso Rossini plays the emotive strains of rapture and rage in gloriously rich language — Tasso in word and Rossini in music. The Teatro San Carlo’s librettist was one Giovanni Schmidt who gave Rossini lots and lots of syllables to transform into sublime vocal lines — the inimitable Rossini flights of vocal delirium. Schmidt’s libretto is indeed long on affect (and quite short on action and situation) giving Rossini ample opportunity, maybe too much opportunity to exploit his voices and to explore the affective potentials of the musical instruments in his pit — horns of course and also the extreme treble range of the cello as examples.

Carmen Romeu as Armida

Even without the complex ensembles that burst forth so magnificently in many of the Neapolitan operas there is potentially just enough of the Rossini genius in Armida to thrust it into the masterpiece sphere. This did not occur just now in Pesaro.

The conductor was Carlo Rizzo, well known to big house audiences for the grand repertory. His Rossini credentials seem to be that he will conduct Mosé in Egitto and Guillaume Tell at the Scottish Opera a couple of years from now. This maestro’s intention seemed to be to layer the moods and colors of late Romantic music onto Rossini rather than to energize and illuminate the Rossini vocabulary and gesture. The Rossini score did not support this stylistic transposition and left us indifferent to the orchestral playing and much of the singing.

In fact the sole ecstatic ovation of the evening occurred for the ballet (normally there are many extended periods of applause and foot stomping that Pesaro audiences use to release their excitement, though intelligence from opening night reports that that audience released its disappointment with considerable booing)! Just when you thought that opera ballets were unique to France you found a thirty or so minute ballet in Naples, and two years later there is an extended dance scene in Mosé in Egitto as well. Throughout its years of patronage by the Bourbon dynasty the Teatro San Carlo fulfilled these rulers’ love of dance.

In the Act II finale Armida conjures an allegorical vision of a young warrior succumbing to the pleasures of the senses. Rossini composed an orchestral theme and variations that choreographer Michele Abbondanza exploited to the fullest with eight or so quite athletic and accomplished dancers from his Compania Abbondanza/Bertoni (his collaborator is the dancer/choreographer Antonella Bertoni) backed up by what seemed to be about ten, maybe twelve able and willing supernumeraries. Mr. Abbondanza’s movement vocabulary was advanced, at once inventive and highly controlled. It was complex, ornamental and inexhaustibly evolving. It was an absolutely over-the-top feat of theater. In short it was everything you want from a Rossini performance.

Choreographer Abbondanza is a teacher at the Scuola di Teatro Giorgio Strehler. The director of this school of such prestigious name is octogenarian Luca Ronconi who was not so coincidently the metteur en scène of this Armida together with his septuagenarian collaborator Ugo Tessatori.

The Rossini Festival assigned Armida to the Adriatic Arena, a venue that has seen over-the-top mise en scènes in recent years, its vast spaces transformed into massive scenic installations supporting brilliant concepts. Thus expectations were high. Long time Ronconi collaborator Margherita Palli created the scenery. It was a crumpled brown paper-like background against which floor to ceiling display cases slid on and off, plus there was a hidden conveyor belt that weirdly transported actors on and off the stage but oddly only three or four times over the long evening. It would have been more appropriate scenery in Pesaro’s traditional Teatro Rossini.

Signor Palli’s credits include installing shows at various museums over the years. Perhaps this experience led to the production concept which seemed to be that we should see this old opera as artifact rather than as living, breathing art. Costumer Giovanna Buzzi cooperated by dressing her soldiers in clumsy, oversized armored vests and blousey shirts that visually stultified all sense of movement. Armida, the only female singer, was in abstract bird-like, intensely colored gowns, solid red for her final scene of first supplication, then revenge. The demons were dressed as bats in costumes that reeked of naiveté to our modern eyes, further quoting antique style costuming and further creating the sense of artifact that Sigg. Ronconi and Tessatori apparently sought.

Armida was sung by young Spanish soprano Carmen Romeu, an ambitious assignment she completed honorably if without distinction. Armida is a role for a star — for the Spanish mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran as example. It demands a magnetic performer and a great singer. At this point in her career Signorina Romeu is still an aspiring artist who boasts clean and careful, finely wrought coloratura. But the role as well requires considerable full voice singing in the lower soprano register where Sig.na Romeu sometimes lacked the support necessary to maintain accurate pitch. One does however appreciate the conceit of casting a Spanish soprano in this Colbran role.

Dmitry Korchak as Carlo, Antonino Siragusa as Rinaldo, Randall Bills as Ubaldo

The high point of the evening was when Rossini’s compositional virtuosity exploded in the third act three tenor trio, “In quale aspetto imbelle” — Rinaldo sees himself reflected in a warrior’s shield as a disarmed lover. The knights Ubaldo and Carlo encourage him in his struggle to sacrifice love to glory. The lover Rinaldo was sung by Italian tenor Antonino Siragusa, a veteran of many roles in Pesaro, usually villains. It was a stretch of imagination to see him as the romantic hero. He is a very fine singer with all the secure, ringing high notes Rossini demands, and exquisite, beautifully voiced coloratura. He offered the finest vocal pleasures of the evening.

Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak cut a fine figure first as Gernando, a French knight who was outraged when Rinaldo was elected as leader of the French forces, and then as Carlo, a knight sent to rescue Rinaldo from Armida. Mr. Korchak possesses the baritonore voice, a darkly colored high voice. While he did manage his few high notes, barely, he created none of excitement with them that he achieved in his coloratura. American baritenore Randall Bills was asked to portray Goffredo, the commander-in-chief of the Christian forces. He is a slightly built, fine young artist with a lovely, warm tone. He was dramatically far more successful later in the opera when he had become the French knight Ubaldo and contributed significantly to the overwhelming beauty of the tenor trio.

Cast and production information:/

Armina: Carmen Romeu; Rinaldo: Antonino Siragusa; Goffredo/Ubaldo: Randall Bills; Gernando/Carlo: Dmitry Korchak; Idraote/Astorotte: Carlo Lepore; Eustazio: Vassilas Kavavas. Ballet: Compagnia Abbondanza/Bertoni. Orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: Carlo Rizzi; Metteurs en scène: Luca Ronconi and Ugo Tessitore; Choreographer: Michele Abbondanza; Scenery: Margherita Palli; Costumes: Giovanna Buzzi, Lighting: A.J. Weissbard. Photos courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival. Arena Adriatica, Pesaro, August 13, 2014.

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Il turco in Italia at the Aix Festival

A revitalized Rossini world has emerged over the past several decades, the difficult if astonishing tragedies find occasional productions, the famous comedies find ever tighter mise en scènes, and singers have reached for an ever more refined Rossini technique and style. So when a conductor comes along who can enter the Rossini ethos, and this is not often, a sort of operatic nirvana can be achieved.

Director Alden’s Turco at the Long Beach Opera is remembered as one of these rare operatic moments. While the musical resources of a small opera company are limited, and American operatic resources twenty years ago were more enthusiastic than accomplished the Long Beach Turco succeeded not because of conducting but because of the staging. Alden’s heroine, trapped in her drab existence, found escape in the movies (like many of us in the 1950’s), and imagined herself swept of her feet by a handsome guy in a white suit with an accent. Finally, of course, real life prevailed and real love won the hearts of everyone.

This simple concept anchored three hours of singing, and made the very high artifice itself of the brilliant Rossini style the emotional crux of this fantasy of fulfillment.

Twenty years later Alden has now envisioned Rossini’s comic masterpiece as an intellectual game, much like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Alden has made Rossini’s playwright Prosdocimo the protagonist of the opera, not just a benevolent facilitator of an intrigue about to happen (librettist Felice Romani had enriched a commonplace operatic comedy with the conceit of an author looking for a story). Alden’s Prosdocimo is an omnipresent troublemaker in perpetual conflict with his characters.

Prosdocimo possesses a Pirandello era (or so) typewriter on which he actually performs the Rossini score — clackity clack, clackity clack — in lively sync with the sounds coming from the pit. Well, until the heroine Fiorella grabs the typewriter to write her own script for a while. Alden makes his concept work flawlessly, with business between the author and his characters happening every second. Few if any moments are spared for us to savor the human dimensions of the story while we admire this interplay of wills.

Alden and his set designer Andrew Lieberman know that less can be more, therefore they endeavored to keep the surroundings as simple as possible. The set is a floor that is stuck upon what would be the back wall of the stage climbing onto what would be the ceiling — a mind-boggling vaulted floor. It is the floor of an unidentified room, maybe the floor of the Korean evangelical church the pair used for their Berlin Aida a few years back. There was a church basement coffee urn in one corner of the Aix set, a reference certainly foreign to the French audience.

Alden furthered his early-twentieth-century-theater concept with an extravagant overlay of theatrical tricks discovered by Pirandello’s contemporary Bertolt Brecht. The staging was indeed an amusing primer in Brecht's so-called Epic Theater, notably the half curtain, here movie palace green with a gold fringe. Set and costume changes were Brechtian a vista — we got to see a few of France’s intrepid intermittants actually at work (these are seasonal theatrical technicians about to loose their favored unemployment compensation who had gone on strike to prevent the premiere of Il turco from occurring as scheduled). All this Epic Theater served as smart business to intensify the mind games.

Lighting designer Adam Silverman provided an initial blast of stark white light emanating from a stage-wide hanging line of institutional lights, then at times he used only a part of the line to indicate a reduced acting area within the extreme width of the Archevêché theater. As well much use was made of exaggerated side lighting (a side wall deftly slide back to admit this strong yellow gold light), not to mention changing the color of the huge back wall floor to rose or light green from time to time, and the surprising moment when a strip, stage wide, of lights embedded into the floor burst into in brilliant upward light. Like the staging and the design, the lighting too was virtuoso.

The prow pole of a classic sailing ship, replete with the sumptuous breasts of its carved female figurehead, was the Brechtian image for the Selim (the Turco). He was Romanian bass Adrian Sampetrean who was purely and simply machismo incarnate. Vocally he delivered raging coloratura cleanly and in full voice and displayed a confidence of character that was appropriately intimidating. Russian soprano Olga Peretytko, a regular at the Pesaro Rossini Festival, made a cheap and sassy Fiorella, well able to delightfully embody the caricature of a tacky Hollywood sex queen. Unfortunately by this penultimate performance (a run of seven) she was unable to find the vocal brilliance and stability that would equal her exquisitely defined character.

American soprano Cecelia Hall was Zaida, the Turco’s original love now in competition with Fiorella, She was costumed, like the Turco (whose only Turkish mark was a beaded fez), in homely, 30’s or 40’s drab everyday western clothes. The costume designer was Kaye Voyce, like Lieberman and Silverman, a frequent Alden collaborator. She managed a huge variety of vividly defined costumes — gypsy-like skirts for the six women extras who accompanied the drab Zaida (so we would know she is a gypsy even though she was not dressed like one), not to forget the transparent, filmy, fancy ball gowns the eighteen male choristers donned to create the masquerade party.

All this theatrical brilliance on the stage would have been more effective and more meaningful had there been a brilliant Rossini pit. As it was there were Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, an original instrument orchestra (instruments of the time a piece was composed) founded 30 years ago by its now famous conductor Marc Minkowski. Perhaps, though doubtfully, a Rossini orchestra actually sounded like a wheezy reed organ, but this is not the sound needed to support a conceptually and theatrically complex contemporary opera production.

Conductor Minkowski never reached the Rossini boil that propels the listener into musical euphoria. The only true Rossini moment of the evening was achieved by tenor Lawrence Brownlee who gamely portrayed Don Narciso (an additional suitor of Fiorella) as an trench coat covered spastic. He lay in front of the half curtain and delivered “Tu seconda il mio disegno” in high style to earn the biggest, and the only real ovation of the evening.

Italian buffo Pietro Spagnoli ably fulfilled the task of bringing Alden’s high energy Prosdocimo to life for the duration of the long evening, and baritone Alessandro Corbelli found his match as the duped, defeated Don Geronio, the long-suffering husband of Fiorella.

