Zemlinsky - Der Zwerg / Ravel - L'Enfant et les sortilèges

ONP Garnier, Monday February 4 2013

Conductor: Paul Daniel. Production, sets, costumes: Richard Jones, Antony Mcdonald. Lighting: Matthew Richardson. Choreography: Amir Hosseinpour.

DER ZWERG

Donna Clara: Nicola Beller. Ghita: Béatrice Uria-Monzon. Don Estoban: Vincent Le Texier. Der Zwerg: Charles Workman. Erste Zofe: Melody Louledjian. Zweite Zofe: Diana Axentii. Dritte Zofe: Delphine Haidan . Erste Gespielin: Pranvera Lehnert. Zweite Gespielin: Marie-Cecile Chevassus. 

L’ENFANT ET LES SORTILÈGES

L’Enfant: Gaëlle Méchaly. Maman, la Tasse chinoise, la Libellule: Cornelia Oncioiu. Le Bergère, la Chauve-souris: Valérie Condoluci. Le Feu, le Rossignol: Melody Louledjian. La Princesse: Amel Brahim-Djelloul. La Chatte, l’Ecureuil: Diana Axentii. La Chouette, un Pâtre: Andrea Hill. Une Pastourelle: Chenxing Yuan. Le Fauteuil, un Arbre: François Lis. L’Horloge comtoise, un Chat: Alexandre Duhamel. La Théière, la Rainette, le Petit Vieillard: François Piolino. Les Animaux: Anne-Sophie Ducret, Caroline Petit, Vincent Morell, Chae Wook Lim.

Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Hauts-de-Seine and Paris Opera children’s choirs. 

I can well imagine it’s hard to find singers for Der Zwerg, with its murderous title role, and L’Enfant, which, like some mini War and Peace, trots out 21 solo parts in 45 minutes. So perhaps, at a pinch (this is, after all, the Paris Opera, not the French Lick amateur operatic society) it’s understandable if this double bill was mis- or undercast.

Certainly that was one of the things that made for such an underwhelming evening. But do you in fact schedule Der Zwerg without a tenor you’re sure can sing it? Béatrice Uria-Monzon was the star of the show, but you don’t go to this work for Ghita or even the Infanta, here sung more competently than interestingly by Nicola Beller.

Zemlinsky
Several times – if you’re reading this on my blog you can search and see - I’ve said Charles Workman’s voice, with its tremulous vibrato, was not to my taste. Already, in 2007, on the subject of Vec Makropoulos, I wrote: “Charles Workman, surely slightly undersized for this part, though passionately committed and convincing, was audibly stretched to the very limits. As I've said before, I personally don't like the sound of his tight tremolo, but many people do, and for once the high notes were mostly there, not simply abandoned a couple of tones down”. His voice can work in highly dramatic "modernist" roles, but to me Zemlinsky is one of the last, gorgeous, glowing embers of romanticism and requires not just good acting – Workman can’t be criticised on that score – but lyricism, which, when stretched, he can’t muster. His voice was hard, forced and stiff, unable to reach the killer top notes, and broke at crucial moments.

A Zwerg without any thrills at all would be a sorry thing indeed; on Monday night the thrills there were came simply from hearing the music itself: the score. Paul Daniel was praised by some critics for reining in the orchestra, but I’m not sure I want my Zemlinsky reined in, and to me it lacked the magic, the Viennese sheen and sparkle you expect.

Professor Arbie Orenstein quotes Ravel as saying that, in L’Enfant, he was, more than ever, “for melody. Yes, melody, bel canto, vocalises, vocal virtuosity – this is for me a point of departure”. Well, on Monday night, L’Enfant sounded like a music school performance, one in which only Amel Brahim-Djelloul and François Lis stood out. Even in schoolmarm drag, François Piolino didn’t seem to be enjoying himself. Gaëlle Méchaly sang like a schoolboy - dramatically credible but vocally dubious.

The second underwhelming factor was the production, one I’ve seen before, albeit some years back. I was shocked to find I recalled almost nothing, apart from the giant asparagus. I mean, I know my memory isn’t what it was, but à ce point-là? However, I’ve now concluded that my memory isn't quite so bad; this staging simply isn’t memorable. It is mostly just illustrative and to some extent footling, alright in the Ravel but not Der Zwerg, which is a harrowing (for Zemlinsky, intimately personal) tragedy, even if couched in Wilde’s purple prose.

Der Zwerg is set in an oval space, open to the rear so we can see people processing down a curving ramp through the garden – the giant asparagus. There’s a large, “leafy” ceiling fan, a door set in a curved red wall to the right, and a silver grand piano, painted with swallows. The piano lid serves both as a table to display the presents, in multiple cardboard boxes filled with coloured tissues and tied up with coloured ribbons, and, later, as the fatal mirror.

The Infanta, played as a silly brat, starts out in ordinary teenage clothes and her playmates (the mature and sometimes sturdy ladies of the Paris Opera chorus) arrive, giggling and gawky, in brown, British school uniforms, with short skirts, socks, T-bar sandals and yellow PE bags. Don Estoban is in lilac velvet and yellow; Ghita wears a tight-waisted governess suit we’ll see again, later, on L’Enfant’s mother.

When the party gets going, the Infanta reappears in a wide, white “Meninas” dress and the playmates draw from their PE bags and slip into equally wide, gaudily coloured skirts, spreading their brown tunics incongruously over the panniers.

The dwarf is a puppet in white tails activated by the tenor, in black. Workman acted the part well, as usual, but the distancing effect of the puppet undermined the tragic effect.

Ravel
The staging of L’Enfant et les sortilèges follows the libretto faithfully, scene after scene, sometimes quite handsomely, but does little more. (Perhaps, with this odd work, little more can be done?) The chairs are in faded 18th century brocades; the wallpaper, torn down the middle, has a faded Toile de Jouy design with grey shadows where the shepherds and shepherdesses, now on stage, were. And so on. The most striking images were Le Petit Vieillard, here not an old man at all but, as I said, François Piolino in shiny, apple-green drag as a schoolmarm drumming arithmetic into an old-fashioned-classroom-full of kids.

And above all, the trees, hauntingly dressed as WWI soldiers in a lunar landscape, lamenting “Ma blessure, ma blessure”.

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