14 Oct 2014

Rameau - Castor et Pollux

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Monday October 13 2014

Conductor: Hervé Niquet. Production: Christian Schiaretti. Choreography: Andonis Foniadakis. Sets: Rudy Sabounghi. Costumes: Thibaut Welchlin. Lighting: Laurent Castaingt. Castor: John Tessier. Pollux: Edwin Crossley-Mercer. Télaïre: Omo Bello. Phœbé: Michèle Losier. Jupiter: Jean Teitgen. Mercure, un spartiate, un athlète: Reinoud van Mechelen. Cléone, une ombre heureuse: Hasnaa Bennani. Un grand prêtre: Marc Labonnette. Le Concert Spirituel.

Nothing new, of course, but it’s still funny how widely opinions on opera differ, making you wonder if there’s any value in reading or hearing anyone else’s. As I left the Théâtre des Champs Elysées last night, one friend I ran into exclaimed “I hated every minute!” But another simply said “On ne va pas bouder son plaisir” – literally “We aren’t going to pout (or pull faces) at our pleasure”, meaning even if the evening hadn’t been perfect, it would be fastidious deliberately to pick holes in it. I was more in sympathy with friend number two.

This new production is more beautiful than dramatically compelling: the acting is placid, even when in theory thunderbolts are crashing around, hell is opening up underfoot and heroes are either dying or returning from the dead. The drama could have done with being cranked up a good notch or two. Hervé Niquet’s refusal, with his brisk, no-nonsense tempi, to milk the mourning scenes also restrained the tragedy. So we were left, rather, to admire the plastic beauties of the staging.

The curtain was up as we entered the house, revealing… more of the house: the single set echoed (perfectly) the architecture and subdued decoration of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées itself. As my neighbour remarked, when the production goes to St Etienne, this will be less obvious. The building was, in its day (just before WWI, Paul Poiret period and just in time for the Riot of Spring), avant-garde: an all-concrete structure (though faced with marble and sculpted reliefs), discreetly and to some extent austerely neo-classical, paving the way for what would become art déco. The space on stage, with simple geometry and soft colours, like the areas front-of-house, repeated at the rear the square, fluted, gilded columns that flank the stage, reproduced some of the pale, rectangular, neo-classical frescoes in the foyer (by Bourdelle, I think), outlined in gold, and was lit from above by a copy of the house’s large, circular ceiling light - a plain, ground-glass affair with a design of clouds (it was said, before the theatre last closed for much-needed restoration, that one of those large glass panels had fallen and sliced an armchair in two).

Bourdelle and a wall painting
The ladies of the chorus were in taupe-ish grey, classically-draped dresses with one shoulder bare, while the women dancers had floatier, white versions; the soloists were in more glamorous but almost equally restrained drapery, Phoebé in green, Télaïre in gold lamé. The men of the chorus sometimes had black breastplates with moulded six-packs, or at others were in priestly robes; the soloists’ breastplates (and six-packs) were gilded, Pollux had a splendid gold, hoplite helmet, and at times he and Castor had equally splendid bi-metal shields, and lances. All the men had ample, skirt-like trousers – the male dancers bare-chested. Only Jupiter, when he descended on his cloud – cleverly, that ceiling light, with its cloud design – was in an 18th century coat, black with sparkly bits. His helmet was Greek, too, but shaped, up top, like an eagle’s head. Visually, the whole show, with its shades of grey and touches of gold in golden lighting, was almost too self-consciously harmonious. Eye candy, so to speak. But who could complain?

The acting, as I said, was fairly placid, whatever the plot brought on. It seemed a shame: a bit more acting oomph in such carefully-crafted surroundings could have made this an outstanding show. The ballets were, however, vigorous, writhing and semaphoric – they must have been exhausting for the dancers – and made the scenes in hell, wreathed in smoke and lit in red, quite effective, in a neo-baroque way. They were booed at the end, as usual, but the booing was soon out-clapped and out-cheered. I’ve seen worse ballets at the opera. Far worse – though friend number one claimed he never had, so perhaps he was among the booers. With all the mention of “ombres” (shades) underground, there was interplay with shadows on a screen lowered down, which, at the end, showed the expanding universe and a spinning zodiac.

