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January - February 2003

Paris - 29 - 30 January
Rubinstein:- The Demon
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

St. Etienne - 31 January
Gounod: La Reine de Saba

  • Once again, the Esplanade Saint-Etienne Opéra defends the French lyric heritage by presenting Gounod's Reine de Saba (31 January), a co-production with the Festival della Valle d'Itria-Martina Franca (reviewed in Opera, January 2002). The opera is based on a tale by Gérard de Nerval, which might explain the Turkish-like setting chosen by producer Jean-Louis Pichon and designer Alexandre Heyraud. It does not, however, explain the peculiar decision to have two actors representing Nerval and a Storyteller, with the action somewhat resembling the events recounted in the libretto, nor why Adoniram's apprentice Benoni is no longer a travesty role, but a female servant. There is no denying that Heyraud's set fit very well into the courtyard in Martina Franca and that it is beautifully designed, but its relevance could be questioned. Conductor Laurent Campellone seems almost as adept as Patrick Fournillier in this repertory, only once misstepping by not allowing soprano Jialin-Marie Zhang (Balkis) to expand properly the closing phrases of what is perhaps the opera's best-known aria, 'Plus grand dans son obscurité'. Zhang has sufficient voice for the role even though she is not a falcon (we should not forget that the creator of the role was also the first Eboli); her French is also excellent. That alas cannot be said of Jeong-Won Lee (Adoniram), whose tenor voice indeed possesses ringing high notes, but whose approach is note to note without the least notion of phrasing. Marcel Vanaud nobly demonstrated why Soliman was a role much sought after, his aria a high point of the performance. Unlike the otherwise attractive recording on Dynamic, the remaining roles were all taken by French-speaking singers better able to cope with the nuances of the French language, an aspect not to be overlooked in performances of this repertory. The work itself is well worth hearing even though Gounod's treatment of the libretto's more Meyerbeerian moments does not represent his work at its best. It is to the solos, duets and mood-setting choruses that we must look for examples of his mastery.

Montpellier - 6 February
Bellini: I Capuleti e i Montecchi

  • One can often rely on the Opéra National de Montpellier to provide us with an enticing repertory. My first visit of the season was to hear I Capuleti e i Montecchi (6 February) in a version using the Vaccai ending that Maria Malibran preferred to Bellini's. That version has always been known because of its inclusion in an appendix to the Ricordi score, but it was a recording featuring Veselina Kasarova that set things right by allowing us to hear the rondo finale for Giulietta rather than allowing the curtain to fall upon the death of the lovers. More's the pity as Inva Mula (Giulietta) was in fact the sole principal up to her role. Mula knows just how to imbue Bellini's melody with the romantic pathos that is essential, a characteristic that her Romeo, Valentina Kutzarova, has not yet mastered. Kutzarova, who is Bulgarian, has a voice that cannot really plumb the vocal depths that are part of the writing, the sound being much too clear and lacking in body. Tenor Leonid Bomstein's Tebaldo was of the Kurt Baum school of semaphoring, rendering his aria totally ludicrous. Basses Paolo Battaglia (Capellio) and Wojtek Smilek (Lorenzo) have little to do in the opera but furnish harmonic depth, which they did with varying authority. Producer Stanislas Nordey opted for simplicity, the chorus manoeuvring into a solid block downstage for many of their interventions, the soloists singing straight out to the audience, though they sometimes were placed in picturesque arrangements, such as the lovers placed back to back rather than facing one another, or the apotheosis-ending in which they remain standing as they die. The set of Emmanuel Clolus was assembled one scene at a time, ending with Giulietta imprisoned for the penultimate scene, the last being a dark void. Conductor Antonello Allemandi did not always succeed in taming the orchestra, while there were a few too many unsynchronized moments in this third of four performances.

