Opera in Paris

Performance reviews:
Norma (2000), Rigoletto (2000), Pelléas et Mélisande (2000), Daphne (1999), Les contes d'Hoffmann (1999), Tosca (1999), La dame blanche (1999), Zelmira (1999), Carmen (1999)

Bastille, 31 May 2000

The next evening with Norma brought nothing new regarding the comments on the acoustics. The production and sets by Yannis Kokkos were excellent and did not act against the music. Within the limitation of the sound system, the best voice of the evening was the one of Sonia Ganassi (Adalgisa). She showed sensitivity, good acting and a good technique. Johan Botha (Pollione) was ok in Meco all'altar, but somewhat off pitch in Me protegge, while he held his own in the final trio. Giacomo Prestia was impressive as Oroveso. I long to hear him in a better acoustical setting. June Anderson was her standard self. She was competent in the easy Casta diva, but not very impressive in the following cabaletta, as mosts Norma I have heard. For the rest of the evening, she was good. Martine Mahé was a positive Clotilde, while Robert Woroniecki, an import for Flavio, was discreet. I am sure they could find a voiceless Flavio in France. Bruno Campanella provided good support.

Bastille, 30 May 2000

I was never at the Bastille, because I had my misgivings regarding the acoustics of the auditorium. The auditorium is built in the oblong bad acoustics style found in the American opera houses, instead of the Italian style of auditorium found in the great opera houses in Vienna, Milano, Paris (the other houses), etc. I was very surprised to hear the singers clearly in Rigoletto. You did not get that muffled sound you hear at the Met, in Houston, etc. Another surprising fact is that none of the singers turned their back to the audience when singing, and none of them was audible when the chorus was singing. At the beginning, when the Bastille was opened, the public was complaining that no singers could be heard, and suddenly a year later everybody was audible. There is a sound system in the house that is turned off when the chorus sings, as this could not be solved technically. In this condition it is difficult to judge the performance. Juan Pons (Rigoletto) sounded fresher than I ever heard him in his prime, thanks to the enhancement of his voice. He still lacks high notes, and power at the top. His Rigoletto was very unmoving. He is at best a cover baritone. The Gilda of Ruth Ann Swenson sounded the best of the cast, good style, good high notes and seemingly a good voice size. I would love to hear her in a real opera house. Marcelo Álvarez (Duca) was ok, but I have the same comments as for Swenson. The Sparafucile (Miguel Angel Zapater) and Maddalena (Elena Zaremba) were adequate. It is extraordinary that local artists could not be cast in most of the minor roles. We had an Egyptian Reda El Wakil (a discreet Monterone), Marian Pop (a Romanian Marullo), Mihajlo Arsenski (a Macedonian Borsa), Sinéad Mulhern (an Irish Contessa) and Louise Callinan (an Australian Paggio). Only Giovanna (an apparently strong-voiced Martine Mahé), Ceprano (Nicolas Testé) and the Usciere (Dennis Aubry) were French. The production and sets were ok, but the Duke's palace, Rigoletto's and Sparafucile's houses were all dilapidated. Paolo Carignani's conducting was positive.

Pelléas et Mélisande
Garnier, 28 May 2000

While being glad to be back at the true opera house of Paris the Palais Garnier, a house with excellent acoustics, the performance was very disappointing. The production and sets were by Robert Wilson. As usual with this man, the whole thing looks completely incompetent. There were practically no sets. We had several narrow drapes hanging from the ceiling, no fountain; a Mélisande with short hair; the singers mimed what was going on. The most ridiculous was Arkel faking carrying a baby in the last scene. The singers must have been told to sing piano all evening by the conductor, only Van Dam (Golaud) opened his mouth (too rarely) and we finally managed to hear a voice. It was an evening of orchestral music with a discreet vocal accompaniment in the background. The Pelléas (Dietrich Henschel) looked very effeminate and voiceless. The other singers in this debacle were Joan Rodgers (Mélisande), Robert Lloyd (Arkel), Nadine Denize (Geneviève), Gaële Le Roi (a voiceless Yniold), Frédéric Caton (Médecin) and Nigel Smith (Berger). It is extraordinary that the Paris Opéra could not cast Mélisande, Arkel and Pelléas with French speaking singers; even a German was imported for the lighting. The culprit of the farce was the conductor Mark Elder who looked very pleased with himself.