The cast was young, so in some cases inexperience showed, but thankfully not a cast of voiceless wonders. Both tenors, John Tessier and Reinoud van Mechelen, were undeniably able to sing the bravura arias Rameau threw at them, which isn’t always the case with these young, HIP casts. Tessier was, however, at his limit and maybe a touch lightweight for the part; van Mechelen was not, belting out his “Sound the trumpets” (“Éclatez, fières trompettes”) number fearlessly, alone in front of the riveted gold safety curtain. Edwin Crossley-Mercer, a handsome figure with short grey hair (as opposed to Castor's, long and fair), confirmed the good impression he made on me in Platée earlier this year, even if, as I've often said here, rapid vibrato isn't to my taste. Jean Teitgen was a stentorian Jupiter, faultless to my ear, as I like noise, but probably a bit over the top to some people's.

Jupiter's cloud
Talking of widely differing opinions, the first review I've seen published raves about Omo Bello. She certainly has a good voice, but (I suppose this is quibbling), despite her good acting, facially at least, it seemed to me a bit premature for her to be singing a tragédienne's part like Télaïre and, to my (cloth, if you like) ear it seemed to me her intonation was at times slightly unstable. It struck me, then, that she was almost overshadowed by the interesting, bronzey timbre of Michèle Losier and even the very sweet singing of Hasnaa Bennani, unexpected in her lesser roles.

As mentioned above, Hervé Niquet's conducting is of the brisk, no-nonsense kind - to the point, very nearly, of heartlessness, undermining the work's tragic potential. I also think his orchestra lacks the rhythmic clarity, the springiness, of some of his confrères'. But that's just me, and at any rate the playing is at least efficacious. The sound is robust, almost lush. The chorus was excellent.

This is a handsome show. Cameras were in the house for television. Perhaps the production will make it to DVD, in which case it will be a nice addition to the Rameau catalogue. My mother, long a Rameau fan, will enjoy it.

27 Sep 2014

Wagner, Mahler (and Brahms)

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Friday September 26 2014

Philippe Herreweghe, Conductor. Ann Hallenberg, Mezzo Soprano. Orchestre des Champs Elysées.
  • Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, prelude to act III
  • Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
  • Brahms: symphony N°4.
For reasons I could have done without, I have a special interest in Ann Hallenberg's Mahler. Earlier this year, on account of work, I had to cancel a trip to Berlin to hear her sing Das Lied von der Erde. The Abschied I missed appeared shortly after on internet, the very day deep tragedy struck, and listening to it (many times) helped me cope. Naturally, when I saw she would be singing the Kindertotenlieder in Paris this month, I booked.

Ann Hallenberg has fretted on line that she may not be “the kind of singer the audience wants to hear in Mahler”. She is, of course, wrong to worry. Her Mahler is as anyone who knows her singing would expect: impeccably tuned for a start, perfectly phrased and intelligently nuanced, sincerely expressed, without histrionics. Her dynamic range is wide, without affecting her excellent diction, and her timbre runs from liquid bronze to raw silk.

Her concern that “my and Maestro Herreweghe's non-sentimental interpretation will be too... untraditional” may have been better founded. His is a vibrato-free zone, his orchestra is not the VPO, and Ann Hallenberg is better-known for Baroque and Rossini (not absolutely "unsentimental" perhaps, but different kinds of sentiment), so there may well be traditionalists who are upset by it. But the result is not only more transparent; it is drier and sparer than usual, and only makes the songs more uncompromisingly bleak – surely a legitimate approach, though not a comfortable one.

The songs were preceded (without a break or applause) by a snatch of Wagner and followed, after the interval, by the Brahms. But I bought my tickets to hear Ann Hallenberg sing Mahler, and by then, not convinced I needed drier, sparer Brahms, was on my way to dinner with ravening friends.

(In May I published a link to that Berlin performance of Der Abschied.)

