26 Mar 2014

Rameau - Platée

Opéra Comique, Paris, Monday March 24 2014

Conductor: Paul Agnew. Production: Robert Carsen. Choreography: Nicolas Paul. Sets and costumes: Gideon Davey. Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet. Platée: Marcel Beekman. La Folie: Simone Kermes. Thalie: Virginie Thomas. Mercure, Thespis: Cyril Auvity. Clarine, Amour: Emmanuelle de Negri. Jupiter: Edwin Crossley-Mercer. Momus: João Fernandes. Cithéron, Momus in Prologue: Marc Mauillon. Junon: Emilie Renard. Chorus and orchestra: Les Arts Florissants.

Platée is one of a handful of works I like so much I can listen through at any time with pleasure, so I can’t say I was actually disappointed to see it on the Opéra Comique’s 2013-2014 schedule. But as the Paris Opera’s own production is excellent and has become a repertoire staple, and as staged Rameau remains a relative rarity even in France, I thought it was a shame we couldn’t have something different and wondered how Carsen’s take would measure up to Laurent Pelly’s benchmark, especially as I have quite often found Carsen’s work too coolly chic (all straitjacketed up in New Look tailoring and tight French pleats) for me.

It turned out I needn’t have worried: the new production is glittering in every sense. And as this is said to be the start of a “Rameau year”, we are supposed (so I read) to get more of his works as the months go by. I’ll believe that when I see it, however: there isn’t a single one in the Paris Opera’s next season, for a start.

Carsen sets Platée, a comedy in which the “ridiculous” heroine is cruelly deceived and mocked, in the cruelly deceptive, mocking world of fashion, centred mainly, though not exclusively, on Chanel. The staging opens and closes with a dazzling tinsel curtain and the basic setting is the same throughout: mirror-gloss black floor, mirrored walls with neoclassical round-arched details, facetted crystal wall lights.

After a kind of trendy dressing-up party during the prologue, in which the on-stage gaiety is for once infectious, a glitzy restaurant and bar, with round tables and Perspex, Ritz-style café chairs, is invaded by a cellphone-crazy crowd of brightly variegated fashion victims - just like the Hotel Costes during fashion week. Mercure, in a check suit and floppy hair, displaces customers (like a directeur de salle at the Hôtel Costes) to make way at the best table for a sleek, chic and slender Diana Vreeland* figure. She too is glued to her cellphone until disturbed by Platée, who to judge from her bathrobe, turban, slippers and green face-mask, is having a spa treatment at the hotel.

In act two, the same darkly gleaming room and spindly chairs are laid out for a fashion show, with name tags on the seats and, at the rear, the famous rue Cambon staircase. Press photographers flock in and cameras flash for Jupiter’s stunning appearance on the steps: Karl Lagerfeld, complete with white cat. La Folie, first in a scrunched-up silver balloon dress, later in plain green, in mirrored polka-dots (I've lost track of the precise order) and later still in pseudo-period panniers with fuchsia-pink stockings, is, so I’m told, supposed to be Lady Gaga. Jove’s metamorphoses and the ballets (mostly of the abrupt, apoplectic contortionist kind, with one very striking slow-motion exception) are cleverly dealt with as the fashion parade itself, culminating, at “Hymène, Hymène”, with the bridal gown, short but with an endless train. Platée declares it “Hé, bon, bon, bon” and dons it while goodies are distributed in white Chanel bags with the interlocking Cs changed to Js.

In act three, the glossy black space is now a magnificent bedroom with black-and-silver commodes, huge white bouquets and an elaborate silver finial over the gigantic bed. It was at this stage that I wondered if Carsen and his team were referring wryly/slyly to the famous production of Atys also staged at the Salle Favart with Les Arts Florissants. My imagination, probably. Junon turns out (you do wonder, after all, who Karl Lagerfeld’s wife can possibly be) to be Coco Chanel in person. The ballets and chorus descend into a kind of slow-moving, champagne-fuelled orgy until the cruel dénouement. After a brief tussle on the floor with Cithéron, Platée, alone in bra and pants on the now-empty stage, takes one of Cupid’s arrows, stabs herself and, surrounded by tinsel, slumps to the floor.