Casts and production information:

Selim: Adrian Sâmpetrean; Fiorilla: Olga Peretyatko; Don Geronio: Alessandro Corbelli; Narciso: Lawrence Brownlee; Prosdocimo: Pietro Spagnoli; Zaida: Cecelia Hall; Albazar: Juan Sancho. Chœur: Ensemble vocal Aedes; Orchestre: Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. Conductor: Marc Minkowski; Mise en scène: Christopher Alden; Décors: Andrew Lieberman; Costumes: Kaye Voyce; Lumière: Adam Silverman. Théâtre du l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, July 19, 2014.

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Winterreise and Tauernacht at the Aix Festival

That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for Aix-en-Provence productions this year.

Luckily German baritone Matthais Goerne and Austrian pianist Markus Hinterhauser were enlisted by the Festival to imbue genuine nordic Romanticism into the Schubert masterpiece. Albeit the strum und drang of late Romanticism that seemed on the brink of expressionism.

Mr. Goerne is famous for his performances of Die Schöne Müllerin (including a recent performance in San Francisco), making this 1826 Schubert cycle an outwardly emotional experience within his evenly tempered, dynamic and very clear baritone sound. It is a reading of the cycle that proves his mastery of its performance traditions and embarks on a measured transcendence of historical style and Schubertian presence.

His Winterreise was even more transcendent. It was a terrifying, angry journey through Schubert’s bleak landscape. Mr. Goerne emitted uncomprehending cries and bitter exclamations reliving an heretofore unexplored agony that can only be supposed within the soul of the syphilis stricken 28 year-old composer. With his accomplice Markus Hinterhauser hunched over the gigantic Steinway piano middle-aged Matthais Goerne exposed Schubert’s one hour twenty minute journey in unrelenting, electric tones that tore through your soul.

The physical presence of this large man and powerful artist, his voice magnified by the designer acoustic of the recital hall of the new Aix conservatory of music, plus the resources of a twenty-first century engineered concert grand piano played by a hyper sophisticated musician (Mr. Hinterhäuser is the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival) could only dwarf the gloss of the video accompaniment imagined by South African artist and actor William Kentridge. Mr. Kentridge does not possess the vocabulary or emotional scope to embody or virtualize these first moments of the very brief Schubert maturity.

In spite of a vague physical resemblance (both middle aged, comfortably fed men) Mr. Goerne could not become the traveler imagined by Mr. Kentridge. In fact that traveler was William Kentridge himself, his pen and ink drawn profile (resembling and as recognizable as the famous profile of Alfred Hitchcock) marched across the screen already in the second song. This alone created an insurmountable gulf between the actual (Mr. Goerne) and the virtual (Mr. Kentridge).

Mr. Kentridge is well known to opera audiences through his brilliant stagings of a puppet Il ritorno d’Ulisse and a multi-media Die Zauberflöte. His staging of Shostakovich’s derisive The Nose was betrayed by his evident good and open nature, quick wit and easy charm. These overpowering Kentridge attributes were indeed present in his Winterreise as well and were in irreconcilable conflict Mr. Goerne’s angoisse.

There were a few interesting moments. Baritone Goerne gave his performance in concert position standing by the piano that was placed off to the side of a low stage platform backed by a large screen. In the seventh song Goerne walked to the middle of the platform to relate momentarily to the projected visual field — Schubert’s river torrents were rendered as pen and ink drawn water faucets. It was conscious recognition that there was no connection between music and image, and this alone created a powerful connection.

Again in the seventeenth song the baritone moved center stage to recognize Muller’s sleepless villager who had become Kentridge’s sleepless, cigar smoking mogul — a striking, wild card image that effectively layered extraneous nineteenth century industrial revolution overtones upon baritone Goerne’s private and personal desolation.

The twenty-first song, Schubert’s inn by a cemetery, achieved a sort of unity of word and image. Kentridge rendered the simplicity of the conceit of this song by drawing lines of tombstones in crude shapes that bespoke his exhaustion of ideas. And finally in the twenty-fourth and final song Schubert’s old man rolling his cart on icy paths through the freezing village became Kentridge’s procession of bent South African black women, silhouettes, carrying their burdens or pumping railroad carts, images that are a recurrent image in the Kentridge oeuvre. Word and image were in distinct hemispheres (northern and southern) but became, surprisingly, one globe.

Katie Mitchell’s Trauernacht is a collection of four choruses, five recitatives and five arias (ranging between BWV 46 and BWV 668) from among J.S. Bach’s 200 cantatas. Plus an initial a capella motet composed by Johann Christof Bach that at once reduced our expectations of the vocal forces for the evening to the four singers who were on the stage to sing it.

British stage director Mitchell distinguished herself at the Aix Festival two years ago with her staging of Richard Benjamin’s Written on Skin (it was a complicated household situation) and returned last summer for another premiere, The House Taken Over (a complicated household situation) thus it was no surprise that Trauernacht (Night of Mourning) was a complicated household situation — a soprano, alto, tenor and bass try to come to grips with the death of their father over dinner.

Katie Mitchell and young French early-music conductor (and counter-tenor) Raphaël Pichon compiled these bits of cantatas that are sort of like a requiem mass — a sinner begs to be saved — though unlike a requiem mass it seems in Trauernacht that the children ultimately find solace in the illusion that their father basks in the gaze of God.

The four voices (two males and two females), simply and somberly clothed, wandered onto a platform where there was a dinner table and four chairs, though there was a fifth chair that was finally occupied by the father who sang one brief aria. However for most of the evening he remained a phantom who sat at the back of the naked stage, standing up from time to time to whistle eerily.

The four singers had mastered slow motion movement in order to move on and off the stage without disturbing the almost beat-less flow of the music. These artificial movements were quite extended as the singers served themselves a three course meal from shelves that were on the far sides of the stage. They were barefoot.

All this might have worked had the musical forces been finished artists. As it was the young musicians on the stage and particularly those in the pit lacked the polish to create a purity of sound and form that can propel J.S. Bach’s music into celestial spheres. What might have been sublime music (and probably was on the recordings used to imagine this pastiche) became a tedious exposition of antique four-part harmony.

Katie Mitchell is old enough to have known better.

Casts and production information:

Winterreise: Baryton: Matthias Goerne; Piano: Markus Hinterhäuser. Mise en scène et création visuelle: William Kentridge; Scénographie: William Kentridge et Sabine Theunissen; Costumes: Greta Goiris; Lumière: Herman Sorgeloos. Aix-en-Provence Conservatory of Music, July 12, 2014.

Trauernacht: Le Père: Frode Olsen; Soprano: Aoife Miskelly; Mezzo-soprano: Eve-Maud Hubeaux; Ténor: Rupert Charlesworth; Basse: Andri Björn Robertsson. Orchestre: Instrumentistes de l'Académie européenne de musique. Conductor: Raphaël Pichon; Mise en scène: Katie Mitchell; Costumes et scénographie: Vicki Mortimer; Lumière: James Farncombe. Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, July 16, 2016.

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Nabucco at Orange

It was a production by Jean-Paul Scarpitta who was stage director and scenery and costume designer. Mr. Scarpitta’s dramaturgy is informed by his fascinations for Giorgio Strehler and Robert Wilson from which many wonderful stagings have resulted during his ten year residency in Montpellier.

There was promise in the air, the breadth of the raked stage (300 feet wide, 60 feet deep) was covered in a black asphalt-like substance, the mostly intact, imposing scaenae frons (back wall of the theater) was bare, overseen from high above by the massive sculpture of the Emperor Augustus. The revelation of the evening was the lighting of the black floor by Urs Schônebaum, its enormous shiny, rough surface shone in a myriad of intensities for the huge exterior scenes, sometimes it was reduced to a brilliant square of white light to frame a singer (Nabucco’s intensely personal “Son pur queste mie membra”), other times strong directional side light cast enormous, elongated shadows across the stage that deepened emotional relationships (the Act I confrontation of Abigail with the lovers Fenena and Ismaele).

Scapitta’s staging of Verdi’s early masterpiece was sabotaged often by the video projections on the back wall. After an initial appreciation of the technical feat of accomplishing such massive projections (ranging from discretely deployed white-lighted, descending emotional shapes to the ugly, yellow-ish, sprayed styrofoam image that covered the entire back wall for the palace interior scenes) the projections became distractions to the accomplishments of the singers and lights on the black floor.

Mr. Scarpita is a musical stage director, his actors moved more by musical line and musical structural rather than by dramatic motivation. Here too he was sabotaged, now by singers who were read as static lumps of color rather than as the excited singers responding to the young Verdi whose Nabucco revealed his genius for the first time.

Veteran Georgian baritone George Gagnizde made some big sounds in a strong entrance but soon fell into an almost lieder-like performance by a bored singer. Veteran Austrian soprano Maria Serafin, a noted Tosca, no longer has the bloom of voice and perhaps never had the agility of voice to create a vibrant Abigail, a character Verdi created to tear-up-the-stage vocally and dramatically.

Younger members of the cast were more effective. French mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes made a low key Fenena that conveyed a static presence and personality in her monochrome rose costume. Italian tenor Piero Pretti sang a stylish Ismaele and moved gracefully.

The opera is however about Nabucco and Abigail, not Fenena and Ismaele. Russian bass Dimitry Beloselskiy made it about the Jewish high priest Zaccaraia as well. This fine young bass found the voice and presence to make his role the biggest performance of the evening. Unfortunately his performance was sabotaged by his costume, a white robe covered by black lightning bolt-like (sort of) shapes. While the powerful shapes on the costume sought to embody a force of divine strength they instead made his exhortations seem decorative rather than dramatic.

The costumes of the chorus were always identical, creating giant blocks of color on the stage, mostly static swathes of color that in theory (and if they were far larger) might have become a pedal-point musical color. The problem of how to move these blocks of color onto and off of the stage was never overcome. An additional scenic impulse backfired — thirty or so spear carrying Babylonian warrior extras wearing only loin clothes. Had these stalwart young Orangeois been clothed they might have seemed handsome and strong. Semi-nude they exposed a variety of shapes and postures that cried out for prosthetic chests.

The sight lines from the cavea (the tiered seating) of the Théâtre Antique makes the orchestra (seated in the “orchestra” of a Roman theater) a visually important part of the field of vision. This presence together with the fine acoustic of the theater leaves the orchestra as exposed as a solo singer on the stage. Here the unforgiving acoustic revealed the weaknesses of the Orchestre National de Montpellier, particularly the winds, The sound of the orchestra itself lacked the finesse expected of a fine French orchestra.

The conducting of veteran Israeli maestro Pinchas Steinberg did not come near the intense excitement that Verdi had found within himself for opera as a patriotic art form, nor for the new styles of vocal virtuosity that Verdi asked of his singers. Even “Va pensiero” came across as little more than a self-conscious hum along.

And what about the lighted, window onto upstage stage center from back stage that was left uncovered? Its light and passing figures fouled the stage picture of anyone sitting in Section 4. Is there no one home at the Chorégies?

Casts and production information:

Abigaïlle: Martina Serafin; Fenena: Karine Deshayes; Anna; Marie-Adeline Henry; Nabucco: George Gagnidze; Zaccaria: Dmitry Belosselskiy; Ismaele: Piero Pretti; Il Gran Sacerdote di Belo: Nicolas Courjal; Abdallo: Luca Lombardo. Orchestre National Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. Choruses of the opera companies of Nice, Montpellier, Avignon and Toulon. Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg. Mise en scène, scenery and costumes: Jean-Paul Scarpitta; Lighting: Urs Schönebaum. Théâtre Antique Romain, Orange, France, July 9, 2014.

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Ariodante at the Aix Festival

High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.

All for Lodovico Ariosto’s brief histoire of Ginevra and Ariodant in his send-up of chivalry in his epic farce Orlando Furioso. By the time this little story got to opera it had lost the famous indulgent smile Ariosto cast on knights and damsels and now needed about twenty-five arias to resolve a truly complicated mess.

This production by British director Richard Jones was created just now in Aix, the start of its travels to Amsterdam, Toronto and Chicago — the Aix Festival has an incessant belief that co-productions are economical.

