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2 Jul 2016

Sondheim - Sweeney Todd

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday June 26 2016

Conductor: Bassem Akiki. Production: James Brining. Sets & costumes: Colin Richmond. Lighting: Chris Davey. Sweeney Todd: Scott Hendricks. Anthony Hope: Finnur Bjarnason. Beggar Woman: Natascha Petrinsky. Mrs. Lovett: Carole Wilson. Judge Turpin: Andrew Schroeder. Beadle Bamford: Christopher Gillett. Johanna Barker: Hendrickje Van Kerckhove. Tobias Ragg: George Ure. Pirelli: Paul Charles Clarke. Jonas Fogg: Matthew Zadow. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

From La Monnaie's web-site:

'The production of Frankenstein - the new creation that La Monnaie commissioned from the American composer Mark Grey, based on an idea by Alex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus - is postponed to a later date. Instead of Frankenstein, we will close this season with another first for La Monnaie, which is also “out of the box”: namely Sweeney Todd.'

The Châtelet in Paris has been putting on Sondheim pieces for the past three of four years, but, having heard bits on the radio or web, I have steered clear. The Brussels matinée subscription is, however, a set menu: you take what you are given (though in this case not what was originally announced). So along we went.

Not entirely "out-of-the box", as the economical but effective sets used shipping containers: on the right, a couple of them, stacked, on the left, another, raised on scaffolding, between them an opening with an industrial curtain of vertical plastic strips. The boxes opened up to show rooms in Turpin's house or, on the left, the barber shop. The production was in that vaguely modern dress – not 50s, not 60s, not quite today either – we see so often. The acting, it seemed to me, was stage-school style – borderline hammy, trying hard but not quite succeeding. The dialogues and singing were all miked, so it was impossible to see who was saying or singing what, or judge of the performance. The text sounded like A. C. Douglas struggling to be humorous, and fake Cockney accents only made it worse. And, finally, the music confirmed what I suspected: I can't bear Sondheim. It's nails on slate to my ears ("Send in the clowns": aaaaaargh....). I know I'm in a minority, but I'm not alone: after mentioning it to a friend on Gmail, I received this:

"I LOATHE Sondheim. I presume you have seen this ('Waiting for the tune to begin...')"


So as soon as we could escape the stifling, noisy tent La Monnaie is currently using (and risks using for the whole 2016-2017 season), we did.

24 Jun 2016

VPO/Nott/Kaufmann: Beethoven, Strauss, Mahler

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Thursday June 23 2016

Conductor: Jonathan Nott. Jonas Kaufmann. Wiener Philharmoniker.

  • Beethoven: Overture Coriolan
  • Strauss: Tod und Verklärung
  • Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Not Jonas Kaufmann
I really must learn to pay more attention, when I get my season’s tickets from the TCE, to where they’ve put me. It was only when I arrived there last night that I realised I was on the front row, which in my opinion shouldn’t be sold as top category at all as there’s no hope, with your nose up the violin section’s trouser legs, of hearing properly balanced sound. For the sake of completeness, I’ll write up my thoughts, but whether they resemble anyone else’s experience will be anyone’s guess.

So I’ll be brief.



  1. The Coriolan overture, as played by the Wiener Phil., simply reminded me that these days I prefer to hear Beethoven played by smaller, “hipper” orchestras. It was at once massive and humdrum.
  2. It was about 30 minutes into the concert, as we at last plunged into a proper Straussian maelstrom, that things seemed to pick up, i.e. the orchestra started to sound like it was doing what it should by rights be doing. However, Jonathan Nott’s performance had neither the mystery nor the violence you might expect in Tod und V. and, though I don’t think I dozed off, I actually missed the moment of death. The Wiener Phil. Is capable of quieter playing than Nott seemed inclined to demand and anything less than mezzo-forte was a rarity.
  3. In the songs, there was at last true pianissimo playing when required, which I assumed to be in response to Kaufmann’s virtuoso performance: what the French call a “leçon de chant” – a lesson in singing, a wonderful display of technical mastery: dynamic range, variety of vocal colour, faultless tuning, daring breathing, delicacy of sentiment… His bright, ringing top notes, from the outset, and intimate, speech-like pianissimi (reminding me of Anna Caterina Antonacci) were both truly impressive. But the decision to sing all six songs meant Kaufmann’s lack of projection at the bottom was made evident – and I admit I missed a mezzo, however wonderful were his murmured “Ewig…” at the end. Wonderful to me, at least: I see on the web today that people are complaining he was sometimes inaudible from the upper balconies, partly because of his own interpretative choices and partly because of Nott’s nuance-lite conducting, straightforward to the point of insensitivity. At the end, I had the feeling Nott wasn’t quite up to the orchestra and soloist he found himself blessed with (replacing Daniele Gatti, off with a shoulder sprain).
Maestro Wenarto attacks "Von der Schönheit".