Châtelet, 26 November 1999

Daphne was unfortunately given in a concert version. This gave the conductor, Marek Janowski, the opportunity to give us a concerto with voices in the background. This man took every opportunity to have the orchestra play as loud as possible. Janowski should concentrate on being a symphonic conductor. He has no clue as an opera conductor. The performance was recorded for later broadcast with a recording microphone in front of the mouth of every singer. The singers of the evening did not have the voices required by the work in any case. The tenors, Torsten Kerl (Leukippos) and John Horton Murray (Apollo), were a vocal size too small. In particular Murray was no heldentenor. Soile Isokoski (Daphne) barely maintained herself above mediocrity. The others (Rappé, Rose, Zhang, Le Roi, and Polisset) were not much. It was a very boring evening indeed.

Les contes d'Hoffmann
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 21 November 1999

Why for heaven's sake did the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées invite the Helikon Opera of Moscow to give performances of Les contes d'Hoffmann in French and in Paris? The director of that outfit, Dmitri Bertman, unfortunately also produced it. No one had a clue of where the piece took place. Bertman could have re-baptized the work Men in black, as most people wore black all evening long. The guests at Spalanzani are all automates. The second tenor roles of Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio have been completely dropped. Cochenille's aria has been given to Spalanzani, who by the way is a drag queen!? The scene between Coppélius and Spalanzani about the solvency of Elias has been dropped, and so the scene is between Hoffmann and Coppélius. Coppélius' aria is also gone. But they are in the synopsis in the program. When Coppélius returns with the news of the bankruptcy of Elias, the whole thing makes no sense at all. Crespel is made to look like a complete idiot. The aria Scintille diamant is gone, too. There is also a big TV screen, and it goes on during the all evening. The role of Nicklausse/Muse has been given back a lot of cut music. It was very well sung by Larissa Kostiouk, unfortunately this music is not very interesting. All the female roles were very well sung: Mariana Andreeva (Olympia), Tatiana Koundji (Antonia), Elena Yonova (Giulietta). Vladimir Ognev as Lindorf/Coppélius/Dapertutto/Miracle was OK, but not more. However, the piece is a tenor opera. Nikolaj Dorozhkin was over-parted. The program lists Radames as being in his repertory! He got a chilly response by the audience. The orchestra under Valerij Kritskov was fine. To make the thing even more ridiculous, though the work was sung in French, we were treated to French surtitles. I felt like being in Houston.

Opéra-Comique, 29 June 1999

This production was given both in the French and Italian versions. Actually the French version should have been called La Tosca, as is customary in France. An oddity was the fact that a German (Gerd Meier) was invited for the lighting of the production. It is difficult to believe that no local was found for such a job. The costumes of José Vasquez were pleasant and had to follow some of the stupid oddities of the production team made of John Dew (staging) and Heinz Baltès (sets). This team should have been shot. After the first bars, the curtain went up and we saw the cupola of a cathedral from below. A priest (or was it a bishop?) looked down from the top of the dome at a line-up of people that were summarily shot by invisible shooters firing from the sides. After that a small stage dropped down, and the action was set on a stage within a stage. It was made of alternating glassy panels (used alternatively as mirrors, doors or paintings) and dark panels. There were two religious statues at each side of the sets. They would remain there for the three acts! Occasionally the set behind this small stage was seen. When Mario takes off the cloth covering his paintings, the three mirrors are transformed and all show the same painting of a naked dark haired and dark eyed woman. A fact that, as this was the French version, made the spectators chuckle when Tosca mentioned the Magdalene having blond hair and blue eyes. When Scarpia came in, he was dressed up as a bishop. He was being prepared for mass during the Te Deum. This made absolutely no sense at all, and only a producer's sick mind could have thought of it. Spoletta and Sciarrone were priests, however the jailer escaped that fate. Scarpia did not enter the Attavanti chapel and was made to sing about the abandoned fan before he even had it in his hand. During the questioning of Cavaradossi in the second act, when Tosca's singing in the background irritates Scarpia, Scarpia does not even try to shut the window. The torture chamber was behind the set and through the three glassy doors, one could see shelves of documents that are accessed through a modern moving staircase. During the Vittoria after the news of Bonaparte's victory, all the priests jumped on those stairs to try to get rid of all those documents by throwing them on the floor and creating a pandemonium distracting from the singing. Tosca found the fatal knife in one of the religious statues!? During act 3, there was no firing squad, Cavaradossi just stood in the middle of the set, the back opened again, the dome was again seen and shots came again from the wings killing him, while nobody was seen. Since the set does not show the top of the Castel San Angelo, Tosca was simply shot since she cannot jump to her death. This was a miserable production making as usual no sense.

