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May - September 2000

Late spring and summer roundup, with an introduction to the new season

  • Since the last diary instalment, I have been to only a few performances, notably the continuation of Geneva's Ring Cycle with a Walküre (18 May) that featured a soprano new to me, Janice Baird, who has been singing Brünnhilde throughout Germany and Austria. Ms. Baird possesses the goods, the voice even throughout its compass, warm in the middle, strong at the top, and she can act. Albert Dohmen's Wotan seemed more comfortable than last year in Rheingold, but he is perhaps one vocal size too small for the role. Tina Kiberg and Poul Elming as the Walsung twins were physically well matched, but the end of Act 1 was sadly lacking in ecstasy.

    The following evening found me in Toulouse for a revival of Charpentier's Louise that should have featured Renée Fleming, who was replaced by the young Chinese soprano Jalin Zhang, giving a performance that in no way had the audience regretting Ms. Fleming's cancellation. The voice is solid, easily encompassing the punishing demands of Act 3 but with a wide dynamic range as well. Marcus Haddock's Julien suffers from a certain diffidence that does not enhance his credibility. Martine Dupuy's well-acted Mother finds her short of voice, while once again Alain Vernhes's Father is a touching portrayal. Michel Plasson's way with the music once again carries us along.

    The world premiere of Charles Chaynes's Cecilia during Monte Carlo's Printemps des Arts (23 May), based on a Cuban novel of the 19th century, suffered from the composer's lack of faith, which manifested itself in the presence of a Narrator (Marthe Keller) who only succeeded in interrupting the musical flow. Conductor Patrick Davin's commitment to contemporary opera was further confirmed, while we were introduced to such new talents as Marisol Montalvo's touching portrayal of the title role was matched by Jean-Marc Salzmann's loverboy Leonardo, with David Lee Brewer finding echoes of Sportin' Life in his role. Jorge Lavelli's production showed that he is capable of respecting an opera.

    Handel's Agrippina the next evening at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris was turned over to the ham-fisted David McVicar who succeeded in trivialising in the modern manner, so that we were treated to Poppea's drowning her sorrow in drink, Nero as a punk, etc., etc. René Jacobs led a model performance musically, not once let down by his singers who included Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role, Rosemary Joshua as Poppea, Malena Ernman as Nero, countertenors Lawrence Zazzo as Ottone and the irrepressible Dominique Visse as Narciso. Lorenzo Regazzo's bass may not be quite as profound as required by the music of Claudio, but he nonetheless convinces us.

    A whirlwind visit to the Spoleto Festival allowed me to encounter the work of another of today's hotshot directors, Keith Warner, who demonstrated a total lack of understanding in his production of Der Rosenkavalier (30 June), not helped by the visibly pregnant Octavian of Pamela Helen Stephen and a time travelling approach to scenery and costumes. Richard Hickox galvanised the young orchestra into sounding as if they had been playing the opera for years, but a Marschallin who should have been singing Octavian (Anne Bolstad) and a very young Ochs (Kurt Link) did not provide sufficient counterweight. Laura Claycomb's adorable Sophie was given a fishwife duenna in the person of Janice Cairns's Marianne.

    The Opéra National de Lyon closed its season with Faust (4 July) in which Emmanuel Krivine showed that conviction and commitment are indispensable for this opera, while Jean-Claude Berutti's production seemed to borrow from most of the others seen in the last 20 or so years. Mary Mills was far better as Marguerite than she had been as Massenet's Manon earlier in the season at Monte Carlo, ably supported by William Joyner's Faust. Barseg Tumanyan's Mephisto was of the old school by way of Chaliapin and Christoff, not nearly as elegant as required.

