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January - February 1999

5 January - Lausanne

  • Why on earth did the Opéra de Lausanne think it necessary to devote six pages of its programme for La Sonnabmula to pseudo-intellectual bullshit by dramaturge Cordelia Dvorak? Ms. Dvorak is also responsible for designing a costume for Natalie Dessay that made her look like a total frump while putting everyone else in mock-elegant mock-Poiret outfits. Director Waldemar Kamer chose to ignore the libretto which does touch on such concepts as class distinction, while at the same time introducing several irrelevant characters, including a faun and some female relatives of the tenor. The sleepwalking scene had first Amina, and then also Elvino, perched in the branches of Ezio Frigerio's beautifully irrelevant forest clearing. There was also little evidence of personenregie to compensate for the unceasing flow of inanity emanating from the stage. Conductor Evelino Pido's last-minute arrival to replace Bruno Campanella, who reportedly refused to conduct what he saw on the stage, did not affect the musical aspects, including many of the traditional cuts. Natalie Dessay was hampered in her first Italian-language role in a staged production and her first venture into the "bel canto" repertoire by a production that did not give her much theatrical scope other than having her play at being a barefoot wood nymph; this did not prevent her from displaying an understanding of the idiom, while under more propitious conditions she should be extremely moving. Raul Gimenez's Elvino alternated honeyed singing with a bizarre nasal emission. Graciela Oddone's shallow-toned Lisa and the uncomfortable sounding Tomas Tomasson's Rodolfo, arriving by balloon, rounded out the cast.

19 January - Strasbourg

  • The Opéra National du Rhin had the interesting idea of asking actress Marthe Keller to stage Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, with a result far more successful than has been achieved by some "bigger" names. Opting for the greatest sobriety in decors by Jean-Pierre Capeyron, Keller welded her group of singers into a community. While there were occasional bits of extraneous, distracting action, the final execution scene was singularly effective as the nuns advanced in a row facing the audience to drop one by one as their turn came. The other major partner in the evening's success was conductor Jan Latham-Koenig, who judged the score perfectly, keeping things moving, never covering the singers, not lapsing into sentimentality and at the same time not playing down the asperities in the music.

    Nadine Denize triumphed as the Old Prioress, making us forget some pronounced breaks in register as she convinced us of the terror she is undergoing. Patricia Petitbon's Constance caught the youthful joy of her role, at the same time not forgetting that she is also a Carmelite sister. The contrast with Anne-Sophie Schmidt's tortured Blanche could not have been more marked. Valerie Millot as the Second Prioress made the most of her two big scenes, singing with full tone while remaining a commanding figure, making it even more difficult to comprehend the role of Mère Marie in Hedwig Fassbender's reticent interpretation. Laurence Dale's Chevalier lacked the vocal polish of Leonard Pezzino's Chaplain, while Didier Henry's Marquis showed that even though he is present only in the opening scene he remains an essential figure in the drama.

20 January - Monte Carlo

  • A new production of Carmen used the Guiraud edition with recitatives to facilitate the task of a largely non-French-speaking cast. Gerardo Trotti's evocative decor housed Emilio Sagi's production that could kindly be described as hyper-conventional, to the extent of encouraging Carmen to exploit a hands-on-hips stance for most of the evening. That Enklejda Shkosa additionally surmounted the handicap of unflattering costumes is a tribute to her presence. Her voice is even from top to bottom, and the dignity she managed to project despite the obstacles augurs well for her future. José van Dam has been singing the role of Escamillo for almost 40 years, still impressive vocally and scenically. Norah Amsellem's Micaëla rarely got beyond the obvious, and her occluded diction belied her French origins. And then the problems really began: César Hernandez possesses a tenor voice of no great beauty, an indifferent stage presence and horrendous French (which has not in the past prevented us from enjoying the likes of del Monaco or Corelli), while the hollow bass tones of Sorin Coliban's Zuniga did little to soothe the ears. Jean-François Lapointe's Morales and the smugglers (Steven Coles and René Franc) saved the day. Pinchas Steinberg led one of the fastest readings of Carmen I have ever heard, leaving little opportunity to savour individual moments.

