Massenet - Le Cid

ONP Garnier, Monday March 30 2015

Conductor: Michel Plasson. Production: Charles Roubaud. Sets: Emmanuelle Favre. Costumes: Katia Duflot. Lighting: Vinicio Cheli. Chimène: Sonia Ganassi. L’Infante: Annick Massis. Rodrigue: Roberto Alagna. Don Diègue: Paul Gay. Le Roi: Nicolas Cavallier. Le Comte de Gormas: Laurent Alvaro. Saint Jacques: Francis Dudziak. L’Envoyé maure: Jean-Gabriel Saint-Martin. Don Arias: Luca Lombardo. Don Alonzo: Ugo Rabec. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. 

I've often said it's much easier to describe a bad evening at the opera than a good one. There was something special about Monday night's Le Cid at Garnier, yet it was far from flawless, so I've been wondering what gave it that particular buzz.

Massenet
For a start, it can't have been the production, which was pretty much forgettable. By setting the work in the Spain of the 1930s, Charles Roubaud raised expectations of a concept (Rif war? Civil war?) which were not fulfilled: the updating was merely aesthetic. The sets managed to reproduce convincingly the curious, drab, buff-coloured anonymity of official interiors, notably a kind of courthouse with tiers of seats on either side of a doorway topped with a massive bronze lion. Chimène's bedroom was, here, a soulless, sparsely-furnished saloon with a giant art deco grille over the shuttered window, a couple of Ruhlmann-style commodes and small pink armchairs and sofas reminiscent of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. Rodrigue's camp was a bare war-room with maps at the rear and a fluorescent-lit ceiling. The men were, understandably, in uniforms - all sand-coloured, but with green or red braid, depending on their allegiance; the women in white court dresses, or what were, I think, in the 30s called afternoon frocks, with mantillas and fluttering fans.

It wasn't the acting, either, limited (with the exception of Sonia Ganassi's Chimène, more of which later) to pacing (Don Diègue, with cane), being regal (Annick Massis, draped in a pink stole and doing it exceptionally well) or, in the case of Roberto Alagna, kneeling when necessary (to get dubbed or to pray) and otherwise, feet apart, just standing and delivering, à l'ancienne.

Nor was all the singing obviously outstanding. Garnier was certainly a better place for Paul Gay to be singing than the Bastille, and the king and count were good enough ("no better than they ought to be," a late Scottish friend of mine might have said). Annick Massis was undeniably sumptuous and I only wish I'd seen and heard her more often and that her role as the Infanta had given her more to do than just empathise with Chimène and project fabulous aigus over the magnificent chorus.

Regarding Sonia Ganassi, a respected acquaintance whose opinion is always sound found, as usual, the mot juste, saying she did not think it quite the right role for her, but "She is an earnest artist, at least". Sonia Ganassi threw herself into it with more than enough earnest endeavour to make up for not quite achieving the right degree of pathos: "Pleurez mes yeux" was visibly heartfelt yet not, in the end, very moving and not, in terms of applause, the show-stopper it ought to be. It was tough luck, too, that Ganassi's parting top note went awry. Top marks for commitment, though.

And...

Even discreetly but frequently stifling a cough, even with the slightly sinusy-sounding timbre of a tenor with a cold and the need to cut climactic top notes prudently (and uncharacteristically) short, Roberto Alagna reminded us what a rare and thrilling thing a truly great singer is and how much more usual it is for us to make do with less-than-great ones. His voice was resounding and his diction, by today's standards, astounding (I had, for example, to look up to the supertitles when Ganassi was singing). Le Cid is largely Rodrigue's opera, or if it isn't, Alagna made it so, playing it not for subtlety, by any means, but, as my neighbour put it at the interval, for testosterone: "C'est un petit coq".

And then there was Plasson in the pit. I have rarely heard the (potentially cantankerous) Paris Opera orchestra respond so movingly to a conductor, with gorgeous woodwind playing (e.g. in the introduction to "Pleurez mes yeux") and a truly magnificent instrumental reprise of "Ô souverain". The score was chopped up (you could see the orchestral parts in the pit plastered with large squares of blank paper) and the ballets were, as seems to be considered quite normal these days, omitted, leaving the Infanta's alms-giving scene oddly stranded, but Plasson achieved a performance of rare fervour and intensity, and the (potentially cantankerous) orchestra stayed in the pit to stand and applaud him on stage.

It all added up to an evening of opera that brought the words "good old days" to my mind or, as my neighbour put it: "Ça, c'est de l'opéra" - flawed, as opera is almost bound to be when you consider how much has to go right and thus can go wrong, one way or another, yet exciting. This was one of those relatively few evenings that make forking out the exorbitant annual fees and sitting through so many flaccid or humdrum performances (supposing you dont leave at the interval) worthwhile.

Laurie Anderson sings "O Superman".

Maestro Wenarto sings "Pleurez mes yeux".

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