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19 April - Lyons

  • The Carsen production of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream returns to Lyons, in French translation, but for the first time Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri appear together in this work as Tytania and Bottom. Unfortunately the production is looking tired, and never reflected the forest magic that plays such a large part in the work. Steuart Bedford and the Lyons Opera Orchestra are in good form, even though the glissandi sound too perfunctory. Gérard Lesne as Oberon has a certain stage presence, but he is so remote from what is going on around him that one wonders if he is really enjoying himself.

23-24 April - Geneva

  • Once again an expedition to Geneva has resulted in far more pleasurable operatic experiences than has been my luck elsewhere this season. Because the Grand Theater has been closed for renovation this year, temporary quarters have been set up in a former electric plant in the middle of the Rhone, modified to include an auditorium - all in wood - seating just under 1000 spectators. The theater will not cease functioning when the Opera moves back to its home, and will be available to the Opera for at least four months of the year for smaller operatic productions, ballet and recitals. The current season - despite financial problems arising from diminishing subsidies and the absence of a favorable fiscal climate that would stimulate an enlightened mecenat - once again offers a wide range of works staged by a wide range of directors, demonstrating the extensive sympathies of Renée Auphan, director of the Opera.

    After a captivating Orphée aux Enfers in September, a fascinating Mitridate in November, a captivating Betrothal in a Monastery in March, Verdi and Handel had their turn. As with Damnation de Faust earlier this season, Trovatore (22 April) was given in concert with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande functioning in its own Victoria Hall. An interesting cast on paper disappointed slightly in actuality. Not Dolora Zajick, the last of the Verdi mezzos, whose torrential performance was riveting from start to finish, her face always reflecting the events depicted. Carlos Alvarez may be the next great Verdi baritone, the gleaming voice ringing out at all times, even when he should have been singing softly. Wojtek Smilek's Ferrando made more of this secondary character than is often the case. It is questionable whether Franco Farina should have been singing Manrico with his lyric voice, and he seemed to be terrified in anticipation of the trials of Act 3 so that he too often sang sharp. Nina Rautio's once glorious soprano sounded tired and effortful at the top, suggesting that she may be singing too many heavy roles too often. Occasional glimmers of what might have been gave additional cause for regret. Pinchas Steinberg's dynamic gestures evoked enthusiasm from the orchestra and public.

    Handel's Serse (23 April) is atypical in the composer's production with its humorous aspects grafted onto a serious story, all of this reflecting the libretto's origins in the Venetian tradition. Vincent Vittoz's first foray into the operatic big time was a resounding success, the production convincing from start to finish, the performers not only acting but reacting to what was going on around them. And his refusal to rely on movement by an army of supernumeraries indicates a producer who trusts the music, not all that common a trait today. Roderick Brydon's conducting was of the old-fashioned school, far removed from the work of today's models (Jacobs, Minkowski, for example), and there was no word of explanation about the removal of at least 30 minutes of music, inexplicable considering that some of the arias are very short indeed. Paula Rasmussen in the title role and Brian Asawa as his rival/brother Arsamene were totally convincing, though Ms. Rasmussen occasionally made some uncontrolled lunges at high notes. Asawa's countertenor mastery has few rivals today, with enough power that one might consider referring to him as a heldencountertenor. Elizabeth Futral and Juliette Galstian as the rival sisters Romilda and Atalanta contrasted vocally and dramatically, the warmer tones of the latter easily matching Ms. Futral's quicksilver. Graciela Araya's Amastre was deprived of most of her music, no major disappointment as she did not do much with what remained, while Thierry Félix once again mystified me with his soft-grained voice that does not project well. Marcello Lippi's comic servant, however, was a treat from start to finish.

28 April - Nancy

  • What a mess! Inessa Galante was to have sung Traviata but cancelled due to illness. Her replacement, Felicia Filip, is a veteran of the role, but clearly found it difficult to do anything within the framework of Jean-Claude Berutti's staging. One might easily question the competence of someone who finds it necessary to add the unspecified character of one of Alfredo's sisters as bystander and participant in the confrontation between Violetta and Germont. Add to this a tenor who sings with little diaphragmatic support - a Pavarotti prizewinner to boot - and a setting within an oval frame, and there was little opportunity for the audience to become absorbed. Conductor Evelino Pido might have something interesting to say with the music given another production. Only baritone Victor Torres emerged a clear winner, his vocal integrity a potential lesson to some of his more stentorian colleagues.

29 April - Paris

  • A Sonnambula to fall asleep to. The second cast had clearly not had much opportunity to work with director Marc Adam if their aimless wanderings were any indication, while I am surprised at his decision to allow the chorus to move around at the exact moment when attention should be focused on the soprano as she sings her final aria. Liliana Faraon displayed a well-schooled coloratura as Amina but with little depth or color, while Scott Emerson's unpleasant timbre offered an uncomfortable blend in their duets.

30 April - Toulouse

  • Fortunately, my third night in a row offered some consolation for the previous evenings. Ariadne auf Naxos is relatively hardy, and must be to support Pet Halmen's art deco sets and costumes and staging, which offered several new glosses on the story. Elisabeth Meyer-Topsøe in the title role offers glamour and a voice that is beginning to have trouble at the top, while the Bacchus of Michael Pabst is a reminder of a school of Germanic tenor singing that we had hoped had vanished. Fortunately Aline Kutan's Zerbinetta and Katharine Goeldner's Composer succeeded from the start in convincing us of their attraction for one another, while Robert Bork's Musicmaster was another canny portrayal. I am less certain, however, at the wisdom of having the Composer present during the Ariadne part of the affair, or the Musicmaster watching from one of the stage boxes. Günter Neuhold's conducting once again demonstrated an understanding that more famous baton-wielders do not.

