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November - December 2001

Paris - 26 November
Kaija Saariaho:
L'Amour de loin
Théâtre du Chatelêt

  • An incredibly boring evening at the opera simply confirms my diagnosis that if you know there will be no intermission you'd better watch out, because the theater is afraid that most of the audience will leave at half time. Kaija Saariaho writes some lovely music, but a libretto by Amin Malouf with no theatrical dynamics evoked music with no emotional dynamics, so that one's bottom began to ache early on while Peter Sellars's expensive staging offered no compensation. Baritone troubadour loves soprano countess, though they meet only when he is dying, to commentary from the contralto pilgrim. And all this for two, long hours. The composer's odd French stress and the somewhat accented French of a non-French cast increased the audience's alienation. Dawn Upshaw may be one of the composer's preferred interpreters, but even she could do little to bring the work, more of an oratorio than an opera, to life.

Nantes - 27 November
Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face

  • Powder Her Face was a lot more fun, and Thomas Adès has sufficient confidence in his own abilities to write two clearly defined acts, with intermission. He may not be as refined a composer as Mme Saariaho, but he has a far greater theatrical understanding. Most readers will by now know that the opera is based on the life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, and that the most notorious scene is that in which the Duchess performs fellatio on the tenor in one of his disguises. The role of the Duchess requires the talents of a grande dame soprano, at which Sally Silver did more than her considerable best. Valdine Anderson, who participated in the world premiere in 1995, adapted easily to the requirements of Laurence Dale's production, with Andreas Jaeggi and Martin Snell also taking multiple roles to great effect. Conductor John Burdekin caught the spirit of the music, whether as spoof of popular music or the composer in more serious vein. Dale seems to be moving into directorial mode and slowing down on his singing engagements. One might question if the comic emphasis did not in some way diminish the tragic aspects of the Duchess's character.

Toulouse - 28 November
Jules Massenet: Manon

  • Nicolas Joël's production of Manon premiered at La Scala, stopping at Monte Carlo before arriving in Toulouse. While striking one as serviceable at Monte Carlo, the small stage may have been more of a hindrance as the painted drops and sets attained grandeur in the larger space. A more appropriate cast on this occasion also made the evening more of an event. Leontina Vaduva in the title role once again demonstrated her mastery of the stage, while an occasional gritty high note did little to detract from what is a total portrayal. Giuseppe Sabbatini's Des Grieux was far more involved than I have previously seen him, singing the role with elegance. Alain Vernhes was an authoritative Count, while Didier Henry sounded tired as Lescaut, but that can be explained by the fact that he was singing eight performances in ten days as well as giving a recital in that period (the other principal roles were double cast). Patrick Fournillier once again showed that he has few equals today when it comes to conducting an opera by Massenet, though one might deplore the extensive cuts (choral scenes) in Acts One and Three. Joël's production was a model, especially with the cast heard on this occasion, while Ezio Frigerio's sets and Franca Squarciapino's costumes added to the audience's pleasure.

Strasbourg - 6 December
André Previn: A Streetcar Named Desire

  • André Previn's operaticization of Streetcar Named Desire received its European premiere under the sponsorship of the Opéra du Rhin. Anja Sündermann's production and Alexander Weig's sets and costumes were resolutely teutonic, little of New Orleans but certainly oppressive. One wonders if Frau Sündermann truly read the text, or why would she have had Chad Shelton (Mitch) describe himself as 6 feet 4½ inches and weighing 270 pounds, when that was clearly not the case. Surely, this is one instance where a textual change might be permitted, or did the powers that be think that no one in the audience would understand the text, though the translation in the surtitles was accurate. Barbara Havemann as Blanche was the only non-American among the four principal singers, with an occasionally odd consonant giving away her Dutch origins. As none of the four consistently managed a southern drawl, perhaps they might have considered its omission. Korliss Uecker's Stella and David Okerlund's Stanley completed the cast, with important contributions from Susannah Self and Wilfried Gahmlich as Eunice and Steve Hubbell and Delphine Galou as the Mexican Woman. Okerlund is not quite the "hunk" as Rodney Gilfry was for the world premiere, but he is certainly more than presentable as he towers over the rest of the cast. Conductor Patrick Summers has been involved with the work since its earliest stages and is no stranger to its meanderings.