11 Jun 2016

Rossini - L'Italiana in Algeri

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Friday June 10 2016

Conductor : Jean-Claude Malgoire. Production and sets : Christian Schiaretti. Costumes: Thibaut Welchlin. Lighting: Julia Grand. Isabella: Anna Reinhold. Lindoro: Artavazd Sargsyan. Taddeo: Domenico Balzani. Mustapha: Sergio Gallardo. Elvira : Samantha Louis-Jean. Haly : Renaud Delaigue. Zulma. La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy. Ensemble Vocal de l’Atelier Lyrique de Tourcoing.

Rossini
There’s something seriously wrong when the best-cast parts in L’Italiana in Algeri are Taddeo and Zulma. My neighbour thought it was “criminal” to push these gauche young singers on to the stage of the TCE in parts so far beyond their means. The audience was indulgent, but by the end of “Languir per una bella” there was already a hint of booing from high up on the left. I will say no more about the singing.

Jean-Claude Malgoire was something of a pioneer of the baroque revival in France, and this production was, if I understood correctly, intended to celebrate 50 years of his efforts. He started out back in the days when baroque ensembles were ragged and out of tune, and hasn’t changed a bit since. His orchestra sounded like a village band on a bad afternoon. The horn obbligato was a mess and in rapid passages even the upper strings became a barely audible blur. The bass drum thumped away with abandon, drowning out the poor soloists.

Malgoire has always had a singular gift for making even the most sparkling work boring: there wasn’t a single clap of applause after the overture, and as usual the tempi throughout what I stayed for were, with only the rare exception, plodding. No wonder, with the rise of the likes of Les Arts Florissants, Les Musiciens du Louvre and Les Talens Lyriques, La Grande Ecurie has faded into near-oblivion in its northern backwater.

The only redeeming features of this production were the sets, lighting and costumes. The sets in particular were simple and effective: three layers of gauze, overprinted with old engravings of an oriental city with domes and minarets, and of Moorish arches, atmospherically lit in various colours. There were carpets on the floor and rows of lanterns above. It looked at first as if we'd be spared the school-production awfulness that sometimes tempts directors in these works, but soon the familiar bags of pasta appeared and the silly dances started... There was little sign of directing skill: the younger soloists were awkward on stage, not knowing how either to move or stand still, or what to do with their hands.

A proper director with a better cast and Minkowski and his band in the pit could have made good use of the sets, but in the present circumstances, boredom, as my neighbour noted, had set in even before the overture was over. We left at the interval.

7 Jun 2016

Reimann - Lear

ONP Garnier, Monday June 6 2016

Conductor: Fabio Luisi. Production: Calixto Bieito. Sets: Rebecca Ringst. Costumes: Ingo Krügler. Video: Sarah Derendinger. Lighting: Franck Evin. König Lear: Bo Skovhus. König von Frankreich: Gidon Saks. Herzog von Albany: Andreas Scheibner. Herzog von Cornwall: Michael Colvin. Graf von Kent: Kor-Jan Dusseljee. Graf von Gloster: Lauri Vasar. Edgar: Andrew Watts. Edmund: Andreas Conrad. Goneril: Ricarda Merbeth. Regan: Erika Sunnegardh. Cordelia: Annette Dasch. Narr: Ernst Alisch. Bedienter: Nicolas Marie. Ritter: Lucas Prisor. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. 

