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Opera in the Provinces is not Always Provincial

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 8 June 2001 - After suffering through a great many misconceived productions this year at the Opéra National de Paris, it is a pleasure to report that opera is alive and well in France outside the capital. It has been possible to encounter such rarities as L'Atlantide by Henri Tomasi, Marouf by Henri Rabaud and Bérénice by Alberic Magnard at the Opéra de Marseilles, Hérodiade by Jules Massenet at St. Etienne and Avignon, Ippolito ed Aricia by Tommaso Traetta at Montpellier, Vanessa by Samuel Barber at Metz and Monte Carlo (which is not France), Mignon by Ambroise Thomas at Toulouse, Der Prozess by Gottfried von Einem at Nantes. I saw most of these productions and came away with largely positive impressions, not only for the enterprise shown but also for the quality of the execution.

Mignon appears from time to time in various opera houses, the last time in France about three or four years ago. The Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse pulled out all the stops, with Susan Graham in the title role and Annick Massis as Philine. A promising tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, took the role of Wilhelm Meister. Ms. Graham missed the opening night because of illness, but when I attended (the third performance) she was in glorious form and we can only hope that she can impose the work in a few of the other opera houses where she appears regularly. Kaufmann was unfortunately not at his best, but even despite what must have been a considerable cold his intentions mark him as a singer to watch, while some of the ringing high notes showed his capacities. Annick Massis made light of the difficulties of her role, while Alain Vernhes gave us a sympathetic Lothario despite a voice that is beginning to fray. Isabelle Cals sang Frédéric and looks like she would be an excellent Cherubino as well.

Ambroise Thomas: Mignon
Jonas Kaufmann, Susan Graham and Alain Vernhes in Mignon
Nicolas Joël, Director / Photo: Patrick Riou

Nicolas Joël's production opted for simplicity, while the traditional sets and costumes of, respectively, Emilio Carcano and Gérard Audier were balm to the eyes after the aberrations that have become the rule these days. Emmanuel Villaume effectively replaced the originally scheduled Michel Plasson but he has yet to master the art of rubato, here far too obvious, calling attention to itself. In addition, the work was given complete in the version with recitatives, a good three hours of music, a respect that was certainly lacking when the work was revived at Compiègne and for some inexplicable reason recorded with an inadequate cast (except Mme. Massis).

At the Opéra de Marseille, Marouf was appropriately staged as a fairy tale, with Jean-François Lapointe perfect in the title role. His pleasant light baritone is coupled with an appealing stage presence, so that we are under his spell from start to finish. Conductor Emmanuel Joël never let the tension sag, while director Robert Fortune only once let the action become caricatural, with Jeannette Fischer's Calamiteuse, Marouf's wife. Danielle Streiff as the heroine and Nicolas Cavallier as the Sultan rounded out a cast that the audience appreciated.

Bérénice was receiving its first staged performances since its creation almost a century ago, though I have heard the work in one of its equally rare appearances in concert (about ten years ago). Charles Roubaud's staging of what is essentially a series of monologues and duets for Bérénice and Titus never lost focus throughout the three acts. Unfortunately, Isabelle Vernet, who was to have sung the title role, was replaced by a young Italian soprano, Virginia Todisco who gave of her considerable best, but she lacked any notion of the required style. Marc Barrard's soft-grained baritone occasionally got lost in a rather thick Wagnerian-type orchestration but generally gave pleasure. But what a treat to encounter these works in respectable circumstances.

Alberic Magnard : Berenice
Marc Barrard and Virginia Todisco in Bérénice
Charles Roubaud, Director / Photo: Christian Dresse

The production of Ippolito ed Aricia at Montpellier was shared with the Festival della Valle d'Itria in Martina Franca, but aurally was quite another proposition, as the Dynamic recording of the work (CDS 2571/1-4) makes clear. In Montpellier, Christophe Rousset and his band, Les Talens Lyriques, offered a more rhythmically alert reading so that the evening ended at a reasonable hour. He also made a few cuts in the score, but it was hard to determine exactly where. The work is amazing for its rich orchestration, its adaptation of the libretto used by Rameau and also its use of Rameau's ballet music, all cast in a more Italian mode. The delicious Patrizia Ciofi was the sole member of the cast in both productions, and her musicality and fluidity as Aricia are balm on the ears. Madeline Bender's Ippolito was almost as good, but her stage presence was a bit on pallid. Laura Claycomb was a fiery Fedra and John McVeigh a beleaguered Teseo. All made light of the considerable musical difficulties of their roles. The well-designed set of Paolo Bregni turned out to be cumbersome when the dancers took the stage in appalling choreography by Deda Cristina Colonna, while Guido de Monticelli's staging was at best serviceable. It is Traetta who is the hero, and while not everything on the live recording from Martina Franca has the quality of a studio recording, it at least enables us to encounter a composer who languishes in obscurity. Rousset has also recorded another opera by Traetta, Antigona (Decca 460 204-2), with Maria Bayo and Lauro Polverelli that offers further proof as to Traetta's qualities.

The city of St. Etienne opened its rebuilt theater, now known as the Opéra Massenet, with Hérodiade. The theater has always given a special place to the composer, with its biennial Massenet Festival, and this production was a remarkable achievement for a company with limited resources. The simple sets of Alexandre Heyraud and the concise production of Jean-Louis Pichon contributed to the success, while conductor Patrick Fournillier galvanized the orchestra into unrecognizable form. In addition, this was a complete performance, with ballet-though honesty compels me to state that the four dances in the last act were each taken by a single dancer. The young Alexia Cousin (23 years) as Salomé offered a strong presence and a well-schooled voice, but she might want to think some more about the relief that softer singing would give. Béatrice Uria-Monzon was imposing in the title role, with Alain Fondary's Hérode more modulated than is his wont. Luca Lombardo's Jean may not have the force for some of role's more demonstrative moments, but his lyricism is always welcome. Now on to Roma at this autumn's Festival, a production already seen at Martina Franca (and available on CD thanks to Dynamic).

Jules Massenet: Herodiade
Béatrice Uria-Monzon in Hérodiade
Jean-Louis Pichon, Director / Photo: Cyrille Sabatier

I attended the world premiere of Samuel Barber's Vanessa in January 1958, and found the performances in January in Monte Carlo as striking as that earlier occasion. The work abounds in melody, with arias for the women, striking ensembles, even though the libretto by GianCarlo Menotti may be a bit melodramatic for some tastes (but surely not those that accept the excesses of the verismo school). Kiri te Kanawa's return to the operatic stage was further cause for pleasure, and she embodied the conflicting aspects of the title character. Lucy Schauffer's Erika offered a strong contrast, while the presence of Rosalind Elias as the Baroness offered a link to 1958 when she created the role of Erika. David Maxwell Anderson's Anatol lacked the sophisticated elegance of Nicolai Gedda, more caught up in a situation not of his making, while David Evitts's Doctor was a shade too rustic for my taste. Conductor Lawrence Foster imparted his belief in the work to all the participants, while John Cox staged the work as a tribute to Ibsen.

Samuel Barber: Vanessa
Kiri te Kanawa and Lucy Schauffer in Vanessa
John Cox, Director / Photo: Opéra de Monte-Carlo


Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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