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9 January - Lyons

  • Thomas Hampson is touring Die Winterreise this winter, an event that the Lyonnais public in great number feel is an event not to be missed. One of the foremost lieder singers of his generation, Hampson does not disappoint with a masterful performance, but there is nonetheless more than a hint of calculation. My neighbors are impressed with the total fusion of singer and pianist, but I am too often distracted by the excessive grimaces of Wolfram Rieger. And while he echoes much of the baritone's interpretation, there are occasional pianistic failings as well. It has been far too long since I last heard this cycle in concert, and the fashion in which Hampson builds to the final song, "Der Leierman" is a reminder that recordings are no substitute for the direct experience in which the performer-audience reaction is a crucial element.

13 January - Lyons

  • While Rameau's Dardanus has occasionally been revived and even recorded, the existing cd version is a personal hodgepodge put together by Raymond Leppard. Marc Minkowski has chosen to tour this year with the first version of 1739, with one major addition from the 1744 much altered text, an indispensable tenor aria, here admirably sung by John Mark Ainsley in the title role. Véronique Gens as the heroine was in resplendent voice, easily matching the rounder tones produced by Mireille Delunsch as Vénus. The contrasting sounds of Laurent Naouri, Russell Smythe and Jean-Philippe Courtis were well deployed in the bass roles. As usual, Minkowski had Les Musiciens du Louvre singing and playing in optimum form, so that the forthcoming Archiv recording should fill an enormous gap in our knowledge of the composer but also the yawning chasm in the record cataloues.

8 February - Montpellier

  • Barely back from a sunny holiday and it's off to Montpellier for a Sunday matinée of Samson et Dalila. For some strange reason, this is being given in the newer building used by the Opéra rather than the 19th century house, which is more or less contemporaneous with the work. More's the pity as the singers would not have had to force and might have found it easier to sustain the leisurely tempi of conductor Emmanuel Joël, but they unfortunately would still have had to deal with the ineptitudes of Jean-Marc Forêt's staging. While few ideas were in evidence for the first two acts other than the now shop-worn concentration camp outfits and valises for the chorus, presenting the last act in a circus tent from which Samson emerges victorious in apotheosis at the end is ludicrous. Stephen O'Mara's lack of heroic tone and the hardly seductive high notes of Sylvie Brunet in the title roles were further shortcomings in a performance from which only Alain Fondary's High Priest emerged unscathed.

10 February - Lyons

  • Andreas Homoki's Geneva production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice turned up as a vehicle for Nathalie Stutzmann and Frans Brüggen who barely survived the confrntation with a lot of nonsense onstage featuring loose pages of music which then became pieces of decor in an enlarged format. Even sillier was having Euridice search among a lot of Orfeos during the scene in Elysium rather than the reverse. Amor as a perky adolescent schoolboy is another dubious notion, particularly when the singer confuses perkiness with faulty intonation. Virginie Pochon's desperate Euridice had an ideal partner in Stutzmann, whose luscious tones are ideal for the role of Orfeo, though the higher notes in "Che faro" were not ideally placed; the music was appropriately decorated nonetheless. Brüggen seemed more at home than a few years ago when he conducted his first opera in Amsterdam, a disastrous Idomeneo which was also sabotaged by an incompetent stage director.

12 February - Monte Carlo

13 February - Paris

  • After the composer-provoked mini-scandal at last year's Salzburg Festival, Ligeti's Grand Macabre came to the Châtelet. It is clear that Peter Sellar's tendency to topicalize the works he chooses to stage too often results in trivialization, which is exactly what happened to Ligeti's comedy in Sellars' scenic adaptation. In violation of a basic rule for operatic stage directors - stay away from a work in which you do not believe - the work has been updated to a place being destroyed by atomic weapons. A nude Venus remains nude as a scarred chief of the secret police on a stretcher. While many at Salzburg seemed to find Ligeti's music dated, I wonder if it was not the antics of the stage director which contributed to this sentiment. There was little to fault in the work of Esa-Pekka Salonen or the Philharmonia Orchestra, while the hand-picked cast had a whale of a time, particularly such larger-than-life personalities as Graham Clark, Steven Cole, Willard White, Richard Suart and Derek Lee Ragin. Sibylle Ehlert showed no signs of discomfort in the stratospheric range of Venus/Gepopo, nor did she seem particularly bothered by being in the nude. With any luck, Sony will have recorded the work for its ongoing Ligeti series which may enable us to give a proper assessment.