Freed of the usual New Look trappings I mentioned above, this production was less chilly, less tight-arsed than some of Carsen’s. Hiding the chorus usually strikes me as a directorial cop-out but here he at least didn’t do it all the time. I suppose you might say slipping into a slow-moving, champagne-fuelled orgy was a sign of flagging inspiration; but it can’t be easy dealing, in act three, with the deliberate putting-off of Juno’s final entry – Platée herself loses patience – and the overall effect was fun, highly professional and suitably glossy.

Musically, as it was all so very satisfactory there isn’t a lot to say. The cast made a great comic team, and in a comic work the voices don’t necessarily have to be perfect: it’s often character that counts. This worked for Marcel Beekman, whose voice in other roles might sound harsh but whose comic acting was perfect. It also worked in Simone Kermes’ favour. The impression I got was that the vast range of vocal colour and dynamics some critics praise her for is, at least partially, an accident – she doesn’t really seem to be in control but rather at the mercy of the caprices of her voice. But, while her French is decidedly strange, the crooning pianissimi she goes in for are actually audible in a house the size of Favart, her tuning is not as dodgy as the critics have said (I think it’s probably when she sings almost "agressively" without vibrato that it sounds off), and her top notes are spot on. I’ve no idea if her wild gesticulations made her a convincing Lady Gaga (whom I’ve never seen) but she undeniably threw herself into them, yet without, as my neighbour said he’d feared she might, trying to hog the limelight.

Edwin Crossley-Mercer and Marc Mauillon were especially good and I was surprised the former didn’t get a louder outburst of applause – but he didn’t seek it either, taking a very brief bow. The chorus was perfect as usual. The orchestra, with the “boss” off sick, seemed to me a demi-point less disciplined than usual, but their usual standards are very high, after all, and this was definitely the familiar, fleet-footed Arts Florissants style.

While less subtle and original than in Pelly's production, overall this was nevertheless an evening of first-rate entertainment. Let’s hope we’ll have a record of it on video.

*Oops, showing my age: Anna Wintour.

22 Mar 2014

Chausson, Chausson, Paganini, Schumann

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Wednesday March 19 2014
  • Chausson: Poème de l'amour et de la mer op. 19
  • Chausson: Poème for violin and orchestra op. 25
  • Paganini: I Palpiti for violin and orchestra, after Rossini's Tancredi
  • Schumann: Symphony n° 2 op. 61
Ann Hallenberg: mezzo-soprano. Laurent Korcia: violin. Jean-Jacques Kantorow: conductor. Orchestre de chambre de Paris

In the last few years I've drifted away from concert halls and spent my time (and pots of hard-earned money) almost exclusively in opera houses. This is no doubt a mistake: hours and hours of second-rate music indifferently performed have probably corrupted my taste irretrievably. So my opinion on concerts should be taken with a big pinch of salt. This one, it seemed to me, was odd and frustrating. The combination of works was odd enough. But the order they were played in was odder still.

It seemed unfair on Ann Hallenberg to have her start with the strangest and most demanding piece of the evening. To me it would have made more sense to warm up with an overture, then do the violin Poème, the Paganini lollipop and Korcia's encore, leaving the thornier Poème de l'amour et de la mer till part two, before the Schumann. But it was not so.

Ann Hallenberg's performance, which was what I was there for really, had everything you'd expect from her: beauty of sound, sophisticated phrasing, breadth of nuance, sincerity of feeling, intelligence and impeccable taste. Her mezzo voice has, of course, a warmer, rounder, less "piercing" sound than a soprano. All the more reason, then, for the orchestra, under its conductor, to play with special sensitivity. The Paris chamber orchestra was, unfortunately, unable to match the singer's carefully-crafted dynamic range and plugged doggedly away at mf and above.

