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February - March 2002

Paris - 15 February

  • The Opéra de Paris rendered homage to Rolf Liebermann with the French premiere of his Medea. As one might expect from the composer's previous ventures into operatic terrain, this is Medea with a twist. Librettist Ursula Haas has adapted her own novel, Freispruch für Medea (Acquittal for Medea), in which Medea loses Jason not to Creusa but to Creon's son, also named Creon. The work is suffused by many influences, from the gamelan introduction to nods towards the 12-tone and expressionist schools. As with some of the composer's earlier works, it is difficult to detect a truly individual voice, to the point that one wonders if Medea would even have been presented had Rolf Liebermann not been the 'great' administrator (Hamburg, Paris). Have any of his other operas been revived? Producer Jorge Lavelli, designer Agostino Pace, costumier Graciela Galan, darkening designer Dominique Brugière followed the libretto's instructions, so that Medea and her maidens were all dark-skinned, contrasting with the fair Creon. Jeanne-Michelle Charbonnet in the title role was fearless and tireless, relentlessly pushing her voice so that a wide vibrato was often noticeable at the top. Petri Lindroos (Jason) and Lawrence Zazzo (Creon) were occasional foils to the heroine, but their contributions were not particularly distinctive. Marisol Montalvo, Michelle Canniccioni, Valérie Condoluci, Elizabeth Laurence and Louise Callinan were the ladies in waiting, black-faced and wearing what looked like ante-bellum crinolined robes. Daniel Klajner had conducted the work's premiere in Berne in June 2001, replacing the previously announced James Conlon. It is unfortunate that the opportunity was not taken to present another short work during the same evening, as 75 minutes of craftsmanship without inspiration rapidly becomes tedious.

Paris - 16 February
Wagner: Rienzi

  • A concert performance of Rienzi (16 February) suffered from the unnuanced conducting of Claus Peter Flor, eagerly attempting to underline every link to the later Wagner so that we were constantly hearing pre-echos not only of Tannhaüser but also Tristan. Thomas Moser in the title role was announced as indisposed, but he seemed to be his usual cautious self. Yvonne Naef (Adriano) makes an impressive sound, but it is in the relentless Fiorenza Cossotto mode and has one worrying for her future. Nancy Gustafson's slender vocal resources are hard put by the thankless role of Irene, who has little to sing except for the occasional yelp. Peter Sidhom's Orsini stood out among the conspirators, with Alfred Reiter's Colonna close behind, though the voice loses focus under pressure. Stephan Rügamer's Baroncelli, Kenneth Cox's Cardinal and Alexandre Vassiliev's Cecco made the most of the little Wagner gave them to do, while the brass section of the Orchestre National de France might easily have profited from one or two additional rehearsals to temper their unbridled enthusiasm.

Monte Carlo - 1 March
Handel: Giulio Cesare

  • Giulio Cesare is the first Handel opera to be presented by the Opéra de Monte Carlo, a very long evening for audiences unaccustomed to the rigors of opera seria even when numerous cuts have been made. Mario Pontiggia's production in his own sets possessed the virtue of simplicity so that the action was continuous. David Belugou's costumes offered opulence for the Egyptians and Cornelia, simple uniforms for the Roman men. Alan Curtis led the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo in an idiomatic reading, far from their customary terrain. Cinzia Forte's Cleopatra lacked the seductive sound but was otherwise a charmer. Gloria Banditelli's put-upon Cornelia was less imposing physically than most interpreters of the role, but her steady contralto is a pleasure to hear. Lucy Schaufer's impetuous Sesto seemed comfortable in the soprano tessitura. Carlo Lepore's Achilla did not project easily into the auditorium. Of the three countertenors, Flavio Oliver in the title role is a find, singing and acting with authority, unlike Romeo Cornelius's Tolomeo, more comfortable in his arias than recitative but not always certain of pitch. Curio and Nireno have little to sing, but Nicola Marchesini and Roberto Abbondanza offered solidity.

Lyons - 2 March
Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

  • Stage directors are increasing being paid more money for doing less and less. Gunter Krämer chose to raise the orchestra pit to stage level so that the Prologue focused on the Composer and Music Master, to the detriment of anything else that composer and librettist may have had in mind. And staging the Opera so that the audience laughs when the curtain rises on Ariadne is dubious. Despite this enormous initial handicap, Ivan Fischer led a taut reading, only the final scene of the opera (from the arrival of Bacchus) lacking in tension. Katharine Goeldner's Composer was a marvel of intensity, aided by Robert Bork's sympathetic Music Master. Laura Aikin's Zerbinetta did her best to seduce the Composer atop the piano of the orchestra, to the point where he returns at the conclusion of the opera. Christine Brewer's Ariadne had little to do but sing gloriously, a task she easily fulfilled, while Howard Haskin's Bacchus suffered through the role as have almost its interpreters. The heavy masks and makeup for the Comedians diminished the effect of Stéphane Degout's Arlequin, while the use of videos and even a hand-held camera only make the production look even more old-fashioned.

Paris - 8 March
Weber: Oberon

  • John Eliot Gardiner's travelling circus brought a semi-staged production of Weber's problematic Oberon to Paris, with a generally apt-sounding Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, despite a few intonation problems among the winds. Gardiner chose to provide a linking narration between the sung numbers, delivered by Roger Allam in a deadpan manner, though some might have found offensive the sneer that accompanied every mention of the word 'fairies'. Although Charles Workman (Huon) was announced as indisposed, it was difficult to detect any indication as his voice had its customary unpleasant bleating quality. Hillevi Martinpelto's Reiza, on the other hand, has the power for 'Ocean, thou mighty monster', but also the delicacy for Reiza's other solos. Marina Comparato's accented English lent piquancy to Fatima's solos, with an excellent foil in William Dazeley's Sherasmin. Steve Davislim's Oberon made the most of his few solo opportunities. The semi-staging was credited to Gardiner, who had the orchestra divided diagonally with a large apron on which solos could be sung. The jokiness of narration and staging were mildly effective, as were the interventions of an over-generously endowed belly dancer.

Paris - 22 March
Cimarosa: Il Matrimonio Segreto

  • A second production of Cimarosa's best-known opera (see review from Monte Carlo, 6 February) reinforces my impression that it is a work that survives only through its reputation, as the music rarely goes beyond the standard formulas of the time, despite the many pre-echoes of Mozart and Rossini. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques were a guarantee for the general tone, while Pierre Audi's staging offered few staggering insights, even allowing Bruno Praticó great leeway in his buffo antics as Geronimo. Chloe Obolensky's set resembled an Ikea warehouse, until it opened out into a well-lit Ikea showroom. Her costume designs, on the other hand, were magnificent. Laura Giordano's adolescent-sounding Carolina (she was born in 1979), complete with acid high notes, was partnered by the not always comfortable sounding Jeffrey Francis as Paolino. Anna Maria Panzarella was the customary termagant Elisetta, fortunately allowed to sing her aria, with Bernarda Fink as a too sympathetic Fidalma. Lorenzo Regazzo's Robinson enjoyed his posturing and posing, which were entirely in character with Audi's final touch: Robinson tears up the wedding contract with Elisetta and runs off.

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