Messager - Véronique

Paris Châtelet, Thursday January 24 2008

Conductor: Jean-Christophe Spinosi. Production: Fanny Ardant. Sets: Ian Falconer. Costumes: Dominique Borg. Hélène de Solanges (Véronique): Amel Brahim-Djelloul. Florestan de Valaincourt: Dietrich Henschel. Agathe Coquenard: Ingrid Perruche. Ermerance de Champ d'Azur: Doris Lamprecht. Evariste Coquenard: Laurent Alvaro. Loustot: Gilles Ragon. Séraphin: Sébastien Guèze. Tante Benoît: Catherine Hosmalin. Esemble Matheus, Châtelet Chorus.

Quite often, on French TV, we see 50s footage of neatly-dressed youngsters (some of the boys in dinner jackets) from Paris's posh western quarters jiving incongruously to rock 'n' roll in the smoky cellars of St-Germain-des-Prés. Usually Boris Vian appears with a trumpet. The current Véronique was actressy actress Fanny Ardant's first foray into directing and we all feared the worst, but in fact she managed to recreate just that atmosphere of bon-chic-bon-genre post-war Parisian gaiety.

50s updates usually mean chewing-gum, Chevrolets, diners and jeans, but there was none of that here (well, perhaps one of the cars was a Chevrolet, but if so seen from afar). This was an unashamedly rosy view of Paris in the early years of the decade (with, as the FT critic noted, no sign of rationing) in which chauffeur and shop-girls were as well-dressed and almost as well-mannered as the aristocracy. The sets mixed slightly tongue-in-cheek painted flats with colour videos at the rear: the flower shop in act 1, with giant vases of what appeared to be real flowers and period cars gliding by in obviously left-bank streets outside; a park with lavishly leafy trees in act 2 with rowers and ducks on the lake; and in act 3 a massively columned and curlicued ballroom with, in the distance, guests scurrying up and down the grand staircase of the Palais Garnier. Ardant peopled these sets with a wealth of detailed action (e.g. vignettes of eccentric customers choosing bouquets) and convincing dancing, and the costumes, throughout, were a défilé of sumptuous New Look numbers threatening to steal the whole show. One touch of folie more (it was all ever-so-slightly stiff) and it would have been as good as Laurent Pelly's Belle Hélène (which sometimes came to mind).

The last time I saw Dietrich Henschel he was Gunther in Bob Wilson's production of Götterdämmerung, so it was quite surprising to find him leading the dance here, gawkishly but with his usual presence: "Ah, il a un charme fou, ce monsieur !" exclaimed the old lady next to me. Has he lost his volume or was he deliberately reining it in? There was certainly nothing Wagnerian about his singing, but he displayed great experience and artistry and gave us some daring pianissimi. The last time I saw Amel Brahim-Djelloul was in Monteverdi. Here, she was a sparkling Véronique reminiscent - as more than one critic has said - of Audrey Hepburn.

The last time I saw Doris Lamprecht was in (though not as) Elektra. It was she who mostly brought to mind Pelly's La Belle Hélène, putting in a first-rate comic performance that seemed almost a tribute to Felicity Lott. As to Gilles Ragon, I suspect I last saw him as Platée. Here he demonstrated what useful preparation Baroque opera is for the demands, in terms of diction and agility, made by the lively rhythms of opérette, and he seemed perfectly at ease in the carefree atmosphere of the production.

I'm not sure I'd seen any of the rest of the cast before, but they were all good and seemed (in stark contrast, as that old lady pointed out, with last year's Chanteur de Mexico) to be enjoying themselves.

Messager's score is highly competent but personally I find his tunes un-memorable and the big hit of the show - "De ci, de là, cahin-caha" - drives me mad. Spinosi and his (usually baroque) ensemble in the pit played with what sounded to me like fairly convincing fin-de-siècle swagger; but were those hairpin dynamics really in Messager's score, I wondered (not having it to hand), or were they HIP mannerisms?


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