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19 Feb 2017

Offenbach - Fantasio

Opéra Comique at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Thursday February 16 2017

Conductor: Laurent Campellone. Production: Thomas Jolly. Sets: Thibaut Fack. Costumes: Sylvette Dequest. Lighting: Antoine Travert, Philipe Berthomé. Fantasio: Marianne Crebassa. Le roi de Bavière: Franck Leguérinel. La princesse Elsbeth: Marie-Eve Munger. Le prince de Mantoue: Jean-Sébastien Bou. Marinoni: Loïc Félix. Flamel: Alix Le Saux. Spark: Philippe Estèphe. Facio: Enguerrand de Hys. Max: Kevin Amiel. Hartmann: Flannan Obé. Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Chœur Aedes.

Offenbach
Director Thomas Jolly is currently the French critics' coqueluche and can do no wrong. (If you look coqueluche up you'll find it means whooping-cough, but also, more or less, heath-throb, pin-up or idol.) His first opera was Eliogabalo at Garnier last September. I found myself in a small minority of curmudgeonly, Statler-and-Waldorf dissenters on that one. Fantasio is an improvement, but I still don't see what all the fuss is about.

True, this resurrected work is tricky. It's a hybrid piece, rather like Cenerentola. In this case it combines comic scenes (that don't equal the wild abandon of Offenbach's full-blown opéras-bouffe) and some of those thigh-slapping, beer-quaffing "student antics" the Romantic period was keen on, with a lot of what the French call poésie. Literally this means "poetry", but it's more a kind of Pierrot-like wistful tenderness or tender wistfulness to which I am pretty much insensible. So, quite a lot of beautifully-crafted, soupy, waltzy music reminiscent of drawing-room ballads. Quite a lot, because despite the thin plot, this is a long work to a wordy, over-literary libretto. Here I might mention that, acts one and two being played without an interval, the first part ran to 1 hour and 50 minutes: Wagnerian.

The staging was fairly conventional-looking overall, competently managed. It seemed to mix periods - now in itself quite conventional - with references to the industrial revolution and the advent of photography and electricity while chorus costumes had more a 30s look. The central, "fairy-story" characters had an assortment of "fairy-tale-standard" costumes: pastel silks and powdered wig for the prince of Mantua swapped with Marinoni's green-and-cream nutcracker soldier; white Disney cape and plain gold crown for the king; Cinderella dress for Elsbeth; grey bellboy suits and caps for the servants. And finally, a magnificent jester's outfit for Fantasio: yellow silk jacket and hat and harlequin-chequered trousers.

The main set was a black block on two levels joined by a flight of steps, at the top of which was a working camera shutter, opening to reveal silhouettes of the multi-turreted castle gate, an industrial cityscape, or the  deceased jester's graveyard. It was mostly very dark. The libretto says the city is smoky but "illuminated", so there was smoke, even snow at first, and lighting played an important part: garlands of dim, yellow fairy lights, stark white spotlight beams grouping and separating (as in Eliogabalo), and an incongruous neon arrow pointing down to the local pub. There was a lot of coming and going and bustling about by the chorus members, well-timed to fit the music. There were street sweepers. There were maidservants sewing Elsbeth's long wedding train and more, in blond bob wigs, handing along pearly pink balloons that eventually formed a heart at the top of the stairs (I think the balloons were the last straw for my neighbour).

The balcony, garden and prison the libretto called for were art nouveau metal enclosures wheeled on and off by stagehands, as were various other props: tables, benches and so on. A lot of movement, that some might call fidgety. One of my friends did. I made the mistake of reading some reviews before going, and was led to believe that Jolly's production would amaze us with Fantasio's parcours initiatique from darkness to light, ending with a coup de théâtre that was no less than a coup de génie. In the event, the factitiously gleeful young chorus simply turned their jackets inside out, revealing coloured linings, and danced up and down. A bit of a let-down...

