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Don Quichotte at the Opéra de Paris
and new recordings of Manon and Thaïs

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 3 November 2000 - Jules Massenet is slowly being recognized and accepted for the great opera composer he is. Two new recordings testify to the above statement, while a new production of Don Quichotte at the Bastille demonstrates once again that management finds it difficult to match directors and designers and singers in order to give a performance that captures the spirit of a work.

Director Gilbert Deflo and his faithful accomplice, designer William Orlandi, decided to set the work in a circus tent (ho hum) for no apparent reason, with chorus often facing the conductor. There was little direction of the principal performers, but the total misunderstanding of the work is best exemplified by the importation of dancer Antonio Márquez and his company, presumably for "authenticity" in a work better known for its "espagnolade" aspect, but their presence and dancing were totally at odds with the work. One might also argue that the Bastille is the last place in the world in which to perform such a work conceived for the intimate spaces of the Monte Carlo Opéra or the Opéra Comique.

In this instance, every aspect seemed to have been conceived to fill the large house, depriving the work of its delicate nature. Samuel Ramey in the title role looked effective, but his voice was deprived of color, while Jean-Philippe Lafont as Sancho was at least allowed to make an effect with his aria at the end of the fourth act in which he rebukes those who are making fun of his master. Carmen Oprisanu as Dulcinée was far too grande dame, while her mezzo soprano, strong on the top, fades out as she descends. James Conlon's all-purpose reading was matched by the playing of the orchestra.

More pleasure may be had by listening to new recordings of Manon (EMI) and Thaïs (Decca). The latter opera has until now never been satisfactorily recorded, early versions from France made numerous cuts, while two complete versions from the 70s were immediately ruled out because of their respective prima donnas: an aging Beverly Sills for EMI with the stentorian Sherrill Milnes and the vapid Lorin Maazel conducting, a crooning Anna Moffo for RCA with the stylish but effortful Gabriel Bacquier and Julius Rudel. Renée Fleming, aka "The beautiful voice", is in good form here, perhaps lacking the sophistication of some of the French sopranos who have tackled the role, but she scores with her singing. Thomas Hampson's intellectualization of Amfortas is a far cry from other performances encountered on disc, matching the soprano nuance for nuance. Yves Abel and the forces of the Opéra de Bordeaux assure a French ambiance and it is good to hear the Méditation as the composer intended, with chorus humming at the end.

Manon has fared better on disc, mostly for EMI who now offers a performance that is not entirely in the French tradition of opéra comique but valid on its own terms, particularly with respect to Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna as the lovers who sing in a more verismo manner than is customary for the work. This may be Gheorghiu's best work on disc to date, though the tenor's voice is showing signs of the hard work imposed on it. Earle Patriarco's Lescaut is a positive element, while once again José van Dam gives a lesson in stylishness as the Comte des Grieux. Antonio Pappano's conducting is as full-blooded as the performances of the two leads, almost convincing us that their vision is an acceptable alternative to the lighter-handed tradition as imparted by Pierre Monteux.

Joel Kasow is the editor of Operanet at Culturekiosque.com.

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