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January - August 2003

Lyon - 25 January
Reverdy:- Médée

  • The Opéra National de Lyon commisioned Michèle Reverdy's fourth opera, Médéé, based on a novel by Christa Wolff, Medea.Voices. At the second performance, one could marvel at the sounds the composer has emanating from the orchestra pit from a normal orchestra plus extra percussion, harpsichord and cymbalom. Wolff's novel is constructed as 11 monologues, hardly a stageworthy notion, so with the help of librettists Kai Stefan Fritsch and Bernard Banoun they have put together a more linear, palindromic narrative, in 11 scenes, that number being one of the core organizing features of the work. Unfortunately, the opera remains static even though it manages to arouse our curiosity for its very different version of the story. Françoise Masset in the title role puts her baroque background to good use, but it is not always easy to understand what she is saying. Sophie Pondjiclis as Agamède, a former disciple of Médée serves as a foil to Akamas, astronomer to Creon (Christian Tréguier). Magali Léger's two scenes as Glaucé make more of an impression, the writing for high soprano offering a brightness of tone previously lacking. Only the lacklustre Jason of Jean-Louis Serre detracted from the general excellence. It is the production of cineast Raoul Ruiz that disappoints the most, relying heavily on cinematic projections on three screens that fill the arches at the back of the stage, while not focusing on the interactions of the characters.



Avignon - 18 February
Rossini: La Donna del Lago

  • A co-production with the Opera Royal de Wallonie brought two monstres sacrés to Avignon, Ewa Podles and Rockwell Blake. Mme Podles demonstrated that there is no one like her to sing Rossini's contralto roles, her artistry peerless as she deals with some of the most difficult music ever written. Blake's not always dulcet tones nonetheless show that he still has one of the surest techniques in the business. A late defection by Bruce Fowler brought Robert McPherson as a replacement; McPherson sang from a music stand at the side of the stage, and sang impressively, while Eric Belaud walked through the role onstage. Iano Tamar in the title role seemed not to have a sure grip on the music until the rondo-finale, surprising as she had already sung several performances in Liège and one in Avignon and as we know she is capable on the basis of live and recorded performances. Alberto Zedda's sure hand steered the Orchestre Lyrique de Région Avignon-Provence through Rossini's curlicues, the clarinettist clearly enjoying himself. Claire Servais's staging and Dominique Pichou's sets did not overly disturb the traditionalists in the audience, but why the costuming moved up several centuries for the last scene remains a mystery.



Paris - 28-30 March
Gassman: Opera Seria /
Rossini: Guillaume Tell /
Rameau:- Les Boréades



Montpellier - 11 April
Handel: Alcina

  • A new production of Handel's Alcina featured Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, who are supported by the city of Montpellier and the regional authorities. Unfortunately, producer Marco Arturo Marelli seems to have envisioned the work as a commentary on the current world situation (yawn), with Bradamante and Melisso arriving as paratroopers on a tropical island, Oberto as a boy scout, the liberation at the end seen more as escorting a group of prisoners offstage, curtain lowered and then raised for a final chorus showing a group watching the war on television in a state of boredom. And then there was the extraneous dream ballet, peopled by soldiers on the attack. Marelli also conceived the set, a large pair of breasts stage left over which entrances and exits were made. Rousset tried his best to make the evening musically convincing, but some arias were cut in entirety, others reduced to their first sections. Elzbieta Szmytka in the title role offered efficiency where sensuality was required, nonetheless triumphing in 'Ah, cor mio'. Patricia Bardon (Ruggiero) seemed more comfortable in what was demanded of her, whether the simple 'Verdi prati' or the intricate 'Sta nel'ircana'. Elizabeth Calleo's Morgana was super-soubrette, over-shadowed by the dusky contralto of Ewa Wolak's Bradamante, unfortunately losing her place during her last aria, perhaps because of the tricky business required on a revolving stage. Topi Lehtippu's savage-clad Oronte seemed troubled in the little music left to him, unlike Linda Kitchen's Oberto, though I have seen productions of the opera that have made more of his exclamatory last aria, 'Barbara!'. Brindley Sherratt's Melisso filled out the ranks. After last summer's Rinaldo, it is clear that Montpellier is starting a new Handelian tradition that offers as many visual horrors as musical excellence..