Fabricating fun on stage is hard, and in this case the students' glee remained factitious and stubbornly unconvincing. Jean-Sébastien Bou put a great deal of vigour into his buffo role and looked very dashing in his aide-de-camp's sleek uniform. My neighbour, however, thought raising laughs by revealing Marinoni's polka-dot underpants was scandalously corny. Elsbeth was a bit of a wet blanket, fair enough for a lovelorn princess. But above all, for the story to work, Fantasio must be magnetic and charismatic, and Jolly failed, in my curmudgeonly, Statler-and-Waldorf view, to transform Marianne Crebassa into anything more than a gangly, shrugging French gamin. So in all I found the production average, competently managed as I said, not startlingly original, and a bit gloomy. My neighbour, who had not left at the interval because he'd been told there was an aria after it worth hearing, was more severe: sinister, "nul à chier" - total crap, approximately - and at 135 euros a pop, "du vol" - daylight robbery.

It was nice to have a good orchestra in the pit and the playing was perfect, but a bit too smooth and late-romantic to my taste, having got used to Minkowski and his band. Bou, as well as putting vigour into his role, put it, as usual, into his singing and boomed away for all he was worth. Marie-Eve Munger brought to mind Barbara Hendricks, in that she has a very pretty, agile voice used very sweetly indeed, but modest in size and in her case (unlike Hendricks') tending to thin out, rather than gleaming and thrilling, at the top. She seemed tired, perhaps even unwell, in the final act. Marianne Crebassa has a remarkably even, golden-bronze timbre throughout the range, a voice ideally suited to breeches roles - and I was reminded later that she has already recorded a recital of those, called Oh Boy! Hers is a voice that will, I think, become instantly recognizable, which is usually a good sign. Perhaps she should just take care to vary the colour more, so that that remarkable evenness doesn't end up, over time, sounding monochrome.

There's a trailer here. And Maestro Wenarto finishes off La Vie Parisienne here.

13 Feb 2017

Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday February 12 2017.

Conductor: Bassem Akiki. Production: Kirsten Dehlholm (Hotel Pro Forma). Co-Director: Jon R. Skulberg. Sets: Maja Ziska. Costumes: Henrik Vibskov. Lighting: Jesper Kongshaug. Cio-Cio-San: Amanda Echalaz. Suzuki: Qiulin Zhang. Kate Pinkerton: Marta Beretta. F. B. Pinkerton: Leonardo Caimi. Sharpless: Aris Argiris. Goro: Riccardo Botta. Il Principe Yamadori: Aldo Heo. Lo zio Bonzo: Mikhail Kolelishvili. Il commisario / L’ufficiale: Wiard Witholt. Yakuside: René Laryea. Madre di Cio-Cio-San: Birgitte Bønding. Zia di Cio-Cio-San: Rosa Brandao. Cugina di Cio-Cio-San: Adrienne Visser. Puppeteers: Tim Hammer, Joris De Jong, Ruben Mardulier, Suze Van Miltenburg. La Monnaie Orchestra and Chorus.

Puccini
It has struck me, thinking about yesterday’s Butterfly in Brussels, that there’s a big difference between “thought-provoking” productions and “puzzling” ones. Warlikowski’s productions are usually the former. Even if you don’t reach firm conclusions, the questions he raises are interesting and quite rewarding to think through. “Puzzling” productions are the ones where you just wonder why this and why that and what is the director getting at, and eventually, as I did with Paris’s recent Lohengrin, give up, not really caring much.

Like that Lohengrin, La Monnaie’s new Butterfly is puzzling. The central concept: Cio-Cio San “played” by a life-size Japanese puppet worked by three people in black and sung by her ghost to the side of the apron, at least avoids the risk of a mis-match between the teenage character and a mature-voiced soprano. But I wasn’t alone, far from it, in finding that our eyes are constantly drawn to the live singer and, therefore, away from anything else happening on stage: the expressionless puppet heroine and her fleshless interaction with the other characters.

The rest of the production failed, at least to me, to gel into a coherent whole. I found it more like a series of not-altogether-connected visual (more than dramatic) elements redolent of the design-school final-year project. Throughout, there was a wooden Japanese roof suspended over the stage and dark and moody coloured lighting instead of sets (during "Dolce notte, quante stelle", the sky was a starless rust brown). Sometimes there were large, rotating video screens showing only dimly-discernible images and, being very large, getting in the way. Jerky extras appeared several times, for no obvious reason, in origami-inspired, constructivist-looking costumes. In the first half, Pinkerton paced around in exaggeratedly long-toed shoes. Why? Sharpless was one-armed, his sleeve pinned back. Why? The bonze looked like an arctic explorer, all in white. The prince did his number against a large illuminated fan (“Designed by my concierge” said my neighbor. He liked the coloured paper streamers that fell down later better). What I took to be stagehands in black took up poses on the right to listen attentively to “Un bel di.”