Reimann
"Tout y était. Il n'y a rien à dire." So said my neighbour at the end, and he was right. What can you add when, for once, everything is at such a fervent pitch, with singing, acting and playing consistently, even triumphantly (if such a word can be used in the gruesome context of King Lear) meeting the enormous demands of an uncompromising score in an uncompromising production. I will put in a special word for the energy, commitment and generosity of Ricarda Merbeth and Bo Skovhus, here more impressive by far than I ever saw and heard them before, and for the phenomenal performance of Andrew Watts in a role seemingly calling for both baritone and countertenor voices in one. But this wasn't the kind of performance where you really want or need to single one singer out: the cast was, frankly, amazing and, after the traditional vaguely-chaotic start, the orchestra warmed up to its absolute best, playing up a storm - literally, of course, when called for, and to thunderous effect.

Calixto Bieito's production was simple, uncompromising, as I said and as you might expect, hugely demanding of the singers' acting skills and hugely successful in bringing them out: a directing tour de force, though in a fairly simple, single construction. The stage and proscenium were clad with black boards, as if tarred or charred, and during the opening scenes a kind of "curtain" of similarly charred or tarry-looking planks hung vertically across the stage. The lighting, mostly starkly white, softened with dry-ice haze, verged on expressionistic: searchlight-like spots criss-crossing downwards and beams cast between the planks by pinpoint backlights (that annoyed one member of the audience, who voiced his complaint about them loudly at the end of the first half). The contemporary costumes were, until grubbied or removed in the course of the play (Lear, for example, spent most of the second half in filthy boxers), the kind of dull, expensive clothes worn today by northern Europe's royal families. Goneril, Regan and courtiers scrabbled on the floor for bread broken off and thrown down by Lear.

When we moved to the woods, the vertical planks were partially lowered, some leaning forwards, others backwards, on their wires, making a giant thicket. In the second half, the piercing backlights were replaced by slow-moving, enigmatic projections in shades of grey. We could make out, at the rear through the chaos of planks, a very slow pan along a very old, possibly dead, body. Other images were less legible: densely wrinkled skin? An eye or some other viscously glossy, organic, living thing, very close up? As the action advanced and utter madness seemed gradually to grip everyone on stage, the planks continued to fall until they lay, parallel but uneven in height, on the stage, still attached to their wires. At the end, surrounded by death, Lear sat alone in his boxers with his legs dangling into the pit, head askew, mouth open, and the lights went out.

In such a harrowing staging, the "Pieta" references: Cordelia cradling Lear, then, later, vice-versa, seemed a touch corny to me (though not at all to my neighbour, who was impressed), in what was otherwise a near-perfect production: a monumental success. A magnificent end to the Paris Opera season - even more magnificent than the start, with Moses und Aron. I hope these can be taken as promising signs of what's to come (under Lissner, I mean). Chronic opera-going often, you may have heard me say, comes to seem a thankless obsession. When there's so much to get right, unsurprisingly a lot can and, as well all know, does go wrong. You even, sometimes, leave at the interval. But occasionally, along comes the kind of evening that reminds you why you keep going back. It makes up for the rest and reconciles you to your expensive hobby. This was one.

23 May 2016

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Saturday May 21 2016

Conductor: Daniele Gatti. Production: Pierre Audi. Sets and costumes: Christof Hetzer. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Video: Anna Bertsch. Tristan: Torsten Kerl. Isolde: Rachel Nicholls. Brangäne: Michelle Breedt. King Marke: Steven Humes. Kurwenal: Brett Polegato. Melot: Andrew Rees. Shepherd, young sailor: Marc Larcher. Steersman: Francis Dudziak. Orchestre National de France. Chorus of Radio France.

Wagner
The first thing I wanted to say here, without introduction, is that Tortsen Kerl, as Tristan, was magnificent. In his act three delirium he was phenomenal, acting up a storm in a way I had no idea he had in him. It was a rare privilege to be there. The TCE's reasonable dimensions allowed him to sing and shape the part in a way few tenors can - often they recite or bark or almost shout it out in desperation (sometimes quite effectively, I must admit) - and in a way Kerl himself was unable to bring off as Siegfried in 2011, defeated, as so many are, by the Bastille's unreasonable vastness. Apparently, earlier in the run he had people worried he might be falling ill, but there was no sign of that on Saturday night - as far as I know the slight but not unpleasant nasal timbre and hint of "congestion" are part of his usual package; and he has more body and grit to his voice than some I've heard. No, this was a truly exceptional experience.