26 Sep 2014

Rossini - Il barbiere di Siviglia

ONP Bastille, Thursday September 25 2014

Conductor: Carlo Montanaro. Production: Damiano Michieletto. Sets: Paolo Fantin. Costumes: Silvia Aymonino. Lighting: Fabio Barettin. Il Conte d’Almaviva: René Barbera. Bartolo: Carlo Lepore. Rosina: Karine Deshayes. Figaro: Dalibor Jenis. Basilio: Orlin Anastassov. Fiorello: Tiago Matos. Berta: Cornelia Oncioiu. Un Ufficiale: Lucio Prete. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Paris’s new production of Il barbiere – not
altogether new, as it was created in Geneva in 2010 – should be fairly easy to describe. The curtain rises on an ordinary, slightly shabby, yellow street façade in Seville. We see the ground floor and three storeys above, but there could be more. To the left is a tapas bar (the Barracuda) with a giant ice cream cone and a table and chairs outside. In the middle, under Rosina’s balcony, is Almaviva’s (blue) car. All over is a multitude of realistic detail: the fire hydrant, the blue-and-white street numbers, the “no parking” sign, the graffiti, the plastic dustbin, the washing at the windows, the bird droppings running down the globe-shaped street lights. The outside scenes take place, naturally, in this street, with the chorus dressed as modern policemen or soldiers or as a colourful horde of modern locals, young and old.

For the indoors scenes, the whole central section rotates to reveal winding stairs and the inside of all the rooms, on all three floors, with their clashing wallpapers and tiles and variegated furniture, fixtures and fittings, realistic again down to the last detail, and as it turns, the singers wind their way in and out of the rooms and up and down the stairs. This is of course a classic stage set-up. What’s different here is simply the scale of the whole undertaking, the degree of detail and the precision of the directing. There were things going on (in rooms, on balconies... people living their lives) all the time: "a mini-universe," wrote one French critic. “They must have rehearsed for ages,” said the little old lady on my right.

There were also some nice ideas, like broadsheets of newspaper gently raining down during “La calunnia” or a young man streaking across on his bicycle during the storm – but no intellectual picking-apart of the story, which is apparently why one of the critics, in his review, practically sneered at the audience for applauding it so loudly (unusually, the production team was cheered on opening night).

The overall effect was colourful (e.g. Berta’s transparent plastic mac, printed with large sunflowers and worn over a yellow-and-orange dress), at times frenzied, with smoke billowing, washing flying off the lines and people running around in all directions while the lights flashed, and fun.

In these well-oiled circumstances it would have been good enough to have a cast of team-playing singing actors – which they were. But tenor René Barbera was a cut above that, with a true, full Rossini voice – no trace of what the French call a “voix de crécelle” – literally a “rattle-voice” but you know what they mean: a thin, bleating kind of tenorino – and a great deal of smiling charm and presence on stage. And Karine Deshayes is, or should be (and has been, for some years) an excellent Rosina: she produces beautiful sounds and sings with care and subtlety. Unfortunately I have to say that there were times – ensembles especially, but not only - when I could see her lips moving but hear nothing, and I was on row four of the stalls (which explains how I could see her lips moving). The Bastille is really no place for Rossini.

Apart from wondering why Il barbiere was once more at the Bastille, not Garnier (because it sells well, I imagine), I wondered why, as people (except me) liked the old production so much, we had to have a new one at all, or why the money couldn’t have been spent on a different piece of Rossini for a change. But even if the conducting was fairly ordinary: not bad but not really sparkling, it was lovely to re-discover Rossini’s masterpiece in an unpretentiously entertaining staging that (unlike Coline Serreau’s – which combined the kind of intellectual pretensions the grumpy critic missed with plain silly stage business) made the time fly.

Maestro Wenarto sings "Una voce poco fa" (in French).

23 Sep 2014

Strauss - Daphne

Sunday September 21 2014

Conductor: Lothar Koenigs. Production: Guy Joosten. Sets: Alfons Flores. Costumes: Moritz Junge. Lighting: Manfred Voss. Video: Franc Aleu. Choreography: Aline David. Peneios: Iain Paterson. Gaea: Birgit Remmert. Daphne: Sally Matthews. Leukippos: Peter Lodahl. Apollo: Eric Cutler. Erste Magd: Tineke Van Ingelgem. Zweite Magd: Maria Fiselier. Schäfer: Matt Boehler, Gijs Van der Linden, Kris Belligh, Justin Hopkins. Orchestra and men’s chorus of La Monnaie.

Nobody these days wants to see tenors in tunics or cavorting shepherds, so Daphne, wonderful though it is, is sometimes performed in concert but too rarely staged. The director must scratch his head wondering what modern parallels he can use. Guy Joosten decided that nature-obsessed and literally tree-hugging Daphne, refusing to party with the uncouth, was defying all her parents and their milieu represented, and that, in this day and age, that would be the world of finance. Wall Street. Fair enough, as ideas go - “E for earnest endeavour,” a conductor I played under used to say during rehearsals. But as the concept was worked though, its limits were soon obvious.