[Aside: the opera was played in two parts. Part one ended with “Un bel di” and part two, like in a musical, started with a reprise of it, part a cappella, part sung with the orchestra as usual, part just orchestral.]

Other extras in black came on and mimed at various times, and carried the writhing, semi-abstract plum-tree branches, which also involved bobbing lights. The unfortunate son was represented by a rigid sort of doll, a Kewpie-doll of a bellboy, so it seemed, carried on and off. When the cannon went off, a hail of small, identical objects clattered comically from the sky to the stage. Video close-ups showed us they were dead robins. Two very large white discs were carried in, one from each side, and when held together became twin round screens giving us a binocular view, not of a warship, but a multi-storey cruise ship. At the very end, as the Butterfly puppet collapsed, “dead”, to the floor, a giant, inflatable version of the Kewpie-doll emerged from a hole in the floor and blew up to the full height of the stage, and that was it: lights out. A series of ideas or events, then, some of them inspired by Japan, others incomprehensible, but not really linked together and in some cases, as I said, just puzzling.

The emotion I imagine the puppet was meant to stir in fact came from soprano Amanda Echalaz, who in the end carried the show single-handed. I continue to think La Monnaie is now amplifying the sound to compensate for the acoustic failings of its temporary home in a tent. If this is not the case, then that’s how it sounds anyway. In the first half, I was reminded of some thick, heavy Soviet LPs, years ago, on which the sound was very nearly saturated. The voices were too close and too strident, cruelly exposed, but non-directional: you had to follow the story to know who was singing and there was no subtlety in the orchestra (which was not at its best yesterday).

In the second half, however, it was as if someone had noticed this and turned the volume down a notch, to a more natural level. Still, with no help whatsoever from the production and with or without his clownish shoes, Leonardo Caimi projected, according to my neighbor, “all the charisma of a mollusc” and maybe that was what hampered his singing: he didn’t sound comfortable or secure at the top, though I see he’s already singing Mario and Calaf, and with good reviews. It was, as I just said, Amanda Echalaz who drew your eyes away from the oddities and puzzlements of the production and, after a shrill-sounding first half, in the second, firm and full and moving, carried the show.

Maestro Wenarto and friend do "Dolce notte". N.B. watch right to the end to hear Cio-Cio San lose her virginity in the wings.

2 Feb 2017

Wagner - Lohengrin

ONP Bastille, Monday January 30 2017

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Claus Guth. Heinrich der Vogler: René Pape. Lohengrin: Jonas Kaufmann. Elsa von Brabant: Martina Serafin. Friedrich von Telramund: Tomasz Konieczny. Ortrud: Evelyn Herlitzius. Der Heerrufer des Königs: Egils Silins. Vier Brabantische Edle: Hyun-Jong Roh, Cyrille Lovighi, Laurent Laberdesque, Julien Joguet/ Vier Edelknaben: Irina Kopylova, Corinne Talibart, Laetitia Jeanson, Lilla Farkas. Sets and Costumes: Christian Schmidt. Lighting: Olaf Winter. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. 

Wagner
There's an expression I think sportspeople use that I can't remember at the moment: on a something... not on a roll or on a blast but something like that... that means that the athletes or whatever have gone beyond their normal physical limitations and entered a kind of trance, on a higher plane, or at any rate at a higher level of performance. This happens in music too, and I suspect Monday night's Lohengrin was one of those performances when everything goes right and everybody knows it. Musically and vocally it was pretty outstanding and the production is, from a design point of view, handsome enough, albeit rather dour: clearly not much fun to be had in Guth's Brabant. The trouble is I still, 72 hours later, haven't made head or tail of it, and reading around I find I'm not alone: some critics remain baffled.

The basically single set is a courtyard. Its three sides are uniform, all-purpose (could be a palace, a barracks, a government building, flats...), tenement-like façades: a ground floor and two storeys of galleries on slender cast-iron pillars, with rows of dark wooden doors and windows. Funnily enough I first thought of New Orleans, but it's the kind of architecture you find in Central European towns and I suppose quite possibly in Belgium.

