Philippe Fénelon - La Cerisaie

ONP Garnier, Tuesday February 7 2012

Conductor : Tito Ceccherini. Production and lighting : Georges Lavaudant. Sets and costumer: Jean-Pierre Vergier. Liouba : Elena Kelessidi. Lionia: Marat Gali. Gricha: Alexandra Kadurina. Ania: Ulyana Aleksyuk. Varia: Anna Krainikova. Lopakhine: Igor Golovatenko. Charlotta: Mischa Schelomianski. Douniacha: Svetlana Lifar. Iacha: Alexey Tatarintsev. Firs: Ksenia Vyaznikova. Orchestra  and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Verdicts on Philippe Fénelon’s new work La Cerisaie (The Cherry Orchard) run from one end of the spectrum to the other. The friend who asked me, in an e-mail, “Are you by any chance going to see this rubbish?” would presumably agree with the Financial Times, whose critic started his review: “What were they thinking of? There is so much that is bafflingly wrong with Philippe Fénelon’s new opera – score, libretto and staging – that it is hard to know where to begin.” Yet for ConcertoNet the performance – score, libretto and staging – is a “masterly achievement.”

I think one thing that got some people’s goat was that the opera isn’t just a straightforward setting of the play, even abridged. The librettist states baldly on the Paris Opera’s website that he isn’t keen on narrative. His Cherry Orchard is centred on act 3 and opens with the announcement that the orchard is sold; from then on, it’s a fairly free-ranging series of studies in nostalgia, weaving in reminiscences and quotations from the librettist and/or other authors, by one or several characters at a time, interspersed with flashes of dance or traditional song. For an opera, the text is wordy, and the first half (with, for some reason, an on-stage band on a podium at the rear, as on a 1900 bandstand and dressed for it) has rather a lot of uneventful recitative, so I can understand what prompted the FT’s complaint that it seemed interminable. But even that was larded with recognisable “set pieces” – arias, duets, trios, ensembles and choruses, weaving in reminiscences and quotations from other composers, that staved off serious boredom. Even if, admittedly, it was all, in narrative terms, bewildering: i.e. we had little idea what was going on. And the second half was both livelier in parts, and at times, to me at any rate, downright moving.

It would have been much tougher going, however, without the excellent Bolshoi cast, many of whom (in fact, the 6 women, a very fine palette of Russian vocal types from alto to coloratura soprano, who quite overshadowed the men) I’d be very glad to hear again in something else, preferably Russian: a new production of Betrothal in a Monastery would suit them perfectly.

There was no sign of a magical cherry orchard in the staging. The glacially frosted-looking set was of oppressive, thick-trunked, closely crowded, gnarled oaks with their heavy branches intertwining at the rear to form a flat arch under which, in the first part, we found the bandstand. The costuming was a kind of sepia-tinted, also frosted, nostalgic take on 1900: mother and daughter in cobwebby black lace dresses, wild hair and a vague Tim Burton look to their makeup; Varia in a strict, high-necked “governess” dress and Gricha in a ghostly, frosted sailor suit; some of the men in loud check “bicycling” suits, and a cohort of soldiers and servants, the former with outsized “Napoleon” hats or hussars’ helmets, the latter with equally outsize chauffeurs’caps, all in faded, frosted old gold.

There was also a chorus of women in white, Russian folklore costumes, each with a long braid of blond hair and a pointed Russian tiara, sometimes on stage and sometimes in the pit. Reviewers who wondered who they were can’t have read the opera’s special Cherry Orchard website, where we are told they represent remembrance of things and music past.

The characters sometimes waltzed or merely flitted across the stage with abandon (“I flit, I float, I flee, I fly”); but, when singing, mainly sat on a variety of white, neoclassical chairs, facing the audience. Whenever dance was evoked, a single ballerina, in a tutu, glided across on points, sometimes also helping with the props. As there was no narrative as such in the text, there was none in the staging, just a series of scenes and a lot of text.

We sat through it neither wowed by a masterwork nor feeling it was an endless fiasco. “It let itself be listened to,” as the French put it. I wouldn’t mind seeing the second half again, so long as we had the same cast; and I’d be delighted to find those six women together once more for a real, more familiar Russian work.

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