Toulouse - 14 May
Gomis: Le Revenant

  • Have you ever heard of the Franco-Spanish composer José Melchor Gomis or his opera Le Revenant (14 May)? Gomis was born in 1791 in Valencia. He was obliged to leave Spain for political reasons in 1823 when he went to Paris where he stayed, except for a brief sojourn in London, until his death in 1836. Berlioz in his review of the work after its premiere in 1833 is full of praise for the composer's penchant for avoiding four-square constructions and his love of unusual harmonies and rhythms. Le Revenant is based on Sir Walter Scott's Redgauntlet and was written for the Opéra-Comique. Producer-designer Eric Vigié clearly thought that comique was the operative word as he has done his best to parody what was intended as a melodrama. There was so much shtick on stage that at times it was impossible to concentrate on what should have been the primary interest of the performance, the music so highly-esteemed by the composer's contemporaries. The "comic" characters came off best under these circumstances, unlike the young lovers who should be sympathetic but when parodied to the extreme find it difficult to meet this requirement. Alain Vernhes as the gout-ridden Sir Robert was the most convincing in his task, from whom the less-experienced Fernand Bernadi might learn as Sir Arundel. Nathalie Manfrino's Sara seemed to be entertaining suspiciously close relations with the butler, Dugald, rather than her nominal lover Steenie Steenson, but on the few occasions falling to her showed a bright soprano. Marc Laho's Steenie made the most of his comic turns, singing his Ballad well-enough to convince the deceased Sir Robert to turn over the receipt for his rent which is at the centre of the intrigue. Léonard Pezzino as Steenie's rival, Sir John, arrives somewhat late on the scene, but we must remember that the composer himself wrote a three-act opera from which the last act was eliminated prior to the premiere and the finale tacked on to the second act.



Montpellier - 15 May
Dusapin: Perelà

  • Pascal Dusapin's Perelà turned up at the Corum after its creation at the Opéra National de Paris with a few cast changes (Isabel Philippe as the Queen and Daniel Gundlach as the Archbishop the most significant). While this is far more successful as an opera than Dusapin's earlier ventures in this difficult terrain (Roméo et Juliette, Medeamaterial), I am not certain that it merits the unstinted praise lavished in most of the reviews I have seen. In terms of surrealism, Martinu's Julietta strikes me as more effective, in terms of orchestration, others have been more innovative, while Peter Mussbach's production showed little trace of his psychiatric background, characters rarely emerging from their caricatural poses. John Graham-Hall in the title role, resembling Jacques Tati, coped with the wide vocal range demanded of him, while Isabel Philippe and Chantal Perraud had little more to do than coloratura screaming. Nora Gubisch made a positive impression as the Marquise de Bellonda, vocally and dramatically poised. The phantasmagorical element evidently part of the producer's concept was carried out by costume designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, while Erich Wonder's sets functioned within the producer's parameters. Alain Altinoglu led the Orchestre National de Montpellier with conviction, though not disguising the longueurs of the work.



Paris - 20 May
Rossini: Cenerentola

  • Director Irina Brook, daughter of Peter, seemed intent on destroying the balance of Rossini's dramma giocoso, La Cenerentola, turning it into a farce with some of the hoariest jokes that uninventive directors have been perpetrating for many decades. The audience generally loved every minute of it, as did much of the press, clearly impressed by the Brook imprimatur. All this is more than regrettable, given the performance by Concerto Köln supplying a vastly different orchestral palette than that to which we are accustomed. Conductor Evelino Pidò's standard reading offered some stability to an excellent cast. Vivica Genaux in the title role gave us a radiant rondo-finale, while Paul Austin Kelly and Pietro Spagnoli as master and valet rivalled one another in coloratura. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's Alidoro was given greater prominence than envisioned by composer and librettist, while once again he demonstrated his enormous capabilities. Alessandro Corbelli's Magnifico was as splendidly sung as usual, only the two stepsisters (Carla di Censo and Nidia Palacios) over-occupied with their stage business were unable to hold their own in the ensembles.



