Auber - La Muette de Portici

Opéra Comique, Paris, Monday April 9 2012

Conductor : Patrick Davin. Production : Emma Dante. Sets : Carmine Maringola. Sets and costumes : Vanessa Sannino. Lighting : Dominique Bruguière. Fenella : Elena Borgogni. Alphonse : Maxim Mironov. Elvire : Église Gutiérrez. Masaniello : Michael Spyres. Pietro : Laurent Alvaro. Borella : Tomislav Lavoie. Selva : Jean Teitgen. Lorenzo : Martial Defontaine. Orchestra and chorus of La Monnaie, Brussels.

The Opéra Comique continues to make up, thank goodness, for misery at the ONP and lean years at the Chätelet by programming interesting rarities, this time La Muette de Portici. For the general public, Auber is a above all a central tube station in Paris, handy for the department stores. His work is probably best known in the operatic world for sparking off the Belgian revolution in 1830. I must say it's surprising to read, even today, that "this co-production between the Opéra Comique, La Monnaie in Brussels and the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice will not be shown immediately in the Belgian capital, to avoid any political tensions" (Opéra Magazine, April 2012). Tensions there may well be between Belgium's two main communities, the country may recently have got by without a government for 18 months, and at La Monnaie the French and Flemish supertitles projected under a proud "SPQB" cartouche still switch sides at the interval; but as far as I know the country is no longer occupied by foreign powers - unless the EU counts as such.

One very distinguished critic, for whom my admiration knows no bounds, has often said that when theatre directors turn to opera “they panic at the music’s pace and resort to useless agitation […] The eye is constantly distracted…” The ear and mind, too, I’d add. This was, I think, only Emma Dante’s second opera production, and while definitely quite simple and in some ways quite traditional, it suffered at times from the syndrome.

There were few sets and props: mainly doors - plain wooden, or fancily padded with red velvet and gold studs, depending on the scene - or billowing, off-white curtains. For the more palatial moments, a red, brocaded wall, giant, gilt-framed portraits and a gold-and-crystal chandelier were slowly lowered down. The highly athletic, bearded young guards there from the start were mostly in grey, with dark stockings pulled over their heads as helmets, gaiters and sometimes body armour. The Viceroy‘s courtiers were got up in foppish finery with crazy wigs, heavy make-up, duck-egg-blue silks and satins, wildly exaggerated ruffs and gold shoes. The women’s panniers were open at the front, baring their hoops, and (electrically) lit from within, highlighting brightly-coloured, patterned stockings. This stylised, deeply bowing and curtseying court contrasted obviously with the people, in shades mostly of red and white and treated, in costume and gesture, like any traditional opera chorus. They were barefoot until, after their initial victories, some sported extravagant jewellery, a ruff or two, or golden shoes – starting with Masaniello, who became visibly drunk with power as the chandelier swallowed up the bare bulb of his lodgings and hovered over his head like a crown.

So far so simple, though the contrast on stage between stylised courtiers, frenzied actors and conventional chorus was striking. And as I implied above, no singer was allowed to sing alone and undisturbed: shunted round on a mobile door frame or accompanied by costumed dolls wheeled or danced about, sailors throwing ropes or fishermen casting and drawing in their nets… The guards engaged in frantic, though certainly very finely-tuned, mingling and scrumming, whether among themselves or when taunting and threatening Fenella. The mute heroine herself was hysterically and exhaustingly (for us and I should imagine a hundred times more for her) hyperactive all evening: crawling, leaping, trembling, pleading, gesticulating, silently screaming and struggling with her symbolic red scarf… Sometimes this was over the top and bordered on the ridiculous, provoking open laughter as the guards, overcome by the revolt, suddenly (indeed, instantaneously) shed their clothes and writhed epileptically, stark naked on the floor.

Yet even such a perilous moment turned into one of effective, emotional theatre during the ensuing prayer over the naked corpses, reducing the giggles to pin-drop silence. That, I think, is a key point: even if this production was more theatrical than operatic, even if it was sometimes a bit too much, even if the very end, with Fenella as the Virgin Mary in a golden crown, was a touch corny, it took the work seriously and tried to make serious drama out of it, without, for once, rewriting it. If I were Emma Dante, I might be tempted to tone down some of the frenzy to avoid more booing and laughter at future outings. But then again, I might not, and just stick to my guns and take the chance.

The score was well worth reviving: full of ideas and incident, with never a dull moment. I'd recommend anyone with access to a recording to give it a spin. It too was taken seriously. Patrick Davin adopted the kind of snappy, no-nonsense approach I like and the Brussels band is best at. And the cast, had Eglise Gutiérrez not been announced sick, would have been uniformly strong. Yet often, when singers are announced sick (perhaps because extra caution combines with relief at being excused?) they put in a better performance than you might expect and Gutiérrez, though feeble at the top, managed decent enough phrasing and won decent enough applause. Maxim Mironov had the notes but not much volume, unlike Laurent Alvaro, who had more (of the latter) than perhaps was needed. The most interesting singer of the evening, taking on Nourrit’s terrifyingly exposed part as Masaniello (my thought was that you had to be mad to take it on at all), was Michael Spyres, a young American tenor with a voice made for Rossini heroes that had the very distinguished critic thinking of the art of Nicolai Gedda and Gregory Kunde, and me thinking back to Chris Merritt’s early days. He still needs to mature, but in a couple of years, all being well, he could be outstanding in works such as (Rossini’s) Otello or Ermione.

Opera Cake also reviewed this. 


  1. Michael Spyres is indeed a very interesting artist.

    By the way, is there a reason why you never consider the TCE? They are getting better and better since a couple of years. Last night's dress rehearsal of La Didone was excellent, and their 2012-13 season looks very tempting (and even more so when I look at the ONP).

  2. I'm not so keen on their seasons. Too much Mozart. If I want stuff from them I buy ad hoc.


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