As a result, her subtle effects (and of course the text) were sometimes lost in what came across as insensitive noise from a standard, "jobbing" orchestra. Attacks were - a French orchestral speciality - sometimes patchy, and Chausson's most tortuous, "amiable tapeworm" harmonies came across as decidedly murky.

But Laurent Korcia plays regularly with Kantorow and this band, so perhaps it's just my cloth ears letting me down again. He plays exactly the way I like: plenty of vigour, plenty of character, limited sentimentality. He seems very much his own man, so to speak, not playing to the gallery but doing things exactly the way he sees them and probably not seeing eye to eye with everyone - literally indeed, as his intriguing stage stance involves downcast eyes most of the time, a twist and curve of the body that looks somehow coy or shy, and only the faintest of smiles at applause. He doesn't obviously engage with his audience, yet is devilishly charismatic.

His sounds, which I put deliberately in the plural, since they were distinctly varied, seemed almost aggressively individual: rasping bowing, or what I thought of as daringly expressive tuning, for example (if such a notion makes any sense to anyone but me). I admit I personally found his harmonics, in the Paganini I wasn't especially interested in, hard to decipher. I came away feeling it was somehow strange he should play Chausson at all: he seems so obviously cut out for Bartok, Prokofiev, Shostakovich...Yet he's become something of a Paganini specialist - go figure, as our American friends say.

So, as I think I've made clear, there was, to me, a puzzling mis-match between one of Europe's greatest mezzos, as the programme notes had it, France's foremost violinist, as you can read anywhere, and what is not one of Europe's greatest orchestras, nor, despite its fancy name, France's foremost. And as, after the interval, the orchestra was to go it alone... we left.

9 Mar 2014

Gerard Mortier 1943-2014

He was infuriating, but perhaps that's partly why, in the end, we liked him and ended up missing him. Of course, there were (and still are) other reasons...

" ... la ligne neuve ouverte par Mortier.  Celle de renouveler l’Opéra, de le rendre contemporain et nécessaire, plus ouvert sur le monde d’aujourd’hui et à toutes les couches de la population sans perdre l’exigence de qualité..."

La Libre Belgique

See also Opera Cake

23 Feb 2014

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opéra Comique, Paris, Wednesday February 19 2014

Conductor: Louis Langrée. Production and sets: Stéphane Braunschweig. Costumes: Thibault Vancraenenbroeck. Lighting: Marion Hewlett. Pelléas: Phillip Addis. Mélisande: Karen Vourc'h. Golaud: Laurent Alvaro. Arkel: Jérôme Varnier. Geneviève: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo. Yniold: Dima Bawab. Un médecin, Le berger, Luc Bertin-Hugault. Accentus chorus. Orchestre des Champs-Élysées.

This is a revival of the Opéra Comique's 2010 production of Pelléas, which I wrote up at the time. I don't, therefore, need to describe the production again. It was after that evening that, at a friend's suggestion, I adopted the present name of my blog. But, like every time - which is why nobody should take any of these reports to heart - this time it was different. Very different, as unusally, I was on the front row, three feet from the pit with an ear, nose and throat specialist's view of the singers' tonsils.

Though many or most people seem to find Debussy's music beautiful, I usually find it, overall, pasty, pastel, rambling and formless - yet sinister: gloomy and grim and dismal and depressing as a month of drizzly Sundays. This is my loss, I don't doubt (and there's no need to click on "Comment" to call me a stupid, arrogant, bitter cunt: you've already told me that, several times). In this case, thrust practically  into the midst of the musicians, while (paraphrasing Beecham) I admittedly don't "get" Debussy, I absolutely loved the noise he made on the Champs Elysées' "HIP" instruments: richly timbred and colourful, yet not, even at close range, overpowering. And being thrust, as well, practically among the singers, I found it easy to be convinced - as far as anyone can be convinced by this whacky story of an Addams family without a sense of humour - by the detailed, committed, convincing acting. The lighthouses and child's play that I wasn't keen on before were still there; but being so close up, the lack of action I complained of in 2010 was made up for by the fascination of individual acting skills - not that I or (I checked) those with me care one bit for the characters or what happens to them.