Paris - 21 May
Janácek: Jenufa

  • It is rare for the Châtelet to bring back a production, but despite my carping in 1996 Stéphane Braunschweig's was a model of intelligence in comparison with my experience of the previous evening. I could still live without the monstrous wheel that turned the mill, particularly when it rose at the end of Act 2 suffused in red light, destroying the mood that had been carefully established until that point. Director Stéphane Braunschweig mostly chose to ignore the libretto's folkloric touches, focussing on the internal and external conflicts of the four leading characters. In this respect we were more fortunate this year in that the two women were able to participate on the same emotional-dramatic level. Karita Mattila in the title role brings an intensity to the role that her predecessor, Nancy Gustafson, misses. Rosalind Plowright's Kostelnicka matched Mattila every step of the way, the voice steadier than that of Anja Silja, and equally adept in conveying the character's dilemma. Stefan Margita and Gordon Gietz (Laca and Števa) were well-matched, although Gietz was perhaps a bit too nonchalant in his Act 2 confrontation with the Kostelnicka. Unfortunately, Sylvain Cambreling smoothed out too many of the composer's acerbities, stressing the work's affiliation with the late-Romantic era.



Paris - 24 June
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar's Bride

  • An incomplete performance in every regard. Five minutes before the first intermission at the end of Act 2, there was a power failure in the theater which resulted in the audience being sent home. Even prior to this, the evening seemed to be one in which almost everyone was on automatic pilot, starting with conductor Hans Graf and the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, simply echoing the non-production of Temur Tchkeidze which had characters gesticulating in meaningless fashion, chorus members aimlessly reforming their grouplets. Ludovic Tézier (Griaznoi), Olga Trifonova (Marfa) and Elena Manistina (Lyubasha) emerged from the prevailing depression through their vocal and emotive qualities, but those are the best roles in the opera. Denis Sedov's Sobakin seemed in great vocal trouble, while Mikhail Davidoff (Lykov) and Albert Schagidullin (Skouratov) had little opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.



Paris - 25 June
Verdi: Les Vêpres Siciliennes



Toulouse - 29 June
Wagner: Die Götterdämmerung

  • Die Götterdämmerung brought the season to a close, terminating producer Nicolas Joël's third Ring. Janice Baird and Alan Woodrow (Brunnhilde and Siegfried) were more comfortable than in Siegfried at the start of the season, both far more vocally sure than most other singers who take these roles today. He is not the most dramatically engaged singer but did rise to the challenges of his death scene. Baird's early mezzo career ensures that she is audible throughout her role, except when conductor Pinchas Steinberg was encouraging the orchestra to flood the house with sound. She captures the feminine aspect of the woman in love, but is also a hell-bent fury at the end of Act 2, all the while producing streams of golden tone. Kurt Rydl (Hagen) seemed intent on demonstrating that he can sing louder than anyone else, exactly the opposite of the virtually inaudible Claudio Otelli who otherwise made much dramatically of a coke-sniffing Gunther. Nancy Weissbach's dizzy blonde Gutrune occasionally fumbled some of the higher notes of her role. Katharine Goeldner shone as Waltraute, as did Oskar Hillebrandt's insinuating Alberich. Norns and Rhinemaidens held their own. Ezio Frigerio's decors were much simpler than had hitherto been the case, with many scenes played downstage so that singers could easily project; Franca Squarciapino's more-or-less 30s costumes fit the producer's concept. Joël may not dissect a work as do some of his contemporaries, but he does possess the virtue of allowing a story to be clearly told despite such concessions as the Norns pushing around supermarket caddies. Steinberg got off to a slow start, the Norns's scene extremely loud, but by the second act he found his stride, while Siegfried's Funeral March had shivers going down my spine with the Orchestre National du Capitole once again reminding us that it is one of France's best orchestras.