In act one, there's a tall tree to the right, with a metal step-ladder used by Elsa (cautiously, in her long white dress) when peering out over our heads for her knight, and to the left, a carpet with a table and chairs and an elaborate metal chandelier above, serving as an al-fresco “indoors”. Even further to the right is an upright piano: Elsa's.

In act two the rear façade has moved well forward, with the table and chairs, for the Annina-Valzacchi business at the start, but the courtyard opens up again for the wedding, and confetti swirl down. The piano is still there.

Not Kaufmann
When the curtain rises for act three, the galleries are dimly lit in blue (the lighting throughout is moody and changing). Seven tall tree trunks are now silhouetted against the blue. I admit I thought incongruously of Raffles in Singapore – it had a tropical look to it. When the lights go up, there are lots of reeds, a stream and a pontoon (yes) on which Lohengrin later sits, with his trousers rolled up and socks pulled off, cooling his feet while chatting to Elsa – until the fight, when he bludgeons Telramund bloodily in the water. The piano is now overturned: some symbolism there, I bet. 

Costumes throughout are dark – fifty or so shades of grey and plenty of black – except for Elsa's very splendid wedding dress, white over a wide crinoline. Ortrud's bridesmaid's dress is the same only black: more symbolism no doubt (and at the start of act two she wears trousers - with riding boots - so there's probably a symbol there as well). The knights or soldiers have no armour, just plain, dark uniforms and neat little caps. 

Quite handsome, as I said, if grim. But I couldn't work out what the production concept was hoping to tell us. Lohengrin didn't arrive pulled by a swan - thank goodness. He appeared when the chorus parted, hunched up barefoot on the floor, clutching feathers, in convulsions (and ended the opera in exactly the same position, whether dead or just beaten up by the soldiers who pressed round him wasn't obvious). He was the least heroic, most reluctant of heroes, starting at the slightest sound - though admittedly the sound of the men's chorus, all got up in top hats and tails for the wedding, wasn't so slight - and teetering round the stage, spaced out, in his baggy trousers and shirt-sleeves. “An anti hero” said a friend, not especially helpfully, “acting in an oppressive Prussian environment at the time when the opera was written.” But he admitted he too found it hard to fathom, “particularly in the parts when the anti-hero is supposed to be a true hero, an inspirational leader for the people.” Elsa comes across as a bit of a wuss or a Madeline Bassett, too, (I can do without Julie-Andrews-in-The-Sound-of-Music whirling to express joyful abandon) but I suppose that's what she is really.

There were significant details, such as flash-backs acted out by children (Elsa and her brother) and an extra with one arm got up as a white wing. Of course it's unfair to want directors constantly to innovate, but these were definitely déjà vus – IIRC I got that single wing in the first Lohengrin I ever saw. As I mentioned above, I wondered if the piano was a symbol of Elsa's childhood – with a hint of corporal punishment from Ortrud supervising her scales with a stick in her hand (that she broke into pieces in rage once foiled). But I read it was a reference to Wagner himself, with Ortrud as the “inflexible” Cosima. That was in a review that claimed the concept was Freudian. Perhaps I'd better read Freud.

I give up.

But in the meantime I've remembered that expression I wanted: not on anything, but in a zone. Musically they were in one. The orchestra was in Rolls-Royce mode, proving how far they've come in the last few years, especially under Jordan, who, with them, got a sprinkling of a standing ovation, a rarity in Paris, though some people have complained that he is over-preoccupied with beautiful sound (“self-regarding,” a friend put it) and stripped Lohengrin of its mysticism. I'm not a mystic myself. I noted that even in the famous tub-thumping prelude to act three there wasn't a single cracked note from the brass, nor any from the plethora of trumpets of all lengths that sometimes appeared on the balconies. This is especially remarkable in France, where sound brass sections haven't been something you can count on (the first time I ever went to the Paris Opera, in the 80s, the start of Rosenkavalier was a dreadful shambles). The chorus was at its best.

Tomasz Konieczny has a very bright voice, almost more timbre than body. Nitpicking people might complain he sings too loud too often. Evelyn Herlitzius threw herself generously, even violently into the part, making up in character and commitment for what people who insist on musicality might complain was disregard for that, for the sake of drama. René Pape still phrases elegantly and has super diction, even if the top of the range is now tough going: his voice is showing some wear.