Though the Golaud wasn't the same singer, once again it became Golaud's show. Laurent Alvaro seems to have found the role of his life, playing a particularly tortured (yet charismatic) prince and singing with great subtlety. At any rate, I found his use of a very smoky pianissimo extremely effective, while his outbursts were not, as I seem to remember they might have been in the past, overbearing.

Getting the ring back
Pelléas and Mélisande were the same, but have matured from teenagers into adults. Addis still has the smiling charm that makes him the only reasonably likeable, near-normal character in the otherwise exasperating, unsympathetic bunch; Vourc'h is now a woman and could no longer be taken for a mere girl. Their vocal performances have simply matured with them. I don't think anyone could fault them.

The part of Geneviève suits Sylvie Brunet to a tee. For the first time, her distinctive timbre reminded me - very gratifyingly - of Dame Janet Baker. They were all so fluent that even Jérôme Varnier seemed a touch stiff in comparison, but perhaps the role and the way it was played in this production were reasons for that. And Dima Bawab manages somehow to make Le Petit Ignoble's "petit" this and "petit" that nearly tolerable, for once.

So this was probably my best Pelléas yet, and I should think Pelléas-lovers loved it. We stayed after the interval.

8 Feb 2014

Puccini - La Fanciulla del West

ONP Bastille, Friday February 7 2014

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Production: Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Sets: Raimund Bauer. Costumes: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. Lighting: Duane Schuler. Video: Jonas Gerberding. Minnie: Nina Stemme. Jack Rance: Claudio Sgura. Dick Johnson: Rafael Rojas. Nick: Roman Sadnik. Ashby: Andrea Mastroni. Sonora: André Heyboer. Trin: Emanuele Giannino. Sid: Roberto Accurso. Bello: Igor Gnidii. Harry: Eric Huchet. Joe: Rodolphe Briand. Happy: Enrico Marabelli. Larkens: Wenwei Zhang. Billy Jackrabbit: Ugo Rabec. Wowkle: Anna Pennisi. Jake Wallace: Alexandre Duhamel. José Castro: Matteo Peirone. Un Postiglione: Olivier Berg. Un baritono: Daejin Bang. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. 

La Fanciulla, with its weak plot, weird heroine and quaint libretto, which assumes Americans all shout "Hello" when they enter a bar, must be a difficult work to stage credibly (supposing, that is, we may expect opera, exotic and irrational as it is, to be credible). Nikolaus Lehnhoff makes no attempt, preferring to send it up, on a grand and presumably costly scale.

After a brief, black-and-white film of agitated traders, he sets act one in a high-tech bunker, tunnel or perhaps sewer under New York (Wall Street?), with ribbed walls, round entrances and a gaping, rough-edged, rectangular hole through which we see projections of skyscrapers, a church steeple or, when feeling nostalgic, the countryside. If the Polka is a bikers' bar or a gay one is a moot point. At any rate everyone is in black leather from head to (long-pointed) toe and many are unshaven, bald or long-haired, and tattooed, in sunglasses, stetsons, chaps and/or floor-length leather greatcoats, brandishing pistols. They play cards or the slot machines, laugh or brawl with oddly effective, jerky movements. Whether bikers or leather queens, it seems  unlikely they'd pine for their mothers and cottages - not the country kind, by a stream, at any rate - sing waltzes or gather round Minnie to hear readings from the bible she keeps in the safe. Only the minstrel is in white - leather of course, with long fringes and a guitar, against the country backdrop. Minnie is in red - leather of course - against a reddened sky.

The costumes throughout are unmistakeably not French: ugly and ill-fitting.

