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September - November 2003

Lausanne - 26 September
Cilèa: Adriana Lecouvreur

  • IF Adriana Lecouvreur is to be presented, it is wise to make certain that the right singer has been engaged. The multi-talented Manon Feubel unfortunately demonstrated that having a lustrous voice is far from sufficient for this opera. Being able to sing Aida or even Fauré's Pénélope does not necessarily mean that lesser verismo is within one's means. Feubel had the misfortune of being placed under the direction of Alain Garichot whose sole notion seems to have been that the singers should stare off somewhere into the middle distance, thus avoiding eye contact with one another or the audience. Victor Torres as Michonnet came the closest to giving a complete performance under these circumstances, while Federica Proietti (Principessa) was preocuupied with vamping around the stage, perhaps to distract us from the blowsiness of her singing. Much interest focussed on Nicola Rossi Giordano's Maurizio. He showed a voice of considerable promise, but should he so early in his career be singing in such operas as Aida or Tosca or Boccanegra? His instincts are solid, but the sound is too open. It is amazing that in the long rehearsal period common to European theaters that Garichot could not rid the tenor of his monotonous hand gestures that had little purpose. Lili Kendaka's set consisted of a raised platform at the back of the stage that was differently masked in each of the four acts, but only in the first act was it remotely plausible. Updating the action to the turn of the 19th-20th centuries did little service to the work, particularly as it basically required tent-like costumes for Feubel. Claude Schnitzler and the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne treated the score lavishly, but no one else did.

Geneva - 27 September
Moussorgsky: Boris Godunov

  • Geneva once again chose to present the ur-Boris of 1869, with one addition from the later version, the Innkeeper's ditty. One of the advantages of the first version is that attention remains focussed on Boris, with only Pimen and perhaps the chorus providing a counter-weight. This focus was dissipated with an intermission after the Inn scene, so that Boris only made an episodic appearance prior to the intermission (but was in all three of the scenes that followed). Once again, designer-director Pierre Strosser showed us how fond he is of elegant cabinetwork, the unit set consisting of a round wall occupying two thirds of the stage which encompassed the Duma. There was a cloudy cyclorama behind and a large globe and that was it. Elegant costumes by Patrice Cauchetier were updated to the 1890s, covering all social classes so that Mityukh's orders to kneel were obeyed only by those in "poor" outfits, but not the bourgeoisie. Julian Konstantinov in the title role seemed more absorbed than last year in Paris, but he is also vocally stretched on occasion. Alexander Anisimov's Pimen could not impose his character so that the balance was slightly off. Feodor Kuznetsov's Varlaam made the most of his song, while Armand Arapian profited from the larger role that devolves on Tchelkalov in this version. Graham Clark was ill so he mimed the role while Stuart Kale sang from the corner of the stage, an unsatisfactory solution as Clark seemed mostly to be walking through the role rather than investing it with any sort of characterization. Bernhard Kontarsky and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande showed once again that there is no reason to resort to anything but the composer's version.

Montpellier - 4 October
Respighi : La campana sommersa

  • Audiences remain eternally greatful to René Koering, the music czar not only of the city of Montpellier but also of France Musiques. His unbounded curiosity has given us concert performances - followed by live recordings - of some extraordinary events, e.g. the first performance of Offenbach's complete Rheinnixen as well as such verismo oddities as Mascagni's Parisina, Ponchielli's Marion Delorme and Alfano's Risurezzione. It is entirely reasonable to expect that this performance of Respighi's version of Gerhardt Hauptmann's symbolic fantasy will follow suit. The music shows the influence of one of Respighi's teachers, Rimski-Korsakov, with its sensuous colors, sumptuous orchestration mixed with almost chamber-music-like moments. It goes on a bit too long, perhaps, but we are constantly amazed at the composer's inventiveness. Laura Aikin as the elf, Rautendelein, a role that Elisabeth Rethberg sang at the work's Met premiere, never flinched before the difficulties: long stretches at the top of the register, difficult intervals, sustained lyricism. John Daszak's Enrico, the blacksmith who made the bell that was destroyed at the start of the action in a sort of never-never land and who falls in love with the elf, had the requisite power to rise over the sometimes Wagnerian orchestra. The only other major role is that of the water sprite, here taken by Roderick Earle. Ewa Wolak had the opportunity to display her sepulchral tones as the Witch, and Alessandra Rezza as the discarded wife made the most of her few opportunities to display an ample soprano. Once again, Friedemann Layer and the Orchestre National de Montpellier showed their adaptability to a foreign idiom.

Paris - 29 October
Berlioz - Les Troyens

see feature review

Lyons - 30 October
Berg: Wozzeck

  • What should have been a repeat performance from last summer's Aix Festival became the premiere of Stéphane Braunschweig's take on Wozzeck. The director-set designer is so concerned with giving Wozzeck a context he feels is lacking that before the opera begins Marie and the Child arrive onstage, sit down and sleep until it is their turn to participate. Wozzeck then enters, briefly forms a photo opportunity with them, and we are perhaps meant to see the events as Wozzeck's dying flashback. Marie's continual presence onstage does not always make sense, but how many directors today are concerned with that sort of thing? The stage is quite bare so that we focus on the characters, considerably aided by the lighting of Marion Hewlett and Patrice Lechevallier. Braunschweig has done a reasonable job of delineating the interactions between the many characters though his characterization of the Captain as a doddering queen might be contested. Conductor Lothar Koenigs led one of the most natural-sounding accounts of the score I have heard, while the performances of Dietrich Henschel in the title role and Nina Stemme as Marie would be difficult to better. Kim Begley's Drum-Major was a bit in retreat as he was generally kept upstage, while Walter Fink (Doctor) and Pierre Lefebvre (Captain) made more of an impression.

