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2 December - Toulouse

  • The first staged performance in France of Janacek's Makropolous Affair in the original Czech was entrusted to the baton of the little-known James Johnson who proved to be just about ideal in that he refused to sentimentalize the sound, a fault too often encountered today. Pierre Médecin's "concept" production - a theater within a theater - could have worked had it not been so self-conscious in its application, while Hubert Monloup's sets and costumes were attuned to the director's needs. Unfortunately, Lisbeth Balslev in the title role lacked the animal magnetism that would make us feel anything at all about her, while her singing offered her customary approximations and vibrato-ridden sound. Keith Lewis shirked most of his high notes but did a better job of acting than is his wont. Sir Donald MacIntyre and Rolf Haunstein as Prus and Kolenaty were visible proof that it is possible to be a singing actor or acting singer. The Orchestre du Capitole showed its versatility in adapting to the Janacek idiom with little trouble.

4 December - Lyon

  • The second of two recording sessions for the new EMI Orphée aux Enfers was open to the public to provide ambiance, and once again it was possible to marvel at the craftsmanship of Natalie Dessay, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and Laurent Naouri who reproduced their stage goings-on without losing an ounce of spontaneity. The goddesses were replaced for the recording, so that Jennifer Smith sang Diane, Véronique Gens Vénus, Patricia Petitbon Cupidon and Virginie Pochon became Minerve, while L'Opinion Publique devolved to Ewa Podles who more than made a meal of the role, easily outclassing her colleague from the stage production. The hero remains Marc Minkowski whose embrace of farflung repertoire seems to know no bounds.

10 December - Paris

  • The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées offered the possibility of seeing Leonore and Fidelio in juxtaposition, thanks to their co-productions with, respectively, the Opéra de Lausanne and Welsh National Opera. I chose to see them in chronological order, eagerly awaiting this evening's Leonore, a work hitherto known only from recordings. Unfortunately, the much overrated Louis Langrée and the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées offered a bland underpinning, while anyone who had seen other Leiser-Caurier productions designed by Christian Fenouillat would have felt entirely at home. Susan Anthony seemed more engaged than other times I have seen her, but her gleaming top notes were not as thrilling as usual while she left out the impossible cadenza in her aria. Christopher Ventris (Florestan) and Hartmut Welker (Pizarro) were more imposing physically than vocally, while Laszlo Polgar's Rocco made me think of various war criminals who protested that they were only doing their duty. Elzbieta Szmytka and Mathias Zachariassen as the singspiel couple did double duty, appearing also in Fidelio, but evidently pleased with the greater opportunities of Leonore.

11 December - Paris

  • Die Lustige Witwe, announced as La Veuve Joyeuse, was entrusted to Armin Jordan and Jorge Lavelli, but the production was evidently constructed around the presence of Karita Mattila in the title role. A veritable force of nature, it would not appear that Hanna is a natural fit for her but she sweeps away all one's objections. Glamorous costumes (only for her) help her maintain a certain allure, at the same time demonstrating that it is possible to recreate 1930s clothing that is attractive. The hero of the performance, however, is Bo Skovhus as Danilo, a fusion of singing and acting too rarely seen today so that we are as easily seduced as Hanna. Lesser roles were filled mostly by singers who verged on inaudibility, not helped by Armin Jordan's heavy hand from the pit, not to mention Lavelli's invisible staging which was filled by such brilliant ideas as having everyone advance to the footlights to sing his or her bits.

12 December - Paris

  • Return to the Champs-Elysées for Fidelio, the orchestra and conductor in even more lamentable condition than the other evening, Elisabeth Meyer-Topsøe singing the title role even though she is having throat problems. She is nonetheless more convincing than her opposite number of the other night in delivery of dialogue. I much prefer the Florestan and Pizarro tonight (Hubert Delamboye and Robert Hale) for their more solid voices allied with a more convincing delivery of the dialogue. Kurt Rydl's Rocco is more matter-of-fact but much more solidly sung than Polgar's. Having heard the two works in such proximity, Leonore for the first time in the theatre, it is now much easier to state a preference for Fidelio, the longueurs of the earlier work offering few compensations for the concision brought by the composer with his revisions. At the same time I must confess a preference for the recitative preceding the Leonore-Florestan duet as well as the melodic curve given to the opening phrase of the duet.

13 December - Paris

  • At last a chance to catch up with Cavalli's Didone in the production staged by the Académie Baroque Européen and the Ambronay Festival, now in its final performances at the Opéra-Comique. This year's animateur, Christophe Rousset, chose two seasoned professionals for the roles of Didone and Enea, the rest of the cast chosen by audition from beginning artists. The extensive rehearsal period resulted in a performance with a cast welded in harmony. Pascal Paul-Harang's direction was always to the point, not easy with a Busenello libretto which, Shakespearean fashion, mixes the tragic heroes, comic servants and heavenly intervention. Claire Brua and Stuart Patterson as the doomed lovers set the example of intelligent and intelligible declamation of Cavalli's lengthy arioso-recitative. Only Evgueniy Alexiev's Iarba forgot to sing while producing lots of forte notes. Simple sets for touring effectively reduced the playing area, while costumes were not always becoming to the singers. It is above all the contribution of Christophe Rousset that must be singled out, his belief in a disparaged work buoying the singers to give probably the best performance heard this week.

14 December - Lyons

  • Wolfgang Rihm's Jakob Lenz, created in 1979, is denoted a "chamber opera", a reassuring concept because it is one of those works where, after 10 or 12 hours have gone by, you look at your watch and discover that in fact 20 minutes have passed and that you still have about an hour to go. A small orchestra, with cellos the only strings, is placed on one side of the stage, lots of Christmas trees fill out the remainder of the stage, while the orchestra pit is used as an additional playing area. Johannes M. Kosters in the title role is on stage non-stop, singing at all volumes from top to bottom of his voice, while Christoph Späth's hysterical tenor and Jyrki Korthonen's solid bass fill out the roles of Kaufmann and Oberlin. It is to be hoped that Berlin audiences at the Hebbel Theater, co-producer of the spectacle, are as enthusiastic as that in Lyons, my negative reaction evidently a minority opinion.

17 December - Lyons

  • Natalie Dessay takes on a new challenge. Two nights earlier she gave a recital in Paris, repeated this evening at the Opéra de Lyon as a benefit for Handicap International with the collaboration of pianist Ruben Lifschitz. A program without concession offered a little-known cycle by Pfitzner written for Maria Ivogün which might have been greeted more appreciatively had we been able to read the texts so kindly provided were the auditorium not entirely darkened. Poulenc, Debussy and Strauss rounded out the program, the latter two being especially congenial to the soprano. All the Debussy items came from the "Vasnier" collection of early Debussy with incredible demands on the soprano voice. Strauss also offered material suited to Dessay, but then he is a composer that delighted in writing for just such a voice and interpretative intelligence.

20 December - Paris

  • The Bastille (aka Opéra National de Paris) seems to be on a losing streak, the new production of La Traviata being hideously ugly, badly conceived and directed by Jonathan Miller, and uninterestingly sung by Angela Gheorghiu. James Conlon's tempi were swift beyond measure, but then the small-but-sweet-voiced Ramon Vargas and the gravelly Alexandru Agache might otherwise have been in trouble. Miller responded serenely to the booing which greeted his bow, perhaps the most exciting moment of the evening.

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