But being at the TCE, not the Bastille, of course made a difference for everybody: singers, orchestra and audience, reminding us that “even” Wagner suffers from being performed in a jumbo-sized house. At the TCE, finesse is still possible and the impact of a large-scale work (even if the TCE’s pit limits the size of the orchestra) is intact.

People bought their tickets expecting Emily Magee as Isolde. She dropped out mid-rehearsal and was replaced by a young soprano as yet nearly unknown in France, so of course ticket-holders feared disappointment... They needn’t have. Rachel Nicholls is no doubt a very different Isolde from Emily Magee, but a very good one even so: young, energetic and determined, vocally brighter than usual at the top: her critics find her shrill and perhaps she does lack a degree of “rapturous” warmth. But she has all the notes and, like Kerl, can sing the part, not scream it.

For some people, the star of the show was actually Brett Polegato’s vigorous, generous Kurwenal. Steven Humes, as a youngish King Marke, was vocally bright, clear and powerful but in this role we could perhaps have done with more depth and warmth. Michelle Breedt was a highly committed Brangäne, warmer and rounder in timbre than Isolde, more “typically” Wagnerian might, I suppose, sum it up. In fact one of the nice things about this Tristan was that everyone was committed and generous – in a way they might also be at the Bastille, only there, from the far-off back rows of the upper reaches (I now pay a fortune for seats in the parterre, near the stage), it’s to little avail. In a smaller house their efforts pay off.

Conductor Daniele Gatti avoided wallowing and went for a fairly dry, compact sound, relatively transparent, bringing out details right down to the beautifully crafted harp arpeggio before the final long, swelling chord (the swelling upset some people). There was some memorable playing from the woodwinds (as usual; the cor anglais even came out on stage for a bow at the end) and lower strings (less usual), as well as some chaotic playing from the “hunting” horns – chaotic brass being a signature of the Orchestre National.

During act one, the production, a new one, came across as a visually seductive, timeless “modern classic”. I wasn’t alone in thinking of both Wieland Wagner and Robert Wilson: it could have been staged any time in the last 40 years. It started with a giant black square against a backlit (Wilson-style) backdrop. When the square had gone (it would be back for the other acts), the set was made up of four high-backed (nearly as high as the proscenium arch) steel trucks, gliding around, apparently unaided, to form different spaces evoking the ship’s rusty innards, sometimes plain black, sometimes with a beautiful, dimly glowing patina of blue, black and bronze. The potions were symbolised by crystals; taking them was symbolised by joining foreheads. The singers wore late 20th century “opera costumes” – needlessly complicated grey-blue draperies for the women, flowing blue-grey greatcoats, and cargo pants for the men (some of them with pony-tails ), with hints of Rick Owens. Extras were silhouetted against the backdrop like Karagöz characters. The lighting was spectacularly good, with principals brightly lit from the sides in front of dimmer backgrounds. So: not outright contemporary, but modern classic, very photogenic and and very promising.

But the following acts were less successful. The pallid, leafless act two forest was sparse: more like the rib-cage of a whale, or the ribs of a wave-worn shipwreck curving up from the ground. A facetted black menhir loomed up at the back, later shedding its black “skin” to reveal a structure of slender steel rods – like the kind of “modern” sculpture you might find at the HQ of a bank. The meaning of this was unclear, unless it was to do with Tristan and Isolde being uncovered. The costumes were now less “opera standard” and more everyday, closer to the kind of outdoor clothes people wear on Europe’s wet and windy Celtic fringes. The lovers stayed noticeably apart, singing to the far corners of the auditorium, but these days that’s standard too. Never once did Tristan look happy.

In act three, the castle was a black box, centre stage, with a glossy black interior and a single light shining out into the audience – Isolde’s light, which would go out, of course, once she arrived. The stage was strewn with black rocks, and on the right was a Flintstone-style structure with four long, knobbly legs, holding up a mummy on a bier. The costumes, in this post-apocalyptic setting, were sheer grunge, including plastic macs, and Isolde’s long hair had been cropped boyishly short.

