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  • For the first time in ages, the Opéra Bastille came up with a reasonably successful new production, Massenet's Manon with Renée Fleming in the title role. Despite a few quibbles I've noticed on the web, the evening was Fleming's triumph, her warmth of tone, her technical control, her gleaming high notes, her glamorous appearance all contributing to a total portrayal. Richard Leech's Des Grieux looked uncomfortable and sang with little of the elegance one expects in this repertory. Jean-Luc Chaignaud and Laurent Naouri as Brother Lescaut and Papa Des Grieux occasionally strived too hard for effects which could have been achieved with less strain. Michel Sénéchal's Guillot was a lesson in vocal longevity. Gilbert Deflo's staging focused on the leading characters, at the same time not neglecting the background figures and chorus, but with little of the extraneous matter that makes reconstitution of a production difficult. William Orlandi's sumptuous costumes were not well set off by his own décor consisting of monotonous grey-blue sections of wall mounted on concentric turntables - are we amortizing the Parsifal décor? Conductor Gary Bertini, much abused by the French press, gave the work a solid underpinning, though some of the music might have been caressed more tenderly.

  • Leontina Vaduva's first attempt at the title role of Gounod's Mireille showed that she is ready to take on a more dramatic repertory, but must be careful as her involvement sometimes causes her to throw vocal caution to the winds. But what a generous performer, giving her all to a staging by André-Albert Lheureux which persisted in peopling the stage with all sorts of irrelevant figures, in a décor by Isabelle Partiot based on the paintings of Jean-Claude Quilici which did not particularly lend themselves to such usage. Jean-Marc Ivaldi's Ourrias showed that he has finally tamed his voice so that his usually effective dramatic portrayals are now matched by his vocalism. Jean-Luc Viala's Vincent made less of an impression than usual, but why does anyone persist in hiring Nadine Chéry: her bitonal approach to singing is rough on the ear and is not compensated by any dramatic insight or stage presence. Conductor Cyril Diederich did a good job with the orchestra, but what has happened to the chorus which has difficulty in singing together and blending their tone?

  • A week of catching up, including a visit to the Lyons Opéra's production of Elektra at the old Roman theatre on the hills above the city at Fourvières. The absence of a back wall to deflect the sound towards the audience is an obstacle to a good orchestral blend, unfortunate as the intimacy of the theater which seats about 4000 is unusual. Grace Bumbry decided that her first appearances in the role of Klytemnestra would at the same time mark her operatic farewell, especially ironic in that she sounded considerably younger than her consoeurs: Eva Marton in the title role and Jeannine Altmeyer as Chrysothemis. Marton's underpitched wobbles which replaced all the high notes were not easy to take while Altmeyer had difficulty projecting her voice to the public. Bumbry had no problems, her words clear and singing with her customary ease. Producer-designer Yannis Kokkos made the most of the natural setting but forgot that he was also supposed to direct the principals and not leave them to their own devices. Kent Nagano's direction of an enlarged orchestra displayed his customary mastery, only the acoustic wreaking havoc in the absence of a homogeneous sound, but the orchestral detail was crystal clear. I also interviewed Ms. Bumbry who has much to say, which you will soon be able to read in these pages. A concert on Saturday evening by Emmanuel Krivine and the Orchestre National de Lyon to celebrate the Fête de la Musique brought the first performances in a good 60 years of some music by Pierre-Octave Ferroud which the orchestra is about to record for Auvidis. Ferroud was a selfless promoter of the music of his contemporaries, a friend of Poulenc who was brought back to the Church on the death of Ferroud in 1936. Ferroud's polyrhythmic and polytonal style reminded me of Albert Roussel, and is interesting as a link in French musical life largely unknown today, even though his Symphony was a Koussevitsky commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was subsequently championed by Monteux, Scherchen, Mitropoulos and Talich. The reissues on CD of George London and Eileen Farrell were instructive and at the same time satisfying. Farrell's immense voice was capable of being fined down to a pianissimo, her command of coloratura and a trill unbelievable in a voice of that size. London's presence is immediate, even on recordings, and this is no exception, while his linguistic ability would be difficult to match today. If anyone is wondering, I also listen to non-vocal music on occasion, this week the recent twofers of Schubert symphonies by Sawallisch, Rachmaninoff symphonies by Svetlanov who also can be heard in Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic output. In all three of these instances, we are talking about bench-mark recordings.

