Mantovani - Akhmatova

ONP Bastille, Thursday March 31 2011

Conductor: Pascal Rophé. Production: Nicolas Joel. Sets and costumes: Wolfgang Gussmann. Lighting: Hans Toelstede. Anna Akhmatova: Janina Baechle. Lev Goumilev: Attila Kiss-B. Nicolaï Pounine: Lionel Peintre. Lydia Tchoukovskaïa: Varduhi Abrahamyan. Faina Ranevskaïa: Valérie Condoluci. Le Représentant de L’Union des écrivains: Christophe Dumaux. Un Sculpteur, Un Universitaire anglais: Fabrice Dalis. Un agent: Ugo Rabec. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

The professionals haven't given a warm welcome to Bruno Mantovani's new opera Akhmatova. French daily Le Figaro talks of a "pall of boredom" over the Bastille; Le Monde writes of the score's "thunderous vacuity" while the Financial Times says it's "gratuitously aggressive"; and Diapason is far from alone in labelling the libretto "banal." While the peerless FT's integrity is unquestionable, I must say I wonder if there aren't elements of envy and disgruntlement in the reaction of the Paris microcosm, provoked by the admittedly intriguing cosiness behind the creation of what might fairly be dubbed a "state" piece: the director of the Paris opera (Joel) commissions from the recently-appointed young director of the Paris conservatoire (Mantovani, 36 - second such commission in a couple of years) an opera to a libretto by the Paris opera's own "dramaturge" (Ghristi). Mantovani dedicates the opera to Joel who, having promised he would not, as director, produce operas in his own house, does so once again, casting the dramaturge's wife (unless I'm misinformed - Janina Baechle) in the leading role. We might be forgiven for wondering who gets paid for what.

So, not a critical success but it went down alright with the audience. There was no mass exodus at the interval, and at the end the chap behind me clearly said "C'était sympa." Maybe not the adjective I'd have used after two hours of unrelentingly grim episodes from Anna Akhmatova's life, but we got the point. Anyway, I don't expect every new work to be an absolute masterpiece. If musical masterpieces were all people accepted, nobody would go to Bellini or Donizetti; as for banal libretti... And as many of you know, my personal gold standard in contemporary operatic ghastliness is L'Amour de Loin. There's so much risk, these days, that an "opera" will turn out to be a dreary oratorio to a text awful to the point of ridicule that I'm grateful for anything that actually moves, on stage and in the pit. In this case, the second half (in fact act 3) was better than the first: both action and music showed more contrast. But the FT critic is right to say that, though the orchestra is large, a conversation in music of this intimate sort really ought to be given in a smaller house.

The cast was strong. I'd like in particular to hear Attila Kiss-B in Janacek to see how he handles more melodic lines: his voice is powerful and seems to have the high notes and bite that Janacek needs*. Christophe Dumaux rang out (proving that voices can make themselves heard at the Bastille). Janina Baechle brought great dramatic presence to the leading role and was magnificent in act 3 - which calls on the singer to "emote" through a lengthy musical epilogue.

It's ironic, in a way, that Anna Viebrock wasn't called in (though I guess the chances of that, under Joel's management, are slim) to recreate for this production the gloomy Kitsch of soviet-era interiors. I think that would have given more humanity and emotional oomph to the story than the solution chosen: 1975 Roche-Bobois middle-class minimalism. Large, slick, black or white rectangles slid silently along the floor, across the stage or down from the flies to form the requisite spaces. A line drawing of Akhmatova by Modigliani was everywhere, floor as well as walls. The work opened and closed (the score was cyclical too) with Akhmatova, back to the audience, in a square white armchair. After the siege of Leningrad, the stage was strewn with overturned black furniture. Costumes were black or grey. Once, in the first half, there was some spots of red but, as my young neighbour noted, conventionally composed (he, being more interested in productions than scores, left at the interval, declaring this show "too Ikea"). The directing was efficient but a little bit too "comic book" conventional to me - the stiffness of the agents or of Dumaux as baddy; a more natural style and, as I said, a less glacial staging might have supported the tragedy better, instead of distancing it from us.

Not something I much want to sit and listen to at home, then, and of course not something I need a DVD of, in view of the production. But not as dire, to the untrained operagoer, as it seemed to the pros; certainly not as dire as L'Amour de Loin, but that, as I said, is my gold standard in direness. We didn't leave at the interval.

Oh, by the way, it was nothing like my father's old vinyl LP of Charmaine.

*Re Kiss-B: what I later found on YouTube was far from flattering.