Kerl was, as I said, magnificent in his delirium and Polegato was as vigorous as before, so there was no problem with the acting. And once Kurwenal had killed even Brangäne, the stage was left near-empty apart from the numerous dead: the black box became just a frame, and Isolde sang her Liebestod silhouetted, a black figure in a black cassock, against the light, quite effectively. But overall, though there were clearly symbols in this staging, it was hard to see what they meant (thinking of which, the videos were hard to see as well: I think I missed them, or mistook them for lighting glitches). There’s already a lot of death in Tristan. Did the successive costume changes, from “opera-classic” to modern grunge, add something about the death of mythical ideals? I don’t know and don’t seem to be alone in not knowing. Without Jean Kalman’s superb lighting, I’m not sure what would actually be left of this production.

But musically it was an outstanding evening. My neighbour was close to tears. In the circumstances I only wish – sincerely – that I liked Wagner better and could have shared fully in the excitement.

Maestro Wenarto shows once more how it should be done.

16 May 2016

Mozart - Mitridate, re di Ponto

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday May 15 2016

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production and costumes: Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil - Le Lab. Sets and lighting: Rick Martin. Video: Jean-Baptiste Beïs. Mitridate: Michael Spyres. Aspasia: Lenneke Ruiten. Sifare: Myrtò Papatanasiu. Farnace: David Hansen. Ismene: Simona Šaturová. Marzio: Sergey Romanovsky. Arbate: Yves Saelens. Orchestra of La Monnaie.

Mozart
Waffle-warning: this account is going to start with a fair amount of waffle not all directly related to yesterday's performance of Mitridate. Feel free to skip the digression. To help, I will mark the start of the write-up proper clearly in CAPITALS. But first, the waffle...

These must be nail-racking, nerve-biting times for the people in charge of La Monnaie. The house was already supposed to be hard up, as they all are these days. Then it announced that its home, the Théâtre Royal, seriously needed renovating, so last season's performances took place in various other venues around Brussels, as mentioned in my write-ups e.g. of Adès's Powder her Face.

Work started late and will go on longer than expected (fancy that!), so the company looked around for alternatives and finally decided it would recycle a big top used for opera in Liège and put up for sale in 2014 for half a million euros. This was, it transpired, too clapped-out to be reused. The upshot is that La Monnaie has, in the end, as I said in my April account of Béatrice et B., erected a brand-new plastic hangar on industrial waste ground a fair distance, across uneven terrain, from any main road. A double-decker London bus has been parked on the bare earth, halfway there, to sell champagne to those desperate for a drink on the way. Some shuttle buses and golf carts and extra staff have been laid on for those, such as old and infirm patrons, who find the trek too much. And anyone in a wheelchair has to take the long way round (reminding me of a sign that used to be posted at a back door to the Gare de l'Est in Paris, saying that the entrance for people with restricted mobility was 500 metres to the left).

To (big) top it all (OK, that pun is cringe-making; but I could also have made a joke out of waffle-warning, in the Belgian context, but didn't...) to top it all, as I was saying, management found they could not put on their existing, Carsen production of Mitridate there, so they literally put the show out to tender with a call for proposals. I believe they got more than 100, and what we saw yesterday was the winning bid, by Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil from an outfit in Bordeaux called "Le Lab".

It turns out, as I also said in April, that La Monnaie's shiny new tent is not only stiflingly hot when the sun's out, but also right on the flight path for planes landing at Zaventem (I was told, and it may be true, that pilots follow the nearby canal). It is anything but soundproof. During B & B, in addition to planes (at that particular time mercifully few, as the airport was only just cautiously re-opening after the March terrorist attack) and despite the very audible rumble and rush of the ineffectual ventilators, I heard birds chirping on the roof, let alone kids playing outside and police cars screaming by. In other words, the new venue is, if truth be told, unfit for purpose and a trial to all: above all, I should think, to the conductor, singers and orchestra, but also to the audience. Even with seats closer to the stage (my present ones are too far away to see who's singing), I'm not looking forward to next season there. And I'm sorry to say that even today I had a message from an acquaintance saying "The hangar was awful. We're not returning until they do the old theatre up." Bad news for a struggling house.