Somehow Ariosto and Handel and the American Midwest made Mr. Jones think of American Gothic painter Grant Wood’s “Dinner for Threshers” (or maybe it was Ultz’s idea, his mono-named designer). The set was an exact copy. We would not have known where Handel’s opera takes place had not Ariosto’s King of Scotland worn a kilt. But Richard Jones’ American threshers of the Wood painting were on the stage much of the evening keeping the action firmly in the western hemisphere, a presence that did not endear them to the exasperated audience (there was whistling when these valiant participants took their 2 AM bows).

Mr. Jones determined that Ariosto’s poetic immolation of fallen damsels might be poetically well represented by implying the brutally restrictive mores he imagines imposed by American gothic principles. It is an amusing premise, probably more amusing to Europeans than to Americans like me who think that Europeans should mind their own moral business.

Handel’s Ariodante is different than most Handel operas because it includes dance interludes (Handel inserted them to be able to include the participation of a famous dancer and her company at the Covent Garden 1735 premiere). Since Ginevra is believed to be a fallen woman these interludes made Mr. Jones think of burlesque pole dancing (an art form born in Canada during the Great Depression by the way) that he was able to include by turning Ginevra, at least as imagined by American threshers, into a puppet who was stripped of her chaste garments, then scantily clad in black vinyl and red spike heels and made to masturbate abstractly on a rake handle.

But Mr. Jones did not exclude dancing after all, as he had his American threshers shed their shoes and line them up across the front of the stage in the old death ovens image and happily do a country dance to the arias that announced the “they-lived-happily-ever-after” resolution (The king of Scotland was spared from burning his daughter who married her intended, Ariodante, after all).

Mr. Jones’ real Ginevra however bought none of this. She packed her suitcase, slipped out of her bedroom, walked onto the stage apron and when last seen was hitching a ride, presumably to Toronto or Chicago.

Maybe there was Ariosto’s famous smile after all. The audience indulged Mr. Jones with rapt attention in the second and third acts (it was hard to concentrate in the first act — read on), and rewarded him with thunderous boos (hues in French), meaning that we had had a very good time and loved every minute and that we did not know what to think. Mr. Jones’ wide smile never left his face.

Where was Handel in all this, you may ask. Well, he was right there and having a very good time too, though none of this was what he had in mind.

The esteemed Freiburger Barockorchester is in residence in Aix for this 66th Festival d’Aix with its period brass and wind instruments, and its gut strings making its uniquely cultured sound that placed Handel’s score in another time and another place. Just when you might have thought that it does not really matter what orchestra is in the pit for a Handel opera an aria would come along that was infinitely enriched the with colors that could emanate only out of this superb orchestra.

Handel surely could have only rejoiced to the matched cast of excellent singers brought to Aix for the occasion. French soprano Patricia Petibon overshadowed all others in an over-the-top performance as Ginevra, able to float beautiful high, straight (vibrato-less) tones and to cut loose in full voiced lyricism. As Mr. Jones’ Ginevra she introduced a pathos to her Act II lament (she believes Ariodante is dead) that went beyond brilliant Baroque singing to arrive, almost, at whispered tones. In total her very clear voice mfelted into a beautifully defined and determined character — it was a complete performance.

No less striking was the Polinesso of Italian contralto Sonia Prina as Handel’s vindictive Duke and as Mr. Jones’ morally corrupt fundamentalist preacher who stood over Grant Wood’s harvest table during the overture to deliver the blessing (an understandably exasperated audience member shouted “oh sit down”). Mme. Prina sang with color and assurance as if she were a famed castrato, her staccato fioratura genuinely astonishing, her brilliant wig (a long gray, troublesome lock on either side fell onto her face, plus a long, sexually ambivalent braid) made us detest her even more.

The balance of the cast gave high-wire vocal acts as well. Dalinda (Ginevra’s maid) as sung by French harpist turned soprano Sandrine Piau was not Handel’s confused soubrette but a full-scaled vocal villain who raged magnificently at love and not because Polinesso had raped her (on stage) but because he did not love her. Ariodante’s brother Lucanio was sung by American tenor David Portillo who was the junior member of the cast, and even so managed to hold his own and render his inexperience and youth as Lucanio’s innocence and naiveté. Italian bass Luca Tittoco straddled the poles of an isolated, old fashioned farmer who should have felt a bit silly in a kilt while he had to be a mythical personage from the age of chivalry at the same time.

Ariodante, British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connelly, brought an encompassing warmth to Handel’s hero, having suffered setbacks worthy of Ariosto’s erstwhile knight on her way to the stage, escorted from her dressing room to the stage by police who protected her from the intermittents who had broken into the backstage of the theater, knocked over a stagehand and blocked her way (first act). Later (second act) she waited to deliver her exquisitely chiseled lament (Polinesso had deceived Ariodante into believing that Ginevra was unfaithful) while a screaming car alarm was located and removed from the auditorium.

Italian early music conductor Andrea Marcon [sic] presided, evidently unflappable, over the evening, not stopping when the intermittents began a barrage of noise just outside the open air theater during the first act. Though later he coolly halted his pit musicians and the stage when security measures needed to be undertaken, started again as if nothing had happened. Thankfully in Act III (1:30 AM) he did not stop when lightning, thunder and raindrops competed with Handel and Richard Jones for our attention. The wind whipped costumes of the singers must have created some consternation among those on the stage who surely were, like us, praying for the end to come.

And yes, finally, the twelve valiant threshers from English Voices, the excellent chorus, took off their shoes and danced one last time. We booed gleefully and went back to our hotels.

Casts and production information:

Ariodante: Sarah Connolly; Ginevra: Patricia Petibon; Dalinda: Sandrine Piau; Polinesso: Sonia Prina; Lurcanio: David Portillo; Il Re di Scozia: Luca Tittoto; Odoardo: Christopher Diffey. English Voices (chorus) and the Freiburger Barockorchester. Conductor: Andrea Marcon. Mise en scène: Richard Jones; Décors et costumes: Ultz; Lumière: Mimi Jordan Sherin; Chorégraphe: Lucy Burge; Metteur en scène et concepteur des marionnettes;Finn Caldwell. Théâtre de l’Archvêché, Aix-en-Provence, July 3, 2014.


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La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte) at the Aix Festival

In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.

These are the folks who brought down the 2003 Aix Festival after disrupting the opening night La traviata, and are threatening to bring down the current Aix and Avignon festivals, the crown jewels of estival high art in France. Recognizing the periodic nature of employment for workers in theatrical arts, including cinema, the French government awards the intermittants unemployment compensation well above that provided unemployed workers in fields that offer permanent employment.

This enlightened and much abused program of the French state subsidizes the ferment of the theatrical arts in France by allowing technicians and artists to pursue careers in theater rather than by forcing them to seek careers in fields that provide full employment. The Aix and Avignon festivals are the most vulnerable battlefields for working through the inevitable fiscal and political tensions created by such a program.

All of the intermittents of the Aix Festival filled onto the stage at a bit after 7 PM last night (July 2, opening night), one of whom read a brief, dignified statement about the contribution of the intermettents to French arts. The audience applauded and they filed off, not delaying the performance sufficiently to allow those of us who arrived mistakenly at 7:30 for an 8 pm curtain to catch the first act.

Never mind, Act II is the masterpiece act. It was a great pleasure to be able to enter the auditorium, finally, the chorus seated in a spread out auditorium fashion facing us (the audience) on the bare, black stage. Sarastro walked through the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (seated house level) mounted the podium to deliver the Masonic creed in a precious, very precious German (like you might use to speak to idiots). This address was on what is called the “God” microphone (the microphone held by the stage director during the final theater rehearsals) that reverberates in volumes only known to overpowering deities (stage directors). It was an impressive trick. Promising.

Trail by Water to sound effects (visual effect in silence)

The production, by London theater personality Simon McBurney, was first done last winter at the English National Opera in the English language. What may have been real words (in English) to a British audience became cute, caricatured Germanic sounds for a very French audience in very French Aix that enclosed the entire production (well, the second act) within quotation marks — Die Zauberflöte quoting itself. Add this to Mr. McBurney’s highly self conscious theatrical vocabulary — all scenic effects were physically performed in miniature on one side of the stage and projected onto the stage backdrop, all sound effects (multitudinous) were physically created in miniature on the other side of the stage and amplified throughout the hall. The presence of theatrical manipulation was overpowering.

Mr. McBurney and his collaborators have a fecund recollection of advanced theater vocabulary, virtually every avant-garde gimmick that has been over-used in theater crazed Berlin over the past 30 or so years found its way onto the Grand Théâtre de Provence stage during the next hour or so, very long hour or so. The few very fine moments of theatrical success — the opening Act II council, the Queen of the Night’s Act II wheelchair aria ("Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen"), Tamino and Papageno’s final encounter with the Three Ladies, and the choreographic shapes created in the final chorus unfortunately did not contribute to a comprehensible exposition of the philosophy of this masterpiece.

McBurney’s Flute set out to amaze and amuse. On this level it well succeeded with the opening night audience. However Mozart’s massive singspiel was never intended to be an ordinary little entertainment for the Viennese hoi polloi of yesteryear or the Parisian haute bourgeoisie of today. It set out to exemplify the encompassing nobility and the eternal importance of the Masonic process, not to make theatrical fun out of it. Die Zauberflöte was completely forgotten in McBurney’s theatrical gluttony. But no matter, the audience was impressed and the powers that be of the Aix Festival are pleased as Punch.

Presentation of the flute by members of the orchestra

Bernard Foccroulle (foe-crew-yeh), general director of the Aix Festival is committed to co-productions as a cost-cutting measure. Therefore any production you now see in Aix may not be specific to the time (now) and place (Aix). In this case Mozart’s Flute was created last year by an Englishman for an English audience. What then remains to make the Aix Flute a production of the Aix Festival is the cast, chorus, conductor and orchestra.

It is a prestigious festival. Its efforts to assemble the musical personnel are intelligent, interesting and far-reaching. The Flute cast reached perfection in the Pamina of young Norwegian soprano Mari Eriksmoen with just the right blond look who possesses of voice of pure tone befitting of the purity and innocence of Mozart’s heroine. The same may be said of young French tenor Stanislaus de Barbeyrac who found the perfect balance of innocent manhood and enlightened aspiration.

Papageno was Dutch baritone Thomas Oliemans who was given so much business on the stage and within the audience that his presence was irritating to those of us (surely there were at least a few of us) who did not buy into Simon McBurney’s onslaught. This included a virtuoso level keyboard performance by Mr. Oliemans on a keyboarded glockenspiel, an imagined version of an instrument Mozart included but of which no example has survived.

Queen of the Night

The balance of the cast from around Europe and the U.S. were handsome singers, very ably fulfilling their requirements. German bass Christof Fischesser as Sarastro suffered the indignity of competing with the very loud, extraneous sound effects McBurney added to the Sarastro scenes. The contrast between these volumes and the natural acoustic of Mr. Fischesser’s voice rendered, by comparison, his arias too softly delivered to be impressive.

The three boys, named only as soloists of the Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund, were big, finished performers who grandly did McBurney’s bidding of turning the purity of young boys into instruments of the Queen of the Night’s chaos.

Freiburg’s famed baroque orchestra (Freiburger Barockorchester) was in the pit bringing spectacular colors to Mozart’s transcendental music. The 32 youthful voices of Britain’s English Voices created a magnificently clear, beautifully pure and very loud "Die Strahlen der Sonne" (the final chorus). Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado presided over the occasional periods the production allowed the Mozart score to take over. His efforts to make an impression then became too obvious. Even so, there were many splendid musical moments.

Mr. McBurney skipped in to take his bows in jeans, a shirt carelessly (wanna bet) tucked in, and a baseball cap worn backwards. Cool, very cool.

Casts and production information:

Tamino: Stanislas de Barbeyrac; Pamina: Mari Eriksmoen; Queen of the Night: Kathryn Lewek; Papageno: Thomas Oliemans; Papagena: Regula Mühlemann; Sarastro: Christof Fischesser; Monostatos; Andreas Conrad; Erste Dame: Ana-Maria Labin; Zweite Dame: Silvia de La Muela; Dritte Dame: Claudia Huckle; Der Sprecher: Maarten Koningsberger; Erster Priester/Zweiter Geharnischter: Krzysztof Baczyk; Zweiter Priester/Erster Geharnischter: Elmar Gilbertsson. English Voices (chorus) and the Freiburger Barockorchester. Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado; Mise en scène: Simon McBurney; Décors: Michael Levine; Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand; Lumière: Jean Kalman; Vidéo: Finn Ross; Sound: Gareth Fry. Grand Théâtre de Provence, July 2, 2014.