Martina Serafin was announced sick (when the man with the mike came on we all held our breath, of course, fearing Kaufmann might have pulled out) but didn't sound it. She was far better employed here, vocally and dramatically, than in Tosca. And Kaufmann... back from his illness he's now singing with less obvious power than before. But perhaps this was his approach to the part, not a change in his voice, as the effect much of the time was of him singing to himself in a husky mezza voce. His “In fernem Land” was positively daring in its enraptured intimacy and reduced a coughing audience to absolute silence. I haven't been to see what people are saying on the blogs and fora, but I wouldn't be surprised to find some complaining (again) that this is “unfair” on people in cheap seats up in the gods, where he's “inaudible”. A friend up on the fourth row of one of the balconies told me he heard everything perfectly from his medium-priced seat. I was in a hugely expensive one on row 8, lapping it up.

Here, Maestro Wenarto sings "Nun hört, wie ich verbotner Frage lohne!"

31 Jan 2017

Andris Nelsons conducts Bruckner's 5th symphony

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Saturday January 28 2017

Conductor: Andris Nelsons. The Philharmonia Orchestra.

  • Bruckner: Symphony N°5

Bruckner
My job takes me to all manner of industrial plants, and I well remember, in a German distillery, coming across the most beautiful machine I have ever seen: a complex, automated assembly of stainless steel and orange gloss, kept in splendid, pristine isolation in a glassed-in room. No photos were allowed, the process being a trade secret, and to my disappointment, not even on omniscient Google could I find a souvenir picture of this magnificent precision object.

I was reminded of this memorable piece of modern engineering on Saturday night, as Andris Nelsons conducted the Philharmonia in Bruckner’s 5th, in which every detail was perfectly honed and calibrated. Nelsons’ conducting gives the impression he has studied the score intensely, given every bar thought, and taken decisions at every step; and that on the night he is wholly – intensely indeed - devoted to helping the orchestra present those decisions with clarity and mastery. He looks totally involved in what he’s doing.

I was asked, before the concert, if I’d report back “on lines within the different parts, between them and on coherence and colors.” What can I say? To me this was perfection, absolutely Bruckner as I like him best. The degree of clarity and precision achieved was outstanding and the effects needed – e.g. the extraordinary dynamic range, totally under control - must only be possible with a team of musicians as professional as the Philharmonia at the peak of its form. Internal lines were clearly legible (you could take music dictation from this performance, like Mozart writing down the Vatican’s Miserere, though in this case you’d need as many arms as a Hindu deity to do it) and Nelsons paid evident attention to the crafting of handovers from, say, violins to violins or flutes to trumpets, or to mirrored lines. The transition from the Salvation-Army brass chorales in the last movement to the hushed strings had something miraculous about it, and the sheer excellence of the playing in the second movement almost brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.

What he did not do, I’m glad to say, was to try to smooth out Bruckner’s blocky-ness, or I might say the weirdness that first intrigued me in Bruckner as a teenager. The sections remained distinct, the oddness of, e.g. those isolated clarinet octaves, was left intact. Yet with no loss of coherence: what really impressed me was the sense of inevitably, or everything being, as Radiohead might have put it, in its right place, and consistent in tone – in this case, warm, woody sound from the Philharmonia, plus of course rock-solid brass. This was not plush, velvety, romantic Bruckner, but modern Bruckner, looking forward. To mix my machine metaphor with another one for a moment, I had the admittedly slightly daft thought that it was as if, at the time of Winterhalter portraits, Bruckner was already inventing Cubism.

But back to the distillery. This performance was a big, precision machine in four main blocks all coupled together and running smoothly. It was the finest, most thrilling, most satisfying concert I’ve been to in a very long time and certainly one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. If Nelsons is always as good as this, I’m now a fan and will be looking out for his Paris appearances in the future – especially if Buckner’s other symphonies are in the works.