Toulouse - 7 February
Berg: Lulu

  • The first performances in Toulouse of Lulu (three-act version) scored a success, the audiences taking it all in stride, including the provocative production of Pet Halmen, also responsible for sets, costumes and lighting (7 February). Several images remain with this viewer - the large head centre stage that confronts us from the moment we enter the theatre, separating to reveal the prescribed circus amphitheatre converted into a surgical domain, with places for each of the characters, the animal tamer becoming a surgeon. At the end of the Prologue, everyone leaves the stage except Jack, who remains throughout as observer. The portrait of Lulu is Courbet's scandalous Origine du Monde, which emphasizes Halmen's take on Lulu as exclusively sexual object, although Marisol Montalvo in the title role tries to give her greater depth. She courageously parades through much of the first act wearing a string bikini and little else (a few strategically placed tassels for her cabaret performance), while easily encompassing the almost impossible tessitura of the role. Wolfgang Schöne's familiarity with the role of Dr Schön is an asset as he easily slips into this production, while Franz Mazura now assumes the role of Shigolch, not as wheezy as some but singing the role as if it were second nature, something the entire cast does which was not the case when Lulu first began to be performed regularly in the 1960s. Gilles Ragon (Painter) sang with greater freedom than Richard Decker (Alwa), the latter not always negotiating with ease his perilous role, additionally hampered by an unflattering wig. Robert Bork's Athlete/Animal Tamer allowed us once again to appreciate a considerable artist, firm of voice and Katharine Goeldner's final moments as Geschwitz were genuine tragedy. Lulu's red hair and clothing set off Halmen's black, gray and white Art-Deco settings and costumes and facial makeup, further dehumanizing the characters. Günter Neuhold did not coax a sensuous sound from the Orchestre du Capitole as others have done, but there is no denying the fluency with which the score was played.

Lausanne - 21 February
Offenbach: Contes d'Hoffmann

  • Perhaps one day we will have all the pieces to the puzzle that is Les Contes d'Hoffmann, but the version presented by the Opéra de Lausanne is now the one that, in certain instances, comes closest to the composer's intentions. For the first time we have the ending to the Giulietta Act, and it is far more effective than anything hitherto encountered. Jean-Christophe Keck together with Marc Minkowski has come up with a practical performing edition for these performances in Lausanne, so that audiences were able to go home at a reasonable hour. Among the editorial choices, often requiring orchestration by Keck, were replacing Dapertutto's inconsequential 'Tourne, miroir' with an even earlier aria with melodic similarity to the now discredited 'Scintille, diamant'. As practical musicians rather than musicologists, Keck and Minkowski also opted to replace Nicklausse's little aria in the Olympia act with one in Spanish mode that was later discarded. In both instances, the major argument was the greater musical interest of these pieces. Less convincing musically was the duet for Stella and Hoffmann fashioned by Keck from the composer's sketches, though it certainly had dramatic force.

    It is difficult to select one element as the driving force behind the success of this production, so entirely did it give the impression of being a fusion of talents. Minkowski's Offenbachian credentials are by now well documented, and he continues to give the lie to those who tell us that the composer was not a talented orchestrator. Laurent Pelly has finally come up with a production that does not closely resemble his previous work with Minkowski, so that the element of déjà vu was kept to a minimum - we won't talk about the trench-coated reporters who made up the chorus of guests for the Olympia scene. Chantal Thomas opted for fludity in her set designs, reinforcing a feeling of claustrophobia when necessary. Pelly's costume designs were also simple, so that attention was never distracted from the matter at hand, music-drama.

    Marlin Miller in the title role has a light lyric tenor, almost never forcing in the small confines of the Théâtre Municipale, but we hope it is a role that he will for the moment not sing too often. Laurent Naouri as the villain had ample opportunity to show off his bass-baritone, as impressive physically as vocally. Mireille Delunsch took the female roles, her technique easily encompassing Olympia (down a half-tone) while having a wonderful time being moved around on a camera boom (not visible at first) and then - I think - on a skateboard; she followed this up with a sickly Antonia who made us feel her plight while singing impeccably, then an implacable Giulietta (without an aria) and finally Stella. Stéphanie d'Oustrac opens and closes the opera as the Muse who metamorphoses into Nicklausse. In all the recent editions, this is a role equal in stature to that of Hoffmann, the villains and the heroines; d'Oustrac easily encompasses the dramatic aspects, but on this occasion her singing was not always up to her customary standard, with problems on the high notes of a wide-ranging part and not always dulcet-toned. Steven Cole's four servants were less obnoxious than usual, with significant contributions from François Leroux (Crespel), Eric Huchet (Spalanzani), Sylvie Brunet (Mother), Franck Leguérinel (Hermann/Schlémil) and Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro (Nathanaël). Additional dialogues by Agathe Mélinand, also the dramaturge, clarified some aspects of the story but perhaps placed an additional burden on the principal singers. There was little evidence of the work of choreographer Laura Scozzi who did,however, receive a credit in the programme. In short, a fascinating evening, one whose total effect far exceeded the sum of its parts thanks to a true ensemble feeling.

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