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Two couples in three cities

by Joel Kasow

yons - The increased media exposure of Angela Ghiorghiu and Roberto Alagna has raised the expectations of audiences to a level which becomes more and more difficult to sustain. The Alagnas descended on Lyons for two performances of Elisir d'Amore which were televised in HDTV, recorded for Decca/London (audio and video) and also benefitted the Fenice reconstruction fund. The last is the sole laudable aspect if what I saw at the first performance is any indication.

Frank Dunlop's updated production to the 1930s shed little light on the action, introduced Mrs. Dulcamara as a character, encouraged Alagna's booby antics which were extremely amusing as his comic talents are not that often called upon. Aside from Simone Alaimo's quack, there was little vocal pleasure to be had.

Ghiorghiu's miniscule voice at times verged on the inaudible, except for her final aria and the occasional blasted high note. Worse still, Alagna sang the entire performance without a single vocal nuance, and amusing enough as he was from a visual point of view the steady mezzo forte rapidly palled.Their recent cancellation of dates in London due to exhaustion may offer a partial explanation for this minority report.

Roberto Scalitri's Belcore was also amusing to watch, but his forced singing out of one side of his mouth was unpleasant to watch and not always easy on the ear. Evelino Pido kept things under control, but his personal contribution was imperceptible. The audience loved it, reserving a genuine ovation for the end. Let us hope that the recorded version is not a replica of what I heard but more musically responsible.

eneva - A trip to Geneva for the seldom-encountered Hamlet of Ambroise Thomas was well worth the detour. Simon Keenlyside in the title role displayed excellent French, entered into the skin of his character to the extent that he once or twice threatened to go off the vocal rails, and is a worthy competitor to Thomas Hampson's more traditional view of the character (as seen at Monte Carlo a few years back).

Natalie Dessay's Ophélie cannot be considered a revelation as her career is one I've followed for several years. Her singing and acting fuse into a total portrayal, capped by a mad scene which sent chills down the spine. Her Lucia can't be too far away, but we will have to adjust our ears to the pre-Sutherland era. Alain Vernhes's Claudius showed once again his capacities as a singing actor, the words crisply enunciated, the voice a solid bass-baritone capable of providing the necessary counterweight to the young lovers. Kathryn Harries, replacing the ailing Martine Dupuy, was certainly in the same league from a visual point of view, but her singing offered no pleasure with its squally high notes and wide, uncontrolled vibrato.

Louis Langrée's conducting was the best I've heard from him to date, the direction of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser was up to their usual standard but aren't they getting as tired as audiences of the contrast of elegant female costumes and army surplus for the men? Nonetheless, thanks to three artists who believe, Hamlet came to life and showed that Thomas was capable of writing good music alongside the 19th century trivialities usually attributed to him.

aris - A new production of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie at the Paris Opera (Palais Garnier) was entrusted to the hitherto winning team of William Christie, Les Arts Florissants and Jean-Marie Villégier. A program note by Villégier unfortunately makes it clear that this time he was unable to find the key which would have unlocked the piece, so that he slavishly follows one of the least distinguished libretti set by Rameau, forgetting the drama when the divertissements occupy center stage and creating characters for the singers in the divertissements. Worse still is the treatment of Diana as a middle-aged, gossipy school-mistress, Eirian James winking at the audience almost as much as Felicity Lott's Marschallin.

Fortunately, Christie surmounted the obstacles singlehandedly, the soloists needing a few more performances to get into their roles. Only Laurent Naouri as the first-cast Thesée seemed to have understood what was needed, his wide-ranging bass-baritone allied to a formidable scenic presence standing well above the others.

Thierry Félix in the other cast has neither the low notes nor the ability to throw himself into a role which are among Naouri's major attributes. Let us hope that when he and Dessay perform together that the temperature will rise to explosive heights, unlike the Lyons non-event.

Phédre was entrusted to Lorraine Hunt and Isabelle Vernet and one kept wishing for a fusion of the technique of one and the voice of the other which would have resulted in something unforgettable. The title roles were evenly cast, both pairs of lovers somewhat lacking in personality, with the English tenors (Mark Padmore and Paul Agnew) particularly wan vocally. Anna-Maria Panzarella and Annick Massis should settle nicely into their role of Aricie. The most questionable aspect remains the choice of venue, the Opéra-Comique remaining far better suited to this type of venture.

Erato is scheduled to take the work into the studio with the first cast and performances will follow in the new year at Nice, Montpellier, Caen and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Have you seen the Alagnas together on stage?
Do you find them the operatic couple of the 21st century?

Can you hear Ghiorghiu in the opera house?

Do you agree with the almost universal praise of the Christie-Villégier tandem, or do you think that his collaborations with Carsen or Sellars are more satisfying theatrically?

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