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La traviata in Marseille

It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).

Maybe because it had a bad reputation as a betrayal of Alexander Dumas fils’ novel La Dame aux Camélias and maybe because local critics had already objected to its jumpy motifs and its vulgar rhythms. Once on the stage of Marseille’s venerable Opéra (1787) however it has become, with Rigotetto, Marseille’s most performed opera.

These June performances were sold out three months in advance — one wonders what foresight will have informed the Marseillais that this was a Traviata not to miss?

Zuzana Marková as Violetta, Teodor Ilingäi as Alfredo
All photos copyright Christian Dresse, courtesy of Opéra de Marseille

Alexander Dumas fils too might have been pleased. His 20 year-old Marguerite, renamed Violetta in the opera was very young as well, and very beautiful. The honesty and ironic innocence that Dumas finds in his ill-starred prostitute radiated from young Czech soprano Zuzana Marková in her role debut.

Mlle. Marková may have been a somewhat tentative Lucia last winter in Marseille, but as Violetta she moved with new found grace and delivered a deeply studied performance with complete mastery and conviction. She is a remarkable technician in the first flower of beautiful, clear, coloratura voice. The E-flat taken in “Sempre libera” rang with silvery confidence, the mid-voice of the second act and death shone with strength and warmth.

It was a sterling performance allowed by remarkable conducting, that of Stuttgart formed young Korean maestra Eun Sun Kim (it is already an established career with credits at English National Opera, Frankfurt Opera, Vienna Volksoper). The maestra is clearly of a new generation of conductors who feel tempos in a minimalist sense — slower macro-pulses offering sound spaces where immediate depths may be probed. Musical energy is discovered by the exploration of this microcosmos rather than in energy found by forcing brute speed and sudden braking.

This musicianship allows for the lyric expansion inherent in bel canto and here it laid bare the roots of the mid-period Verdi in this rapidly disappearing style. Mlle. Markocá exposed bel canto’s purity of melodic intention by stylishly suspending her musical lines, plus she exploited these long, carefully sculpted melodic contours in lovely pianissimos and full fortes, and with beautiful vocal colors.

Zuzana Marková as Violetta, Jean-François Lapointe as Giorgio Germont

The conducting of Eun Sun Kim well served the artistry of Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapoint as Giorgio Germont. Mr. Lapoint who counts both Pelleas and Golaud among his roles is primarily known in the French repertory. He brought a projection of text from these roles, and a delicacy of delivery that created an unusual depth of personality and musical presence to Germont. The absence of an Italianate color and inflection, and an inborn leading-man presence were overcome here by the convincing sense of bel canto that he and Mlle. Eun achieved (Mr. Lapointe also counts Donizetti’s Alphonse XI [La Favorite] among his roles).

It was a new production, the work of Renée Auphan, the former general director of Marseille Opera (perhaps accounting for the care in its casting). In her program notes she cautions us not to think too much about the Dumas novel, that that demi-monde is far removed from our experience. She asks us instead to focus on Verdi’s universal humanity.

Gaston, Alfredo, Le Marquis, Violetta, Flora

But the characters in her staging are very much those of Dumas, starting with the youth of Mlle. Marková (if not the brattish confidence of Dumas’ Marguerite) and the forty-some age of the has-been prostitute Flora. Her Act III party admitted the startling vulgarity of the demi-monde as described by Dumas. French mezzo Sophie Pondijiclis made this role vividly real, a revelation. French mezzo Christine Tocci played Annina, here transformed from Verdi’s dramatic utility into Dumas’ Nanine, a factotum confidante, possibly a lover of Marguerite, not a chamber maid. Costumed in male styled trousers and top, with a bright smile and strong voice Mlle. Tocci was constantly at Violetta’s side, a vivid, voiceless presence in Act I.

Act II begins with Alfredo’s outpouring of contentment, the emotion ironically compromised by the presence of Dr. Grenvil, who sits writing something, perhaps a prescription, while Alfredo sings the opening of "dei miei bollenti spiriti" to him. The doctor then departs, imparting a perfunctory gesture of professional sympathy to Alfredo. Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincâl made Dumas’ obsessive Armand quite real as Verdi’s Alfredo. Mr. Ilincâl is a strong voiced, Faustian tenor who well embodied Dumas and Verdi’s single minded and selfishly Romantic lover. Verdi simply does not award him the delicacy or complexity of feeling that he lavished on Violetta and Germont.

Mme. Auphan is wise to suggest that we not dwell on Dumas. But understanding the detail of her mise en scène together with the exemplary casting and the musical depth of the conducting explains why this staging brought unexpected vitality to this old warhorse. It was not a moving Traviata so much as it was an almost clinically musical and dramatic examination of this masterpiece. And finally it was mesmerizing art.

The new production provided an unobtrusive, standard mid-nineteenth century setting designed by Marseille born Christine Marest, a veteran of the late 20th century avant garde. The scenery, beautifully lighted by photographer Roberto Venturi, was a stage box that easily transformed its feeling from salon to an intimate, emotional interior space most notably in the “sempre libera.” In Dumas novel this scene takes place in Marguerite’s boudoir, in the Auphan production the lights of the salon are softened into dim, candle light, and just as in the Dumas novel Alfredo was present, making this scene an operatic pas de deux, Violetta voicing her conflicts while Alfredo crumpled a white camellia.

There were performances on six consecutive days, thus there were two casts. Jean-François Lapointe however unexpectedly sang all performances (and was still in fine form at the fifth performance). Intelligence from the pressroom indicates that the alternate cast was quite impressive — Romanian soprano Mihaela Marcu as Violetta and Turkish tenor Bülent Bezdüz as Alfredo.

Casts and production information:

Violetta: Zuzana Marková; Flora: Sophie Pondjiclis; Annina: Christine Tocci; Alfredo Germont: Teodor Ilincäi; Giorgio Germont: Jean-François Lapointe; Le Baron: Jean-Marie Delpas; Le Marquis: Christophe Gay; Le Docteur: Alain Herriau; Gaston de Letorières: Carl Ghazarossian; Giuseppe: Camille Tresmontant. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Eun Sun Kim; Stage Director: Renée Auphan; Scenic Designer: Christine Marest; Costume Designer: Katia Duflot; Lighting Designer: Roberto Venturi. Opéra de Marseille, June 21, 2014.

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Rusalka in Monte-Carlo

Every-once-in-a-while a Rusalka comes along, and this week there are even two here on the French Riviera — just now in Monaco and upcoming Saturday on movie screens all along the coast.

While invisible pulses of energy emanating from New York’s Lincoln Center will become huge shapes, bright colors and amplified sounds the Opéra Monte-Carlo’s Rusalka was vividly alive on the stage of one of the world’s most beautiful theaters, the Casino’s 500-seat jewel box, the Salle Garnier).

The renowned Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo was in the pit in full force with notably splendid harp playing to evoke the splashes of water that were in fact quite real splashes of quite real water.

Stage director Dieter Kaegi created a contemporary story to frame the adolescent fairytale that is Dvorak’s last opera (of ten). During the overture two shapely bodies (male and female) on a motorcycle came upon a hidden pond. They shed their cloths (though strangely not all-the-way), dove in and did not reappear. It was of course a magic pond, so water sprites emerged — three stick-like marionettes (with three human operators) whose voices were three black-gowned singers standing downstage.

Maxim Aksenov as the Prince and Tatiana Pavlovskaïa as the Foreign Princess [Photo courtesy of Opéra Monte-Carlo]

More splashes of real water for the half-drowned appearance of the water god Ondin, father of the water sprite Rusalka who was not a marionette. Dressed in filmy light blue she was meant to be water itself so she never had to get actually wet. The romantically deluded Prince appears with his rifle to sing an impassioned love duet with Rusalka as he whisks her away to his palace, not forgetting to pick up the rifle he had put down when he embraced her.

Rusalka had had to negotiate with the witch Jezibaba to become human, the price was losing the ability to speak i.e. sing. Meanwhile the two shapely motorcycle bodies reappear to dance a pas de deux under the theater lights carefully focused by a stagehand who sang the role of the forester. A visiting princess points out that the prince is ignoring his guests. It is not certain if the prince falls in love with this princess even though he loves Rusalka above all else. Anyway, Rusalka thinks he has fallen in love with another.

All this gives rise to absolutely beautiful music, the Czech equivalent of an over-wrought Giordano, an uncanny amalgamation of Tchaikovsky’s on-your-sleeve emotions with Wagner’s subliminal emotional and philosophic impulses. There is a plethora of musical climaxes that offer frequent hints that the opera is about to end but it never does. It takes big voices to sail over the top of all this music.

The Opéra de Monte-Carlo took very good care of these needs. American conductor Lawrence Foster imposed the necessary sweep and importance to big music on a trivial subject. It was cleanly shaped, an approach that ignored a slavic pathos that might ignite such fateful tragedy. Dutch soprano Barbara Haveman brought big voice to Rusalka that she uses with high-level artistry, her “Měsíčku na nebi” was sensitively detailed with a felt intimacy in this actual context rather than as the usual concert aria. While Mme. Haveman did not find the youth and innocence in her voice that made her Monte-Carlo Jenufa (2007) memorable, she accomplished with sincere aplomb the miming of being water, and in fact distinguished herself as a total performer.

Barbara Haveman as Rusalka and Maxim Aksenov as the Prince [Photo courtesy of Opéra Monte-Carlo]

Russian tenor Maxim Aksenov brought good looks, good high notes and an theatrical savoir faire that reveals his foundation in music theater and his grounding in the slavic repertory. Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaïa added temperament, impassioned voice and very good singing to the Foreign Princess. Slimy costumed Russian bass Alexeï Tikhomirov, most often seen splashing in water or dripping water proved himself a willing performer who made the most of his role in this context. Polish mezzo-soprano Ewa Podles lustily sang the witch Jezibaba, naively directed as if she were the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

Director Kaegi completed the frame he created to enclose Dvorak’s opera by allowing his motorcycle couple to emerge from the pond during the final duet and delightedly photograph one another holding remnants of the fairytale still taking place — the Prince lay in the pond along with the now upended motorcycle and other detritus, dying his watery death in the arms of Rusalka who did not care.

Casts and production information:

Le Prince: Maxim Aksenov; La Princesse étrangère: Tatiana Pavlovskaïa; Rusalka: Barbara Haveman; L’Ondin: Alexei Tikhomirov; Jezibaba: Ewa Podles; Le Garde Forestier; Valdis Jansons; Le Marmiton: Julie Robard-Gendre; Première Nymphe; Daphné Touchais; Deuxième Nymphe: Marie Kalinine; Troisième Nymphe: Mayram Sokolova. Chœur de l'Opéra de Monte-Carlo; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Conductor: Lawrence Foster; Mise en scène: Dieter Kaegi; Décors et costumes: Francis O’Connor; Lumières: Olaf Lundt. Salle Ganier, Monte-Carlo, January 29, 2014.

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Lucia di Lammermoor in Marseille

A handsome new production, beautifully staged in Marseille’s fine old opera house cried out for a cast to make the opera bel canto.

Not that there was not some good singing, namely Czech soprano Zuzana Markova as Lucia. Originally the Lucia of the relief cast (taking two of the six performances) this beautiful young singer was advanced into the primary cast when illness forced the first Lucia to cancel. Of secure technique, solid musicianship and a voice in its youthful bloom Mlle. Markova did hold the stage the entire evening, lacking only a diva presence to achieve a convincing bel canto performance. This talented young artist is in dire need of coaching — not only how a real diva artist might act this demanding role but also how a real diva might act.

Certainly Mlle. Markova was not in a position to pull diva antics, like refusing to wear the costumes designed for Lucia by Opéra de Marseille house designer Katia Duflot. A bona fide diva would know that if the audience was baffled by the gravity defying design of her bare shoulder red gown, it was probably not paying attention to her performance. Never mind that the red gown did not finally reveal a topless Mlle. Markova, the bare shoulder white gown of the wedding scene all but revealed everything. Mlle. Markova’s lovely young breasts simply upstaged her beautiful young voice.

