Cherubini - Médée

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Wednesday 12 December 2012

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets & Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video design: Denis Guéguin. Médée: Nadja Michael. Jason: John Tessier. Dircé: Elodie Kimmel. Créon: Vincent Le Texier. Néris: Varduhi Abrahamyan. Servante 1: Ekaterina Isachenko. Servante 2: Anne-Fleur Inizan. Les Talens Lyriques. Chorus of Radio France.

Pourquoi tant de haine ? (part 2)

This is a production I already wrote about when I saw it in 2011 in Brussels, so I don't need to go into much extra detail here. In Brussels it was not booed; at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, it was both booed and heckled (to be specific, the booing started during "Oh Carol" at the end of act two), perhaps because the Champs Elysées audience often contains a fair contingent of conservative bourgeois from the leafy western suburbs, more used to more conventional productions of Mozart.

They have claimed, in the lively (and in some respects slightly sinister) debate provoked on the web, that Warlikowski is provocative. On the contrary, I would say he's serious, conscientious and quite genuine in his attempt to work through the topics raised by the works he directs: not provocative, but thought-provoking. Certainly conscientious enough to be present, and come out and face the booing - soon drowned out, as is often the case, by cheering, leading in this case to a standing ovation in his defence. Also, though my memory is unreliable (which is one reason I started recording the shows I see in writing) and I was sitting close this time, not up in the balcony, it seems to me he reworked his production for Paris, making it even more stripped-down, hard-hitting and raw. There were some details I should have mentioned before but didn't, such as the Barbie-Médée and Ken-Jason dolls planted in the sand, or the fact that Médée, during the menacing, then stormy, opening bars of act three, in her Virgin Mary robes, was in a kind of swaying trance. But I don't remember Médée, after folding the bloody pyjamas and stowing them in the drawer, actually lighting and smoking a cigarette in long silence before, as in Brussels, slamming the metal door behind her. If that was indeed added in Paris, it was a stroke of genius.

I should add that the sound system for the rewritten dialogues that so incensed the Paris detractors (some of whom apparently expected sung recitatives) was better than in Brussels.

I didn't have this in my 2012-2013 season as I don't subscribe to the Champs Elysées' Mozart-infested seasons. But I bought tickets because a young artist I know, not normally an operagoer, wanted specifically to see Warlikowski's production. I was afraid he might find the music tough going, at least in the first two acts, but he loved every minute, cheered himself hoarse against the booers, and declared the production "intelligent but not over-intellectual". This raises another point. It seems to me that if opera houses want to draw in new customers, they need to play an active, acknowledged part in a city's contemporary arts scene, not just stage what the French call "dad's opera" or hope that scheduling a few Broadway musicals might help. Here, a young artist wanted to see a Warlikowski production (indeed, has tried to see every one: Makropoulos, King Roger, Parsifal...- and Tcherniakov's as well). For Sellars' Tristan, which personally I didn't much like, it was loft-inhabiting designers I knew who were desperate for tickets. My NYC friends, who take a keen interest in the arts in general, just don't go to the Met. In fact I'm not sure they ever give the Met a thought.

Nadja Michael's acting won the young artist's unreserved approval. He was wowed. She was, I think, even more impressive than in Brussels; vocally too, even if there's something unwieldy and short-winded about her voice that makes you wonder how she actually manages in Macbeth. Her diction is undeniably woolly. Her Jason, John Tessier, was a perfect Mozartian tenor, though that meant there was some imbalance in vocal size between her and him. Elodie Kimmel, and in fact nearly all the cast were excellent, with a special mention for Varduhi Abrahamyan's Néris and a special cheer for (the still blustery) Vincent Le Texier, who, earlier in the run, had apparently told the booers to leave if they weren't happy. They didn't like that. Act three was a marvel, and the ever-natty Rousset - this time with startling white strips down the inside legs of his otherwise conventional smoking suit - bounced his way through the score with the usual verve.

So, what with Cecilia Bartoli being booed at La Scala (thanks to an illustrious German musicologist for that surprising info, which I'd missed), La Traviata in Brussels, Carmen and Médée in Paris, this has been European Booing Month, sponsored by the European Union I imagine. But the series has come to an end: last night I was at Blow's Venus and Adonis, sweetly staged at the Salle Favart by candlelight, and it was just enthusiastically applauded. More about that tomorrow, perhaps.


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