  • It had to happen, but William Christie and Les Arts Florissants have finally taken on a task to which they are not really suited, Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. The predominantly gray orchestral color offered no contrast to a wan Countess (Rosa Mannion), an overplayed Cherubino (Eirian James), a soubrette Susanna (Lilian Watson). Gilles Cachemaille (Figaro) did slightly better at the bottom end of the stave, but William Shimell's alternation of vocal explosions and singing through clenched teeth as the Count were regrettable when he botherred to sing properly. Robert Carsen's search for dramatic verity often caused the musical elements to go awry, while the contemporary costumes once again demonstrated that travesty roles simply do not work when transposed to the 20th century as we see only a woman dressed oddly, while we more easily accept the convention in 18th century dress. Nor should we forget that in Mozart's time there was far more ambiguity, with castrati still very present on the scene and audiences more willing to suspend belief.

  • I finally got to see the much-lauded and performed Malfitano-Bondy Salomé, some five years after its first performance and find it a tempest in a teapot. Malfitano has neither the voice nor the eroticism for the title role but is sufficiently an artist that she almost convinces us that this is not so. One of the problems is that Robert Hale's Jochanaan is so sterile, Kenneth Riegel's Herod so badly sung and Anja Silja's Herodias somewhat absent in this afternoon's performance. The situation was not helped by Semyon Bychkov's spineless conducting of the Orchestre de Paris. Luc Bondy's stripped-down version was not averse to peopling the stage with a number of extras, including a wife and two children for one of the Nazarenes.

  • Recitals are tough on singers and audiences. Jennifer Larmore at the Champs-Elysées chose a program to display her wide-ranging sympathies, winning over an audience which applauded after each item. I would have preferred an evening that was more intellectually challenging than the Handel, Purcell and Mozart arias from various operas which sounded a bit pale with piano accompaniment. The coyness imparted to Rossini's "Regata Veneziana" was largely effaced by Ms. Larmore's affinity with the composer. Spanish, American and French groups offered tantalizing tidbits; I was impressed with a "Bolero" by Gounod. The American group offered songs by composers unknown to me but the printed program neglected to give us the first names and the texts of all but one. It was evidently more important to give us the name of the person who made up the bouquet presented to the singer.

  • Jennifer Larmore's new recital album, Call Me Mister (Teldec 0630-10211-2), is a clever idea, arias written for travesti roles or in one instance a castrato. The only exception is an aria sung by the eponymous heroine of Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans, for some reason in the long familiar French version. Gluck's Orfeo, Cherubino, Tancredi, Malcolm, Bellini's Romeo, Maffio Orsini, pageboys Smeton, Urbain and Stéphano, even Siébel are given royal treatment, with some absolutely delirious coloratura decoration in the Rossini and Bellini selections. Carlo Rizzi and the Welsh National Orchestra seem much more alive here than in their recent disc with Olga Borodina, though in both instances we might question economizing on the chorus interpolations. And while the Russian mezzo may have the more luscious voice, it is the American who has the versatility to cover a wide repertoire, conceding points only in the Tchaikovsky aria which both sing.

  • The Maryinsky arrives for a concert performance of Yevgeny Onegin. I am prepared to be indignant because we had been promised Rimski-Korsakov's Tsar's Bride with Borodina and Hvorostovsky, and instead we get a cast of unknowns in the quintessential Russian opera which - along with Boris - is the best-known in the rest of the world. Well, my indignation turned to awe, because this unknown cast - most of whom were almost young enough to be the ages of their roles - delivered a performance of substance. Tatiana Pavlovskaya, as they say, "lived" the role of Tatiana, superlative diction, intense reactions and glorious singing. How many more like that are there at home? And then Victor Loutsiouk sang a Lensky complete with pianissimo high notes, head voice and presence. Vassili Gerelo is perhaps the only name we've encountered in the west with any degree of regularity and he may be a bit out of his league in this company but his youth and intensity carried the day. Watch out for Zlata Boulitcheva, a slender contralto who nonetheless found the reserves for Olga. Veterans Evgenia Gorokhovskaya (Larina), Olga Markova-Mikhailenko (Filipyevna) and Nicolai Okhotnikov (Gremin) gave the necessary depth. And then there was Valery Gergiev and the Maryinsky Orchestra and Chorus - a truly rapturous evening.