Orange - 12 July
Verdi: Otello

  • The Chorégies d'Orange opened their season with Otello, with Vladimir Galouzin in the title role, one which he has perhaps sung too often this season (performances in New York and Florence, among others). Conductor Evelino Pido, so effective in opera written in the first half of the 19th century, offered Otello-lite, without the driving force so essential in this opera. Certain moments were nonetheless effective, particularly Desdemona's Act 4 scene, but then Tamar Iveri was an ideal collaborator. The Georgian soprano has the measure of the role, her voice even throughout the two octaves required. Galouzin did not have the sheer power necessary at certain moments, though he was able, as usual, to project the tortured soul. Jean-Philippe Lafont's Iago was undersung, leaving only Yann Beuron's Cassio as the single positive male element. Nicolas Joël's production was all that one could expect in the vast spaces of the Roman arena - subtlety is not to be expected under such circumstances - which makes it clear that the boos that greeted him were a knee-jerk reaction rather than based on what had actually been seen. The Orchestre National de France played as if their lives depended on it, so that we could admire Verdi's scoring.



Beaune - 26 July
Pergolesi: L'Olimpiade

  • After Vivaldi's setting of virtually the same text last year, Beaune offered us the opportunity to hear Pergolesi's version, written only a year or two later. As Pergolesi was much younger than Vivaldi, he is offering us a music that is quite different in style, though vestiges of the older school remain. The writing for the two castrato roles is fiendishly difficult, especially that for Megacle, in which the previously unknown Masha Carrera impressed the audience with her accuracy and expression. Anna Bonnitatibus as Licida was equally effective, her mezzo exploited throughout its range. Sonia Prina's Alcandro has evened out the inequalities in her voice. Gemma Bertagnolli's Aristea might benefit from a gentler play of emotions across her face, which made her singing affected, while Rosanna Savoia's occasional attempts at a high-flying cadenza got her into trouble. The two tenors, Mark Milhofer and Stefano Ferrara, offered fewer pleasures, the former with his bleating tone, the latter with his inexpressivity. Ottavio Dantone and the Orchestre Accademia Bizantina confirmed that Italy now also has a number of baroque orchestras that are the equal of those of northern Europe.



Beaune - 2 August
Cavalli: Statira, Principessa di Persia

  • A French premiere of an opera more than 300 years old, particularly when it is the product of the greatest of Monteverdi's followers, is more than just a curiosity. Antonio Florio and his Cappella della Pieta de'Turchini brought Cavalli's Statira, Principessa di Persia to Beaune after performances in Naples and prior to recording sessions for Opus 111-Naïve. One is always impressed by Cavalli's characterisations though they are somewhat bound to type, but it requires greater depth of casting than was here in evidence. Florio's penchant for using the same singers has led him to stalemate: in other works, totally unknown to the audience, one is willing to endure some less than attractive singing. Cavalli is another story, as his works have begun to enter the repertory, in part thanks to the now repudiated editions of Raymond Leppard, but more recently with the work of such figures as René Jacobs or Christophe Rousset. Only Roberta Invernizzi in the title role possesses sufficient voice and expressivity to meet the demands not only of the composer but also today's audiences. Maria Ercolano's Ermodilla/Usimano is still a bit green but shows promise. Dionisia de Viso as the hero Cloridaspe may not have equalized the various registers of her voice, but they are at least there unlike Daniela Del Monaco whose raucous lower tones are all we hear. Tenor Giuseppe De Vittorio as the nurse Elissena queens around the stage, while his pointed delivery of some of Bussenello's juiciest lines almost makes us forget that he has little voice. Some of the others are acceptable in character roles, but not for the serious personages. It is unfortunate, as Cavalli deserves to be still better known, particularly when he has the advantage of a good libretto, but more sensuous strings might also be a consideration alongside a new pool of singers.



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