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December 2003 - February 2004

Paris - 8 December 2003
Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini

  • Performances of Berlioz's first opera are rare, and this concert performance of Benvenuto Cellini was a musical treasure trove, going back to the version delivered by the composer to the Paris Opéra. Until now, most companies have usually gone to the final version, prepared in part by Franz Liszt and Hans von Bülow with the acquiescence of the composer himself for performances in Weimar, 14 years after the Parisian performances. The Weimar version creates more problems than it resolves with its omissions and rearrangements. The earlier versions are now referred to as Paris 1 and 2, the former being what was heard at this concert and the second the version as finally performed during the first Paris run. Thus, we heard an aria for Balducci at the start of the opera, the original version of Teresa's aria (later reutilised in the Reverie et Caprice) some additional measures in the ensembles and all the music that was reinstated for the Covent Garden revival that served as the basis for the Philips recording more than 30 years ago as well as the recitatives that were replaced by spoken dialogue at that time. This first of two concert performances was taped by EMI as the basis for a new recording. Unfortunately the reverberant acoustic of the Salle Messiaen at Radio France made it difficult to appreciate the composer's writing, though that will be quite different on the cds, while the singers should be easier to distinguish during the ensembles. John Nelson, despite an indisposition, tried his best to get a taut performance from the Orchestre National de France but their placidity was disheartening. Gregory Kunde replaced the originally scheduled Roberto Alagna, singing with artistry but without the charisma that Alagna projects. Patrizia Ciofi's Teresa rang out on the high notes but disappeared in the orchestral mass too often. Joyce di Donato's Ascanio seemed to be missing the stage with her often deadpan delivery of some of her music. The high baritone of Jean-François Lapointe was ideal for Fieramosca, a welcome relief after too many performances with a buffo singer in the role. Laurent Naouri (Balducci) and Renaud Delaigue (Pope) offered solid bass support. In short, a wonderful evening despite occasional shortcomings in the execution, allowing one to hope that a sympathetic director could make this long version (three hours of music) work on stage.



Paris - 9 December 2003
Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

  • It is fortunate that Ariadne auf Naxos is virtually indestructible, as Laurent Pelly's attack on the work leaves one perplexed at his vacuity. The prologue (in the house of the richest man in Vienna) is set in a concrete fortress, an Eagle's Nest if you will. The opera itself has the same basic concrete fortress, unfinished and inhabited by a bag lady (Ariadne) who is supplied with food by three hausfraus wearing Pelly's favorite 1950s ugly housedresses. Gold-painted Bacchus is - I think - a statue whose movements are limited. Zerbinetta and her companions are beach goers, with Zerbinetta appearing in bikini and beach towel, the others in hideous - once again 1950s - shirts and bermudas. Fortunately, the participants all sang well, starting with Katarina Dalayman in the title role, though she lacks the ecstasy that others have brought to the role. She also unfortunately breathes in the middle of the impossibly long opening phrase of "Ein Schönes war". Natalie Dessay, as one expected, was a spirited Zerbinetta, with several new acting twists to her impeccably sung vocalises, emphasizing the vulgarity of the character. Jon Villars sounded like the Bacchus of one's dreams, proving that it is possible to sing the role. Sophie Koch's Composer stole the Prologue, despite fierce competition from Zerbinetta, the high-lying vocal line holding no terrors for the mezzo so that she offered a far more convincing performance than in the Barbiere di Siviglia two seasons ago. Pinchas Steinberg once again demonstrated his professionalism, without that extra something that others have brought to this score.