  • Have a good wallow in Glière's Red Poppy, a recent Naxos issue. The number known as the "Boston" remains one of my all-time favorites for sentimental gush. On a more serious note, I listen attentively to Seiji Ozawa's new recording of The Rake's Progress, not entirely successful but no less or more flawed than the competition (Philips 454 431-2). See review elsewhere in Operanet.

  • What a pleasure to spend a quiet week at home, trying to catch up with recordings and books. The new Colin Davis version of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream (Philips 454 122-2 with quadrilingual essays and libretto) made a good overall impression, even though I am not entirely convinced by Brian Asawa's Oberon: his voice lacks that otherworldly quality which is - I imagine - exactly what the composer wished to hear in the role. Davis's long-term affinity with Britten is once again given ample scope. Otherwise my complaints are few, but I will listen again and hope soon to add a postscript to the British opera articles. Handel's Agrippina, like most of his operas, has not flourished either on stage or in the record catalogues. John Eliot Gardiner enters the fray with his first venture into Handel's operatic world - he has limited himself to the oratorios until now. Written for Venice not so very long after the heyday of Monteverdi and Cavalli, the cynicism of the libretto shows its lineage. Handel has responded in kind, with many brief arias, though there are enough full-blown arias pointing the way to the future. Della Jones in the title role gives an extraordinary performance, her involvement easily compensating for the occasional roughness in her singing. Donna Brown's Poppea is exceptionally full-voiced, a feat she could not duplicate in the theater, but also sung with relish for the words. The three countertenors are well-differentiated: Derek Lee Ragin's Nerone has occasional problems with the high range and tessitura of his role, originally written for a soprano castrato but we are convinced by the incipient hysteria in his portrayal. Michael Chance's Ottone is a close relative of the singer's performance in Monteverdi's Incoronazione di Poppea, beautifully sung in the elegiac manner but that seems to be the way he has been characterized by the composer. Countertenor no. 3, Jonathan Peter Kenny, is paired with baritone George Mosley, as Narciso and Pallante, the courtiers eager for Agrippina's favors. Alastair Miles's Claudio makes the most of the extensive range of his role, though some of the lowest notes have to be taken on faith. But it is Gardiner's conducting which never flags throughout the 3 hours and 37 minutes of the work, though one might question the occasional use of the organ as continuo instrument (Philips 438 009-2, quadrilingual essays and libretto). Zara Dolukhanova was one of the treasures of the Soviet Union, and the reissue of her performances of songs by Shostakovich, Shaporin, Ippolitov-Ivanov and Kabalevsky is a timely reminder of her art. The fact that there are no technical difficulties to overcome means that her performances focus entirely on the interpretation. Shostakovich's Jewish Folk Poetry cycle - currently enjoying great popularity - with the composer accompanying is less sentimental than most, but the recording does date from 1956 when any subtextual nuance had of necessity to be subdued. I particularly enjoyed the Ippolitov-Ivanov settings of Tagore with violin as well as piano accompaniment (Russian Disc 48871 50152, essay in English, texts in transliteration and English translation). Paul Hindemith has always suffered from a lack of appreciation, one of the reasons perhaps being his reputation for creating music for all sorts of instrumental combinations (gebrauchsmusik) whatever his mental state. He has also suffered from our perception of him as a composer of music of a certain weightiness, tendentiousness, perhaps humorless, all of which attributes apply to a part of his music but far from all. French-language material on Hindemith has always been in short supply, more so than English, so that we can welcome Actes Sud's translation of Giselher Schubert's 1981monograph originally published by Rohwolt in German. In just over 160 pages we are given the facts of the composer's life, some commentary on the works, a chronology and a list of the recordings in which the composer participated. We are reminded of Hindemith's virtuoso career, first as violinist and then as violist, member of the Amar Quartet - the Arditti or Kronos Quartet of its time - and then his participation in a trio with Szymon Goldberg and Emmanuel Feuermann in the 1930s. It is unfortunate that little translation errors were not corrected, such as attributing the post of musical director of the Frankfurt Opera to Hindemith or referring to the faculty of poetry at Harvard. And while we are grateful for even such a brief commentary on one of the 20th century's more important musical figures, surely he merits a more comprehensive study, not to speak of more performances in the concert hall or on records.

  • Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide is not revived as often as its companion piece, and this co-production with Munich's second theater will win it few additional admirers. Alain Vernhes's Agamemnon is the standout in the cast, singing with impeccable diction. Donald George is far from being the heroic "haute-contre" required for the role of Achilles. Ana Maria Martinez in the title role shows a warm voice that I would like to hear again while Jean Piland's Clytemnèstre lacks punch. Worst of all is the contribution of designer-director Peer Boysen, in the didactic-confrontational mode beloved of his compatriots.

  • Rossini's Semiramide with a cast that would not be easy to improve on is a powerful attraction. Cecilia Gasdia is not a singer one would ordinarily associate with the powerful dramatic utterances of the title role, but her intensity offers sufficient compensation. Martine Dupuy has incredible notes at the top and bottom, but something has happened to the middle of her voice; nonetheless, the incisiveness she brings to the role almost makes up. Rockwell Blake is Rockwell Blake and Michele Pertusi is clearly the successor to Ramey in a certain repertory. A simple set had the singers running up and down lots of stairs and the direction was little more than adequate except when Dupuy and Gasdia were setting the stage afire.

  • I wrestle with the Rough Guide to Opera (reviewed at length elsewhere in Operanet). An enthusiastic start on my part rapidly turns to disappointment at the amount of error, and almost all of it due to sloppy editorial work and almost none as a result of faulty proofreading. To cite one example, the term "unaccompanied recitative" is used on a number of occasions - evidently as the opposite of "accompanied recitative" - but in fact the original "recitativo secco" is almost never translated. It is unfortunate because the concept is interesting as is the choice of works for inclusion but the execution is severely wanting.

  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt's recordings of the two late Schubert masses (Teldec 4509-98422-2 and 0630-13163-2) arrive for review in Fanfare. As usual, there are occasional moments which cause an eyebrow to raise but these are more than satisfactory performances made during performances at the Styrian Festival in Graz in June 1995. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and an impressive group of soloists (Organosova, Remmert, van der Walt, Holzmair in No. 6 and Scharinger) all share the conductor's point of view that these are pieces that "rank alongside Beethoven's Missa Solemnis". Trilingual notes and texts (E,F,G).

  • Françoise Pollet's new CD of French 19th century sacred music (RCA 74321 433652) shows us the French soprano back on form, in music which is her true domain. In addition to some bleeding chunks, there are certain selections which seem to be obligatory for all recordings of this type, Bizet's "Agnus Dei", Gounod's "Ave Maria" by way of Bach and Franck's "Panis Angelicus", but there are also excerpts from Massenet's neglected oratorios Marie-Magdeleine and La Vierge and Gounod's short cantata, or élégie biblique as he called it, Gallia. This last is a 15-minute lament for soprano and chorus, and Mme. Pollet makes a meal of it, much more so than the light-voiced Cécile Perrin in a Naxos Patrimoine recording which appeared at the end of 1996, sung in the composer's French translation. Pollet gives us the Latin version. A large chorus is present where required and the Choeur Régional Vittoria d'Ile de France enthusiastically meets its duties alongside the Orchestre National d'Ile de France under the direction of Jacques Mercier. This is not a disc for everyone, but those who appreciate this somewhat neglected byway of French music should enjoy themselves, while admirers of Mme Pollet need not abstain. Trilingual notes (E,F,G) and texts in the original language only (French or Latin).

