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September 2001

20 September
Helmut Lachenmann:
Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern
(The Little Matchgirl)
Opéra National de Paris (Garnier)

  • Helmut Lachenmann's Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, a production by the Staatstheater Stuttgart, was part of the Festival d'automne. Paris had the "pleasure" of seeing the production before it is shown in Stuttgart in October. The forces of the Staatstheater occupied not only the orchestra pit and stage boxes, but also a number of places along the sides of the tiers. Two immobile singers and two pianists were placed on the stage apron, while during the first part small portions of a drop are illuminated, forming images as fragmented as the music; in the second part of the work, we see a mute figure (the Matchgirl), and hear a Narrator reading a letter written by the composer's childhood friend, Gudrun Ensslin, who later joined the Rote Armee Fraktion and died in prison. Lachenmann himself calls the work 'Music with pictures', as opera has never been a form in which he was interested. Producer Peter Mussbach seems to have taken the composer at his word so that, for once, instead of expanding on a bad idea there seems to be no production and no idea at all. The music sounds to my ears like Stockhausen on an off day (not surprising as Lachenmann studied with Stockhausen), with text, music and production all deconstructed. Conductor Lothar Zagrosek had all the forces under control after four weeks of rehearsal, and those of the audience who remained applauded enthusiastically (there was no intermission and people left from time to time).



21 September - Paris
Giuseppe Verdi: Attila
Opéra National de Paris (Bastille)

  • Attila was almost a total disaster, with the exception of a bare-chested Samuel Ramey in the title role, whose appearances offered the only signs of life on stage. The blame can be placed squarely on the untried (operatically) production team of Jeanne Moreau and Josée Dayan (known in France as the director of many television dramas), who were perhaps afraid of the assignment and left the singers largely to their own devices, stock gestures and all, delivered from downstage in front of the prompter's box. Such production values were common when I began to attend the opera, but the singers themselves often possessed sufficient authority and personality that the stage director's shortcomings were ignored. Conductor Pinchas Steinberg must have been so dispirited by the stage picture confronting him that he lacked his customary fire. Carlo Guelfi's Ezio was out of sorts for most of the opera, demonstrating his power only in the last act. Maria Guleghina's warrior maiden, Odabella, strode around the stage, glorying in the loud high notes she so easily produces (not always spot on) but lacking the finesse for her second aria, 'Oh, nel fuggente nuvolo' or the ability to negotiate smoothly the coloratura of her first aria. Her awkward attempts to sustain the Verdian line were matched by the seriously overparted Franco Farina as Foresto. I don't know who is responsible for convincing a lyric tenor with such a lovely timbre that he was capable of attacking spinto roles, but all we now hear is a singer whose voice loses all color above the staff and also any sense of pitch as he struggles for volume.



27 September - Nice
Giacomo Puccini: Il Trittico

  • Performances of a complete Trittico are still something of a rarity so that I was sufficiently curious to once again experience Puccini's mastery in molding audience response. Director Gian-Carlo del Monaco's idiosyncrasies are well known and we were not spared, but the evening in its totality was nonetheless effective. Despite an inauspicious start - the performance was delayed because the fire curtain was not functioning and then we were told that the soprano Paoletta Marrocu had lost her voice. Perhaps in deference to the soprano's wishes, the traditional order was changed so that Suor Angelica became the curtain raiser. The intensity of Marrocu in the title role, both vocally and emotionally, made one eager to hear her on an evening she is feeling well. Del Monaco had her singing from twisted positions that could not have facilitated her task. Mirella Caponetti's Principessa was a great audience favorite, despite an ill-focussed voice, raucous throughout, from cavernous low notes to screeched high notes.

    Il Tabarro was set in what looked like a garbage dump, with a strategically placed ladder that the principals climbed from time to time. Once again, Marrocu captured the character of Giorgetta perfectly, with Fabio Armiliato a convincing lover. Most surprising was Juan Pons who convinced both as Michele and then as Gianni Schicchi. Unfortunately, del Monaco decided to treat Puccini's comic masterpiece as a Mafioso farce, with Rinuccio (Aquiles Machado) resembling Danny de Vito as he shows Gherardo how to manipulate the machine gun he carries around in a violin case. Patrizia Pace's Lauretta lacked the simplicity for her aria. Marcello Viotti's conducting compensated for the deficiencies in the stage picture.

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