The single set was impressive, filling the stage in all directions. A staircase rose from the middle of the apron, split to left and right, then rose again, on both sides, to a gallery at the rear, thus embracing a gigantic, twisted tree – so gigantic and twisted it was hard to credit Daphne's claim it was planted “in der Kindheit Tagen”, unless something like Jack's famous beanstalk. Lighting and videos: stock market listings, greenery, a web, flames... carefully projected on the stairs or the tree, were excellently crafted and effective throughout.

As the curtain rose, we found the chorus and extras got up, not as nymphs, shepherds and cowherds, but as traders, all in nattily-tailored black (who isn't, in these updates?), gesticulating and poking at iPads flashing, like the projections, multicoloured listings and graphs. Gaea wore a yellow drag-queen (or Castafiore) dress and had big, blond hair, a glass in one hand and a decanter in the other. The two maidens were fashionistas in heels, brandishing bags, which made sense enough when they tried to coax Daphne into a frock for the festivities. Daphne herself was a kind of green-haired waif in unflattering bootees and a cardigan, Leukippos wore a pastel-coloured suit and Apollo looked distinctly un-godlike (or un-cowherd-like, for that matter) in scruffy grey, with black army boots. He brought with him (“the herd got restless, started stamping, and all together galloped away”) Arturo Di Modica's famous charging Wall Street bull, here apparently inflatable, and a highly unexpected (in the Wall Street context) golden bow.

The Bull
The tame, almost good-mannered orgy involved young men on high-tech, strap-on stilts with bright blue, low-tech, strap-on dildos. When Apollo ended this unconvincing carousal with a thunderclap, and pitch-darkness ensued, the bull deflated and the stairs, in part, collapsed. He killed Leukippos with an arrow, brandished, not shot from the golden bow. And as Daphne climbed way up into her gigantic, twisted tree for the metamorphosis, it was set alight by the traders and burned in projected flames – very effectively to Strauss's marvellous music, though puzzlingly as regards the story.

The main problem overall, of course, was that on the trading floor, little of the libretto, with its shepherds and herdsmen and fishermen and vineyards and Olympian gods, made much sense. And in truth, some of the business verged on the laughable. So in all, while the setting was magnificent, what went on in it was, dramatically speaking, less convincing.

Musically, though, it was a different matter. Lothar Koenigs coaxed far better playing than I expected from the Monnaie orchestra (this bewitching score was once described to me as "needlessly difficult" by someone who'd had to tackle it), going for a gentle, warm-sounding performance no doubt better matched to their abilities than a harder-driven, more "paroxystic" approach (I have Böhm's live recording in mind).

The supporting cast was also better than some of the critics implied. I wondered if, in some cases, we were better placed, in the circles, to hear them than the critics, who would have been given seats in the stalls - the set being what it was, the singers were often quite high up. Contrary to what I read, Birgit Remmert's low notes (and as we all know, Gaea has plenty of those) were all perfectly audible, and Iain Paterson seemed fine to me, even thrilling at times, not the weak link some implied. The maidens were excellent. (For those who don't know, Böhm's First Maiden in 1964 was Rita Streich!)

Thrilling too, very much so, was Eric Cutler's impeccable, resounding Apollo, leaving Peter Lodahl somewhat in the shade through no actual fault of his own, and to some extent stealing the show from Sally Matthews. But this is a tough role and she mastered it, with a darker, fuller voice than I remembered from her Mozart and definitely all the notes, even the curious twiddly bits - I noticed none of the intonation problems one critic claimed to have heard (but of course every performance is different: I was told Cutler cracked sometimes on the opening night). Also, again, the set played a part: Daphne was sometimes down to the side in one of the under-stair spaces, with nothing behind to push sound back into the house; when she was up on the staircase, she projected better and was thus a better match for Cutler.

I'm not a great one for favourites, but Daphne is certainly one of the Strauss operas I like best of all. This was the first time I'd seen it staged (having heard it perhaps twice in concert), and of course I was glad for that, even if the concept didn't always work out. The production was, however, leaving aside the antics, handsomely designed, and musically it was an excellent afternoon - more excellent than (the eternal pessimist - but that comes from going to opera so often) I'd dared hope for. A fair start to the new season.

Maestro Wenarto, who has not yet recorded an excerpt from Daphne, and Strauss's Dance of the Seven Veils.

