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March - April 2000

7 March - Montpellier

  • Verdi's French-language operas are not given high consideration, with even less given to his own adaptations for the Parisian stage. Le Trouvère is not so very different from Il Trovatore in its vocal demands, while Verdi took the opportunity to refine his orchestration and stretch out the final scene so that the dénouement wouldn't be so abrupt, one of the concessions to French taste that is musically dubious. A 25-minute ballet is interpolated into the third act, here performed by young dancers put to the test by the demands made on them. This production of Trouvère originated at the Martina Franca Festival where a recording was made, but these performances had the benefit of an entirely Francophone cast, including Sylvie Brunet's Azucena from Martina Franca. Brunet's voice is perhaps an acquired taste, but I fail to see any distinction in the various squally shrieks she emits. Isabelle Vernet's Léonore was in far better shape than one might have hoped after her Sita in Massenet's Roi de Lahore earlier this season, the voice once again well projected other than some of the highest notes that continue to elude her grasp. Jean-Pierre Furlan's light tenor voice is not up to Verdi's heroic demands, while Marcel Vanaud's Luna offered solid baritone sound. Jérôme Pillement's conducting too often verged on the rudimentary.

8 March - Paris

  • What a pleasure to report virtually unmitigated pleasure at a Francesca Zambello production. Prokofiev's War and Peace necessitated the importation of a hotel full of Russian singers for many of what are in fact cameo roles that in earlier days would have been filled by house singers of varying ranks. In this instance, we were fortunate to have Olga Guryakova's Natalia, able to show her maturity in the next to last scene when Andrey dies. Nathan Gunn's sympathetic Andrey may not be as solid vocally as one might like, but Robert Brubaker's Pierre met the composer's impossible demands. Anatoly Kotcherga's imposing Kutuzov, Elena Obratzova's Akhrossimova, Vassili Gerelo's Napoleon were only the tip of this iceberg of a performance in which everyone gave of his best, including the much-derided Gary Bertini, who matched the sweep of Zambello's production.

8 April - Paris

  • After successful concert performances of Mozart's Mitridate in Lyons a few years ago, Jean-Pierre Brossman engaged many of the same singers to participate in Jean-Pierre Vincent's staging at the Chatelêt. Christophe Rousset remains the driving force behind the work, his orchestra sounding ever more suave. Patrizia Ciofi and Barbara Frittoli (Aspasia and Sifare) had ample opportunity to display their vocal control in some of Mozart's most difficult music. Sandrine Piau (Ismene), Brian Asawa (Farnace) and Giuseppe Sabbatini (Mitridate) deepened their interpretations since the earlier performance, with the tenor making light of the composer's intricacies. Vincent's mostly no-nonsense production was over-populated with what he himself described as a "mute chorus" of supers.

9 April - Paris

  • Things were back to normal at the Bastille with Robert Carsen's ridiculous reading of Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann. His premise seems to have been the fleeting reference to Don Giovanni in the Prologue, so that Act 1 takes place back stage, Act 2 (Antonia) mostly in an orchestra pit with Dr Miracle as conductor, Act 3 (Giulietta) in the opera house itself with swaying rows of seats for the Barcarolle and Dapertutto as the stage director. Only Samuel Ramey as the devils emerged unscathed from this farce, with a mention for Désirée Rancatore who had the unenviable task of following Natalie Dessay in the role of Olympia - she sings it almost as well as Dessay but seemed somewhat inhibited in the staging. Andrea Rost (Antonia) was out of her depth, while Enkelejda Shkosa (Giulietta) did what little remains in the Choudens version reasonably well. Delphine Haidan took over Nicklausse from Angelika Kirschschlager but was not always audible. After reading the enormous praise lavished on Janez Lotric for his performances in Vienna, one was disappointed in an unpolished portrayal of no vocal distinction. James Conlon's routine performance was the final touch on a lacklustre afternoon.