In act two, we find Minnie living in a large, streamlined Barbie caravan in the mountains, flanked, in a blanket of snow, by giant plastic Bambis whose eyes glow red at times of passion. A flagpole flies the stars and stripes in the garden. The caravan is open, revealing an all-pink, quilted vinyl (leather perhaps) interior with a bed on the left and a kitchen, with a pink-haloed madonna, on the right. The posse looking for Ramerrez never thinks of looking behind the little (pink) screen beside the bed. To hide Dick, once wounded, in the "loft", Minnie grabs a long, hooked pole, opens a (pink, quilted) trapdoor in her ceiling and yanks down a pantographic aluminium ladder, sending him up on the roof (in the snow, mind you) before struggling (moment of suspense for the audience) to push back the recalcitrant ladder and close the hatch with her pole.

Recent Met Production
Act three opens on a magnificently constructed heap of wrecked American cars, some with working lights, from which the bikers, once called upon, eventually emerge. In the background, a mountain landscape and sweeping clouds. A block and tackle swing to the left, convenient for lynching. But of course, there is no lynching. The heaped cars part, revealing a staircase in lights; the MGM logo, lion and all, rises to the sky; and Minnie appears at the top of the stairs in a dazzlingly ugly Hollywood ballgown (think Jessica Rabbit). As the singing soars, the lion roars; and as the work ends, Minnie and Dick - by now in black tie - ascend the stairs towards the White House in a shower of dollar bills.

Some of the audience were not happy about this. There may have been a "message" in there about American clichés, but by now messages about American clichés are surely clichéd.

Marco Berti was off sick, so yesterday evening we had Rafael Rojas singing from the side of the stage while a lanky production assistant played a singularly ungainly, unattractive Dick, more homeless or hobo than hero. Rojas was excellent, but the house was too big so it's unlikely people up in the Bastille's stratospheric regions heard much of him. It would be interesting to hear him again in better circumstances. As the production wasn't designed to have a tenor on the apron, his last note was spoiled when he was beaned by a descending gauze.

Nina Stemme is a great singer, with all the resources needed for Minnie, though not a glamorous one. After a rather stiff, hard start, she warmed into the part and sang it magnificently. Claudio Sgura, tall and charismatic, was a better match, as Jack Rance, than the less amply-voiced Johnson.

The rest of the cast and chorus were all on fine form, as was the orchestra, at its most sumptuous in the sumptuous score under Rizzi. Musically, therefore, this was a good evening. Visually it was, despite the impressive scale and skill of the staging, more comical than convincing: an expensive joke.

Maestro Wenarto sings La Fanciulla.

Janáček - Jenůfa

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday February 2 2014

Conductor: Ludovic Morlot. Production and sets: Alvis Hermanis. Costumes: Anna Watkins. Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky. Video: Ineta Sipunova. Jenůfa: Andrea Danková. Laca Klemeň: Charles Workman. Števa Buryja: Nicky Spence. Kostelnička Buryjovka: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet. Stařenka Buryjovka: Carole Wilson. Stárek: Ivan Ludlow. Rychtář: Alexander Vassiliev. Rychtářka: Mireille Capelle. Karolka: Hendrickje Van Kerckhove. Pastuchnyňa: Beata Morawska. Jano: Chloé Briot. Barena: Nathalie Van de Voorde. Tetka: Marta Beretta. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Let me see...
  • Janacek was Moravian. So was Mucha.
  • Jenufa is set in a Moravian village.
  • Moravian folk costume is unexpectedly lavish.
  • Kabuki uses lavish costumes and is highly stylised.
  • Mucha and art nouveau were all the rage in Prague at the time.
  • The ballets russes were all the rage elsewhere. Shame they didn't tour to Prague.
  • In Jenufa, the crux of the drama - deep-freezing the baby - is in act two. That takes place à huis clos; acts one and three are more public, less intense.
These seem to have been the ideas behind this production of Jenufa, which has been a great critical success.

