Henze – The Bassarids

Châtelet, Paris – April 21 2005

Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Production: Yannis Kokkos. Agave: June Anderson. Autonoe: Marisol Montalvo. Beroe: Rebecca de Pont Davies. Dionysus: Rainer Trost. Pentheus: Franco Pomponi. Cadmus: Matthew Best. Tiresias: Kim Begley. Captain of the Royal Guard: Robin Adams. Chorus of the Théâtre du Châtelet. Instrumental ensemble: Nathalie Steinberg, Michael Ertzscheid, Frédéric Rouillon (piano), Lyonel Schmit (violin), Camille Baslé, Alexandre Bérard, Thierry Briard, Jean-Guillaume Cattin, Ionela Cristu, Nathalie Gantiez, Jérôme Guicherd (percussion), Caroline Delume (guitar), Annick Robergeau (mandolin), François Ducroux (double bass), Marguerite Deleuze, Valeria Kafelnikov (harp), Stéphane Petitjean/Cécile Restier (celesta), Emmanuel Collombert, Patrick Fabert, Arnaud Laporte, Rodolph Puechbroussous (trumpet).

Powerful performance of powerful work transforms farce into triumph

A strike of technical staff at Radio France very nearly turned the Châtelet’s new production of Henze’s The Bassarids into a farce. The Orchestre Philharmonique was not on strike, but instruments and scores were no longer available. However, though the opening night was cancelled, the Orchestre Lamoureux volunteered to step in, fresh scores were shipped from Germany and all seemed well, until it transpired they couldn’t muster the forces called for in Henze’s lavish score. Finally, in a last-minute dash and with the composer’s agreement, conductor Kazushi Ono and a group of musicians prepared a reduction of the work for 21 players, and saved the production.

Well, as we all know, there’s something to be said for reductions: you can learn a lot about the inner workings of a score, and in the case of Henze, though we were certainly missing something huge, this may have been useful. In any case, there was no lack of volume from the pit: when the plot called for noise, there was a hell of a din. And the evening ended in triumph, with the loudest applause of all for Ono and his ensemble.

This was a powerful performance of a powerful work by an outstanding cast, true theatrical voices with presence and projection, committed singing and acting, and not a single weak link. June Anderson may not be the most gripping tragic actress – when she wakes from her trance to discover that the head in her hands is her son’s, she may as well be waking to find her tea has gone cold – but a friend of mine who deemed she was “miscast” was unkind. The top end of her range sounded perilously reminiscent of Anja Silja, but the medium is what’s most needed in this role, and her experience showed in nuance, phrasing and colour.

The high notes were dealt with flawlessly by Marisol Montalve. Rebecca de Pont Davies was a resounding, ringing alto. Rainer Trost was not helped by being placed, for his final scenes, way at the rear of the stage, but when up front he had power, and his intonation, throughout this high-ptched role, was impeccable.

Who is this Franco Pomponi? Visibly young and obviously, with his looks and figure, a candidate for Billy Budd, his is a bright, clear but forceful baritone and he threw himself into the part so generously I feared, I admit, for the length of his career. Matthew Best, as Cadmus, was equally powerful, in this case a round, velverty, chocolately sound that filled the theatre. Kim Begley needs no introduction, a luxury Tiresias; and Robin Adams was an interesting find as Captain of the Royal Guard.

I find Kokkos’s esthetic somehow slightly dated, though there was none of the Kitsch we saw in Les Troyens. There were some of the tics of the trade (handsome but menacing young guards fresh from the gym in body-hugging teeshirts, fatigues, rangers and long hair – what royal guards really have long hair?), and to me there seemed to be a discrepancy between Pentheus’ “nouveau-riche” swagger and the nobility of some of his text; but basically this was an effective staging of classical tragedy.

The front area of the stage, a gravelly grey surface, was bare except for Semele’s rocky grave to the left, an angular (palace?) structure at the rear and a path curving round to the apron, forming a kind of circus ring on the way. Way to the rear, a pitch black opening across the breadth of the stage for entries and exits and, above that, the terraces of a classical theatre on which the chorus lounged, dimly lit and costumed mainly in deep red, in a style recalling paintings such as David’s Oath of the Horatii. The main protagonists were in elegant black, except Agave, swathed regally in a cloak of cyclamen silk. The cast were clearly well rehearsed, and the production was good enough to have functioned – supposing no music had ever been made available - as theatre alone.

People say there’s no audience for modern music. I was pleased to see the Châtelet – not a small theatre – 80% full, with plenty of young people; and pleased to see more curtain calls than are usual in blasé Paris. It was, as I said, a triumph, and it’s sad to think that, on account of the farce surrounding it, it may never make it to disc.

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