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March 1999

2 March - Lyons

  • Ravel's operas often turn up in double bills with another work that may be more or less appropriate as partner, but few are the houses that give us both works on the same program. The Opéra National de Lyon, using mostly its own forces, demonstrated that in fact L'Heure Espagnole and L'Enfant et les Sortilèges are ideally paired. Producer Philippe Sireuil and designer Vincent Lemaire came up with some clever solutions, such as setting the earlier piece inside a clock, with the weights being the clocks that Ramiro carries back and forth, requiring him to demonstrate his brawn by turning the mechanism. Colette's fantasy was given a simple set that later opened out to the garden, with again some ultra clever bits, such as the train for the Grandfather Clock or the amusingly obscene Teapot. Conductor Louis Langrée once again showed that he has a knack for the French repertoire, but might occasionally be more considerate of his singers who tended to be too self-effacing, which is not the way to go about Ravel's espagnolade where personality is almost as important as vocalism in making the piece work. Marie-Thérèse Keller's Concepcion lacked the outsize personality for the role, but that also applies to the Ramiro of Philippe Georges who is not sufficiently imposing vocally or scenically. MaryBelle Sandis, on the other hand, was totally convincing as the Child.

10 March - Monte Carlo

  • The combined desires of a star couple and an enterprising management led to a revival of Mascagni's charming if dramatically irrelevant Amico Fritz, a work that had not been heard locally for over one hundred years. Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna as the lovebirds lived up to their reputations, singing and acting with their accustomed flair, though it is difficult to accept the soprano as a simple rural maiden. Evelino Pido conducted affectionately a score that has its share of highlights, including an aria for Suzel, two duets for Suzel and Fritz and an especially moving duet for Suzel and the Rabbi, alongside the solo interventions of Beppe. Lorenzo Saccomani's David (the Rabbi) offered a sympathetic presence if not always ideally smooth singing, while Anna Bonnatibus's Beppe made the most of her mezzo opportunities. The Alagnas were in excellent voice, but the spontaneous charm that is so essential to the character of Suzel is alien to the soprano's carefully calibrated characterization. Fabrizio Melano's traditional production was matched by the sets designed by Frederico and David Alagna and the costumes by Bruno Schwengl.

14 March - Lyons

  • Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride can sometimes be a trial to sit through, but under the baton of Marc Minkowski there was no danger of incipient somnolence. Singing through a bout of laryngitis, Mireille Delunsch in the title role showed sufficient temperament so that we eagerly anticipate the recording that should be in the can when you read this. In the face of the soprano's indisposition, the major performance was that of Simon Keenlyside as Oreste, almost visceral in his reactions but singing with perfect elegance in excellent French. Yann Beuron's Pylade seemed more preoccupied with the passive aspect of his character to the detriment of the heroic, but the dark tones of Laurent Naouri's Thoas were properly menacing. Minkowski never loses sight of the classic line but leaves his performers sufficient expressive freedom so that the two hours of music flew past.

23 March - Marseilles

  • It has been quite some time since my last visit to Marseilles, but the opera is not currently in happy estate. A new director has been appointed, Jean-Louis Pujol, but this season was planned by an interim, political appointee whose major qualification was his enthusiasm. Unfortunately, a solid cast for Verdi's Ernani was betrayed by Colette Nivelle, credited as director but of whose work little could be seen. People came and went on stage but there was no interaction among the principals so this was a very old-fashioned concert in costume. Franco Farina in the title role offered one of the best performances I have seen him give, eyes flashing, singing over a wide dynamic range, but one wonders at his wisdom in tackling the heavier dramatic repertoire. Michelle Crider's Elvira has occasional moments of splendor, but her anonymous timbre cannot be compensated with the torrents unleashed from time to time. Paul Plishka's Silva shows all too audibly the results of his long experience, but what can we say about Vladimir Chernov's Carlo. Here is a singer who on recordings sounds like the Verdi baritone of one's dreams, but in person his singing lacks energy so that there is virtually no distinction between a piano and a forte, while he seems to have little notion of how important a role is played by his physical posture. Giuliano Carella more or less held everything together, but he must have been as dispirited as the audience by the onstage spectacle.

24 March - Monte Carlo

  • PierLuigi Pizzi's production of Traviata has travelled since its first airing at Monte Carlo, but this evening's performance showed that it remains more than viable, particularly when the role of Violetta is entrusted to a singer of the calibre of Elena Kellesidi, a Russian soprano of Greek origin who possesses the unique talent of making us believe at every moment that she is living the opera, singing with an expressivity that matches her physical approach to the role. Renato Bruson's long experience as Papa Germont matches her at every step in their long duet. Reinaldo Macias's Alfredo unfortunately inhabits another world, his nasal sounds (or did he have a cold?) and inexpressive body language making him resemble a creature from another planet next to the naturalness of his partner. Conductor Lukas Karytinos seems to be happiest when the music is fastest and loudest, qualities that apply to a small portion of Verdi's score. But witnessing a performance like that of Kellesidi, however rare, enables even hardened operagoers to maintain the pace.

26 March - Montpellier

  • Continuing its pluriannual homage to Handel, the Opéra de Montpellier invited Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques to inhabit their previously unused coproduction with Scottish Opera of Giulio Cesare. While musically things were in reasonable order, Willy Decker's staging has not aged well in the six years or so since it was first presented, nor did entrusting it to an assistant further arrange matters. Additional contributions to uglification had all the Egyptians in "bald" wigs. Occasional moments indicated that the direction of the performers was quite sharp, but embedded in a superfluity of nonsensical hyperactivity. Sara Mingardo too often had to sing from the height of a pyramid upstage to the detriment of audibility, while Laura Claycomb's bare-pated Cleopatra had too many moments of uncertainty among others of poised beauty. Laura Polverelli's luscious contralto shone as Cordelia, nicely partnered by the narrower-bore of Brigitte Balleys's Sesto in their duet. Roberto Scaltriti's blunt Achilla made his usual impression, but one remains totally stupefied by the continuing presence of Hilary Summers in Rousset's productions, her voice resembling that of an inadequate countertenor on a bad day.

29 March - Lyons

  • The Maria Bayo-René Jacobs-Herbert Wernicke production of Cavalli's Calisto, six years after its initial run in Brussels, turned up with a few minor cast changes but still replete with the magic atmosphere that prevailed at La Monnaie. Bayo retains her charm as the oversexed nymph, while Marcello Lippi's tour de force as Jupiter and also Jupiter-disguised-as-Diana remains astounding. Wernicke demonstrates that when he is not trying to show us how clever he is but treats the piece with sympathy, he is capable of outstanding work. Jacobs's love for 17th century Venetian opera is evident throughout as he supports the singers and at the same time stimulates them to give their best. If you have not yet heard the recording on Harmonia Mundi, do not hesitate, nor should you miss the tape that occasionally turns up on television.

30 March - Geneva

  • Mariella Devia is a singer who has not had the career she merits. Often reproached for lack of involvement, my two encounters with her on stage this season demonstrate more than amply that she is now a complete performer. These performances of Lucia di Lammermoor in Graham Vick's highly decorative production (a co-production with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino) were also noteworthy for Marcello Giordani's Edgardo, more for the promise than delivery as the tenor was still suffering the aftermath of a bad cold, while Roberto Frontali's Enrico's suave baritone contrasted with his sinister portrayal. Tenors Marc Laho and Alain Gabriel (Arturo and Normanno) finally had roles that suited them, neither really being up to the principal roles in which I have encountered them. Unfortunately, Antonello Allemandi routine performance in the pit did not offer the singers all the support they could have used.

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