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April - June 2002

Toulouse - 24 April
Die Meistersinger

  • It has been many years since I last attended a production of Die Meistersinger, and this last of five performances was a reminder of how much I have missed this life-affirming work. Some of the pleasure came from the realistic sets by Jean-Marc Stehle and Antoine Fontaine, the small stage easily accommodating the crowd scenes of the second and third acts, while reinforcing the intimacy of the first scene of Act Three. Gérard Audier's beautifully made costumes (updated to the 19th century) disappointed in only one instance, Eva's dress for the competition which seemed more suitable for Lustige Witwe. Pinchas Steinberg's reading kept everything moving along, with the Orchestre du Capîtole once again demonstrating that it is probably the finest French orchestra outside Paris. Nicolas Joël's no-nonsense production was a relief after some of the auteurist excesses that have recently come my way. Hans Tschammer's Hans Sachs was perhaps more shoemaker than poet, but his bass voice had no difficulty with the tessitura of the role. Jorma Silvasti's Walther demonstrated that he is one of the few Finnish tenors I have ever heard who is able to sing accurately, even imparting some charisma to his role. Gert Henning-Jensen's David is occasionally hyper-active, but demonstrates adolescent charm, so that Magdalena becomes almost grand-maternal, an aspect emphasized by Cornelia Wullkopf's interpretation. Miranda van Kralingen's charming Eva, despite an accident during the Quintet, deserved a healthier sounding father than Guido Jentjens. Ralf Lukas (Beckmesser) avoided caricature, and Robert Bork (Kothner) once again demonstrated his acting talents.

Paris - 26 April
Mozart: Idomeneo

  • Every opera house has its occasional disaster, not an unknown quantity at the Opéra de Paris, but this shipwreck was one that might have been avoided. Conductor Ivan Fischer mistakenly thought he was also capable of staging the work, with the result that the performers moved around like cardboard cutouts in the equally cardboard sets of Jean-Marc Stehle. There was little compensatory reward among the cast, other than Christine Goerke's emphatic Elettra. Susan Graham's Idamante seemed to be going through the motions, while Mary Mills (more unfortunately costumed than the others) brought little charm to the role of Ilia. Marius Brenciu in the title role was a late addition to the cast, but did not justify the confidence placed in him, his small voice not up to the demands of the role. It was so depressing that I left at the end of Act One.

Paris - 28 April
R. Strauss: Arabella

  • After Rosenkavalier, Arabella is the most Viennese of Strauss's operas, something that director Peter Mussbach and designer Erich Wonder seem to have willingly ignored. The latter chose to set the work in a contemporary hotel lobby, with escalators and elevators and high perches, unvarying throughout the work. Where was the intimacy for the first act, for example. Moonwalking extras, plus some dancers on the ceiling did little for the work. Fortunately, Karita Mattila in the title role and Thomas Hampson as Mandryka generated sufficient sparks on their own to overcome the irrelevance of Mussbach's concept. The soprano's generosity is well-known, but she convinced us of Arabella's moods. Hampson, more dramatically involved than is sometimes the case, matched Mattila every step of the way. Barbara Bonney's Zdenka made for an ideal duet in the first act, while Günter Missenhardt and Cornelia Kallisch as the penniless parents helped fill in the background. The revised version in which much of the Act Two finale is cut and is immediately linked to the third act was used, Christoph von Dohnányi and the Philharmonia Orchestra almost convincing us that this is the preferable course.

Geneva - 10 June
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

  • What an evening, with one of the one of the least expensive productions I have seen recently: the same décor (tree trunks) used throughout the first two acts, the various locations differentiated only by the few pieces of furniture trundled on and offstage. For the final act, the trunks disappeared, to be replaced by a circle of white light against the bare wall at the back of the stage. Alain Garichot's generally sensible production rarely intruded on the music. One might question the remorseful pantomime of Onegin to the waltz that opens Act 3, or the fact that Lensky's bald head should definitely have been covered by a wig, but that would be quibbling in the face of Alexia Cousin's Tatiana. Her generous singing has always been remarked, but her absence from the stage for the last several months seems to have been used to consolidate her talent. She is now better able to control her voice so that singing softly is no longer a challenge. Even more important is the way the voice is always used dramatically, so that she gives an integrated performance that makes her one of the most convincing Tatianas. From her first entrance to the end of the opera, the transition from dreamy country girl to sophisticated urbanite was matched only by the expressivity of her singing. Laurent Naouri in the title role was almost everything that could be wished as a partner for such a Tatiana, from aloof dandy at the start to the almost lunatic despair of the close, paired with the perfect dark baritone voice for the role. Marius Brenciu's Lensky disappointed, lacking the presence to overcome his dumpy exterior without the compensation of peerless vocalism; his big aria in the duel scene was sung without grace except for a few measures at the reprise where he managed a beautiful pianissimo. Sophie Pondjiclis (Olga) caught the insouciance of the role, but Michail Schelomanianski's Gremin was far too young and lacked the commanding voice we have come to expect in the role. Louis Langrée may have missed some of the passion that Russian conductors have brought to the score, but the compensating elegance had its rewards.

Paris - 18 June
Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia

  • When the stage director needs three pages of the program to explain her production, and what you see - other than the Moorish sets and costumes - and what you hear is nothing but a tepid copy of many another Barbiere, you know you are in trouble. Jean-Marc Stehle produced charming story book designs for last year's Zauberflöte, and pale copies for this year's Idomeneo and the opera under review. Figaro resembles Papageno in many ways, the storm scene becomes Rosina's internal torment, with lots of pillows being tossed around, and the exit into the desert becoming oasis at the end is too tacky for words. Hiring Bruce Ford to sing Almaviva and then depriving him of his last act aria is a waste of talent. Dalibor Jenis (Figaro) lacked a certain brightness of sound, Ferruccio Furlanetto offered a Basilio in the Chaliapin mold, Carlos Chausson twitched his way through the role of Bartolo and Sophie Koch did not seem entirely at ease vocally as Rosina. Special mention must be made of Jeannette Fischer's Berta, once again calling upon her terpsichorean abilities. Bruno Campanella couldn't really inspire any sparkle in the orchestra, while Coline Serreau once again demonstrated that the opera house is not an area in which her talents shine to best advantage. The audience loved it all.

Paris - 19 June
Dvorak: Rusalka

  • The Paris Opera finally opened its doors to Rusalka, one hundred years after its premiere. Musically the evening was a triumph, James Conlon coaxing Wagnerian intensity from the orchestra. Renée Fleming in the title role was not in her best form, but she always has the audience with her. The middle of the voice was not always audible. This was not a problem for Eva Urbanova as the Foreign Princess whose voice sounds even more impressive in person than on recordings. Larissa Diadkova's Jezibaba allowed us to revel in her glorious lower register. Sergei Larin's Prince made the most of the heroic moments while not neglecting the lyric aspects of the role. Franz Hawlata's Vodnik matched his partners. Unfortunately, Robert Carsen - in the modern manner - decided to ignore the fairy tale and impose his own psychological interpretation, which was in fact extremely confusing as all the women had the same costume while the men all wore double-breasted suits. While it was clear that the Foreign Princess was the alter ego of Rusalka, was Jezibaba Rusalka's mother or was she a pimp or what? Was the Prince another version of the Vodnik, who is of course Rusalka's father? The set closely resembled that for Alcina of a few years back, the first act a horizontal mirror-image, the second act vertical, so that while trying to unravel Carsen's overlay one tended to lose track of the wonderful music.

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