14 April - Montpellier

  • The late Marcel Landowski was a prolific composer, but interest in his operas seems to have been short-lived. It was exhilarating to hear Le Fou, one of his early works, given a new production at the Opéra de Montpellier in cooperation with the Operas of Nancy (where the work premiered in 1956) and St. Etienne. François Leroux in the title role, the scientist Peter Bel, is on stage almost continuously but retains sufficient strength for the 95 minutes required by the work. Brigitte Balleys as his wife, Isadora, may not be the dramatic soprano requested by the composer, but she too is endowed with sufficient presence to compensate for any lack of power. Conductor Pascal Rophé clearly believes in the work and succeeded in convincing most of the audience that it was worth revival. Whereas later works such as Montségur may seem hermetic or Galina may seem uninspired, Le Fou has all the characteristics of youthful enthusiasm. Unfortunately, director Daniel Mesguich once again attempted to impose his own vision, very much at odds with the work, so that its message was obscured.

16 April - Lyons

  • Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen is an almost foolproof work, able to sustain a variety of treatments and sufficiently flexible to withstand casting at almost any level. The Opéra National de Lyon opted for a house cast, with the addition of Valery Ivanov as the Forester, and it worked. Conductor David Robertson mastered the difficult idiom of the composer, while director André Engel captured the fairytale aspect without neglecting the composer's paean to nature. Hélène Le Corre in the title role made more of an impression than in any of her other performances in the recent past, though one might wish for greater radiance. Ivanov was perhaps too matter of fact, but the ensemble quality is what sticks in the memory. Graham Vick's production a few years back in Paris might have been more dynamic, but there is no denying that the Opéra de Lyon has had its first unqualified success this season.

20 April - Lyons

  • Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble are touring with Handel's Hercules, this performance following the recording sessions for DGG. Anne Sofie von Otter's Dejanira started off casually, the singer enjoying the playfulness of her character, but exploding in her final mad scene. Lynne Dawson may have been tired but managed to convince us of Iole's radiant youthful grace. Richard Croft's Hyllus showed that virility and agility are not mutually exclusive items, only the bullish Gidon Saks in the title role musically out of place.

25-26 April - Toulouse

  • Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet is popping up more often these days, perhaps because singers like Thomas Hampson and Natalie Dessay are available for the leading roles. The Théatre du Capitole is this year's guest for the Festival des Régions at the Chatelêt in Paris, to which they are bringing two French operas: this new production of Hamlet along with a revival of their successful Louise. I attended two performances so that I could also hear the second cast of Ludovic Tézier and Patricia Petibon; Hampson and Dessay, as was to be expected, were superlative, even though they did not generate the electricity that characterized the Geneva performances a few years back in which Simon Keenlyside sang the title role alongside Dessay. Dessay's voice has grown, while her control remains impeccable, at the same time making every gesture tell. Hampson is larger than life, contrasting with the more introvert approach of Ludovic Tézier. Tézier's voice harks back to an earlier era, that of Massard and Blanc, with its evenness and a gleam on the high notes that can thrill, yet at the same time capable of sensitive diminuendos. The career of Patricia Petibon has until now been impeccable, but Ophélie is not a role for her with its many vocal challenges that she is unable to resolve. Her left hand was in constant rhythmic motion which did little to help her achieve any characterization. Constant elements in both casts were the exemplary Claudius of José van Dam, the wimpy Laërtes of Marc Laho and the towering Gertrude of Michelle de Young who is capable of making a lot of sound to little effect. Michel Plasson, who I interviewed at the intermission, once again demonstrated that he is one of the few conductors able to bring to life the neglected French repertoire. Nicolas Joël chose to set the drama in an Art Nouveau framework with the complicity of designer Ezio Frigerio, a simple décor that changed before one's eyes thereby eliminating waiting time so that the drama could proceed inexorably. The Edwardian costumes of Franca Squarciapino contributed a certain elegance.

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