20 Dec 2016

Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

ONP Garnier, Monday December 19 2016

Conductor: Bertrand de Billy. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Denis Guéguin. Choreography: Claude Bardouil. Iphigénie: Véronique Gens. Oreste: Étienne Dupuis. Pylade: Stanislas de Barbeyrac. Thoas: Thomas Johannes Mayer. Diane, Première Prêtresse: Adriana Gonzalez. Deuxième Prêtresse, une Femme Grecque: Emanuela Pascu. Un Scythe, un Ministre: Tomasz Kumiega. Iphigénie (silent role): Renate Jett. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Iphigénie en Tauride was Krzysztof Warlikowski’s first production for the Opéra de Paris, 10 years ago, and was violently booed at the time, but I had never seen it yet. Since then, thanks to the likes of his Makropoulos Case, King Roger or even Parsifal, which he made palatable in the same way some people claim they have ways to make brussels sprouts edible, I’ve become a fan of his, so I was glad to have this chance to discover the missing link – which has now, ainsi va le monde, become something of a Paris Opera classic.

Warlikowski sets the work in a retirement home for very grand old ladies. From that point on, most of the action is flash-backs or going on in the elderly Iphigénie’s mind. This opens up opportunities for what have become Warlikowski-trademark layers of action involving the same characters at different times of life, alongside intriguing details that raise questions rather than presenting ideas or concrete events. An example of the latter would be the projection, in large letters, of Gluck’s dedication of the piece to Marie-Antoinette: should we start seeking parallels between her and Iphigénie? This is the kind of thought-provoking stuff I’ve come to like with Warlikowski: he draws you in and sets you wondering, so you’re an active, not just a passive, spectator.

At the start, there’s no curtain, but a transparent screen reflecting Garnier back at us, and an upper-class family grouped, immobile, at the rear of the stage, visible because brightly lit. When the screen rises, behind it we discover a large space – the old people’s home – with green-tiled side walls. On the left a line of showers, on the right, a line of washbasins, above, rows of ceiling fans that will frequently cast their moving shadows on the action below, and at the rear, industrial steel doors with graffiti on. In the far right corner, some club armchairs and a TV set. From photos I’ve seen, the director must have simplified what goes on in this space. In the past, there must have been more extras milling around in ordinary clothes. In the present version, the focus is on the characters and their doubles at various ages and in various garbs (e.g. the young, naked Orestes first loving his mother, then killing her). At the start, the old ladies are walking up and down purposefully in their night clothes. By the interval they’re in formal black, demurely eating cake with forks on a row of chairs on the apron (and as you file out for a drink, you have the unsettling realization that the audience is full of creaking dodderers too, yourself included; is that why the house is reflected back?). By the end, when an apparently royal family lines up in mourning on the left, they’re in black coats complete with medals.

Iphigénie appears first as an even grander old lady than the others, in a gold dress and big, blond hair. Later, the gold dress and big, blond wig are worn by a silent double, as the singing Iphigénie, in red, then in black, grows younger. Thoas makes his first appearance in a wheelchair and his last, having strewn long-stemmed red roses on the stage, slumped with his throat cut by Pylade, in dress uniform, over the edge of a box to the right of the stage. The old, gold-dressed Iphigénie is dead on the floor, under the washbasins.

We had three excellent principals. Étienne Dupuis is a very promising young baritone, and Stanislas de Barbeyrac is a rising star who at present can do no wrong. They could, though, have sung with more dynamic subtlety, their tendency being to belt it out. But that may have been to compensate for the absence of reflective sets, something Véronique Gens, in superb voice, suffered from to some extent, when the orchestra was loud. Thomas Johannes Mayer was presumably miscast: I’ve read he’s a good Wotan, but last night, to his apparent amusement, he was booed. The secondary roles were also very well taken, though Tomasz Kumiega’s French pronunciation was a bit odd.

The orchestra, however, (the Paris Opera orchestra, so using modern instruments) seemed poorly focused, the chorus, singing from the back of the pit, was somewhat disembodied, and Bertrand de Billy’s conducting was rather featureless to me: plain, vanilla…

Still, it was good to see the production, better still to be reminded what a perfectly-crafted, neoclassical “objet d’art” a Gluck opera is, and with such a strong cast of soloists, we had a good evening of it – “une bonne soirée,” as my neighbour commented, pulling on his coat at the end.