St. Etienne - 7 November
Massenet: Sapho

  • Saint Etienne's 7th Festival Massenet featured the rarely-performed Sapho based on a novel by Alphonse Daudet. Written for Emma Calvé to perform at the Opéra-Comique where the public was clearly more open-minded than it had been when Carmen was first performed, we are presented with an updating of the plot of Traviata, except that the heroine does not die at the end. Fanny Legrand, an artists' model known as Sapho falls in love with a young man from the provinces, Jean Gaussin, who leaves her when he finds out the truth about her past. They are reunited, but it is Fanny who decides to leave him as their love would always be tarnished by his knowledge of her past. As with its predecessor, Sapho has a contemporary setting, brilliantly set off by Frédéric Pineau's costumes. Alexandre Heyraud's unit set consisted of a glassed in studio with a wrought-iron balcony and spiral staircase, a concept that posed problems during the more intimate moments. Jean-Louis Pichon's production was efficient but in the absence of a soprano with a strong personality to take the title role, the evening fell a bit flat. Danielle Streiff's Sapho was too uncertain of pitch and too weak of character so that her moments of decision left us totally unmoved. Luca Lombardo's Jean sang quite well but was too stiff a provincial to make us believe that he could sufficiently loosen up to fall in love with Fanny. The remaining roles are all incidental, though Florence Vinit's Irene made a positive contribution, with Patrick Vilet's Caoudal Erik Freulon's Césaire offering good support. Valérie Marestin's stiff-backed Divonne was betrayed by her tremulous mezzo. Unfortunately diction was not especially clear, which may have been an advantage considering the now dated text. Why choreographer Laurence Fanon and four dancers were allowed such prominence is a mystery as their interventions were tasteless. Conductor Laurent Campellone allowed the orchestra once again to display their affinity for Massenet.

Lausanne - 14 November
Verdi - La Traviata

  • La Traviata was maltreated by producers Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier who updated the work to today (disco dance movements during choral interventions, cocaine sniffing) and by whoever chose Alexia Cousin for the title role. Cousin has been through her share of vocal upheavals lately, cancelling engagements, taking on music that should perhaps be left for later. Here, no amount of writhing, rocking and rolling could disguise the fact that she is in no way vocally equipped to sing Violetta. As we have already remarked, the high notes are totally out of balance with the rest of the voice, full and loud even when she should be trying to sing softly. The end of the first act, even transposed down a half-tone, was vocally rough at this third of five performances. One cannot fault her acting, however. Tracey Welborn, strongly resembling John Cusack, was a bit undercast as Alfredo, sometimes straining to be heard. Singing his aria to a cell phone was perhaps a way of dealing with the pauses in the recitative but was simply a gimmick. Wojtek Drabowicz was the sole principal vocally apt for his role (Germont), sympathetic but dramatically ill at ease. Conductor Stephen Sloane's competent direction never fired up the tension. Designer Christian Fenouillat showed that he can design a set without using swashes of colour on blank walls, while Agostino Cavalca's costumes were seemingly bought off the rack.

Geneva - 15 November
Janácek: Katia Kabanova

  • Katia Kabanova was reset by director Katie Mitchell somewhere around the time of its composition (late 1920s), with the result that Vicki Mortimer's costumes for the women were singularly unbecoming. Her set designs were functional, white panels at the proscenium opening to different widths and heights for each of the scenes. Why the outdoors was for the most part neglected puzzles me, the first scene set in a café with the different characters constantly changing tables for their interchanges, odd and at the same time confusing, while the last scene takes place in a train station, most likely so that we can see Varvara and Vania literally escaping to Moscow. Mitchell ignored this textual references as well as Boris being sent to Siberia by his uncle, phrases that were utterly ridiculous in the time frame chosen for the production. Characters smoking cigarettes which smelled as if they dated from the same period evoked loud coughing spells from the audience on the three occasions they were used. Jiri Belohlávek had the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande enjoying the orchestral writing, something not always experienced in performances of the composer's work. Cheryl Barker in the title role may not have the most sensuous of soprano voices, but she is as much in control of her voice as her acting, convincing us of Katia's plight, caught between a weak husband (Peter Hoare) and a harridan of a mother-in-law (Nadine Denize) on the one hand and her ardent lover (Peter Straka). All three are on the same level as Barker, as are the irreplaceable Dagmar Peckova (Varvara) and the charmer Vanya as sung by Gordon Gietz. To her credit, she resisted the temptation to make a total caricature of Dikoy (Bernard Deletré). In short, an excellent performance, marred by the producer's futile alterations to the creators' intentions.

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