MITRIDATE STARTS HERE

Mitridate is a work that needs help, not hindrances. It is about as undramatic as they come, so it was perhaps as well that the new production kept people amused (though I did wonder "aloud" as it were, on Facebook this morning, whether opera seria based on Racine ought actually to amuse us). The concept was not, as La Libre Belgique complained at some length ("un sentiment de déjà-vu et d’ennui..."), novel, but unlike La Libre Belgique most people seemed ready to indulge it in return for being kept awake, in the airless heat of the tent, by its perpetual movement and changes of focus from live action to video.

The work was set in modern Europe and indeed contemporary Brussels: the Roman Union v. the Pontus Kingdom. The hall was decked with the EU member states' flags, interspersed with TV screens frequently flashing "breaking news", CNN- or BBC-style, complete with Angela Merkel, David Cameron and François Hollande, and even before we were in our seats, outside in the foyer, a makeshift shrine to the supposedly-late Mitridate had sprung up, a bank of flowers, candles, teddy-bears, flags and hand-written messages like those that appeared after the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.

On stage was a functional summit conference-room with a large oval table surrounded by chairs. At times, screens and other panels were wheeled in to create a more intimate space of easy-chairs and coffee tables; barriers kept jostling journalists at bay; a lectern appeared for speech-making. Costumes were resolutely contemporary: politicians' suits for the men, suits and stilettos for the women, smartphones and video-screens were much stared-at, and at one point Marzio lounged against a wall eating a cornet of chips. Mitridate, looking back to the legend, at one stage rolled up his sleeves to inject himself, at another took pills, and his fatal gesture, at the end, was to unplug a drip from his arm.

By now far from innovative, but entertaining enough. It might prove telegenic.

I was, as I said, a long way from the stage. I wished I were nearer, as I'm almost certain this was an all-round excellent cast, and if I'd been closer the roar of landing jets overhead would have been less worrisome. The women's singing was impeccably musical and manicured, sweet-toned and modest: top notes were not played to the gallery but almost systematically (with some very impressive exceptions) kept short and vibrato-free. It was peculiarly consistent, as if all three had been to the same school, under the same teacher - there was relatively little contrast between them. For a time I felt frustrated at the primness of it, wishing for more dramatic thrills. But then it struck me that the fault, if such it could be called in the circumstances, was perhaps more young Mozart's than theirs: his score is stronger on introversion (the sad bits, you might say) than drama. And if I'd been nearer the stage, I might have experienced more oomph.

David Hansen was more obviously dramatic, with a more striking, resounding counter-tenor voice than I expected (with my usual prejudices against counter-tenors in opera). A nice surprise. Michael Spyres has had good reviews (e.g. "... in this very difficult role that requires all the skills from rapid notes to jumps and a variety of affections he is almost exceptional"*), so perhaps yesterday was an off-day, understandable in a long run of such an impossible role: he sounded perilously stretched at some points, though at others his warm, grainy timbre, more powerfully projected than his colleagues', was thrilling.

In 2007 I wrote "Christophe Rousset and his Talens Lyriques are a lot fleeter of foot than Mark Wigglesworth and the Monnaie band, even though the latter were being as HIP as they could: no vibrato for the strings and, just to make things harder, no valves on the horns." Well, this time Rousset was in the pit, so the band was as fleet-footed and bouncy as you could wish for. It was a good thing, I thought, it was Rousset and not Christie, as I'm almost certain the latter would have downed his baton (if he used one) and stomped off as the umpteenth plane roared overhead. Rousset had at times to gesticulate almost wildly to help his soloists keep time over the din.

But to my relief, as any interruptions would have made Mitridate in the hot tent even longer, he soldiered on and we ended right on time.

*Il giardino di Armida.

Maestro Wenarto sings even earlier Mozart.

5 May 2016

Verdi - Rigoletto

ONP Bastille, Monday May 2 2016

Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Production: Claus Guth. Sets and costumes: Christian Schmidt. Lighting: Olaf Winter. Il Duca di Mantova: Michael Fabiano. Rigoletto: Quinn Kelsey. Gilda: Olga Peretyatko. Sparafucile: Rafal Siwek. Maddalena: Vesselina Kasarova. Giovanna: Isabelle Druet. Il Conte di Monterone: Mikhail Kolelishvili. Marullo: Michal Partyka. Matteo Borsa: Christophe Berry. Il Conte di Ceprano: Tiago Matos. La Contessa: Andreea Soare. Paggio della Duchessa: Adriana Gonzalez. Usciere di corte: Florent Mbia. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Verdi
It's always frustrating when, as sometimes happens, the efforts of an excellent cast are undermined by the distancing effects of an unsuccessful production. So it was this week at the Bastille, with this Rigoletto - or so it seemed to me, at any rate. As also quite often happens, the initial idea was reasonable enough but unconvincingly carried through.