24 Jun 2014

Monteverdi et al - L'incoronazione di Poppea

ONP Garnier, Sunday June 22 2014

Conductor: Rinaldo Alessandrini. Production: Robert Wilson with Giuseppe Frigeni. Sets: Robert Wilson, Annick Lavallée-Benny. Costumes: Jacques Reynaud / Yashi. Lighting: A. J. Weissbard, Robert Wilson. La Fortuna, Drusilla: Gaëlle Arquez. La Virtù, Damigella: Jaël Azzaretti. Amore: Amel Brahim-Djelloul. Ottone: Varduhi Abrahamyan. Poppea: Karine Deshayes. Nerone: Jeremy Ovenden. Arnalta: Manuel Nuñez Camelino. Ottavia: Monica Bacelli. Nutrice: Giuseppe de Vittorio. Seneca: Andrea Concetti. Valletto: Marie-Adeline Henry. Mercurio: Nahuel Di Pierro. Secondo Tribuno, Famigliare di Seneca. Salvo Vitale. Soldato pretoriano, Lucano, Famigliare di Seneca, Secondo Console: Valerio Contaldo. Soldato pretoriano, Liberto, Primo Tribuno: Furio Zanasi. Concerto Italiano.

It’s a pity, to me at any rate, that Poppea comes round more often than Orfeo, but it's interesting to see how many different production styles all manage to make a go of it: Dynasty-style skulduggery in dark, sleek art deco settings; liquorice-allsorts/day-glo farce; thoroughly post-modern and streetwise, with everyone on the stage at once … It’s interesting, also, to see how many different kinds of opera Bob Wilson manages to make something of, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less. People disagree, of course, about the successes and failures: I liked his Ring, plenty didn’t.

Poppea doesn’t have to be semi-pornographic, though we’re now used to it being well sexed-up. There’s no actual sex prescribed in the libretto, as far as I remember; it’s only what modern directors and audiences read into it. This new Paris production has been criticised for being “refrigerated” in “50 shades of grey” as one reviewer cleverly put it, referring to Wilson’s usual subdued colour scheme while hinting at the absent sex: Poppea is a schemer, supported by Amore, but still an aspiring empress, not an outright tart. But that isn’t a complaint I’d make. In a way, Wilson’s staging is almost old-fashioned in simply telling the story as it appears in the libretto, in his characteristically formal, stylised way. And as this stately formalism has things in common with “HIP” theatrical practice – the supposed reconstitution of period gesture and movement, I mean – it suits Monteverdi’s score without distracting from it: you can concentrate on the playing and singing much more closely than in busier shows.

The production also, with its superbly-made “neo-period” costumes: plain, palest-coloured silks (lemon, lavender, very pale pink…), graphic black velvet (and sometimes stylised armour) for the men, and stiff, starched-lace standing collars; its cool, careful “signature” lighting and sparse but carefully-honed and handled sets, has the austere beauty of certain dark old masters. The action, as ever with Bob Wilson, is slow-moving. But I find I fall easily into the rhythm; and I was sitting near enough at the Palais Garnier to benefit in full from the work that had gone into facial expression: the batting of eyelids, the half-open mouth, the rolling eyes - of the nurses especially, hands on hips, heads cocked knowingly, swaying around with exaggerated swagger.

There were carefully-lit walls and openings that rose and fell, columns, grey or chromed, and once an obelisk, sprouting from the ground; a grove of saplings; a symbolic, suspended cypress and an archway for Seneca; and a neat labyrinth of low hedges, gliding in, for Poppea to fall asleep in against a starry sky with a rising sliver of crescent moon. The final prop was one large and crisply-carved (where not battered) Corinthian capital, sliding imperceptibly forward during the duet.

Somehow, though the modest ensemble, more continuo than orchestra, was undeniably “HIP” (and discreetly lovely), the musical options seemed old-fashioned too: a Mozartian tenor for Nerone, a mature voice for Poppea, and, with Ottone sung by a mezzo, not a counter-tenor in sight or, more importantly still, sound. No voiceless wonders, no hysterics; just good-to-excellent singing at Monteverdi’s service.

Karine Deshayes makes, as I said, a more mature Poppea, darker-voiced, than we’re now used to, often wonderfully musical, and vocally well paired with Jeremy Ovenden’s elegant tenor – elegant, but perfectly capable of heroism, as in his ringing duet with Lucano.

