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November - December 1999

12 November - Saint Etienne

  • The fifth Massenet Festival, delayed a year because their theater was destroyed by an arsonist's fire, featured Le Roi de Lahore, one of the composer's earliest operas. Director Jean-Louis Pichon and his regular collaborators, designer Alexandre Heyraud and costumier Frédéric Pineau, offered one of the cleanest productions, astounding in its simplicity with the unfortunate result that it was occasionally difficult to tell the good guys from the bad. Conductor Patrick Fournillier once again demonstrated his mastery of the Massenet idiom, so that the flow of the music was continual. Unfortunately, he was let down by a cast featuring Isabelle Vernet as a vocally undernourished Sita, singing apparently without diaphragmatic support, Evgenij Demerdjiev (Scindia) yet again in the throes of an apparent indisposition as his voice rarely penetrated beyond the proscenium with any degree of projection, while his heavily accented French too often destroyed the elegant line of his music. The sole merit attributable to tenor Emil Ivanov (Alim) is that his voice projects easily, though he lacks any sense of line.

    Colleagues who attended the previous evening's performance with an alternate cast of Michèle Lagrange, Luca Lombardo and Jean-Marc Ivaldi praised the work of the French-speaking cast, singling out Lagrange for her commitment.

21 November - Paris

  • Luciano Berio's Outis reached Paris three years after its premiere at La Scala, in a new production by Yannis Kokkos. The work is a curious hybrid, in its attempt to do away with any linear form of narrative, each of the five sequences beginning with the death of Outis at the hands of his son. Characters walk in and out, one of the sequences resembles the Ulysses in Nighttown episode of Joyce's epic while the last features the sinking of the Titanic. Excellent vocal performances by Monica Bacelli, Maryline Fallot, Elena Brilova and Ofelia Sala were matched by Luisa Castellani, while Alan Opie in the title role faced a mighty challenge. The Orchestre de Paris under David Robertson gave their utmost, but what is this new mania for bringing the orchestra on stage at the end of the performance. Kokkos's designs and staging had their effective moments but ultimately had as much meaning as the libretto.

22 November - Paris

  • It was clearly quite perverse of Hugues Gall to program Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites with but one French-speaking singer in a principal role, but the gamble paid off in that intelligibility was extremely high even if the diction was not always elegant. Even more surprising was Francesca Zambello's production, in Hildegard Bechtler's stark sets and Claudie Gastine's simple costumes, in which she largely followed the composer's lead. Patricia Racette's characterful Blanche was neatly set off by the Constance of Marie Devellereau. Felicity Palmer made a meal out of her role as Mme de Croissy, while Nancy Gustavson was perhaps too serene as Mme Lidoine. But why must we suffer through Kathryn Harries's various shrieks, screams, and coarse tones in the role of Mère Marie. Of course, she looks and acts convincingly, but, like Burt Lancaster, the image is ruined once the mouth opens.

    Seiji Ozawa's langourous approach did not help in maintaining dramatic momentum, but this may have been the first time in ages that I have left the Opéra de Paris with an impression that weighed more heavily on the positive side.

1 December - Lyons

  • A new production of Idomeneo marked Louis Langrée's first appearance since his resignation as music director of the Opéra National de Lyon for reasons that still remain to be adequately explained. This was a swift reading, omitting three arias, not allowing the singers the least relaxation, though the orchestral playing was always well articulated. Stephen Taylor's direction of the principals was virtually faultless, but the chorus too often resembled a company of marionettes. And why was the Subterranean Voice on stage throughout the final scene?

    Laurent Peduzzi's simple sets contrasted with the ragbag costumes credited to Nathalie Prats-Berling, but it looked more as if someone had gone through the leftovers from several productions. Bruce Ford in the title role demonstrated how effective Mozart's recitatives can be, singing the full version of "Fuor del mar" with remarkable fluency. Laura Polverelli's Idamante reflected the conflicting emotions of her character, never losing the plushness of her voice. Veronica Cangemi's Ilia was a step below, singing well but lacking the graciousness that is part of the role. Elzbieta Szmytka's Elettra was well acted and sung, but a larger voice might have been even more effective in the more vehement moments.

13 December - Geneva

  • In the attempt to avoid any compromising contact with tradition, Francesca Zambello's new production of Aida falls flat on its face. Of course, the program credit to Rover Group Switzerland should have offered sufficient warning, but Ms. Zambello's persistent refusal to allow a singer to be alone on stage even when that is what is indicated leads to such annoyances as Amneris tapping at her computer while Aida is singing her first solo, or Amonasro climbing around on a pyramid lit by a street lamp during her second aria.

    Conductor Pinchas Steinberg kept things moving along, although his support for the singers was also exemplary. Georgina Lukacs in the title role may be short of power for the Act 2 finale, but otherwise was affecting in a generalized fashion. Violeta Urmana's Amneris may not have looked sufficiently imperial (wonderful costume) but she did convey the human dimension. Franco Farina's Radames was perhaps the best thing I've ever heard him do, singing with power but also finesse when required

14 December - Paris

  • Der Freischütz is just about impossible to get right today, its position as the ultimate Romantic opera and its supernatural dramatics making it difficult for a contemporary audience to accept. Director Francisco Negrin and designer Anthony Baker found little better than to have six extras running around in red breeches and long unwashed hair to represent the evil element, while reality was in grey and white. The major news was the return of Myung-Whun Chung to the Parisian operatic world, in a work that caught his imagination and almost compensated for what was happening onstage.

    Tenor Jorma Silvasti's intrusive vibrato was balanced by the virtual absence thereof in the singing of Miranda von Kralingen's Agathe, though it sounded as if she still had not recovered from the illness that affected her at the opening night a week earlier. Sandrine Piau's soubrette made the most of Ännchen's coquetteries, but the entire performance was dominated by Albert Dohmen's Kaspar.

15 December - Paris

  • Just as the Opéra de Lyon got it all wrong last year, Falstaff fared no better at the Opéra de Paris. The work was updated to around the turn of the century, what should have been interior scenes at the Ford's house seemed to be taking place in a tenement courtyard, so that this was one of the drabbest productions I have ever seen of Verdi's comic masterpiece. James Conlon may have been affected as his efficient reading never came close to catching the magic of the piece. Jean-Philippe Lafont may not be sufficiently meaty of voice for all tastes, but his portrayal of the fat knight was always on course. Anthony Michaels-Moore as his adversary, Ford, was jealousy personified, while Christine Goerke's Alice seemed to be modeled on Beatrice Arthur. Katerina Karneus as Meg, like most in the role, never really emerged from the background. Bernadetta Manca di Nissa had to fly over from London to replace an indisposed colleague as Quickly but seemed to have rapidly got the hang of the production. Patrizia Ciofi's Nannetta was as enchanting as she should be, lucky to have Paul Groves as her Fenton. But once again, it is the director, Dominique Pitoiset, whose preconceived notions have caused the excellent elements here united to fall apart for lack of respect for composer and librettist.

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