Giuseppe Gipali as Edgardo, Zuzana Markova as Lucia. Photo by Christian Dresse

On the other hand Lucia's brother Enrico sung by French baritone Marc Barrard was visually choked by the high collar Mme. Duflot engineered for his first act costume. Our sympathy for his strangled sound was however unfounded as his later costume with unbuttoned shirt allowed plenty of breathing room. We discovered that his voice is unfocused and sounds very worn, or perhaps making a bel canto sound is simply foreign to his voice. If the program booklet biography is at all complete this role may have been his first venture into this repertory.

Giuseppe Gipali was the Edgardo. This Albanian tenor turned bel canto into can belto in vocal tones and shapes that were stylistically appropriate if monochromatic and unvaryingly forte. Mr. Gipali is not an affecting performer, his eyes never on the person (Lucia) he was singing to, instead his face was always outward, performing directly to the audience. His final scene — his suicide — was in fact splendidly sung, lacking any hint of sincerity of emotion that could bring this famous opera to its hyper-Romantic conclusion.

And finally Polish bass Wojtek Smilek was Raimondo, the Calvinist priest. Mr. Smilek is an important local resource, frequently appearing in Marseille, nearby cities and in Paris. He sings just about every smaller principal bass role you can think of. Unfortunately Raimondo is a big role, with lots of exposed singing. While Mr. Smilek is a fine singer he does not have the warmth of tone required for basso cantante roles nor the smoothness of line that can make him a lyric bass.

Lucia di Lammermoor is a numbers opera, one big aria or duet after another, embellished by chorus interjections that change circumstances to motivate even more beautiful singing — there is simply a huge amount of a very particular style of solo singing. This opera must be carefully cast. It was not.

The Sextet. Photo by Christian Dresse

The pit was overseen by French conductor Alain Guingal who responsibly sustained the proceedings but supplied no stylistic flourish to make this evening musically vibrant. While the big harp obligato in the first act was magnificently played the flute duet with Lucia’s mad scene was rendered with contours and colors that went too far beyond those offered by Mlle. Markova.

The new production was staged by French theater director Fréderic Bélier-Garcia. He is the absolute master of staging operas that are strings of numbers, finding natural seeming motion for his singers while they perform lengthy arias about how they feel. Here he exploited a new trick by sometimes taking his singers to the extreme sides of the stage to stand against the wide soft black false proscenium, removing the singer from all scenic context. With absolutely glorious lighting by designer Roberto Venturi the singers were suddenly stripped of everything except voice and artistry —what greater effect could be created for the supreme moments of bel canto opera!

The physical production was designed by Jacques Gabel, a frequent collaborator of Mr. Bélier-Garcia. The design was minimal, two scrims on which various forest shapes were projected, a platform that was sometime a ramp and sometime a pier, like on a lake, and (of course) a chandelier. The sensuous stained glass Jesus figure on a panel flown in for the Enrico/Edgardo meeting is hard to explain, as are the brilliant northern light colors that embellished the scrims from time to time. But not as hard to explain as the costumes described above that just did not seem to belong in a drafty old Scottish castle.

Cast and production information:

Lucia: Zuzana Markova; Alisa: Lucie Roche; Enrico: Marc Barrard; Edgardo: Giuseppe Gipali; Raimondo: Wojtek Smilek; Arturo: Stanislas de Barbeyrac; Normanno: Marc Larcher. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Alain Guingal; Mise en scène: Frédéric Bélier-Garcia; Scenery: Jacques Gabel; Costumes: Katia Duflot; Lighting: Roberto Venturi. Opéra de Marseille, February 6, 2014

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La favorite in Toulouse

French mistresses are much in the news these days, and now the Théâtre du Capitole’s new production of Donizetti’s La Favorite has added considerable fuel to the fire.

The news though is actually Chinese tenor Yijie Shi who assumed the beautiful young woman who had knelt next to him at the famous shrine Santiago de Campostela was pure. She was not.

Never mind that Donizetti’s la favorite was not French. Named Léonor di Guzman she was in historical fact the mistress of no less than Alfonso XI, the king of Castille who is famous for driving the Moors out of Andalusia in the mid fourteenth century. History is often reinvented in opera plots to make passions more real than facts, thus according to Donizetti’s librettists it was the lovesick novice monk Fernand, (tenor Shi) who actually led the Spanish armies to these important victories under Alfonso’s flag.

All Fernand wanted in return was the hand of the beautiful and pure woman he had prayed with. Alfonso however was a cunning thinker who did not want to give up his mistress, not to mention that his courtiers detested the upstart Fernand as well. Add to this mess a meddlesome priest of proto-inquisitor zeal and you can see that there was a lot to sing about.

Donizetti’s French masterpiece was in the hands of Italian conductor Antonello Allemandi. This maestro, a bel canto specialist, captured the fire and intensity of the passions from the get-go, making the overture a superbly eloquent transition to a musical world based on beautiful lines and colors that elaborate distress and make it compellingly elegant. Mo. Allemandi demonstrated a full authority over the stage for the musically complex scenes, and in the arias and duets he demonstrated his confidence in the artistry of distraught singers by establishing ample tempos to support their soaring vocal lines while he concentrated on pulling every possible nuance from the pit players.

The great climaxes of the quintets and sextets with chorus achieved emotional releases that equaled those of the later Romantic masters while remaining specifically bel canto.

Shanghai born tenor Yijie Shi, a protogé of the Pesaro Rossini Festival, made a startling first impression, standing in shirtsleeves among a disciplined formation of hooded monks. He did not cut a figure that would lead soldiers into battle though he did finally become the smitten, naive and always confused young lover who basks in the pleasure of his feelings. After an extended apprenticeship in Pesaro he is now a finished performer, more at home in the bel canto repertory than in Rossini. His voice is purely Italianate, and his French was splendid. By the end of the performance it was certain that Mr. Shi now owns this role, singing it and acting it with true bel canto abandon.

Kate Aldridge as Léonor, Yijie Shi as Fernand. Photo by Patrice Nin

If the tenor has the most to sing in La Favorite, the heroine is burdened with the need to exemplify the magnetism that would pull a young monk from his vows of chastity while bemoaning her situation — as mistress to the king she cannot and never will be wife to any man. American mezzo-soprano Kate Aldridge, a seasoned bel canto artist, did not succeed, lacking at this point in her career the warmth of voice and charm of youth to bring Leonora emotionally alive. Her most effective if inappropriate vocal moments occurred when she used the chest voice that has made her a very fine Carmen.

The opera was conceived in French for the Paris Opera (not the Théâtre-Italien where Donizetti’s Italian operas were performed) as a vehicle for the mistress of the director of the opera. In the style of French grand opera the heroine is a dramatically complex role for mezzo soprano. Léonora is subdued and discretely nuanced in her only aria and in her scenes with Fernand and Alfonso. The opera is in the four act grand opera form, though the traditional ballet was missing in Toulouse.

Alfonso was sung by French baritone Lodovic Tézier. Of clear, sterling colored voice Mr. Térzier is an ideal Donizetti villain, well able to convincingly rage, manipulate and deceive without sacrificing beauty of tone and grace of execution. Italian bass Giovanni Furlanetto as the father superior Balthazar produced a rich and smooth basso cantante though he did not convey a force of personality that could make him a convincing spiritual father to Fernand or an imposing accuser to Alfonso. The role of Inès was charmingly performed by Marie-Bénédicte Souquet.

Lodovic Tézier as Alphonse XI. Photo by Patrice Nin

The new production, by Vincent Boussard and his designers Vincent Lemaire (scenery) and Christian Lacroix (costumes), was in minimal terms. The mists and spirituality of Santiago de Campostela were conveyed in mirrored stage walls, fogs and lights with a backdrop of abstracted soaring arches, the sumptuousness of Seville’s Alcazar was effected in emerald greens, graced by parading, lifelike peacocks on the arms of courtiers. The mirrored side walls descended opening balconies on either side from where courtiers would learn all court happenings.

Costumes were abstracted into colors rather than shapes taking us into a musical space rather than a specific historical moment. The single prop, excepting the peacocks, was an illuminated suitcase Fernand took with him into his worldly adventures and returned with to take finally his vows. Metteur en scéne Boussard is a master of staging musically rather than dramatically, moving his chorus as a structural musical force and his principals as moments of music, finding extended periods of poetry rendered in classical sculptural poses.

It was a splendid afternoon of beautifully staged bel canto transformed into great music. This production can be watched on CultureBox of France Télévision through August 15, 2014: La Favorite

Casts and production information:

Léonor de Guzman: Kate Aldrich; Fernand: Yijie Shi; Alphonse XI: Ludovic Tézier: Balthazar: Giovanni Furlanetto; Don Gaspar: Alain Gabriel; Inès: Marie-Bénédicte Souquet; Chorus and Orchestra of the Théâtre du Capitole. Conductor: Antonello Allemandi: Mise en scène: Vincent Boussard; Scenery: Vincent Lemaire; Costumes: Christian Lacroix; Lighting: Guido Levi. Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse, February 16, 2014.

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Carmen in Bilbao

Bilbao is always news, Calixto Bieito is always news, Carmen with a good cast is always news. So here is the news.

The Calixto Bieito Carmen is old news, this edition having already taken place in Barcelona, Venice and Torino, though a Bieito Carmen has been around on advanced European operatic stages since 1999. It was never headline news, finding instead this extraordinary stage director in a rather subdued state. Yes, there was fellatio, pissing, nudity, gang rape, child abuse and true brutality. Yes, Mercedes was Lilas Pastia’s middle-aged wife, and yes, Don Jose was really annoyed by an insistent Micaëla who sang her pretty song and then gave Carmen the “up-yours.”

Bieito creates a world that puts you on edge, here it was Spain with the cut-out bulls on the hilltops, gypsies in dilapidated cars, freaked out youth, blinding beaches and lurid tourism, and of course bull rings. But finally Bieito’s bull ring was only a chalk-line circle laid down by Lilas Pastia in which the raw power of Carmen’s indifference was pitted against the impotent supplications of Jose. Murdered, Jose dragged Carmen out of the circle — like a dead bull.

Movement is violent and often sudden in this and all Bieito worlds. There were very limited moments of dialogue but many additions of crowd noise and shouts, and punctuations of imposed silence broken by frenetic crowd clamor. The quintet was splendidly staged catching the lightening speed of the music in fast, demonstrative movement, and the trio was deadpan, the cards read on the hood of a car with no sense of doom, Carmen indifferent to her fate.

Act III. Escamillo in white shirt. Photo by E. Moreno Esquibel

There was no set. A simple cyclorama against which there was first a flag pole and a phone booth, then a car and a Christmas tree, then eight cars and a gigantic cut out bull and finally nothing except a beach with a marked out chalk ring.

All this might seem a recipe for a dynamite Carmen, but this does not seem to be Bieito’s intention. This tale of Jose’s infatuation disappeared into this cosmos of marginal life in Spain and became unimportant, its emotions melted into the morass of a much bigger and equally violent, emotionally raw world.

With some setbacks along the way Bilbao's Amigos de la Ópera managed a cast responsive to the needs of both Bizet and Bieito. The Carmen announced in the publicity was Sonia Ganassi who withdrew because of illness, young Italian mezzo Giuseppina Piunti came to replace her. However she could not do this second performance (of five) thus this performance fell to the cover Carmen. Ana Ibarra is a young Spanish artist, not a Carmen by nature or physique but a very fine singer, and with obviously limited rehearsal attention she still gave a quite credible performance, greatly appreciated by the audience.

Lilas Pastia marking bull ring circle and sunbather. Photo by E. Moreno Esquibel

Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado is in his vocal prime, and gave a beautifully sung performance. His Flower Song was the hit of the evening, the high notes squarely placed and exciting. Mr. Machado projects an affecting presence, and could perhaps be a moving Jose in a heated or even warmer production. Quick on his feet he was able to have a real looking knife fight with Escamillo, leaping from roof to roof of a line of cars. He was equaled in agility by seasoned Spanish baritone Carlos Alvaro! This esteemed singer brought a sharp Italianate edge to the role, making Escamillo a powerful and dangerous presence with real bullfighter voiced coglioni if not with physique or stance.

