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20 November - Paris

  • If your vision of the "Presentation of the Rose" in Act 2 of Der Rosenkavalier resembles "Barbie and Ken go to the prom", then you would have felt perfectly at home at this first Parisian performance of a co-production with the Salzburg Festival. Despite Herbert Wernicke's note in the program that he has followed the instructions of the libretto and score, there is ample room to dispute him, particularly in his staging of the last act trio and duet which surpassed acceptable levels of frivolity and lightheadedness in dealing with a text, although I realize this is of little importance today. Wernicke's sets made use of Martinoty mirrors, already a tired concept, his costumes were generally unflattering to the women. All the more's the pity as the music-making was at a high level, from Edo de Waart in the pit who now seems to have found a balance between illusory excitement and restraint in the guise of flaccidity. Renée Fleming's Marschallin may not have the wished-for clarity of diction as my Austrian neighbor pointed out, but her singing remains impressive to all but some of my French colleagues. Barbara Bonney is an excellent Sophie though she has to strain at the top, while Susan Graham's Oktavian may be a shade too feminine even though her singing cannot be faulted. Franz Hawlata's Ochs has the age for the role but lacks the vocal richness which is part and parcel of the concept.

22 November - Paris

  • Hänsel und Gretel is an opera appreciated by most people even if it is far from being a great favorite of audiences. Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia Orchestra gave a slimmed-down reading, which was all to the benefit of the score. Designer-director Yannis Kokkos, without offering profundity or over-intellectualism, demonstrated that he can fulfill both aspects of his self-appointed task. He was aided by Randi Stene and Ruth Ziesak in the title roles, the latter perhaps a touch too girlish in sound but both impeccable as children. Although there is a certain tradition of offering the role of the Witch to a tenor, in this case Georges Gautier, the tessitura is more naturally suitable for a mezzo. Franz-Josef Kapellmann's Father, highly sympathetic, had the misfortune of being paired with Dame Gwyneth Jones, enormously embarrassing at this point.

23 November - Monte Carlo

  • To celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Grimaldi dynasty in Monaco, Simon Boccanegra was chosen as the opera for this year's national holiday on 19 November. (In case you've forgotten, Maria is first made known to us as Amelia Grimaldi.) Hero of the performance was conductor Daniel Oren who clearly knows how an opera is put together and how to make it work, obtaining excellent playing from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Marina Mescheriakova's Maria offered some touching singing, some beautiful soft high notes and the occasionally squally high note but her presence is already quite special. Leo Nucci in the title role was a pleasant surprise, his singing controlled and emotionally involved. Giorgio Merighi's Gabriele showed few signs of a career that already goes back 35 years, but it is difficult to speak of any dramatic presence. And then there were the disasters: Ruggiero Raimondi's Fiesco is in the same vocal state as Dame Gwyneth (see above), lots of wobble and faulty pitching, a generally disappointing end to what was a satisfying career. Emilio Sagi's wooden staging in Francesco Calcagnini's over-powering sets offered no compensatory flashes of illumination.

28 November - Lyons

  • Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players turned up at the Auditorium Ravel for the opening of the Festival of Vieux Lyon. Handel's Solomon was the program in its entirety. The work is full of beauty, but the entire first act can easily turn off an audience, despite the superior performances of Andreas Scholl in the title role and Alison Hagley as his Queen. Charles Daniels and Peter Harvey are perfect examples of what in my youth were disparagingly referred to as "oratorio" singers, i.e. their voices would not cut the mustard in the opera house, and they were pretty much restricted to the minor leagues. Susan Bickley's timely arrival for the second act and the dispute of the harlots livened things up, as did some of Handel's more rousing choruses, but the lack of drama keeps this oratorio on the sidelines, Saul, Belshazzar and Hercules - to name but a few - offering characters and events to sustain our interest.

30 November - Lyons

  • The production of Orphée aux Enfers which I saw in Geneval last September has settled into the Opéra de Lyon for the holiday season, with EMI on hand to produce a cd and French television a tape for eventual broadcast. What only was promising in Geneva turned into a finished performance here, in part because of two changes in cast: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt in the role of Pluton and Natalie Dessay as Euridice. This is not to disparage their predecessors, but when two such bêtes de scène, accompanied by Laurent Naouri's Jupiter, are on hand, there is no telling what will happen. Dessay's mini-skirted spice girl turned into a sort of Zizi Jeanmaire for the final scene, and she has the legs and litheness to go along with the impersonation. Like many a talented young artist, she is beginning to accumulate her detractors (is this a good sign?), but this performance was for me the consecration of a fascinating artist. Marc Minkowski and the Orchestre de l'Opéra operated on a single wavelength, which further strengthened the show, while Laurent Pelly's direction had been tightened so that the afternoon flew by.

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