    The Festival of Baroque Music at Beaune enticed me to venture from home on a summer weekend heavy with traffic to hear Handel's Tamerlano (8 July), particularly with the prospect of a countertenor duel between Brian Asawa and Bejun Mehta. Unfortunately, neither showed up so the young Delphine Haidan was promoted to the role of Andronico opposite Patricia Bardon in the less important title role, so that the temperature was nowhere near as warm as it should have been. Karina Gauvin's Asteria intrigued, while Kobie von Rensburg's Bajazet indicated another talent to watch. Christophe Rousset and his Talens Lyriques offered solid support, but it was unfortunate that some of the music had to be cut so that the performance would not terminate at 2 a.m.

    A return to the Chorégies d'Orange for the first performance in situ of Contes d'Hoffmann (12 July) once again indicated that performances of artistic value are virtually impossible in such locations, a problem aggravated by the choice of Jérôme Savary as director, once again showing that the only taste he possesses is bad taste. Michel Plasson and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse once again showed that in this sort of music they have few equals. Marcus Haddock's languor in the title role was not always appropriate despite excellent French. Natalie Dessay's final performance as Olympia (she is retiring the role from her repertoire) was more spoiled brat than brainless doll, but she gave her all to the great delight of the audience who applauded every two seconds during her aria. Leontina Vaduva's Antonia touched, while Enkelejda Shkosa's Giulietta made the most of the few opportunities falling to her in the traditional version. Angelika Kirschschlager's Nicklausse gained one aria and she was far more at home than in Paris earlier this season. It fell to José van Dam as the four villains to give a stylistic lesson, though the cold winds of the mistral sometimes covered his voice. The audience disgraced itself a few weeks later at Tosca, booing Nelly Miricioiu's performance of the title role that may perhaps have been too subtle for the surroundings. They did appreciate the off-pitch loudness of Alain Fondary's Scarpia, while Vladimir Galouzine's Mario seemed to satisfy all segments of the audience. Gary Bertini's conducting was lacklustre and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France was not having one of its best days. An ugly set by Jean-Paul Chambas did not simplify the task of director Jean-Claude Auvray.

    The summer's high point was a visit to the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier for the first performance in almost 50 years of Vittorio Gnecchi's Cassandra, an opera created in 1905 with Toscanini conducting. A mini-scandal took place a few years later after the premiere of Richard Strauss's Elektra when an Italian musicologist "discovered" many "plagiarisms", particularly striking as Gnecchi had sent a copy of his score to Strauss. This is a full-blooded work with the leading role falling not to the title character but to Klitennestra, a role for the likes of Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni, as was also the case with Mascagni's Parisina. Once again, she demonstrates that sensitivity and subtlety are even more important than mere decibels. Tea Demurishvili in the title role is more in the Cossotto mould, while Alberto Cupido's tenorizing as Agamennone only set off the work of Sra. Mazzola. Enrique Diemecke conducted as if possessed. As far as the "borrowings are concerned, I would suggest that Gnecchi was possibly influenced by the tone poems of the young Strauss, not to mention the general tone of the era. I have noticed that there is already a recording of the concert on the market.

5 September - Lausanne

  • Gabriel Fauré's sole venture into the operatic world has not been well received, while singers eager to defend the cause of the noble Pénélope are rare indeed, only Régine Crespin being consistently courageous in the last 50 years. The production that opened the renovated Opéra de Rennes last year came to Lausanne, with most of the same principal singers. Manon Feubel in the title role is clearly a singer to watch, with her gleaming high notes and solid middle register so important in this opera, however director Alain Garichot left her standing high and dry too often. In fact, he opted to ignore the drama, or as he put it in the program, "I believe that the work's strength lies in its poetic concentration." This translated as dramatic inertia. John Uhlenhopp's Ulysses lacked the heroic tone, while Vincent le Texier's Eumée seemed unable to sing other than loud. Claude Schnitzler and the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne kept the score moving, but why was the number of servants reduced from five to two, or the number of suitors from five to three, further resulting in a number of cuts in the score. A simple set by Denis Fruchaud and simply appropriate costumes by Claude Masson would have functioned more effectively with a more dynamic production.

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