10 May - Lyons

  • Mitridate offered a gripping evening in the theatre, with recording scheduled the following week for Oiseau-Lyre. Christophe Rousset's horizons have now broadened to the 14-year-old Mozart, a task in which he acquitted himself creditably, but it is unfortunate that Les Talens Lyriques have not yet caught up in terms of orchestral playing, with scratchy violins and recalcitrant horns. It is, however, the cast assembled that will assure sales of the discs: Giuseppe Sabbatini in the title role may not seem a logical choice, but the manner in which he brought to life the recitatives was remarkable - if not always on pitch - while his technique stood him in good stead in the perilous Fiordiligi-like intervals. Cecilia Bartoli's Sifare showed that her recent incursions into soprano territory (Susanna and Nina in Zürich, Fiorilla on disc) may be an indication of new paths to follow. Her generosity as a performer manifests itself not only in her own role, but also the appreciative attention lavished on her colleagues. Natalie Dessay's Aspasia demonstrated the soprano's relishing of the text in her first complete operatic role sung in Italian, while the ease with which she sailed through some fiendish coloratura was matched by the aplomb with which she held our attention in the laments. Brian Asawa's Farnace matched his colleagues for velocity and feeling, his warm countertenor under such control that register breaks are seemingly non-existent. Sandrine Piau, the only one of the cast to have sung her role on stage, benefitted from the experience in bringing to life the wimpiest of the principals. Hélène le Corre and Alexander Grigorev as Arbate and Marzio, the latter deprived of his aria, are talents to be followed.

24 May - Lyons

  • Yet another revival of Louis Erlo's production of Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges conducted by Kent Nagano for his farewell as musical director of the theater allowed us once again to laugh from start to finish, with Lean-Luc Viala's unhappy Prince and Georges Gautier's irrepressible Truffaldino leading a well-routined cast. The production has already been perpetuated on disc and video, but the theatrical experience is of course even better, though a steadier Fata Morgana than Claudia Waite would not have been amiss.

27 May - Paris

  • Ian Bostridge has been garnering reviews ranging from the hateful to the idolatrous. In recital at the Louvre, in a program of Britten and Schubert, he showed himself to be a variable performer. I liked his Britten, both Winter Words and Canticle III, where the music was more deeply felt than the performances of Schubert in which I sensed a tentative quality in both his singing and his interpretation. The presence of a horn player enhanced the evening, allowing us to hear Schumann's Introduction and Allegro, in addition to the Britten Canticle and Schubert's rarely performed "Auf dem Strom", which deserves to be as well-known and loved as its clarinet counterpart, "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen". Bostridge's gawky adolescent persona could use some refining as it occasionally distracts from the music.

28 May - Paris

  • The Opéra de Paris takes a step into the next century with Philippe Fénélon's Salammbo, based on Flaubert. Unfortunately, Francesca Zambello's watered-down Zefirelli treatment offers little compensation for the highly derivative music and the all too easily understood libretto. Emily Golden learned the title role at very short notice after Kathryn Harries backed out, and while some of her high notes resembled those of the original performer she lacks the magnetism that enhances Harries's appearances. The rest was pure shambles, though after Le Chevalier imaginaire a few seasons back it is difficult to see why anyone thought it necessary to encourage the composer to further operatic ventures.

3 June - Lyons

  • Sergio Menozzi's Pinocchio is an opera for children, a de-Disneyed version that offered a pleasant afternoon's theatrical entertainment to an overwhelmingly young audience, but the highly derivative music rapidly outstayed its welcome, and almost two hours without interval is difficult when compensations are few.

4 June - Lyons

  • The travelling Felicity Lott-Ann Murray-Graham Johnson show came to Lyons, showing the ladies in reasonable shape, though the soprano's hard-toned approach left little interpretative leeway. From start to finish, everyone - including the audience - had fun, whether the music was Purcell, Rossini, a French selection and a concluding group of British music hall songs. Most of the items have already been recorded for either EMI or Hyperion, but the visual element associated with the lighter pieces is an added attraction. And who can resist the Cat Duet as a fit of jealousy.

19 June - Toulouse

  • Thank you Nicolas Joël and Michel Plasson for this rare opportunity to experience Moussorgsky's earliest version of Boris Godunov, the one rejected by the Maryinsky because there were no women's roles. This is an equally valid approach, with none of the little character pieces for the incidental characters, so that there is an inexorable feel about the piece, nor do we lose sight of Boris as can happen in traditional performances. José van Dam's first go at the title role is already a finished performance, but we expect no less from him. It is also clear that we need not consider the role the exclusive territory of black-voiced Slavic basses, as it's central tessitura fits most of the lower ranges. Not everyone was aware of the honor rendered by Anatoly Kotscherga - one of the finest exponents today of the title role - taking the role of Pimen, and making this too an unforgettable portrait. In this ur-Boris, he is the only other person with almost as much to sing as the Czar, though Tigranian Martirossian's Varlaam showed another fine artist in the making. Joël was also his own set designer, the exemplary simplicity allowing almost immediate scene changes so that the two and a half hours without interval slipped by. Plasson's qualities - as expected - were engaged by the score, so that attention never sagged.

3-5 July - Beaune

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