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 Bastille'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 write 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.

14 Jun 2014

Marc-Olivier Dupin - Robert le cochon et les Kidnappeurs

Opéra comique, Paris, Friday June 13 2014

Conductor: Marc-Olivier Dupin. Production: Ivan Grinberg. Sets and costumes: Paul Cox. Lighting: Madjid Hakimi. Robert le cochon; Louyaplu, le tueur de loups: Marc Mauillon. Mercibocou le loup: Paul-Alexandre Dubois. Vieux Hibou; Ferdinand, gardien muet du dépotoir: Damien Bouvet. Nouille la grenouille; la Lune: Donatienne Michel-Dansac. Trashella, propriétaire du dépotoir: Edwige Bourdy. Poitou-Charentes Orchestra.

"On a quiet night, Robert the Pig (Robert le Cochon) learns that his friend Mercibocou the Wolf has been kidnapped by Trashella, the owner of the big garbage dump. To set him free, the boldness of Robert the Pig, the passion of Nouille the Frog and the complicity of the Moon will be necessary."

You'll have gathered from this introduction, copied and pasted from the Opéra Comique's website, that Robert le Cochon is not so much an opera, nor even an operetta or a musical, as a children's show with a relatively fancy score and simple, colourful sets, like pictures in a book of children's stories: the dump, with its piles of different-coloured dogs' kennels, clocks, lampshades, chairs, computers and red drums, used by Mercibocou to build Nouille la Grenouille's rocket. To the left, the owl on a tree stump; at the rear, a naively painted rural backdrop. Above, as and when needed, a large, singing moon. Nouille is in a frog suit with a red skirt, Robert is in a pig suit with shorts, Mercibocou is in blue overalls with a wolf's head and Trashella wears a long red dress and has hair like Marge Simpson's. The acting and choreography are as naive as the painted backdrop.

The score, for eighteen instruments including a piano and an accordeon, is:

"... a patchwork of objects found in the vast dump of "serious" music, from renaissance polyphony to romantic opera and popular songs."

Overall, it is reminiscent of Shostakovich's Jazz Suites, of Cheryomushki or the "teapot" scene in L'Enfant et les sortilèges, with occasional outbursts of "modern" and percussive, rhythmic passages that reminded me of Britten's scores for children or "Tom, Tom the piper's son" in The Turn of the Screw.

The only really sound voice in this production was that of Marc Mauillon, most recently seen as Cithéron in Robert Carsen's production of Platée and here projecting the same engaging personality. Paul-Alexandre Dubois could probably put his precarious intonation down to the character demands of his part as a wolf. The female singers were, so a neaby Frenchman thought, "unworthy of a capital city." He found it impossible to believe better candidates were not available. And it turned out that the little old lady next to me had had exactly the same thought as I did: on Broadway, with tighter directing and better singing (she went so far as imagining what Natalie Dessay would have made of Nouille la Grenouille!) and dancing, even in the same sets, this would have made an excellent, fun show.

The Opéra Comique's video trailer gives some idea of the production, not much of the music.

23 May 2014

Charles Lecocq - Ali Baba

Opéra Comique, Paris, Tuesday May 20 2014

Conductor: Jean-Pierre Haeck. Production: Arnaud Meunier. Sets: Damien Caille-Perret. Costumes: Anne Autran Dumour. Lighting: Nicolas Marie. Morgiane: Sophie Marin-Degor. Zobéïde: Christianne Bélanger. Ali-Baba: Tassis Christoyannis. Zizi: Philippe Talbot. Cassim, François Rougier. Saladin: Mark van Arsdale. Kandgiar: Vianney Guyonnet. Maboul, le Cadi: Thierry Vu Huu. Chorus: Accentus/Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie. Orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Haute-Normandie.

Rigoletto was set in a circus, but Ali Baba was more fun. Some critics have grumbled about the production, but I've seen tackier, cornier ones in the same house, among them last year's "oriental" offering, Mârouf, savetier du Caire. One of the grumbles was about the transposition, in which the bazar became a shopping centre and the costumes were vaguely 70s or 80s, so it's true that the slave auction was slightly out of place; but at least we were spared the pantomime silliness of Mârouf's cardboard Cairo, outlandish costumes and vaguely racist stereotypes.

There were four escalators, a cash desk, potted palms and advertisements for dream holidays by the beach (South Beach by the looks of it). Later there would be various spoof signs for "Look-Koom" or "Baghdad Burger," etc. When the escalators were grouped head-to-head they became the rock that slid apart at the famous command to reveal a vault, more than a cavern, of square-fronted drawers splotched with gold leaf and laden with treasure. Ali Baba was a cleaner in the mall and his house was a run-down affair affair with grubby wallpaper and a bare bulb until he moved into his palace, surrounded by fawning air hostesses. Of course, the jars in the cellar were oil barrels. The forty thieves were more like forty goofy gangsters. Everyone acted up a comic storm, like the best kind of boulevard farce.