1 Dec 2016

Mascagni - Cavalleria Rusticana / Hindemith - Sancta Susanna

ONP Bastille, Wednesday November 30 2016

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Production: Mario Martone. Sets: Sergio Tramonti. Costumes: Ursula Patzak. Lighting: Pasquale Mari. Santuzza: Elīna Garanča. Turiddu: Yonghoon Lee. Lucia: Elena Zaremba. Alfio: Vitaliy Bilyy. Lola: Antoinette Dennefeld. Susanna: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Klementia: Renée Morloc. Alte Nonne: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Puzzled by the apparently odd pairing of Cavalleria Rusticana and Sancta Susanna, I went to the Bastille last night unsure of what to expect. The link between the two turned out to be basically the relationship between religion and sex, obvious in Sancta Susanna and made more obvious in Cavalleria Rusticana by heightening both. The crucifix, in various sizes, was a recurrent image. Director Mario Martone added in interview that both libretti refer to the heady scent of flowers, which seemed to be a bit “tiré par les cheveux”. He admitted he wasn’t keen on the “rhetoric” of so-called verismo, so in Cav he went for sobriety: no backdrops, indeed no scenery to speak of on a black stage, mostly dimly lit, and dark 19th-century costumes.

Mascagni
The staging was “sexed-up” by having a small, grimy brothel, complete with Madame, staff and patrons, glide across the empty stage at the beginning, and “religioned-up” by setting the action up to the intermezzo against the Easter mass, here not hidden in the church but occupying the dark stage. The chorus brought their own chairs and placed them in two blocks, separated by an aisle, facing the audience. When an altar appeared at the rear, a giant crucifix came down over it, a (pretend) lamb was sacrificed and a second, processional crucifix appeared to the left. As the priest and altar-boys filed in, candles lit and censers swinging, they (the chorus) turned their backs on us for mass, which went on silently - sermon, collection, communion and all - while the more usual business progressed on the apron (fortunately for the singers’ projection). After mass, the same chairs were set in a circle to form the village square. It was as simple as that and perfectly effective: “We don’t really need the village,” as my neighbour said.

Musically it sounded to me as if Carlo Rizzi was also trying to tone down the verismo rhetoric in a plain, no-nonsense performance. I can understand this, but am not sure it works: perhaps with Mascagni the only real solution is to let the bodice rip. The cast, however, was excellent. Elena Zaremba didn’t have much to do, of course, but she did it with great, straight-backed dignity and charisma. Antoinette Dennefeld was agreeably fresh-voiced and fluid. Yonghoon Lee has, as a friend also there put it later, “lots of metal” in his voice and is generous with it. Over-generous? I wonder how long he will be able to give so much in roles of this kind. Elīna Garanča, whom I hadn’t seen for years and years (as Sextus in La Clemenza di Tito in 2007, to be exact) was just marvellous. Gorgeous timbre. “In sumptuous voice,” said the friend.

Though there was a curtain and a pause for a change of scenery, the house stayed dark and there was no interval.

Hindemith
Sancta Susanna is a short story about mad nuns with a sexual crush on the crucified Christ. The plot is on Wikipedia. The curtain rose on a wall of cracked rock, filling the whole space, and Susanna’s cell, a hole in the wall, with a bed and a chair, a little crucifix and a little window. As the tale of Sister Beata was told, the bottom of the rock fell to reveal what was probably the giant Easter-mass crucifix, now lying abandoned underfloor and a long-haired, naked dancer acting the tale out. As the story progressed to its climax, Susanna stripped off her veils (revealing short, chopped hair) and habit (revealing her naked breasts in stark white light), an incredible giant spider, operated by slithering dancers in black, crept forward on the right with another nude dancer on its back, and the foot of a, this time, colossal crucifix, appeared at the rear – so colossal, the foot (well, up to the knees) was all there was room for. Finally, Susanna was walled in as the rock rose to fill the space again.

Carlo Rizzi and the orchestra seemed to me to show more interest in Hindemith’s more interesting score (a brief beauty: "In this case I would have arrived at the interval..." commented a musical friend on Facebook). Renée Morloc and Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, with her deep, dark, grainy voice, were excellent, and Anna Caterina Antonacci was on stunning form, vocally and physically: “Superb,” the friend said. “When she sang ‘I am beautiful’ she really was!” Said my neighbour over steak and chips afterwards.

It turned out, then, to be a very strong double bill, dramatically and vocally. This was the première, yet there was no booing. And it’s very satisfactory to have two successful performances in a single evening, one of them a discovery, over early enough to start dinner before ten and be in bed by midnight.

Maestro Wenarto hasn't published any of Sancta Susanna yet, so here's some Mascagni instead.