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September - October 2002

Lausanne - 20 September
Messager: Véronique

  • André Messager is today best-known as the first conductor of Pelléas et Mélisande and Louise, so that we tend to overlook his large compositional output. He is the most significant composer of opérette and opéra-comique after Offenbach, if not the most renowned, his craftsmanship perhaps too elegant and refined for contemporary fans of the genre. The composer's most frequently performed work, Véronique, as staged by Alain Garichot captured the spirit and made us forget the more dated aspects of the piece. Denis Fruchaud's simple décors, white panels with some red touches, set off the handsome costumes by Claude Masson. The sparkle provided by conductor Nicolas Chalvin and the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne added to our enjoyment. The singers had worked very hard with Garichot and the dialogues never sagged, as can sometimes happen in performances with spoken text. Christine Rigaud in the title role charmed the audience as easily as she did Jean-Sébastien Bou in the role of Florestan. Her clear soprano contrasted well with that of Fabienne Hermenjat who had the equally substantial role of Agathe. Bou's clear baritone (he also sings Pelléas, emulating Jean Périer who created both roles) reminds one of a young François Leroux, with an equally vivid presence. Marie-Thérèse Keller (Ermerance) trod the fine line between characterisation and caricature inherent in her role, amusing us the while with her reactions to the events around her.

Geneva - 21 September
Verdi: Don Carlo

  • Don Carlo (and not Don Carlos as the programme insisted) opened the season in Geneva, somewhat undercast and under-directed. Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier can be extremely erratic in their productions: excellent Ring, Betrothal in a Monastery, Pelléas et Mélisande in Geneva or Benvenuto Cellini in Lyons or The Nose in Lausanne, to name but a few, contrasted with other less successful productions as Ariane et Barbe-Bleue or Lucie de Lammermoor in Lyons. Designer Christian Fenouillat is a faithful partner, but when he reverts to his formulaic streakily-painted walls, Caurier and Leiser tend to revert to opera by the numbers. Agostino Cavalca, another faithful partner, seems to have used his imagination in creating magnificent costumes for the female leads (but why only one costume for the entire opera), the men wearing something resembling 19th century frock coats and open collars, the ladies in waiting resembling geishas with their elaborate coiffures, while the lower classes looked to have been dressed by the Salvation Army. Fenouillat's promenading panels had the advantage of providing a wall that Octavio Arevalo in the title role used to project his voice. And there is the problem: Arevalo and Victor Torres (Rodrigo) have voices that are too clear, that lack substance, and have difficulty in projecting much beyond the second row (where I was placed), whatever their other virtues as performers may be. Gidon Saks, miscast as Filippo II, submerged the others under his raucous voice, while Askar Abdrazakov's Grand Inquisitor lacked authority in his confrontation with the King. We fared much better with the women. Olga Guryakova was a touching Elisabetta, lacking perhaps a bit at the bottom of the voice, but rising to all the climaxes, whether soft or loud, with total authority. Further experience in the role should allow her to eliminate some of the awkward breaks in the vocal line. Irina Mishura's Eboli was both effective and efficient, though like the others she too often seemed to be just standing around rather than interacting with the other characters in the drama.

Marseilles - 8 October
Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia

  • Nelly Miricioiu and Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia are a potent mix. Unfortunately conductor Oleg Caetani and director Uwe Eric Laufenberg did their best to dilute the potion. Despite claims to be using Donizetti's 1840 revision of the score-cabaletta for Lucrezia's first aria, revised finale with tenor interjection and no cabaletta-the soprano had neither cabaletta to sing because of the musical insignificance of the first and the fact that the latter did not match the producer's 'concept'. That it was Miricioiu who was singing, one of the few sopranos today able to impart dramatic potency to the bel canto idiom, seems not to have been a consideration, despite the fact that the composer himself sanctioned a conflation of the new and old finales. Caetani's inflexible beat along with his tendency to go for loud, louder, loudest did little to rally an orchestra that needs discipline and matched Laufenberg's knock-em-dead approach. The curtain rises to reveal a stage open to the back wall with its large freight entrance open to the street so that we could see the cars and pedestrians passing, with a procession of (presumably) Lucrezia and some followers on their way to the opera. Among Laufenberg's curious notions was staging the duet between Gennaro and Orsini as if it were a love duet. Happily, the soprano rose above all the irrelevance surrounding her to give a multi-dimensional portrayal, seconded by Bülent Bezdüz, a young Turkish tenor whose youthful appearance was singularly appropriate for the role of Gennaro. The voice is light and easily produced, occasionally swamped by the torrents unleashed by the conductor, but leaving us eager to hear him again while hoping that he does not makes unwise choices of repertoire. Katja Lytting's small-voiced Orsini disappointed, with not much in the way of a lower register. Francesco Ellero d'Artegna's wooly-voiced Alfonso rounded out the cast of principals.