Montpellier - 9 December
Amilcare Ponchielli: Marion Delorme

  • Once again, it is René Koering, music czar of Montpellier, who has uncovered another work - Marion Delorme by Amilcare Ponchielli - worthy of consideration as a link between Verdi and the verismo school through the composer's two best-known pupils, Puccini and Mascagni. The archetypal story of the prostitute who has found true love, even though he is unaware of her previous life, is here lightened by the presence of a travesty role, Lelio, who leads a troupe of strolling players. The mezzo playing the part has two sprightly arias to sing, while the soprano who sings the title role has two dramatic utterances and several duets. The tenor is given a single solo opportunity, just before the end of the opera, while the baritone is treated more generously. Ponchielli is here seeking to stretch his wings, with some degree of success, as we never lose interest in the goings on. Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni in the title role is an audience favorite, for the way in which she clearly lives her role, even in concert performance. The fact that her chest voice now begins so high is disturbing as some of the wide-ranging phrases take on the character of a roller coaster ride, so that she occasionally sounds like a caricature of herself. Francisco Casanova's well-behaved Didier (a role written for the robust tenor of Tamagno) sometimes got lost in the fray, while Dalibor Jenis offered some elegant baritone singing as Saverny. Conductor Friedemann Layer and the Orchestre National de Montpellier Languedoc Roussillon were on an adrenalin high, to the benefit of all the participants.

Paris - 17 December
Modest Mussorgsky: Khovantchina
Opéra National de Paris (Bastille)

  • Once again, disappointment at the Paris Opera. Andrei Serban, who has yet to provide a satisfactory staging for an opera (and I have seen several of his stagings), bears the responsibility. He himself states in the program that he saw no reason to update the proceedings, but he neglected to direct the various protagonists, conveniently forgetting that simplicity does not mean that nothing need happen. The principals, almost all Russian, wandered around as they might have in the various Bolshoi or Maryinsky stagings they have known, while Robert Brubaker's Golitsyn climbed all over the furniture and almost chewed the scenery. James Conlon's direction showed his love for the score, emphasizing the monochrome aspect of Shostakovich's orchestration. Richard Hudson's sets and costumes resembled an inexpensive knockdown of the splendor encountered in Russian productions. Larissa Diadkova's Marfa was the focus of the staging, with some help from Vladimir Ognovenko's Khovansky. Anatoli Kotscherga's Dosifei sounded under the weather, but his reactions in the encounter with Khovansky and Golitsyn showed the more worldly side of this otherwise saintly figure. Tatiana Pavlovskaya's Emma offered more assured singing than Irina Rubstova's Susanna, while Valeri Alexeyev's Shaklovity receded into the background next to such characterizations as that of Konstantin Ploujnikov's Scrivener.

Geneva - 18 December
Jacques Offenbach : Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Théâtre de Geneve

  • Once off to a bad start by choosing the Oeser text, complete with editorial manipulations, things got progressively worse as a result of Olivier Py's staging. Oeser may have gotten some things right in his explorations of the composer's manuscripts, but his persistence in making his presence felt is detrimental to the work. The constantly mobile sets and predominantly black leather costumes of Pierre-André Weitz and the megawatt lighting by the director did nothing to offset the feeling of unease. Py solved the problem of three singers for the female roles by dressing them more or less alike, though Olympia's black leather coat was constantly opening to reveal her in a body tight. Aline Kutan's last-minute replacement of the ailing Patricia Petibon seemed to enjoy the no-longer novel interpretation of the doll as a nymphomaniac. Mireille Delunsch's Antonia despaired, but her problems above a high b remain a hazard in the role. Marie-Ange Todorovich was a victim of the director's ineptitude as he persisted in placing her in a central position, but furthest away and highest on a platform so that she could not dominate the interpolated sextet from the Choudens edition. Michael Myers sings French quite well, but his inability to ring out at climactic moments disappointed, while the clear mezzo of Heidi Brunner (Nicklausse) occasionally plumbed the depths with an exaggerated chest register. José van Dam's villains were downplayed, but then I wouldn't blame him if he had as many misgiving about the production as did I. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt's four servants all had the same irrelevant costume (hotel bellboy) except for Pitichinaccio dressed as a pimp. Conductor Bertrand de Billy had problems finding suitable tempi, particularly for Antonia's aria that was taken so slowly than even Delunsch had problems.

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