Lausanne - 9 January 2004
Lully - Roland

  • Christophe Rousset led an impassioned performance of Lully's Roland, unfortunately let down by the ineptitudes of Stephan Grögler's production. Lully's next-to-last tragédie in many ways follows the pattern of its predecessors, though the focus here is on Roland the warrior rather than on a pair of lovers, who in fact disappear from view at the end of Act 3. Roland himself does not appear until Act 2, episodically in Act 3, but is given a mad scene that occupies most of Act 4. All but one of the singers merit praise for their generally clear enunciation of the text, the conviction they brought to their roles and the way in which they brought to life a genre too often left to its own devices. That is presumably to Grögler's credit as producer, but his regular collaborator, designer Véronique Seymat, for some reason chose to plant a dozen tv monitors on the simple set, usually with different images that occasionally remained constant, but otherwise evolved, absolutely ideal for an audience with a 30-second span of attention. Daniel Larrieu's choreography for six dancers and the chorus relied on a disco shuffle and hip thrusts. Nicolas Testé in the title role displayed a solid bass voice that could be brought down to the softest dynamics. Annamaria Panzarella's Angélique would have stolen the show had she not had competition from Salomé Haller's Logistille, both singing and acting in a more involved fashion that I have hitherto seen from either. Oliver Duamit's Médor was the blight, his singing effortful, his deportment sketchy. Any of the other tenors participating would have provided greater pleasure for the audience. Monique Zanetti (Témire), Emilio Gonzalez-Toro (Tersandre), Anders J. Dahlin (Coridon), Robert Getchell (Astolphe) not only in the named roles but smaller chorus leaders added to our pleasure, once again slightly diminished by the hot-potato sounds offered by Evguenyi Alexiev as both Ziliante and Demogorgon. But it is Rousset who deserves the credit, never losing sight of the culminating point, the immense Chaconne that ends Act 3, while at the same time preventing Act 5 from seeming anti-climactic.



Lyons - 22 January 2004
Levinas - Les Nègres

  • Michaël Levinas chose Jean Genët's Les Nègres as the basis for his newest opera, forming the libretto from the text of the play. While true that the play has a ritualistic aspect, which might make it suitable for musical treatment, I am not certain that what my ears registered as musical hodgepodge was convincing. The overture is reminiscent of minimalist tendencies with its eternal repetition of a short phrase, while at other times we are treated to operetta-like interventions, something the composer freely acknowledges. The opera closes with a vaudeville-finale, as the members of the Court each have their final say, punctuated by Choral interventions. Les Nègres is performed by an all-black cast, five of whom wear white masks as they represent the ruling powers. Producer Stanislas Nordey (who is to produce St François d'Assise at the Bastille next season) had the remainder of the cast wearing black masks as well. A murder is announced and a trial takes place with much of what happens described in a language that reminds this listener of Gertrude Stein's texts set by Virgil Thomson. As in previous encounters with Nordey's work, it remains unclear whether he appreciates the difference between spoken and sung theatre. A mostly English-speaking cast tackled the French text with fluency, but the spoken interventions were not always convincing.

    Herbert Perry (Archibald) is the master of ceremonies, his bass voice commanding attention. Wendy Waller (La Reine) sings a coloratura aria that should strike terror in the hearts and throats of any subsequent interpreters of the role. The stage savvy of Lori Brown Mirabal (Bobo) gave a certain focus to the work, as did the physical presence of Bonita Hyman (Félicité), though the latter's vocal resources are not as impressive. Countertenor Fabrice di Falco (Diouf) made the most of his Fiordiligi-like leaps from baritone to squeak, and was among the least comprehensible of the singers. The remainder of the cast - Maureen Braithwaite (Vertu), Tinuke Olafimihan (Neige), Hans Voschezang (Village), Marc Coles (Missionaire), Colenton Freeman (Valet), Brian Green (Juge), David Lee Brewer (Gouverneur), Jean-Richard Fleurençois (Ville de Saint-Nazaire) - all managed to make Levinas's occasional jagged writing sound natural. Bernhard Kontarsky led the Lyon Opéra forces with conviction in this 105-minute workout. The contribution of the IRCAM to the evening consisted of several electronic buzzes and the four keyboards producing sounds similar to the ondes martenot.



Geneva - 28 January 2004
Braunfels - Die Vögel

  • Thanks to the now-discontinued series Entartete Musik released by Decca, the public at large has been able to hear Walter Braunfels's Die Vögel. After the work's successful premiere in 1920 and rapid spread throughout the German operatic world,. it was only in 1971 that the opera resurfaced and performances since then - while still scarce - have been noted. Geneva spared no expense, with Yannis Kokkos as producer-designer and an excellent cast. Kokkos's designs reminded this spectator of his Hansel und Gretel, with its collage-like elements. The birds were brilliantly done, each group manifesting its own characteristics, and the chorus, superbly trained by Ching-Lien Wu, revelled in their many moments of glory. Marlis Petersen's Nightingale handled the sinuous vocal line with poise, perched on a swing high above the stage from which she descended only for her long duet with Hoffegut, though her coloratura occasionally sounded bumpy. Pår Lindskog's sweet-toned Hoffegut occasionally strained for heroic effect, while Duccio Dalmonte, more of a bass than baritone, gave us a Ratefreund who was perhaps more lovable than the composer-librettist intended. Brett Polegato's Wiedhopf, perched awkwardly between bird and human, caught the ambiguity of his role. Roman Trekel's Prometheus, the scar left by the vulture gnawing at him clearly visible, was not quite the heroic baritone the composer had in mind, but his incisive delivery of the text and his authoritative stance allowed him to make his mark. Regina Klepper's cameo of the Wren (Zaunschlüper) was a gem. Ulf Schirmer and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande allowed the poetry of the music to shine through, but it was Kokkos's contribution that counted. The birds were not exaggerated, the humans only slightly caricatured, music that was certainly not at the forefront of modernism but nonetheless displays an individuality (though I kept being reminded of Humperdinck) and an intelligent staging made this a satisfying evening at the opera.