24 January - Lyons

  • A revival of Pesaro's 1995 production of Rossini's Zelmira, with many of the same singers, offered much pleasure. Mariella Devia in the title role encompassed the emotions of the heroine, while flawlessly singing the wide-ranging tessitura designed for Isabella Colbran. Sonia Ganassi's Emma offered a sympathetic presence to match her fleet mezzo. The third recidivist, Paul Austin Kelly, has evidently made progress since 1995, as he navigated the lighter tenor role of Ilo. Charles Workman's villain, Antenore, is able to sing all the notes of his baritenor role, but the bleating sound he produces is not always easy to listen to. Lorenzo Regazzo's Polidoro indicates that he is a more than viable recruit to the ranks of coloratura basses. The work of producer-designer Yannis Kokkos was not to the taste of a segment of the audience, but he shares a fault with many other designers who have become their own producers, and that is an inability to make the transitions from one grouping (or pretty picture, if you will) to the next. Maurizio Benini's solid hand in the pit might have occasionally tried for a lighter touch, but it was nonetheless possible to enjoy the delights of Rossini's orchestration.

25 January - Geneva

2 February - Montpellier

  • To celebrate the centenary of Poulenc's birth, the Opéra de Montpellier chose the least-performed of the composer's operas, Les Mamelles de Tiresias, paired with Ravel's Enfant et les Sortilèges. The pairing might strike some as curious, but two of France's most noted literary figures furnished the libretti for two of the best-known composers of this century: Apollinaire for Poulenc and Colette for Ravel. Each of the works had its own producer and designer though some of the singers participated in both. The unifying factor was conductor Martyn Brabbins, whose straightforward readings were much appreciated. Poulenc's surrealist opera takes on totally different coloring in the absence of a Denise Duval, so that we become much more aware of the significance of the Husband, here an impeccable Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. Marie Devellereau as the hero(ine) was properly spirited, singing impeccably, and may one day possess the command of her predecessor - her current assets are not inconsiderable. Jean-Marc Forêt's production followed the libretto in all its ins and outs, with Gérard Champion's sets and Louis Désiré's costumes a delight.

    Yaël Bacry's production of L'enfant et les Sortilèges seemed at times to be presenting the Mother's dream and not that of the Child, particularly the duet between the Chinese Cup and the Teapot which looked more like a scene from the Night Porter than a child's dream. Bacry otherwise got it right, helped by Gérard Didier's sets and Jean-François Gobert's costumes. A predominantly young cast was particularly convincing, especially the Child of Ethel Guéret and Joanne Bellavance's Fire, Princess and Nightingale. Ivan Matiakh, Elodie Méchain, Mireille Dufour, Svetlana Lifar, Christine Rigaud, Laurence François, Gilles Hubert and René Laryea rounded out the cast, while the Orchestre Philharmonique de Montpellier seemed to be enjoying itself.

3 February - Paris

  • A new Macbeth at the Opéra National de Paris in conjunction with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden illustrates a trend that is reaching alarming proportions. Producer Phyllida Lloyd evidently is incapable of leaving anything to the audience's imagination, so that portions of the back wall of Anthony Ward's box set periodically went up to disclose some bit of action, such as Duncan sleeping in his room, Lady Macbeth in her bath prior to the sleepwalking scene, the procession of the kings in Act 3 looking more like a kitsch version of the Ride of the Valkyries. We were also treated to Lady Macduff and her children saying goodbye to Macduff, a functional faucet at the side of the stage, a nice little bit of action for Fleance as he escaped the murderers and his return at the end of the opera to be crowned. A gilded cage also made periodic whirling appearances to little purpose. Astute observers will have noticed that, in fact, Ms. Lloyd's production was extremely conventional, particularly for the chorus; the only place where imagination was evident was the interaction between the protagonists. Maria Guleghina's Lady was a vast improvement over her performance in Monte Carlo two years ago, although her tendency to slide through the ornamentation bodes ill for her approaching Norma at Orange or the Lucia she has mentioned in recent interviews. Jean-Philippe Lafont in the title role may not be everyone's idea of a 'Verdi baritone', but he has worked hard to follow the composer's instructions. Carlo Colombara's sonorous Banquo and Franco Farina's stolid Macduff (losing focus halfway through his aria) were interesting casting choices, while the chorus gave an especially touching reading of one of Verdi's greatest choral interventions. Gary Bertini may have conducted one of the slowest Brindisis, but was otherwise in total control over the ebb and flow of one of Verdi's most fascinating works.

