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May - June 1999

12 May - Paris

  • Don Giovanni at the Bastille once again proposed a director from the spoken theatre, Dominique Pitoiset, who was full of strange ideas such as Elvira ripping a page out of Leoporello's catalogue, too many extras distracting us at key musical moments, not to mention a bewigged crone who becomes a significant personage during the Act 1 finale.

    Zaven Pare's décor easily met the current criterion for the Bastille, being as ugly and impractical as possible, with a Louise Nevelson box for the introduction and conclusion, opening out to a tilted box for the rest. A bed was brought onstage during the entrance of Zerlina and Masetto and then functioned as an essential item of the decor for the rest of the act.

    All this might have been tolerable had the musical side of the evening offered some compensation, but James Conlon's tepid direction seems to have been discouraged by the onstage happenings, with the cast generally picking up on this mood. Bryn Terfel's Giovanni was a caged panther, constantly prowling around the stage, becoming totally uncontrolled during the supper scene as he gobbled down his dinner. Unfortunately, he tended to hector.

    José van Dam's Leoporello has clearly seen it all already, while Carole Vaness's Anna is a shadow of her former self, her forays into heavier repertoire robbing her voice of the requisite Mozartean purity. Juliette Galstian's Zerlina lacked charm, while Rainer Trost's Ottavio had difficulty negotiating the break around which 'Dalla sua pace' is written. Only Erwin Schrott's truculent Masetto and Barbara Frittoli's desperate Elvira showed glimpses of the drama contained in Mozart.

13 June - Paris

  • William Christie and Les Arts Florissants returned to the Opéra National de Paris for Handel's Alcina (13 June), the production entrusted to one of the conductor's preferred collaborators, Robert Carsen. As the curtain rose, one seemed to be in the midst of an inter-war drawing room comedy, with the maid in little black dress and white apron and butler preparing for the entry of the star, but in this case they were Morgana and Oronte (Alcina's sister and general).

    Natalie Dessay's Morgana is able to bring off the producer's conceit with aplomb while virtually raping Bradamante during a virtuoso aria or finally succumbing to Oronte during her last act aria. Dessay sings throughout with total ease, but one might question if Handel is really her domain.

    With Renée Fleming in the title role there is no question but that she is at home, trilling with the best while making the most of Alcina's many slow arias. Susan Graham's Ruggiero garnered the most applause with her virtuoso singing in her last aria, but the timbre somehow lacks individuality, something one cannot say about Kathleen Kuhlmann's Bradamante. Laurent Naouri's Melisso offered a sympathetic presence, revelling in his sole aria, while Juanita Lascarro was a convincing youth in the role of Oberto. Only Timothy Robinson's Oronte disappointed, his voice not always up to Handel's demands, though his final aria was more relaxed and thus more enjoyable.

    Musically, one had few quibbles as the four hours passed, with Christie offering a virtually complete score, including the arias in their entirety: alongside Oberto's missing aria, one noted (fortunately) some cuts in the recitative, leaving the listener astonished at the truncated finale, everyone exiting but Alcina (stretched out on her bier). Carsen's direction of the principals allowed us to follow the plot in all its intricacies, though one might question the Noel Coward aspect or turning Morgana into a nymphomaniac or upstaging Fleming during two of her arias.

    Tobias Hoheisel's panelled drawing room opened out onto leafy vistas when required but never drew attention to itself, while his costumes were appropriate to the concept so that all the male personnages wore simple suits, only the heroine herself allowed to be glamorous. A large number of supers filled the stage from time to time in various degrees of undress, while the lighting of Jean Kalman sometimes conspsired with Carsen to hide the singers from the audience.

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