Micaëla was sung by Valencia born soprano Maite Alberola who brought a brightness of voice that has made her a fine traviata though she did not move with a natural agility in the wonderfully tacky clothing that was her costume. With the resources of a traviata voice (a brilliant top and a warm middle voice) she found unusual and very welcome vocal excitement in her aria.

French maestro Jean Yves Ossonce provided a generally idiomatic reading, giving the principals solid understanding for their arias — a faster than usual “Je dis,” a louder than usual "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée," as examples. The quintet was masterfully held together and the big chorus scenes were unleashed with sonic abandon — the Euskadiko Orkestra Sinfonikoa gave it their all.

The support roles — Frasquita, Mercedes, Remendado, Dancairo, Zuniga and Morales — were of proper age, voice, and experience (i.e. gratefully not pieced together from a young artist program). The Mercedes of Basque mezzo Itxaro Mentxaka was especially interesting as the middle aged wife of Lilas Pastia, the Zuniga of Italian Federico Sacchi stood out as a real sleaze, his brutally murdered body an unforgettable image.

Bilbao is about architecture, as you know. There is an old (nineteenth century), imposing opera house said to be an imitation of Paris’ Garnier that is no longer used. The Asociación Bilbaina de Amigos de la Ópera now produces its operas in the theater of the Palacio Euskalduna, Bilbao’s conference center that opened in 1999. Designed by architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios it is supposed to be like a vessel permanently under construction (it stands on a dock of the former Euskalduna Shipyard). It received the 2001 Enric Miralles award at the 6th Biennial of Spanish Architecture.

However striking the architecture may be, and the public areas are of interest if a bit hard to navigate, the hall itself reveals the lack of interest architects in general seem to have for opera. If these two architects had ever been to an opera they would know that an auditorium is a dark place to sit while you observe a performance, that no prime seating space should be sacrificed to some questionable geometric design whims, that every seat should be as close as possible to the stage (the upper reaches of this theater are unbelievably remote), and finally, actually first of all, that the sound in the hall is of utmost importance (the cavernous depths of this theater create a hollow “cavernous” sound).

Ignoring these completely obvious requirements for the auditorium one can only imagine the ignorance these architects will have exercised in designing the stage (here too wide), wings and dressing rooms. Is there no prize for bad theater architecture. There is a stupendous amount of it worldwide that could compete for being the absolute stupidest.

Casts and production information:

Carmen: Ana Ibarra; Don José: Aquiles Machado; Escamillo: Carlos Álvarez; Micaëla: Maite Alberola; Mercedes: Itxaro Mentxaka; Frasquita: Elena Sancho Pereg; Le Remendado: Vicenç Esteve; Le Dancaïre: Damián del Castillo; Zuniga: Federico Sacchi; Moralès: Giovanni Guagliardo; Lilas Pastia (actor): Abdelazir El Mountassir. Euskadiko Orkestra Sinfonikoa, Coro de Opera de Bilbao. Conductor: Jean Yves Ossonce; Mise en scène: Calixto Bieito; Scenery: Alfons Flores; Costumes: Mercé Paloma; Lighting: Alberto Rodriguez. Palacio Euskalduna, Bilbao, February 18, 2014.

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L'elisir d'Amore in Monte-Carlo

Will wonders never cease? Wheat stalks 6 meters high? Rats 2 meters tall. Setting Donizetti’s little comedy amidst biological mutations engendered by Chernobyl does seem a bit farfetched.

Actually it was not Chernobyl, the tip-off being the 7 meters diameter tractor wheel, mud hanging off of the lower treads. Then a thrown-away tuna fish can crashed onto the stage and rolled center, from which emerged Belcore with the old trick of how many whatever-they-weres could possibly emerge from a tuna fish can. We indeed had delighted smiles on our faces.

This was the lilliputian Elisir d’amore! Tiny, magical creatures acted out this bit of sentimental commedia del’arte residue underneath a wheat field somewhere in Switzerland (the production comes from Lausanne). Given it was magical the Belcore creature was part Samurai (the wig) and part Swiftian general. Dulcamara arrived atop a contraption that was totally fantastic, maybe a sort of rolling still though he seemed some sort of crazed Swiftian magistrate in his red robe and weird wig.

It was a splendidly realized concept. The slender wheat stalks could actually be scaled, and were by five or so acrobats evoking wonder amongst us spectators. For some reason there was a boy and girl, eight year olds maybe, who rushed on stage from time to time to act out bits of puppy love. Besides the rats, birds as well as a life sized horse, i.e. about ten meters high (all we could see were the legs), meandered across the back of the stage usually during the arias and duets — the wonders of very skillful projections.

Dulcamara atop his wagon, tuna fish can, tire and wheat. Photo courtesy of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo

What, you may ask, has all this to do with Donizetti’s opera? The answer is nothing. It was an extravaganza of concept and hard-headed exploitation of contemporary digital techniques. Placed on the stage by a team of Italians, stage director Adriano Sinivia, set designer Christian Taraborrelli, and costume designer Enzio Iorio this was a stand alone theater piece that used a bel canto masterpiece as an excuse to imagine a far-fetched digital video game.

Donizetti’s opera is neither a fairytale for children with hidden meanings for adults nor a Swiftian satire of rural morality. It is a simple love story told very directly — love overcomes all obstacles if you sing well enough and long enough. Actually the cast assembled by the Opéra de Monte-Carlo did sing well enough but even so could not overcome the obstacle of this production. It was a long evening that left us indifferent to all this sophisticated human talent and effort.

While the Opéra de Monte-Carlo had the esteemed Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo in the pit it had French contralto Nathalie Stulzmann on the podium who had not a clue about bel canto musicality — a musicality that allows time to stand still so you can elegantly feel how you feel. Define it how you may it will never be driving the music hard and fast with an authority that is above that of the singers. Musically the evening was a willful display of conductorial insensitivity.

George Petean as Belcore, Stefan Pop as Nemorino. Photo courtesy of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo

It is enlightening to know that Angela Gheorghiu is not the only singer to come out of Romania. The Opéra de Monte-Carlo found three more excellent artists. Twenty-eight year-old tenor Stefan Pop made a roly poly Nemorino who gave a skillful account of his aria — maybe the only moment of the evening not sabotaged by directorial gloss — and in general convincingly portrayed a country bumpkin with a sophisticated vocal technique. Baritone George Petean was a roly poly Belcore who gave it his all though it seemed too much, fault maybe of his silly wig or his feeling that his was a hopeless character in this lilliputian satire so he had to try to make something of it. Bass Adrian Sampetrean on the other hand rose above his ridiculous wig and assumed a genuine authority that you probably do not want from this shyster, fault maybe of the conductress who did not try to reign him in to become Donizetti’s charming con man.

Italian ingenue soprano Mariangela Sicilia was the spunky, too spunky Adina who sang quite well, though her knowing attitude and knowing vocal technique is not yet finished to the degree that she can settle with confidence into character and sail securely above it all with unflappable technique. It will come. The Giannini of Parisian soprano Vannina Santoni was a larger than usual character and an appreciated component of the larger ensembles.

It was unclear whether the generous applause was relief that it was over, appreciation of good singing, or evidence that the Monegasques (those who reside in Monaco) are willing to reward even bad conducting.

Casts and production information:

Adina: Mariangela Sicilia; Nemorino: Stefan Pop; Belcore: George Petean; Dulcamara: Adrian Sampetrean; Giannetta: Vannina Santoni. Chorus of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo and Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Conductor: Nathalie Stutzmann; Mise en scène: Adriano Sinivia; Scenery: Christian Taraborrelli; Costumes: Enzo Iorio; Lighting: Fabrice Kebour. Salle Garnier, Monte-Carlo, February 26, 2014.

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Eugene Onegin in Montpellier

Entering the hall there arose the Dantesque “abandon all hope ye who enter” feeling — a cluttered a vista socialist setting, a poster of Lenin and large letters proclaiming Moscow, December 1999.

Lucas Meachem as Onegin, Dina Kuznetsova as Tatiana. Photo Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

Maybe Pushkin never existed and Tchaikovsky is a condemned a bourgeois composer.

The first music we heard came from a cheap socialist era stereo, a blast of heavy metal to which a ripe young female appropriately gyrated. Fear and hope were equally mixed that this was the Tatiana. She was not, but was one of the seething swarm of inhabitants of a large communal apartment construed on the stage, leaving no doubt that therein existed a cosmos of human souls.

Emerging from this swarm were figures who gracefully appeared and disappeared, the characters we know by Pushkin’s names who moved in and out of the kitchen, the bedrooms, TV salon, bathroom, (spaces cleverly defined with minimal doorway lines and furniture) with beguiling naturalness and an ease that was purely musical.

There was one resident with a digital camera, a voyeur who surreptitiously captured young women in the a vista shower (we saw silhouette against the shower curtain). Innocent and charming, except we see him follow Olga as she pursues and then seduces Onegin while Tatiana is writing her letter. This spied upon scene took place on a slightly elevated platform behind the apartment floor, a place that served throughout the evening as somewhere else.

You get the picture. Filippievna did a lively dance to the famous Russian gypsy song “Dark Eyes” while listening to the radio before Tatiana’s birthday party where Lenski got jealous. The digital camera with its stored images got passed around. There was no way to stop a session of Russian roulette.

Dina Kuznetsova as Tatiana, Olga Tichina as Filippievna. Photo Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

It is indeed a digital world that allows quick and easy recording and transmission of images and scenes of life around us, from all angles and in duplication and repetition. Here digital technology was used to add additional perspectives to what we could see from our seats. Intimate scenes were magnified onto the huge blank stage backdrop, the apartment as seen from above was projected onto the huge screen echoing what we could see from our seats, etc. These were direct dramatic motivations for use of multimedia and the achievement of rare theatrical integrity for the use of such technology.

As a theater piece, really a theatrical installation based on Eugene Onegin it was conceptually elegant, masterfully directed, wonderfully witty and charmingly successful. While it may have been at cultural odds with the richly romantic voice of Pushkin it was easily comfortable with the broad and absolutely obvious emotional climate of Tchaikovsky’s genius if not this composer’s nineteenth century tonalities.

The separation of the mise en scène from its sources was complicated by a separation of the pit and the stage. Tchaikovsky’s score was elegantly realized by Finnish conductor Ari Rasilainen and Montpellier’s fine Orchestre national. It was a symphonic reading, the conductor pulling every possible nuance and depth of tone from his instruments, and carefully pacing the flow to exploit his players’ musicality.

While the maestro did cue the entrances of the voices he did not visually or musically communicate with the stage in any other way. Left on their own the singers responded to secure, sturdy tempos but were bereft of the supercharged emotional thrust that makes Onegin (or any Tchaikovsky opera) a huge and immediate emotional experience. Perhaps this distant music actually served the production, reinforcing the blatant separation of source from its translation, Pushkin from Putin, poetry from TV drama, and finally separating high nineteenth century art from what was high twenty-first century art.

There were many grand moments created by a superb cast, and not least by the Onegin of American baritone Lucas Meachem as a souless man, a man who did not know who or what he is. Mr. Meachem was unable to sustain a singing tone nor could he find the tonalities of the Russian language. Mr. Meachem however brought a physicality to Onegin that was quite involving and finally moving. Sad to say he was not given the final bow, he is after all the name of the opera.

Act II Country Ball. Photo Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

Tatiana was Russian born soprano Dina Kuznetsova, alumna of the young artist program at Lyric Opera of Chicago, who wrote her letter moving between the kitchen table and the window of her room (metal lines directly frontal onto the audience, i.e. in your face), the brilliant light of the opened refrigerator flooding the darkened kitchen at an appropriate textural moment. Mlle. Kuznetsova possesses a round, Slavic toned voice she used with dramatic knowledge and style, unable however to squarely hit the high note at the ends of her letter and her final duet with Onegin.