The cast made a strong team vocally too, whether in "serious" singing or comical character parts. Tassis Christoyannis was excellent in "Jamais je ne vis plus beaux yeux", for example, and Sophie Marin-Degor was remarkable throughout, whether "serious" or actually tap-dancing her way off stage.  Christianne Bélanger was equally excellent as the sex-starved Zobéïde, assuring Ali Baba that though he might be her second (husband), he would be the first. They were surrounded by a host of promising young singers in supporting roles. Lecocq's music is somewhere between Offenbach and Bizet (they were fellow-students). It would be nice to have such strong, enthusiastic teams performing more Lecocq, and of course Offenbach as well.

The orchestra and chorus were on great form too, conducted with a combination of vigour (too much vigour for some critics) and care by Jean-Pierre Haeck. As we left the house, my neighbour remarked that after such a show you could only leave in a good mood. So if some critics were grumpy, we could only imagine the opening night had perhaps had teething troubles, corrected since. Great fun.

There is a complete 1961 performance on YouTube, with the wonderful diction (and less-than-wonderful French orchestral playing) they had back then. The yacking stops and the opera starts at 2.30.

21 May 2014

Verdi - Rigoletto

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday May 18 2014

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Production: Robert Carsen, reprised by Gayral Christophe. Sets: Radu Boruzescu. Costumes: Miruna Boruzescu. Lighting: Robert Carsen, Peter Van Praet. Il Duca di Mantova: Arturo Chacón-Cruz. Rigoletto: Dimitri Platanias. Gilda: Simona Šaturová. Sparafucile: Ain Anger. Maddalena: Sara Fulgoni. Giovanna: Carole Wilson. Il Conte di Monterone: Carlo Cigni. Marullo: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Matteo Borsa: Roberto Covatta. Il Conte di Ceprano: Laurent Kubla. La Contessa di Ceprano: Yvette Bonner. Usciere di Corte: Gerard Lavalle. Orchestra and men's chorus of La Monnaie. 

Robert Carsen’s production of Rigoletto has been around before arriving in Brussels, so it will be familiar to many. I’d seen parts of it on TV myself. It sets the work in a wine-dark circus ring, and once you’ve said that the concept is fairly easy to imagine.

In the Brussels context, the start seemed unpromisingly déjà vu. Not Carsen’s fault, but last season’s Lucrezia Borgia was actually staged at the Cirque Royal, and already contained déjà vu elements of its own, La Monnaie having gone through a run of sleazy productions. At the time, I wrote: ‘No doubt coincidentally, but still […] this production had much in common with the previous two in Brussels […] similar acts of gratuitous sadism on naked girls in a corrupt, criminal, nouveau-riche milieu […] The bored, idle, yobbish rich, all in black […] dinner jackets with open-necked shirts…’

This Rigoletto opens with the bored, idle, yobbish rich, all in black, seated in the circus watching a lion tamer cracking his whip at near-naked girls and Rigoletto – a clown, of course, in capacious black with touches of white - capering round obscenely with a hideous inflatable doll. Later, the Duke strips off before climbing a ladder to join the captive Gilda in the box over the entrance to the ring, and the doll gets a second outing, but apart from that the shrug-inducing shenanigans die out and give way to a soberer, more straightforward working through of the circus theme, albeit minus the gaudy colours of the usual circus, with acrobats in black among the dinner jackets, Gilda rising high-up seated on a trapeze, and at the end a stunning coup de theatre as a naked female silk-acrobat (so I believe they're called) cascades down in a flash in a sash and ends suspended, with a jolt, dead.

This isn’t Carsen’s best production, but works well enough. On Sunday, however, it seemed to me to lack dramatic commitment and impact. Was he in Brussels to oversee this reprise? Probably not, as one Gayral Christophe is credited with it.

The cast, despite cancellations and replacements, was typical Brussels: strong but no outright stars. Arturo Chacón-Cruz is a very decent mid-weight young tenor with a nice presence and bright, accurate top notes (I was surprised to see those being targeted for criticism in reviews of earlier performances) but a rather monochrome medium. Dimitri Platanias was powerful and clear but not always reassuringly secure - which could also be said of the diabolical-looking Ain Anger's cavernous, booming voice. Simona Šaturová's is sweet in the middle with a touch of Slav steel at the top but, to me, short on drama. My companions thought she warmed up in part two. Sara Fulgoni was not a great Maddalena.

I realised, thinking up this report, that I simply don't remember anything about the orchestra and conducting. Perhaps that's a compliment to Carlo Rizzi. What did strike me, though, was that Rigoletto, much as I like Verdi, does nothing for me at all.

Izzy sings "La donna è mobile".