As the opera began, an old tramp in a long coat, with remnants of white makeup on his face, knelt and opened a carton. He pulled out, first, a (monochrome) Harlequin's outfit, then a blood-stained white dress. Carrying his memories round in a box, we easily understood; and the production would be a flashback, in basically a single set: the box,blown up to Bastille proportions.

But from then on, it was as if the director and his assistants couldn't make their minds up, trying out one cliché ("poncif" was the word my French neighbour used) of modern staging after another to no satisfactory overall effect. The opening scene was in renaissance costume until Monterone burst in in plain, dark, modern clothes. Perhaps it had been a fancy dress ball after all: we never saw period costumes again. When they finally met, Gilda, in a demure white dress, and the duke, in a stiff, nerdy hairpiece and nerdy specs, together looked like Janet and Brad in Rocky Horror. The old tramp we had seen was not, it turned out, Rigoletto, but his double. There would be doubles (or more) throughout the show. Sparafucile and Rigoletto were even dressed the same and mirrored each other's gestures as they struck their deal, and during "Caro nome" we had three ages of Gilda, in identical white dresses, on points and the duke's nerdy double, also a dancer, attending her on her pedestal.

The duke and Gilda
There were video projections as well, admittedly not all as corny as the one of Gilda running towards us, in slow motion, through a field of wild flowers (or later, running away again).

None of all this business seemed urgently necessary and the effect was fragmented, not coherent. Least understandable of all, to me (perhaps I was tired and not in a mood for working things out) and unkindest to the tenor was to have him, after a good snort of coke, sing "La donna e mobile" in front of a line-up of showgirls in white feathers, wriggling their bottoms at him and provoking laughter from the audience. I really don't know why Maddalena was leading this revue at Sparafucile's house, in black patent, thigh-high boots and spangled tails - though it must be said Vesselina Kazarova wore the outfit with panache.

The trouble with this sort of production is that, by distancing you from the characters and preventing you from engaging with them, it limits the singers' powers to stir up emotion. This is, as I said, frustrating when you have such a good cast up there on stage, battling away at it.

Least hindered was perhaps Quinn Kelsey, who managed to project a moving portrayal of a tragically broken man. Vocally he was an unusual, un-Italian Rigoletto, lighter and grainier in tone than you expect, sounding somehow higher than the notes he was actually singing, perhaps a touch colourless, but powerful neverless. It was a pity that the effect of his final business, packing the dress into the carton to "boucler la boucle" of the flashback production, was underwhelming.

I was very glad to have at last a chance to see and hear Michael Fabiano. His voice is darker than I expected, especially at the top, with a striking variety of colour and timbre and wide dynamic range. His singing was generous - maybe even more generous than need be: with such reserves he could afford to take things easier - and, so I thought, risk-taking and pugnacious, as if determined to break out of the constraints of the production and project real personality from behind those nerdy specs. This pluckiness was undeniably engaging, when these days so much singing is cautious and sparing.

Olga Peretyatko, though by no means old, is a bit too grown-up to skip across the stage like a kid to greet her father. Vocally, she is, as my neighbour put it, not a fragile Gilda, and he meant it as a compliment. I enjoyed what sounded to me like old-fashioned diva singing, with some truly gorgeous sounds and impressive technique - I don't think I just imagined, at one point, two successive, flawless messa di voce.

Maddalena
The rest of the cast was more or less perfect, with Vesselina Kasarova not only looking great in her boots and tails but in much better vocal shape than I had, I must admit, feared. And the orchestra, under Nicola Luisotti, was for once a genuine protagonist, not just an accompaniment.

The production is, for now, available on line and will apparently come out on DVD, so anyone interested will have a chance to see if my impressions make sense. To me, putting this cast in this production was a lost opportunity. I'm told Guth has done better work. To me, Carsen's "circus" staging would, if he could have been persuaded to come and revive it himself, probably have been a better bet.