Monica Bacelli has been singing Ottavia for at least a decade now, which may explain why her voice seems to make quite different sounds at different pitches – or perhaps it was just mannerism? In this production, she’s a less sympathetic, less tragic victim than usual, so less moving, and perhaps the vocal mannerism was asked for by the directors. The nurses, Arnalta especially, were excellent character singers.

Varduhi Abrahamyan is a warm, sober, bronze-toned Ottone, thoroughly convincing both vocally and dramatically. She, too, was well-paired with the strongly contrasting, silvery yet full and rounded voice of Gaëlle Arquez as Drusilla: something of a revelation. In a strong cast (as I said, there were, for once, none of those voiceless wonders “early-music” conductors often appear to like – though I’ve been told I’m wrong about that: it’s all a question of timbre; some here were, however, better at the front of the stage than further away)... in a strong cast, as I was saying, they were undoubtedly the stars of the show.

I had a lovely evening – all the more so as, being at the end of a row and near an exit, I was first out at the interval and, for a few seconds, had Garnier’s grand foyer, in all its dimly-glowing, “candlelit” splendour, then the loggia facing the avenue de l’Opéra in the evening sunlight, to myself.

15 Jun 2014

Verdi - La Traviata

ONP Paris Bastille, Saturday June 14 2014

Conductor: Daniel Oren. Production: Benoît Jacquot. Sets: Sylvain Chauvelot. Costumes: Christian Gasc. Lighting: André Diot. Violetta Valéry: Diana Damrau. Flora Bervoix: Anna Pennisi. Annina: Cornelia Oncioiu. Alfredo Germont: Francesco Demuro. Giorgio Germont: Ludovic Tézier. Gastone: Gabriele Mangione. Il Barone Douphol: Fabio Previati. Il Marchese d’Obigny: Igor Gnidii. Dottore Grenvil: Nicolas Testé. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

It looked, with this new production of La Traviata, as if Nicolas Joël intended to mark the end of his tenure in Paris with a parting shot on how opera should, he's said to think, be staged: "traditional" production with a starry cast. The aim was perhaps also to offer a sort of ripost to the Paris Opera's previous production, by Christoph Marthaler, commissioned by Gerard Mortier. The result was only to emphasise the potential weakness of this approach (and to have, in the press, several critics almost wistfully admitting they preferred Marthaler's "regie" vision, East-German warts and all). Which seems, come to think of it, to have been his main achievement over the last four years, since the awful Mireille - "putain, Mireille," as a friend put it - that opened his reign. Benoît Jacquot's approach is one that was popular in the 80s: basically, one big, expensive object per scene, on an empty stage, and a handful of easily-grasped ideas.

In this case, the stage was both empty and black: no rear visible at all: "Vertiginous" black, said one critic. Our act one object was a gigantic royal bed centre-right with, under its high canopy, Manet's Olympia with her black maid. Our first simple idea was: Olympia is Violetta (or vice versa) and sure enough, Annina was blacked-up and wearing the same pale pink costume as in the painting. The revellers at Violetta's party were all men (i.e. including the lady members of the chorus) in undertaker black, with stove-pipe top hats (I wondered: did Frenchmen really all keep their hats on indoors in the 1850s?), lined up grimly en bloc to the left. They were motionless. "C'est l'enterrement dès le début," said my neighbour: a burial from the word go. That was easily grasped. Violetta's vast silk crinoline was sumptuously plain; she may once have been Olympia yet here looked positively virginal (we'll come back to that). The lighting was painterly: old masterish. It will look good on video.

As act two is in two parts, we had two big objects, both at the same time. On the left was a tree, as realistic as a stage tree could be, with a stone bench beneath its branches. Violetta was still in plain, crinolined silk and décolletée. Jacquot explained he couldn't see her dressed as a milkmaid, or something to that effect. Alfredo was now dressed as Werther, in tan suède, and sat on the tree roots in a conventional, Wertherish way to sing. On the right, as far as we could see in the dark, was a massive marble construction: a balustraded staircase along Palais Garnier lines, with globed candelabra, leading up to a similarly-balustraded terrace above a tribune with niches. There were a few cabaret tables in front, and some more funereal partygoers: extras in black with Zorro masks and Spanish sombreros, dotted around, immobile. There they stayed, in the dark, immobile as I just said, throughout the entire first tableau. "Sadism," said one critic.