Olga was enacted by French mezzo soprano Anna Destraël in a performance that was so real it was unnerving. Olga, a slut, was visibly bored by Lenski though she was happy to go to bed with him (we saw this in the ferment of life in the communal apartment), her seduction, quasi rape of Onegin showed real animal determination, her slight response to Lenski’s jealosy was of a shallow adolescent. It was a powerful performance that went well beyond good singing. It did not endear her to the audience.

Bespectacled Lenski was sung by Turkmenistan tenor Dovlet Nurgeldiyev, his spectacles crushed on the floor by Onegin he sang his “Kuda, kuda vï udalilis” emotionally groping his way across the stage as a pathetic rather than a sympathetic, sometimes tragic figure. Beautifully sung it earned the evening’s biggest ovation.

Simply superb were the two aging Russian women, proto petite bourgeoise, Larina sung by Svetlana Lifar and Filippievna sung by Olga Tichina. Russian bass Mischa Schelomianski oiled his way across the stage as an oligarch, the Prince Gremin. His surveillance cameras caught the Onegin Tatiana duet in eight identical images he sees from his armchair — ironically Tatiana’s new life as transparent as her past life.

All the scenes of acts I and II were run together. After the intermission four homeless looking dancers shoved a homeless looking Onegin around the stage to the music of the first polonaise. The second polonaise at a nouveau riche cocktail party brought the Opéra’s fine chorus into in a moving circle, their clicking heels forcing the Tchaikovsky polonaise to a halt. It was a moment of powerful dramatic punctuation that underlined the wonderfully theatrical nature of this fine evening at the opera (of which this account is but the tip of the iceberg).

Authors of this theatrical installation were Marie-Eve Signeyrole who imagined and created the mise en scène and her collaborators Yashi Tabassomi (costumes), Philippe Berthomé (lights), Julie Compans (movement) and Julien Meyer (audiovisual).

Cast and production information

Onegin: Lucas Meachem; Tatiana: Dina Kuznetsova; Olga: Anna Destraël; Lenski: Doviet Nurgeldiyev; Prince Gremin: Mischa Schelomianski; Madame Larina: Svetlana Lifar; Filippievna: Olga Tichina; Monsieur Triquet: Loïc Félix; Zaretski: Laurent Sérou. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra Orchestre national Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. Conductor: Ari Rasilainen; Mise en scène and stage setting: Marie-Éve Signeyrole; Costumes: Yashi Tabossomi; Lighting: Philippe Berthomé. Opéra Berlioz, Montpellier. January 17, 2014.

Coeur de Chien in Lyon

If satire is your thing you will not want to miss this opera about human testicles grafted onto a dog.

All photos copyright Stofleth

Coeur de Chien was a commission of the Holland Festival, premiered in 2010, and since has found clamorous arrivals in 2011 at the English National Opera as A Dog’s Heart, and in 2012 at La Scala as Il cuore di cane. Its real title is Собачье сердце because it is sung in Russian (though the libretto by Cesare Mazzonis was written first in Italian). It is based on a 1924 novel by Mikhail Boulgakov that was finally published in Russia in 1987.

The composer, Alexander Raskatov, now 60 years-old, was a Soviet citizen and a member of the Union of Soviet Composers. He is now a member of the Composers’ Union of Russia though these days he lives in France. His only other opera, The Pit and the Pendulum was composed in 1990.

This satire is about life in Moscow in the years just after the 1917 revolutions. It has absolutely no point of view and makes no judgements. Those were heady years when the intelligentsia, apparatchiks, commoners (maybe proletariat) and dogs were adjusting into the greatest social experiment of modern times, maybe ever. It was a mess all around, though according to this opera none of the various players ever lost their basic humanity (vanity, cupidity, duplicity) or their considerable personal charm. It was a beguiling evening.

Coeur de Chien is an important opera that deserves to enter the repertory and certainly will depending on who has the guts to tackle its difficulties. The Holland Festival gave it an auspicious debut engaging director Simon McBurney of London’s Complicite, a theatrical venture founded in 1983 that is famous for its tackling of serious subjects using high-powered technology, and by engaging British designer, veteran-of-all-important-theaters Michael Levine to design the set (Levine is known most recently to San Francisco and Met audiences for his spectacular twenty-five year-old Mefistofele).

On the face of it, it is not exactly a serious subject given that all players are reduced to their most vulgar levels and stay there. That leaves us not much to think about. There was little high technology in its realization given the set was but a raked platform and a back wall and a few projections. The famished dog was a marionette with four manual operators — no high tech there.

Raskatov made vulgar music (snorts and farts) and he made music vulgar incorporating liturgical hymns and famous old folk songs into the musical flow of his sensational text (the last line of the first act, shouted by the dog transformed into the “new man” is “go fuck yourselves!” in the libretto, and “lick my dick” in the supertitles). The composer recognizes that contemporary ears are accustomed to an infinity of musical and random sounds thus he has no compunction in raiding Monteverdi’s recitative, using extreme voices (shrieking higher-than-you-can-imagine sopranos) or making hoarse, coarse sounds through megaphones (the opera ends with sixteen players shouting vowels through megaphones into the faces of the audience. Underlying all this is Raskatov’s basic musical language heard from time to time which seemed to be more or less Webernesquely minimal.

This unleashed musical vocabulary was transferred onto the stage in an equally blatant vocabulary. There were two sets, outdoors and indoors that were the one set (floor and wall), black for outdoors where some scrims and projections created a raging blizzard without needing even a single plastic snowflake. When lighted the set was patterned to be a rug and wallpaper surrounding a big doorway. The floor ran with gallons of blood when it became the operating room for the castration and implant. When things really fell apart in the second act the wall itself (made of paper we learned) was smashed for entries and exits, then the wall rotated backwards letting players move under it, and one arm of the enormous chandelier that flew in to make the space a salon broke and dangled. Period.

The players movements were sometimes more or less natural, in fact the man/dog Charikov was even quite realistic when you imagine how such a creature might move and what gestures he might make. Other times movement was abstracted, and in extreme moments it was caricatured like figures in a comic strip equating in body rhythm the constant disjointed flow of the vocal line.

The original production in Amsterdam was conducted by Martyn Brabbins as it was in Lyon. The principals of the original cast remained intact except the role of Charikov here played by Peter Hoare who came to the production at La Scala. These were all extraordinary performances, and how else could they have been for such extraordinary roles. The smaller roles in Lyon were impeccably inhabited by appropriate artists as well.

It was quite noticeable that the audience was not the usual Lyon bourgeoise but instead mostly an under thirty contingent (meaning invited), and there were a few empty seats in the back of the auditorium, the assumption being that there was no huge demand for seats. There was however a huge ovation for the production, the kind young audiences like to give when finally they too get to do something.

After the Milan performances there were rumors that the production would tour to the United States. But sad to say there can be no opera company in the U.S. that would risk the vocabulary or manage the budget. It should have been the purview of an idealized version of the latter day New York City Opera. Sadly such an opera company does not now exist in the U.S.

N.B. There are extracts from Coeur de Chien aka A Dog’s Heart aka Il cuore di cane on YouTube.

Cast and Production

Filipp Filippovitch Preobrajenski: Sergei Leiferkus; Ivan Arnoldovitch Bormenthal: Ville Rusanen; Charikov: Peter Hoare; Daria Petrovna: Elena Vassilieva; Voice of Dog: Andrew Watts; Zina: Nancy Allen Lundy; Un Provocateur: Robert Wörle; Une patiente: Annett Andriesen; Fiancée de Charikov: Sophie Desmars; Schwonder: Vasily Efimov; Un détective: Piotr Micinski; Un Chef haut placé: Gennady Bezzubenkov. Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon; Ensemble vocal “Il Canto di Orfeo.“ Conductor: Martyn Brabbins; Mise en scène: Simon McBurney; Scenery: Michael Levine; Costumes: Christina Cunningham; Lumières: Paul Anderson; Vidéo: Finn Ross; Marionnettes: Blind Summit Theatre. L’Opéra Nouvel, Lyon, January 30, 2014.

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The Tender Land in Lyon

It is not often that a Aaron Copland's The Tender Land comes along with resources like those of the Opéra de Lyon, one of Europe's finest. So carpe diem!

All photos copyright Michel Cavalca

The Tender Land was not a success at its New York premiere back in 1956, and it is not a success these fifty-eight years later in Lyon. But not for lack of trying, then or now.

For this production the Opéra de Lyon joined forces with the Théâtre de la Croix Rousse (the Croix Rousse is a neighborhood above the city center, home to the centuries-old Lyon silk industry where there was once an ochre cross) where it was performed. The artistic director of the Croix-Rousse theater, Jean Lacornerie staged this production.

Laure Barras as Laurie Moss.

The Tender Land was composed as an opera for television at a time when mass communication believed it had an obligation make high, or higher art, like opera, theater and symphony, accessible to the masses (at that time the masses meant anyone who did not live in New York City). So NBC Television created an opera company for opera on television!

Mid-twentieth-century America like much of the European world was struggling to integrate a broader public work-force into a cohesive social fabric. This meant that American composers with aspiration to political correctness — and it was dangerous if you did not — aspired to create music that would speak directly to these masses. [Ironically at the same time the U.S. was providing the funding for the hermetic music coming out of Darmstadt.]

Much fine and beautiful music came out of New York by composers like Aaron Copland who submitted The Tender Land, his one and only opera to NBC Television Opera.

Sensibly enough it was rejected by the television producers probably because it does not have a strong enough story to support one hour forty minutes of story telling, its characters are monochromatic and its message of hope is compromised by their innate simplicity, read mediocrity. Simply its Depression era setting was not in keeping with the frenetic enthusiasms of the mid-fifties (recall the 1955 design shift in cars) and its musical numbers were not based on exotic cultures, like for example the New York gangs of West Side Story or the Italian immigrants of The Saint of Bleecker Street.

These fifty-eight years later it is a regretful look at American fundamentalism.

But within The Tender Land there are jewels of pure music, and these sang out splendidly on the Croix Rousse, the superb quintet that closes the first act bringing the separate impulses of the five principals into an integrated musical context, and the gorgeous, extended love duet of Laurie and Martin that interwove its musical elements into a colorful fantasy of love. These moments are purely musical, not dramatic, and were indeed pleasurable.

The chorus in blackface [!].

The choreographed numbers were appropriately lively with the youth and agility of Copland’s hopes for the future — Laurie, Martin and Top — able to manifest their impotent energies. In fact this recall of the energy of Copland’s 1944 Appalachian Spring provided the validation for the reduction (by Murray Sidlin) of the fully symphonic score of The Tender Land to a mere flute, clarinet and bassoon plus double strings and piano, Copland’s original orchestration for Appalachian Spring.

The intrinsic weakness of the opera precludes enlisting its original, full orchestral forces for a production. Sadly audiences will likely never hear the complete the sonic world envisioned by Copland when the opera is staged. Thirteen excellent players from the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon gave it their all, with the Opéra de Lyon’s assistant music director Philippe Forget (that’s for-jay) as their able leader. It was fine playing, and at times even these few instruments created the true American colors that Copland’s harmonics uniquely evoke. We ached for more of those colors.

Mostly however the minimal orchestral forces disappeared into the very fine, complex and sizable production created by Mr. Lacornerie, his scenographer Bruno de Lavenére and his costumer Robin Chemin. Mr. Laconerie wisely played on the television genesis of Copland’s opera, reducing the visual field to a doll-house-sized farmhouse with puppet characters identically dressed as their operators, the actual characters. At times this puppet action or the faces of the operators was projected onto a half stage scrim creating the close up images that are the primary tools of television. At other times these props disappeared and actual farm buildings appeared for real stage production. And finally the whole stage was closed for Ma Moss to give her closing monologue as a concert piece in front of the curtain.

The Opéra de Lyon provided a solid cast. Veteran bass-baritone Stephen West was a stern, stolid and soul damaged Grandpa Moss, veteran mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer was a fine voiced, not rough enough Ma Moss who did not provide enough character or voice to conclude the opera (Mme. Schaufer is a fine artist, here victim of perhaps the direction, and certainly of the reduced orchestral forces). Three members of the Opéra de Lyon studio created excellent characters, Rémy Mathieu as Martin had real music theater sparkle, Toby Girling as Top exhibited extraordinary strength and agility as a singer and dancer, and Laure Barras brought much depth to the role of Laurie Moss. The neighbors were cast with excellent singers from the Opéra de Lyon chorus.