14 February - Paris

18 February - Montpellier

  • Gluck's comic operas are difficult to bring off today, their gentle comedy and gentle music not to contemporary taste. Les Pélérins de Mècque was a much used libretto - even Haydn turning it into L'Incontro Improviso - with the composer supplying music in many genres, from opérette to opera seria. When the director and designer for this production backed out on short notice, choreographer Ana Yepes agreed to stage the piece, and with designer Françoise Tournafond decided to use a 1930s Hollywood background, for no clear reason to this viewer. Yepes was much more adept at imparting a sense of stylish and stylized movement to the singers than at creating a coherent spectacle. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants made their first assault on one of the high priests of the 18th century, but it is unfortunate that the work is one that almost fades into the woodwork. The orchestra was also not in its best form ever, nor were most of the cast, two major exceptions being Annick Massis as the Princess Rezia, her stylish singing offering a lesson to her colleagues, and Philippe Fourcade in the comic role of the painter Vertigo, his major contribution in the last act almost being worth the wait.

21 February - Nancy

  • A triple bill entitled "Portraits de Femme" enabled us to hear Poulenc's Voix Humaine, Britten's Phaedra and, most intriguing, Henri Rabaud's Appel de la Mer. As is often the case, it is the least-known work that offered the most satisfaction, not only because it deepened out knowledge of a composer who is not granted much space in either the French or English-language reference works, but because it offered the most satisfying performance of the evening. A deep-rooted aversion to the music of his more advanced contemporaries did not prevent Rabaud from utilising any means available to sustain a musical argument. This French-language version of Synge's Riders to the Sea makes us feel the hostility of the elements in the lives of the Irish peasants, the groundswells of the ocean almost palpable. Nadine Denize (Maurya) personified peasant resignation, despite her too-young appearance and her consonant-free singing. Anne-Marguerite Werster and Monique Pagé as daughters Nora and Catleen had sufficient presence not to be entirely dominated by Denize. Director Charles Tordjman let the drama speak for itself, the best approach in this instance. One unifying factor was conductor Mark Foster, most comfortable in the Rabaud and Britten, Poulenc's sophistication a more difficult task as it was for designer Jean-Paul Chambas. A second director, Antoine Bourseiller, decided that Britten's dramatic cantata needed to be fleshed out with actors portraying Hippolytus, Oenone and Theseus, to little end. Fortunately, Sylvie Brunet has the intensity to bring off the work, but the loud unpleasant sound she makes is sometimes counterproductive. Valérie Millot has the voice for Poulenc, which is in fact the least important element in the lyric monologue as her projection of the text lacked the underlying desperation and chic that characterize the work.

22 February - Strasbourg

  • Reimann's Gespenster Sonate was receiving its French premiere in this production - why? Reimann is not an easy composer to listen to, his tendency to have singers all over their compass uncomfortable, and his taste for "big" literary subjects not always congenial to their being suitable operatic subjects. High-tech, mirrored sets by Alexander Weig and a complicated staging by Anja Sündermann of Strindberg's no less complicated play left this viewer totally perplexed. Olivier Desjours led a 12-man chamber orchestra and a no-holds-barred cast in a 90-minute marathon that left me exhausted, and I imagine the singers as well. Robert Bork's Hummel and Christian Baumgärtel's Arkenholz dominated a cast with no weak links, but to what end?

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