So there was no curtain between tableaux: suddenly the lights went up - those Second Empire globes and our old friend the giant crystal chandelier - the marble was revealed to be lavishly polychrome, and there we were at Flora's for another joyless party.

A gypsy
Everyone, male or female, was in black except the dancers. The gypsy girls, who arrived in orangey pink, hiding their faces with fans, turned out to be men, some bearded. Conchita Wurst's contribution at the Eurovision Song Contest was surely too recent to have inspired this? The bullfighters were women, in red. All, horses and bull included, for some reason wriggled their bottoms at the audience. The chorus observed this puzzling performance motionless from the packed stairs; called away to dinner, they simply turned their backs and stayed put. And the most ridiculous thing, on the Bastille's even too-capacious stage, with fully half of it gloomily vacant to the left under the tree and leaving the house's state-of-the-art computer-controlled machinery, perfectly capable of shifting kit and caboodle into a more convenient position, unused, the dance and ensuing drama (with Violetta in another sumptuously plain silk crinoline, now jet black) took place squeezed into the pocket-handkerchief-sized space left between the grandiose, carpeted stairs, thrusting forward, and the orchestra pit.

For the final act, as we guessed at the interval, the giant bed was back, now on the left and stripped of its hangings, with the Manet down and facing the headboard, roped up, like the striped mattress, to be carted off, sold. This being so, Violetta was now curled on a small iron bedstead to the right, looking (and sounding: we'll come back to that) tiny and lost (especially as she was no longer in a crinoline) in the fathomless black space. When the mardi gras hubbub struck up, a portion of black curtain rose at the rear to reveal, not mardi gras revellers but another block of top-hatted, undertaker-like men in black. The ideas were, as I said, simple. "Symbolisme de quatre sous," remarked one person on a blog: tuppenny-ha'penney symbolism, you might say.

Short of bringing Kaufmann in to sing Alfredo - which Mortier, often criticised for putting the director first, did for Marthaler's once decried, now lamented production - Joël brought together as good a cast as any available. Ludovic Tézier is an ideal Germont senior, and got the most applause. There's nothing to add to that. Francesco Demuro is not Kaufmann but is a decent Alfredo, best at youthful enthusiasm, so his big moment was "De' miei bollenti spiriti". It's true that his top notes are somewhat covered - more harmonic than full sound - and he tends to sob, but at least the latter can be taken as a stab at emotion. Diana Damrau is excellent in almost every respect: interesting timbre, dynamic range at the service of subtlety of phrasing, agility, perfect tuning. She put a great deal of effort into projecting a Violetta frustrated with and fighting against her fate. And yet... Hers is an intrinsically beautiful voice, not an intrinsically dramatic one - nor is her Italian diction crisp - and my thought, as the evening went on, was that none of the singers had the help they needed from the production.

The Bastille stage
First, the Bastille is simply too big for a staging that leaves Violetta alone on a tiny bed against a gaping black hole. At the Bastille, that black hole is simply huge. Second, well, a gaping black hole is what it is: there were no sets to reflect sound back into the house. Damrau's top notes rang out splendidly enough, but I wondered if her lower register was audible at the back. Often during the evening, sitting in row 11 of the stalls, I found the singers (apart from Tézier) relatively remote; when Violetta was alone on her tiny bed, I felt inclined to lean forward to be sure of hearing. And third, this cold, stiff, funereal production failed to generate (or deliberately eschewed) dramatic tension, sensuality or emotion. Olympia or not, as one critic suggested, we had the odd suspicion this impeccable Violetta died a virgin. The chorus stood still in serried ranks. The transvestite ballet was more comical than sexy. The soloists, usually grouped in some small space on the stage, were left to themselves. Tézier, as is well known, is not a great mover, even if he proved once more he is a great singer. The others, try as they might (and as I said, Damrau put a great deal of effort into developing a character) were defeated by the leaden pall that settled over the evening. Result: an evening of singing that was admirable (indeed) but not exciting or moving.

As I remember, I once wrote that Currentzis loved Verdi to death. Daniel Oren conducted as if he thought he was Celibidache directing Bruckner, lovingly stretching out the bars, to such an extent that at one point I was almost certain Diana Damrau was trying to force him to get a move on.

At dinner afterwards we ordered champagne and toasted the end of Nicolas Joël's stint as director. Question now is, will Lissner be better? Opera being what it is, you never know.

Maestro Wenarto and friend sing the Brindisi.