4 February - Paris

  • A Stravinsky-Rimski concert offered striking readings of Renard and Le Rossignol, with an orchestral excerpt from Coq d'Or. Natalie Dessay's assumption of the title role in the Chinese folk tale has become even more assured since her performance a few years back. Vsevolod Grivnov's Fisherman showed a lyrical tenor, while the deep tones of Maxime Mikhailov were perfect for the Bonze. The contrasting voices of Laurent Naouri's Chamberlain and Albert Schagidulin's Emperor were additional positive elements as were Marie McLaughlin's Cook and the deep tones of Hélène Perraguin's Death. Once more, James Conlon (despite being ill) demonstrated total control, even in the riotous histoire burlesque that makes little sense to non-Russians where Ian Caley joined Grivnov, Naouri and Mikhailov. Both Stravinsky works were scheduled for recording.

7 February - Lyons

  • Les Arts Florissants began their celebrations of their twentieth anniversary with performances of what we might call a Psyche-drama, combining two works of Lully, the tragédie-ballet of 1671 and the tragédie lyrique of 1678. Christie led a small group of instrumentalists and singers in a semi-staged conflation that also featured four actors. Star of the occasion was the young Stéphanie d'Oustrac in the title role, encompassing the spoken dialogue as well as impeccable delivery of the sung portions, her face mirroring the events throughout. After her Médée in Lully's Thésée with the Baroque Academy of the Ambronay Festival last autumn, she is clearly a talent to be watched.

10 February - Geneva

  • The notorious Langhoff production of Don Giovanni was resuscitated, this time with working automobile. A wide open set allowed the singers voices to disappear into the flies whenever they were not downstage, while a surfeit of secondary characters, including Anna's chihuahua, a vagrant, the cook in a roadside friterie, offered constant distraction when the principals were singing. Worst of all was the total shock when the music simply stopped with the death of Giovanni. I felt like hanging out a banner, paraphrasing the beleaguered president of the United States: THE TEXT, STUPID! Armin Jordan led a conventional performance, while Dmitri Hvorostovsky's first go at the title role should stand him in good stead when he takes on a less partisan production. Bruce Ford's Ottavio and Susan Chilcott's Elvira came through unscathed, along with Anna Maria Panzarella's Zerlina and Gilles Cachemaille's Leoporello. Dmitra Theodossiou's Anna (in trousers) has a strange approach to her high notes, an almost inaudible beginning and then expanding. How does she get through the heavy Verdi roles in her repertoire?

12 February - Monte Carlo

  • Smetana's Bartered Bride does not turn up too often outside Czechoslovakia, this being only the second time I have ever seen the work in the theater. A simple production by Karel Drgac in sets by Mark Väisänen and costumes by Josef Jelínek would certainly not have pleased partisans of the school of significance, but it is difficult to envision that type of staging for a folk opera. Smetana's effervescent music, of course, colors the proceedings, the narrative being little more than an anecdote that might easily have furnished the skeleton of an operetta. Oksana Krovytska's Marie stole the show with her impeccable vocalism, exuding charm. Miro Dvorsky's Jenik was audibly indisposed but tried his best to disguise it, a few high notes betraying him. John Cogram's Vasek had clearly been instructed to play the booby to the detriment of characterization, leaving the comic field clear for Jiri Sulzenko's Kecal, who typed out Jenik's contract on a battered portable. Conductor Zdenek Macal has the music in his veins, but the orchestra clearly was in need of a lengthier transfusion.

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