Prokofiev – L’Amour des Trois Oranges

Opéra National de Paris – Bastille, Saturday December 17 2005

Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling. Production: Gilbert Deflo. Sets and costumes: William Orlandi. Le Roi de Trèfle: Philippe Rouillon. Le Prince: Charles Workman. La Princesse Clarice: Hannah Esther Minutillo. Léandre: Guillaume Antoine. Trouffaldino: Barry Banks. Pantalon: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Tchélio: José Van Dam. Fata Morgana: Béatrice Uria-Monzon. Linette: Natacha Constantin. Nicolette: Letitia Singleton. Ninette: Aleksandra Zamojska. La Cuisinière: Victor von Halem. Farfarello Jean-Sébastien Bou. Le Héraut: David Bizic. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Christmas fare in Paris: three oranges and a turkey

It isn’t easy putting on the Christmas show at the Opéra National. You need something festive for the families (for instance, three years back the ballet choice was Ivan the Terrible). But it has to be in good enough taste to satisfy the local aesthetes, for whom Paris remains the world’s arbiter of style, and contain enough cultural references to satisfy the local intellectuals, for whom the City of Light is the last bastion of western artistic values in a world of market-driven American consumerism. (This is sometimes known as l’exception française and has little, directly, to do with the French paradox.)

Well, Gilbert Deflo carried it off. He set Prokofiev’s opera in a circus ring and filled it with clowns, jugglers, fire-eaters and plate-spinners. But to satisfy the aesthetes, he did it in a palette of black, white, cream, beige and deep red reminiscent of Russian Constructivism, and in a very smart arena of pale wood with a brushed steel gallery running round above.

As for the intellectuals, well, who else but they (Jerry Lewis fans to a man) still think the circus is an important entertainment (not that they go to it), or that clowns are figures of fun masking deep tragedy, or, for that matter, that commedia dell’arte is funny? Circus, clowns, commedia dell’arte, masks and theatre within the theatre (the action was played out on a chic trestle set-up in the middle of the ring, a second curtain showed the façade of the Opéra-Bastille and stage-hands were all visible at their trade, with clown faces) are like Pavlovian electric bells to French intellectuals… all sound references and the right thing to do at the theatre. The only thing missing was a play of mirrors, their other obsession.

Every move by the soloists and three choruses (clowns in white dungarees at the sides of the pit, clowns in normal evening wear defending tragedy, clowns in Chaplin-style, baggy evening wear with long shoes, defending comedy) was perfectly rehearsed and in place. Charles Workman was every inch (there were a lot of those: he’s tall) the Pierrot, not just in costume but in gesture, expression and balletic gait, in character right through to taking his bows. His voice isn’t to my taste, but I bow to the otherwise positive opinion of the rest of the audience and of the critics.

Barry Banks was every inch Trouffaldino, Jean-Luc Ballestra every inch Pantalon… This was a handsome, well-directed production, so much so that it was a pity, really, it was on at the Bastille rather than in the more intimate space (everything is relative of course) of the Palais Garnier, where we could have appreciated the work on facial expression and mime better. And it was a strong, team cast of consistent strength, the only worry being José Van Dam’s general inaudibility, other than a few notes in the upper medium: is he really doing Boris in Brussels later this season?

The orchestra did a great job of clarifying the score, keeping up a zippy pace. Sylvain Cambreling must have found it thirsty work: at the restaurant afterwards, the first thing I heard him order was “Avant tout, une grande bière !”

Meanwhile, the Opéra Comique, which, having repositioned itself under Jérôme Savary as a théâtre musical populaire is under no obligation to promote good taste or be intellectual, was showing La Veuve Joyeuse.

Well, in my view, this show should not have been on the stage of the Opéra Comique at all, however poor the house may now be. Suffice it to say that it relied wholly on the professionalism of the can-can troupe to redeem an otherwise abysmal evening. I wonder what audiences at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie and the Opéra de Lausanne will think of this disgraceful co-production.

Christmas being a time for poultry, after this turkey I tried, despite the risk of bird ‘flu, to get tickets for Swan Lake but it was fully booked. Oh well…

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