Toulouse - 9 October
Wagner: Siegfried

  • The Ring goes from strength to strength in Toulouse. While conductor Pinchas Steinberg may not attain the philosophical heights of others, he gives a reading that never flags, but does not hesitate to allow the reflective moments their due. Producer Nicholas Joël's approach is in the modern vein, with Mime as Shylock complete with skullcap, or Alberich living in a dumpster, but clever enough to use a backdrop for much of the opera so that the singers were on the stage apron and easily able to project. I did like the touch of Fafner as some gigantic insect resembling a piece of machinery (or perhaps the other way round). Alan Woodrow in the title role sang with attractive timbre, pacing himelf so that he did not run out of voice for the final scene. His stocky build makes him look quite short, which is not the case at all, and his vocal ease was unfortunately allied to an occasional scenic diffidence. Janice Baird's Brünnhilde tried her best to galvanise the hero but she was ecstatic in a void. Her solid soprano (warm middle range and easy top extension) encompassed Wagner's not inconsiderable demands, particularly after several hours of waiting around. Robert Hale's Wotan is a reminder of the kind of voice that should be singing the role, still able to produce the requisite sonorities with such ease at the same time he is projecting Wotan's growing unease. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's Mime is unusual in that he is taller than Siegfried and slight of build, but his vocal authority was exactly what one hopes for in interpreters of the role. Peter Sidhom's seedy Alberich, Gudjon Oskarsson's Fafner and Qiu Lin Zhang's sonorous Erda made the most of their episodic appearances.

Lyons - 17 October
Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

  • The Opéra National de Lyon ostensibly presented Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss to open its season but the goings-on in the pit and onstage too often had me wondering if I was in the right place. Conductor Christian Badea seemed to be going through the (slow) motions, the horns not even encouraged to whoop it up during the introduction to the work. Director Kasper Holten and his designer Mari i Dali chose, of course, to update the work to the 21st century, but with major-domos and Mahomet in livery and powdered wigs, the notary's secretary equipped with cell-phone. To their credit, they made credible the Marschallin's remark that one does not leave a sword lying around in the bedroom of a lady by equipping Octavian with a large sport bad and fencing mask. Hedwig Fassbender (Marschallin) would appear to be attempting a conversion to the soprano repertoire, but though she usually has the notes at her command, the high g at the end of Act I (die silberne Rosen) was neither soft nor magical, sung for some reason with her back to the audience, as was the equally prosaic start to the trio at the end of Act III. In addition, she lacked the presence that we normally associate with interpreters of the role, though her costumes offered little help in this respect. Katherine Goeldner (Octavian) tried her best, chewing gum as Mariandel, but her voice did not always carry in the conversational moments; she did, however, deliver for the big moments. Gunther Missenhardt was a Baron Ochs in the worst country bumpkin tradition, but in the tavern scene (here a transvestite bordello) his discomfiture was increased by his Elvis Presley get-up. Patricia Petibon offered a spirited Sophie, with a few high notes screamed instead of sung, but definitely an audience favourite as she fought off the Baron's advances. David Pittman-Jennings was an apoplectic Faninal, with Ian Thompson (a seedy Valzacchi), Martine Olmeda (a light-voiced Annina) and Jean-Luc Viala (a caricatural tenor, as the composer desired) rounding out the major roles.

Paris - 18 October
Moussorgsky: Boris Godunov

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