Opéra Comique, Paris, Thursday February 9 2012
Conductor: Vincent Dumestre. Production: Benjamin Lazar. Sets: Adeline Caron. Costumes: Alain Blanchot. Lighting: Christophe Naillet. Makeup and wigs: Mathilde Benmoussa. Egisto: Marc Mauillon. Lidio: Anders Dahlin. Clori: Claire Lefilliâtre. Climene: Isabelle Druet. Hipparco. Cyril Auvity. Aurora, Amore: Ana Quintans. Didone, Voluptia: Luciana Mancini. La Notte, Dema: Serge Goubioud. Apollo: David Tricou. Le Poème Harmonique.
“Je me fais chier” (French for “this is boring the crap out of me”). So said a friend two seats away as the curtain fell for the interval. Minutes later, on our way through the freezing night to our earlier-than-expected dinner at a Turkish restaurant, he insisted that he had nothing against Cavalli: he’d been enchanted by La Calisto in Brussels. But this production had, he said, none of the requisite magic, and the women’s voices were plain “ugly.”
My inexpert understanding – misunderstanding, most likely - is that Venetian opera in the 17th century owed at least some of its popular success to the deployment of magical effects and elaborate machinery. I also, equally inexpertly, and probably wrongly, expect Cavalli to be a bit sardonic, a bit wicked, a bit “naughty,” you might say. It seemed somehow puzzling that a production that went so far as to eschew electric lighting, (glimpsed as it were “through a glass darkly” – very darkly in this case), thus surely implying “authentic” intentions, should turn out to be in all respects so strait-laced, not to say straitjacketed.
The set took up nearly all the space on the pitch-black stage: a ruined, two-storey rotunda of concentric, once-stuccoed, red-brick arcades, with niches for candles, a curving staircase, and, I’m sorry to say, a fair amount of that stiff, trembling fake greenery that deprives any scenery of its dignity. Anything approaching scene changes was effected simply by slowly rotating the rotunda; though in the prevailing gloom it was hard to see much difference as a result. Trussed up, made up and bewigged in elaborate mythological costumes, hidebound by half-hearted baroque gestures, the singers picked their way in deliberate slow motion through the narrow spaces left to them by the set – so slow that you could vaguely see their shadowy forms creeping through the dark before the previous aria was over – to take up their places behind the flickering footlights and sing to the audience before retreating into the darkness. The result being more or less a concert performance, an oratorio by candlelight, rather than a Venetian spectacle, or at any rate my corrupt idea of one; and after 90 minutes of monotony, sore bums all round.
So much for the lack of magic. Why the remark about “ugly” singing? Well, it’s certainly true that the ladies sacrificed vibrato and, to some extent, intonation to expressiveness. As the professionals seem to agree, the men were very fine and the clarion Marc Mauillon was really outstanding. But concert.classic.com, for example, then wonders “why were they lumbered with two such frightful prime donne – vocally at any rate? Claire Lefilliâtre’s meagre organ comes across as a bad caricature of the late, lamented Montserrat Figueras; and what is Isabelle Druet doing here, adrift and vinegary, massacring her sublime lament by stripping herself of timbre for baroque effect?”
That seems harsh to me. Though it was obvious the staging wouldn’t, indeed couldn’t change after the interval, I’d have gone back to hear Mauillon’s mad scene, which I’m sure must have been very impressive. And the little string orchestra with two recorders and lots of lutes and the like was lovely (at the very middle of the front row of the second balcony, acoustically speaking we had the best seats in the whole house). But my friends were more inclined towards meze and kebabs, so off we went to the Derya.