Casts and production information

Ma Moss: Lucy Schaufer; Beth Moss: Odile Bertotto; Gramdpa Moss: Stephen Owen; 
Laurie Moss: Laure Barras; Martin: Rémy Mathieu; Top: Toby Girling; Mr. Splinters: Brian Bruce; Mrs. Splinters: Alexandra Guérinot; Mr. Jenks: Paolo Stupenengo; Mrs. Jenks: Sharona Applebaum. Members of the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon. Solistes du Studio et Chœurs de l'Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Philippe Forget; Mise en scène: Jean Lacornerie; Scenery: Bruno de Lavenère; Costumes: Robin Chemin; Lumières: Bruno Marsol; Chorégraphie: Thomas Stache; Vidéo: Séb Coupy; Marionnettes: Emilie Valantin. Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse, Lyon, February 1, 2014

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Cosi fan tutte in Montpellier

This Cosi fan tutte completes the Montpellier Mozart/da Ponte trilogy staged by French metteur en scène and esthète Jean-Paul Scarpitta. Primarily studies in elegance and refinement these mises en scènes have provoked all that that is most precious and perfect in Mozart’s scores.

André Achuen as Guglielmo, Marianne Crebassa as Dorabella. Photo by Marc Ginot Opéra de Montpellier

Back in 2007 the scandals created by Scarpitta’s libidinous Don Giovanni were those of a troubled young man who burst into hysterical laughter in the Act I finale. This set the stage for a gifted young cast to bare its soul in flights of lyricism that became the core and substance of all action. Scarpitta’s staging took us inside Mozart's music, his set and costume design offered minimal decor that supported but never defined this interior space. Versailles’ Le Concert Spirituel then in residence in Montpellier resonated with primitive sounds that transported us into this rarefied space.

Les Noces de Figaro did not appear until 2012, now with players of the Orchestra National de Montpellier. Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel delicately and obsessively shaped its many instrumental voices into flights of melodic splendor. The cast was absolute perfection, finished young singers whose lithe bodies slid into luxuriously refined costumes created by Jean Paul Gaultier. When voices and orchestra finally united in Act IV an ultimate level of pure lyricism was achieved — the simple humanity of opera’s most succinctly human opera long forgotten.

And just now Cosi fan tutte finishes the cycle, again with splendid players from the Orchestra National de Montpellier here conducted by Alexander Shelly. This young English conductor made immediate musical impact in the overture by imposing musical depth rather than dramatic thrust. Each moment of Mozart’s music was explored, there was no beginning nor end. The program booklet optimistically anticipated a duration of three hours ten minutes for the performance. It came in at just under four hours.

Photo by Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

Like Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro Jean Paul Scarpitta created the setting. Here it was a green floor and a blue wall. Just that. There were six chairs and a couple of little tables that found their way onto the stage from time to time. Nothing more, except quite sophisticated and beautiful lighting by Urs Schönebaum.

Though costume design was credited to Mr. Scarpitta, like Les Noces it was understood and obvious that the elegance could only be the work of a grand couturier — well known names flew around the theater. The costumes were splendidly minimal, a plain green gown for Dorabella, a yellow one for Fiordiligi, the gowns easily shed from time to time to reveal shapely legs surmounted by a high style bustle undergarment of the same color. Ferrando and Guglielmo were first seen in white long underwear, then shapely morning coats that were changed to vaguely Harlequinesque vests when they became Turks.

Everyone knows that Cosi has no real story, that it is an abstraction of youthful love as lived by young singers with beautiful voices and good bodies. Scarpitta moved his bodies in blocks of color, the chorus in black silhouette, and movement was mostly in abstract relationship to the music, much like balletic choreography. No emotive pulse of Mozart’s score was left without a correspondence of position or movement, and this transported us to the depths of decorative 18th century music. And very great musical pleasure.

Scarpitta most often envisioned the famous arias as ensemble statements, not just of singer and wind instrument, but of the singer amongst all the other singers on the stage, the meanings becoming more overtly public. The famous trio “Soave sia il vento” was a musical expanse of frozen emotion, its breezy triple meter only enough to reposition a feeling. Duets were synchronized exposition of studied movement, never broken nor forced. Time stood still.

Italian soprano Erika Grimaldi gave clear, rich, Italianate voice to Fiordiligi, well able to maintain her fine technique from prostrate positions, French mezzo Marianne Crebassa boasts elegant technique and has an innate sense for elegant movement. Scarpitta (as the general director of the Montpellier opera at the time the opera was cast) placed the more important vocal and musical responsibilities for his production on these two roles — as has Mozart.

American tenor Wesley Rogers as Ferrando however was quite alone on stage to sing his “Un’aura amorosa del nostro tesoro,” his insecure technique illuminating the vulnerability of his character. Tyrollean baritone André Schuen moved and sang with innocent grace as Guglielmo. Italian bass Antonio Abete brought grizzled elegance and aged vocal cynicism to the figure of Don Alfonso and French soubrette Virginie Pochon was a used-up, seen-it-all Despina who reenforced Don Alfonso’s disaffection for youth.

Director Scarpitta quickly downplayed the minimal dramatic outline of da Ponte’s plot by demonstrating very early on that basic sexual instincts superseded any emotional loyalty (there was lots of pawing). This directorial insight however undermined the a development of character that could support the intense lyricism of the second half of the opera. It was here that the evening became long, very long, and the maestro’s musical probings fell upon deaf ears.

Photo by Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

Scarpitta ended his Cosi fan tutte with the utter physical disruption of its nuptial banquet and emotional disarray of its protagonists, much as Scarpitta had ended his Don Giovanni by having waiters, da Ponte’s demons, destroy the Don’s final banquet, leaving its survivors bewildered. Both banquets were the symbolic feasts of young love feasting on itself. Both ended in the deceptions of mature human values, and emotional bewilderment.

This Mozart da Ponte cycle was a stellar achievement, and majestically crowns Jean Paul Scarpitta’s fifteen years at the Opéra de Montpellier.

Links to my reviews of the Montpellier Giovanni and Nozze:

Don Giovanni in Montpellier

Les Noces de Figaro in Montpellier

Casts and production information:

Fiordiligi: Erika Grimaldi; Dorabella: Marianne Crebassa; Guglielmo: André Achuen; Ferrando: Wesley Rogers; Despina: Virginie Pochon; Don Alfonso: Antonio Abete. Chorus of the Opéra national Montpellier. Orchestre national Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. Conductor: Alexander Shelley; Mise en scéne, sets and costumes: Jean-Paul Scarpitta; Lighting: Urs Schönebaum. Opéra Comédie, Montpellier. January 9, 2014.

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Otello in Genoa

Forget Shakespeare, this was distinctly an Otello without the ‘h’. It was Italian melodramma to its core, the collaboration of its metteur en scène Davide Livermore, wunderkind conductor Andrea Battistoni and its Desdemona, Maria Agresta.

There was some foreign intervention, the Otello of American (Wisconsin) tenor Gregory Kunde and the Iago of Spanish baritone Carlos Àlvarez. The American is one of Europe’s leading bel canto tenors who sang Rossini’s Otello long before taking on Verdi’s Moor, in fact his role debut as the Verdi Otello was in the premiere of this production that happened in Valencia, Spain in June 2013 with these same three principals (Zubin Mehta conducting).

Carlos Àlvarez as Iago, Gregory Kunde as Otello, photo by Marcello Orselli

Kunde is a bel canto singer who finds unexpected lyricism in this gigantic showpiece usually undertaken by the spinto voices. Kunde’s voice resonated with more depth and beauty than his Rossini roles elicit, with a substantial force of voice somewhat rounder rather than the cutting tone that serves him well in Rossini. The result of this lighter voice in Genoa was a vulnerable Otello, a man neurotically tormented by jealousy, not simply possessed by it. This lyricism grounded the Livermore production as an exposition of neurosis, Desdemona and Iago components of Otello's neurosis.

Àlvarez possesses a darkly colored voice, a black tonality often found in basses who must create the dread associated with opera’s villains — though a baritone Iago is maybe the ugliest of all operatic villains. Àlvarez’ lack of tonal warmth plus his reserve of power, that of a true Verdi baritone, his slim stature and his head endowed with snaky black locks of hair made an evil character who oscillated between feigned passivity and triumphant domination. True to the end he did not dash toward a cowardly escape but ceremoniously descended off the upper edge of the stage, no longer a player in Otello's hell.

Maria Agresta as Desdemona, Gregory Kunde as Otello, photo by Marcello Orselli

Soprano Maria Agresta as Desdemona revealed levels of vulnerability to human instinct that Shakespeare ignores (the Bard hides deeper character revelations in the phrase picked up by Verdi and Boito — “born under an evil star”). This splendid young soprano is of powerful and complex voice, fearlessly mounting to pianissimo high notes that permitted hints of risk which added edge to character. Of complex persona as well she circled Otello in the Act I duet almost dancing as an animal in rut. And there was more circling — flirtatious at the least — in her Act II meeting with Cassio. La Agresto sang her final prayer lying face down on the floor, a fallen angel, reflected as the whore Otello had made her.

This spectacular casting was topped off by the Cassio of Angelo Fiori, a very tall, very present, young Italian who moved a bit like a dancer. Like Desdemona he was wigged in long blond hair unabashedly establishing a physical connection to her that ignited Otello’s neurosis and palpably inflamed the innate terror of the corni (horns) of all males (Italians) present in the theater.

Like melodramma and like verismo, these characters were possessed by big emotions, clearly stated at the beginning and simply awaiting brutal dénouement. This was Act III, the Venetian scene, when 26 year-old conductor Andrea Battistoni let loose with volumes that equaled, maybe exceeded the opening storm, volumes that were spine chilling in intensity, and dramatically ironic in that they established the enormity of the murderous emotion yet to come. This young conductor obviously relished the brutality of the Livermore conception, visibly participating with the stage by demonstratively pushing the chorus to and beyond its limits. All chorus scenes were huge, the Act II garden chorus seated, aggressively taunting more than praising the purity of Desdemona.

Act II Garden Chorus, photo by Marcello Orselli

These days metteur en scène Davide Livermore is the most visible stage director on Italy’s more adventurous stages. Like all of his recent projects here he was not only stage director but also the set designer with the collaboration of Giò Forma, a Milanese design company that does big events like the America’s Cup 2012 and the MTV Awards. Here the concept was a vortex like structure (descending concentric circles) with a central, focal disk, like the pupil of an eye. The pupil moved, rising above the structure to transport Otello and Desdemona to the heavens of desire in their love duet. It elevated its front edge from which Iago delivered his “Credo in un dio crudele” at which point the edges of the concentric circles illuminated in red lines (Mr. Livermore is credited for the lighting).

Costume design is credited to Mr. Livermore, wigs a signature element of character (the long blond wigs of Desdemona and Cassio, the long black tresses of Iago that may or may not have been a wig, the identical ship-like, punk shapes of the wigs for the women’s chorus). The swaths of cape colors illuminated character — Iago in luminous metallic silver, Otello ultimately in priestly vestment, a red-lined white cape, that he carefully took off to administer death to Desdemona. Stage movement was abstract, actors moving on the vortex lines of an unstoppable downward vacuum, finding the most powerful, emotional place on the structure to deliver their signature statements. Otello at the end again elevated on the pupil of the eye, this time alone reliving the “bacio” to Verdi’s trombones whispering the opera’s opening storm.

Rarely do operatic forces converge with the artistic power created on the Carlo Felice stage by this production.

Casts and production information:

Otello: Gregory Kunde; Jago: Carlos Àlvarez; Cassio: Angelo Fiore; Roderigo: Naoyuki Okada; Lodovico: Seung Pil Choi; Montano: Claudio Ottino; Un Araldo: Gian Piero Barattero; Desdemona: Maria Agresta; Emilia: Valeria Sepe. Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Carlo Felice. Conductor: Andrea Battistoni; Metteur en scène: Davide Livermore; Scenery: Davide Livermore and Giò Forma; Costumes: Davide Livermore and Marianna Fracasso; Lighting: Davide Livermore. Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, Italy. January 3, 2014.

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