Behind a Mucha-style curtain, the stage was strictly partitioned, with a strip of apron in front of a second proscenium divided into four main spaces: tall vertical panels to either side and, in the middle space, a large screen above a lower "letter-box" opening. The screens were used for projections and the large upper one could rise to reveal a bright, stepped space for the chorus.

The parti pris was to stage the outer acts as a "poetic" (so the programme notes had it; "scrapbook", I might have said) encounter between Moravian folk art and the more sophisticated aesthetic currents prevailing in Prague at the time of the opera. The action was played out puppet-style, with stylized, Kabuki-inspired gestures, in sumptuously embroidered traditional costumes: the women with lampshade skirts and puffed sleeves the size of footballs; the men with elaborately flowered and feathered headgear. La Monnaie's workshops are said to have worked on these clothes for a year. Art nouveau motifs and images, some rotating, were projected, biscuit-tin style, on the screens, while a fascinating, Rite-of-Spring ballet was danced in the letter-box space by girls in plain cream.

In absolute contrast, the middle act was set, in the letter-box, in a grimy, contemporary kitchen, with a gas stove and fridge-freezer to the right, a rusty iron bedstead to the left, snow falling heavily behind icy windows, bare bulbs, pious images, and everyday modern clothes.

The trouble with this approach, apart from the fact that the "hieratic" acting was only half-heartedly done - as is often the case when a director decides to do it - was that the outer acts were stripped of any dramatic impact and reduced to a mere visual feast. The crux of the drama - deep-freezing the baby - may be in act two, but Jenufa is disfigured for life in act one and the baby does, after all, thaw out in the middle of her wedding in act three...

And though Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet is a great actress, the grim and grimy reality of act two was not especially convincingly directed, and stuffing the baby's clothes into the freezing compartment in an act of madness before collapsing at the end was simply odd.

Vocally, Andrea Danková was an excellent Jenufa. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet has no top left and has to resort to screams instead of singing, but as I just said she's still a great actress with striking presence and this "cheating" is therefore done to great effect. They made a very fine pair. Nicky Spence has, I was told, a "big sound" but it didn't make it too well up to where I was sitting. Many people were impressed by Charles Workman's Steva; I bow to them. I'm not keen, as I've often remarked, on his "stiff" sound that, to me, never seems to open up. He's a good actor, but in this production had little chance to show it, being bound up in the stylization.

I read in the press that Ludovic Morlot was at least better in Janacek than in Mozart. To me, this Jenufa sounded more like a reading than a performance, lacking in variety and subtlety.

Jenufa should be electrifying. This lavish but conspicuously self-conscious production has been described as "magical". To me it was just a disappointment.

Maestro Wenarto sings Jenufa.

19 Jan 2014

Poulenc/Britten - Les Mamelles de Tirésias

La Monnaie - Salle Malibran, Brussels, Sunday January 19 2014

Conductor: Roger Vignoles. Production: Ted Huffman. Sets and costumes: Samal Blak. Lighting: Marcus Doshi. Thérèse: Aoife Miskelly. Le mari: Timothy McDevitt. La marchande de journaux: Sarah Laulan. La grosse dame: Marie Cubaynes. Lacouf: Romain Pascal. Presto: Ronan Debois. La dame élégante: Julie Mossay. Le gendarme: Guillaume Paire. Le fils: Benjamin Alunni. Le journaliste: Samy Camps. Soprano du choeur: Caroline Jestaedt. Le directeur du théâtre: Mathieu Gardon. Piano: Roger Vignoles, Philippe Riga. 

The tickets issued by La Monnaie were for January 18, not January 19 as stated, for "Matinee 2" subscriptions in the subscriptions brochure and, even today, on the website. I had duly bought train tickets for January 19, so I missed Les Mamelles and went to the Magritte Museum instead.

That was a revelation. He's even worse than I thought, which is saying something.