  • I enjoyed myself at this evening's performance of Elisir d'Amore, as did the cast and conductor, Christian Badea. Maria Bayo's Adina caught all the facets of her role, from the minx to the lover caught in her own trap, singing with the purity to which we have become accustomed. Roberto Sacca may not have the most beautiful voice, but he knows how to overcome his limitations. He and Bayo together are a stunning couple. Add the strutting Belcore of Carlos Alvarez and the Dulcamara of Carlos Chausson, in Stephen Lawless's intellgent production, enhanced by the traditional sets and costumes of Johan Engels, and the result is total joy.

  • I try the Opéra once again, for Paisiello's Osteria di Marechiario, in a trendy updating by director Myriam Tanant, translated into French by her and conductor Laurence Pillot. The project was largely entrusted to the young singers who form the permanent troupe and the studio. The intensive work put in by the cast was evident, which might explain their condition inBohème last night. In any event, this was an interesting exercise which more than made clear why Paisiello is forgotten today: the arias in similar bipartite form rapidly wear thin while there is little compensating musical invention. Oh well, there's still Elektra in a few weeks with Bumbry, Altmeyer and Marton.

  • La Bohème at the Opéra National de Lyon is so bad that we leave at the intermission. It is a long time since I have heard such a dismal performance, one I am sure the management would just as soon forget .

  • Listen to Olga Borodina's long-awaited recital disc on Philips (446 663-2) which is a big disappointment, as the desire to show her universality is self-defeating. Her Rossini selections (Cenerentola and Semiramide) are unconvincing with their aspirated runs and joyless approach, her baroque selections (Purcell and Handel) can best be qualified as exotic, while her French selections (Samson et Dalila, Damnation de Faust, Huguénots) are all marred by unacceptable pronunciation. Once Tchaikovsky rolls around (Maid of Orleans, Pique Dame), however, and the singer is on her home turf we can sit back and relax, even in Lisa's aria which is not her normal range. Throughout we can admire the voice but the uses to which it is here being put are questionable. Carlo Rizzi and the orchestra of the Welsh National Opera are the collaborators.

  • Lohengrin at the Bastille is little better than at the Châtelêt, Robert Carsen's updating to post-War Germany (presumably) not always enlightening. Moreover, the production team seems not to have realized that the expression "Your mother wears army boots" was originally meant as an insult. There is really no need for such monumental ugliness. James Conlon's finesse in the pit was welcome after the crass performance of Barenboim. Thomas Moser, in much better shape than forParsifal, demonstrated why he is so much in demand. Janis Martin's Ortrud was the best-sung this season and was well-acted to boot. Kristin Sigmundsson's lyric approach to the role of Henry was a welcome change. But the charmless Elsa of Eva Johannson and the miscasting of Jean-Philippe Lafont as Telramund remain a mystery.

  • On non-musical holiday

  • Once again the Opéra de Paris strikes out, the victim this time being Mozart's Clemenza di Tito. Inept casting, conducting and staging could not be saved by the masterful Sesto of Anne Sofie von Otter who stumbled around the stage while offering some magnificent singing. Cynthia Lawrence produced some of the wildest sounds, hitting right between the eyes, while careening around the stage like a madwoman - which she is but not quite like that. Willy Decker's hysterical staging in the skewed sets and unflattering costumes of John Macfarlane offered little solace alongside the uninflected conducting of Armin Jordan.

  • Martinu's Ariane turned out to be an original coupling for Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. One of the last works completed by the Czech master, Ariane is an enigmatic one-acter lasting no more than three quarters of an hour, culminating in a ten-minute monologue for coloratura soprano. Laurence Janot, despite her balletic origins, lacks a certain presence, the most striking moment being her submersion in a tank of water at the final curtain. Dieter Kaegi's linked staging of the two works offered little illumination, trivializing the Martinu and giving a too-specific anecdotal narration to the Bartok, thus violating its non-specific atmospheric quality. Claude Schnitzler's matter of fact conducting softened the edges of the Bartok.

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