Paris - 4 February 2004
Handel - Semele

  • Handel's oratorios are becoming ever-increasing visitors to our operatic stages, with Semele probably the most frequently performed in this fashion. William Congreve's elegant text is of course a contributing factor to this popularity. The question of whether the composer intended the work to be staged has never been conclusively answered, the two factions centering on the one hand on the presence of stage directions and on the other the presence of the magnificent choruses that comment on but do not necessarily participate in the action. Director David McVicar and his collaborators provided a simple setting (Tanya McCallin) and sumptuous costumes (Brigitte Reiffenstuel) in which the action was clearly presented, sometimes despite the lighting of Paule Constable. Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble provided a solid foundation, brisk where called for and with little of the exaggeratedly slow tempi that he has sometimes affectioned in the past. Annick Massis in the title role captured the lascivious ambition of the character, her singing easily encompassing the languor of "O sleep, why dost thou leave me" and the fireworks of her other arias. Richard Croft's Jupiter matched Massis every step of the way, "Wher'eer thou walk" the highlight of his portrayal. Sarah Connolly may some day rival such earlier Junos as Felicity Palmer or Della Jones but in the meantime offers vocal satisfaction. Claron McFadden on this opening night sang not only her role of Iris but took over "Endless pleasures" when Marion Harousseau (Cupid) was unable to sing, though she did sufficiently recover for her aria in the second act. David Pittsinger's double assumption of Cadmus and Somnus was neatly differentiated. Less satisfactory were the nasal whine of Charlotte Hellekant's Ino and the absent Athamas of Stephen Wallace.



Paris - 5 February 2004
Landowski - Le Fou

  • In homage to one of France's more prominent composer/civil servants, the Théâtre du Châtelet moved to the Théâtre Mogador, the temporary home of the Orchestre de Paris, for performances of an opera written almost 50 years ago, Le Fou. Performances a few years ago in Montpellier were not totally convincing, but a tediously irrelevant staging made me curious to hear this work again. Unfortunately, the work sounds even more derivative today, and the impossible acoustics of the Mogador with the voices unduly prominent meant that it was difficult to hear the orchestral writing. François Le Roux once again took the role of Peter Bel, almost persuading us. Nora Gubisch (Isadora) added yet another portrayal to her gallery of hopelessly passionate women. Jean-Luc Chaignaud's Prince too often confined upstage nonetheless managed to portray a leader almost as torn as the scientist. But was it worth it?



Monte-Carlo - 13 February 2004
Mozart - Cosi fan tutte

  • For this co-production with the San Francisco Opera, director John Cox chose a pre-World War I setting for Cosi fan tutte, presumably in one of the palaces that dot the Côte d'Azur. For the most part it worked, though there were any number of anomalies such as Don Alfonso being the croupier at the rise of the curtain during the last bars of the overture, or the start of Act II in a salon de thé, rather than the boudoir of the sisters, with a surprising twist at the end of the opera. And of course, there was a lot of extraneous parading during the music. Conductor Walter Weller chose careful tempi, but there was little feeling of pulsation, however rhythmically accurate it might have been nor did the orchestra always seem to be together. Darina Takova's Fiordiligi was generally well sung, but lacked the presence which was supplied in abundance by Laura Polverelli's Dorabella or Nuccia Focile's Despina. Polverelli's rich mezzo was perhaps the best argument for casting a soprano as Dorabella, however well she sang the role. Charles Castronovo's Ferrando seemed to tire towards the end, the conclusion of "Tradito, schernito" posing problems. Enrico Marrucci's Guglielmo was short on personality while Alfonso Antoniozzi's Don Alfonso seemed to be struggling with a bad cold. Robert Perziola's relatively simple unit set and his elegant costumes offered much visual pleasure.



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