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September - October 1999

19 September - Paris

  • In the early 1950s, the Opéra de Paris paid long overdue tribute to one of France's greatest operatic composers, Jean-Philippe Rameau, with a tacky (but nontheless acclaimed) staging of Les Indes Galantes. A new production of that work is part of this year's celebration of the 20th anniversary of Les Arts Florissants under the leadership of William Christie. This new version, staged by Andrei Serban with choreographer Blanca Li and designed by Marina Draghici, as well as the collaboration of Niky Wolcz for the production and choreographic movements, is in its own way equally tacky, in the same vein as Christie's previous collaboration with Alfredo Arias on the same work at Aix-en-Provence. The nature of Les Indes Galantes - four unrelated episodes plus prologue - can easily lead a director to indulge in excess, an opportunity Andrei Serban has never been known to refuse. Blanca Li's choreography used the considerable ability of the dancers of the Paris Opéra, from a classical prologue gradually becoming freer and freer, so that we were treated to a flower-pot ballet and what is becoming a cliché, a unisex ballet, where similarly clad dancers of both sexes execute the same steps with unequal facility.

    One cannot dispute William Christie's musical authority, nor can one complain of a small-scale reading with the large orchestra at his command or the singers chosen. How many sopranos can you think of who can continue singing while being held aloft in a chair lift? Natalie Dessay is more than capable, and willing and each of her three roles was well differentiated. Heidi Grant Murphy was a pale Emilie, making slightly more of her appearance as Zaire. Yann Beuron's straightforward Valère was nicely balanced by his comic turn as Damon and Paul Agnew's Tacmas showed that forthright singing is not out of place in Rameau. Only Iain Paton (Don Carlos) disappointed among the tenors, the voice too often constricted. The bronze-toned Laurent Naouri (Huascar, Don Alvar) contrasted effectively with the softer-grained baritone of Nathan Berg (Osman, Ali). Nicolas Rivenq found the tenor tessitura of his role in the last act more trying than several years ago at Aix, with a diffident manner to boot that jarred next to the extrovert Dessay, Beuron and Naouri.

20 September - Geneva

  • A new production of Norma left me wondering as to the stageworthiness of this operatic monument. June Anderson in the title role sang and acted convincingly. The sound is not opulent, but there is now a certain heft in the lower register so that the big phrases can be delivered with authority. The role of Adalgisa was returned to its original soprano tessitura, with an impassive Inés Salazar offereing little beside a demonstration of her messa di voce and a curious approach to singing softly. Hugh Smith's Pollione constricted voice and stage manner made parts of Act One especially trying, but compensated with a strongly sung and acted final scene. Conductor Marco Guidarini's generally well-shaped reading occasionally lost momentum so that the end of the Adalgisa-Pollione duet and the conclusion of Act One petered out inconclusively. Norma seems to have defeated director Francisco Negrin and designer Anthony Baker, from the cavern with green runes for the Druid conjurations to an unseen shelter for Norma and her family, though they seemed also to be sleeping outside in a snowstorm. Negrin had some peculiar ideas, alongside which each of the characters too often seemed to exist in a vacuum, little interaction or reaction taking place.

12 October - Toulouse

  • This was a fun evening: an old-fashioned opera in an old-fashioned performance with singers who possess the vocal wherewithal and are not afraid to use it. Maurizio Benini's rapid and light-handed reading of La Forza del Destino occasionally allowed the singers an expansive phrase, a conceivable approach to what is a diffuse work. Hubert Monloup's atmospheric sets could easily be adapted to a great variety of costuming, in this instance somewhere in the 1940s though when Gegam Grigorian as Alvaro first entered he closely resembled Dick Johnson. Director Nicolas Joël opted for sobriety, so that spectators could follow the complicated story. The quantity of sound produced by soprano Andrea Gruber can be thrilling, while her use of chest voice is exciting if not always appropriate. More worrying is an inability (or unwillingness) to produce a high pianissimo so that too many of Leonora's soaring phrases just become loud arcs of sound. Gegam Grigorian's Alvaro did not disappoint, rising to the many thrilling moments but with sufficient reserve to sing some melting phrases. Roberto Scandiuzzi's mellow Guardiano was well matched with Alfonso Antoniozzi's Melitone who realised that he need not overplay the buffo aspect of his role. Marie-Ange Todorovich intelligently turned to Preziosilla's Rossinian ancestry to avoid being overpowered. Roberto Servile's macho Carlo did not always have the requisite vocal heft in his aria but rose to the occasion for all three duets with the tenor.

13 October - Lyons

  • It takes courage to try and make an opera of Solzhenitsyn's First Circle, particularly if you have never previously written an opera or libretto, or even much in the way of vocal music. Composer Gilbert Amy, a neo-serialist, only seemed capable of suitably lyric moments when he strayed away from his tenets, but such moments were unfortunately few and far between. Baritones Alain Vernhes and Philippe Georges impressed in the leading roles, but the episodic quality of the libretto was not given any cohesion by the music. Michel Plasson did his best, but too often things bogged down, especially the interminable trial of Prince Igor. The most memorable aspect of the evening were the sequences filmed in Russia that reminded one of Soviet films one has seen.

19 October - Geneva

  • The first American opera, La Púrpura de la Rosa, by Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco to a libretto by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, was presented by the Grand Théâtre in coproduction with the Teatro de la Zarzuela de Madrid. Calderón's libretto had first been performed in Madrid in 1660 in a setting by composer Juan Hidalgo, before turning up in Lima in 1701. What we saw was Hispanic to the core, with Gabriel Garrido and his Ensemble Elyma, producer-choreographer Oscar Araiz, designer Jorge Ferrari, all Argentine, and a largely Ibero-Argentine cast. This one-act version of the Venus and Adonis legend is sung throughout, the style perhaps reminiscent of the Venetians with its mixture of comic and serious elements, but also of the French baroque with the addition of dance interludes to the narrative. Araiz's solution to the inherently static qualities of baroque opera was to furnish each of the singing roles with a dancing double, less disturbing than one might have feared as the dancers did occasionally leave the stage to the singers alone. Sopranos Isabel Monar (Venus) and Graciela Oddone (Adonis) and light mezzo Cecilia Díaz (Mars) had the major roles, with Victoria Manso (Amour), Adriana Fernández (Celfa) and Susanna Moncayo (Dragon) rounding out the Hispanic contingent, alongside "outsiders" Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Bellone) and Marcello Lippi (Chato).. The Ballet of the Grand Théâtre executed Araiz's all-purpose contemporary choreography with enthusiasm, but the members of the Ensembly Elyma occasionally submerged the singers.

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