The Tosca Manon Feubel was physically on the heavy side, but her voice is fresh and pleasant, her acting was straightforward and devoid of unnecessary fuzziness. It was a nice portrayal of the role. François Harismendy, as Scarpia, had the size of voice for the house, but he lacked experience. His entrance was not very threatening, he could not make enough of the words and he lacked power in phrases such as Ceci est un lieu de larmes. He has a lot more to learn, but has the voice to do it. Luca Lombardo, as Mario, had the voice size for the house, too. He could be firmly heard. He had a nice overall presence and delivered a good vocal performance. But like many tenors, he has problems with the high notes. When singing a B, his voice changed color and showed audible strain. Lombardo made his life easier when having to sing B by using the Au péril de ma vie option, instead of Pour combattre l'infame. The conductor Antonello Allemandi delivered a powerful reading. Because of the production and from what I heard about the Italian cast (Lyon, Skram, Makris), I decided against attending the other version the next day.

La dame blanche
Opéra-Comique, 22 April 1999

This series of performances is a revival of a 1997 production and is also a co-production with L'Esplanade Saint-Étienne Opéra and Le Grand Théâtre de Tours. The sets by Alexandre Heyraud are pleasant looking and portray well what they are supposed to. The staging by Jean-Louis Pichon is unobtrusive and serves the work well. The costumes by Frédéric Pineau are strikingly multi colored. They are almost too bright and make some of the singers look quite ridiculous. It was decided for an unknown reason to add a speaking character named Nicolas, played by Bernard Pisani. He is the valet to Georges and has a lot of text to recite, which could have been spoken by the singers as indicated in the libretto. Unfortunately Pisani is also a choreographer and we had to endure four dancers showing up at the most inappropriate moments. La dame blanche is a tenor opera. Of this century's singers, we can remember from either recordings or performances: Slezak, Francell, David, Devriès, d'Arkor, Villabella, Gedda etc, all tenors with at least a voice. Here we were served Gregory Kunde, a tenor who has sung Arnold among other roles. He was barely audible. His high notes were quite ugly and submerged by the orchestral sound. His Ah quel plaisir was comically overparted. His Viens, gentille dame lacked poetry while the Rêverie fell flat. But Mr. Kunde seemed to be very pleased with himself during his solo bow. The second tenor Steven Cole as Dickson was funny and served the comic role quite well. After Dickson, at the end of act 1, said J'ai trouvé au milieu de la route un petit nain, tout noir, qui m'a présenté ce papier, he was made to add a line, not in the text, J'ai dit noir. Why? Because Mr. Cole is black? A quite useless extra comment. Anna was Raphaëlle Farman. She was quite attractive both vocally and physically. Sandra Zeltzer was a better Jenny than Micaela. The best female voice was the one of Karine Ohanyan, a positive Marguerite. The best performance of the evening, both in voice, diction and stage presence was the Gaveston of Christian Tréguier, a very positive character. Mac Irton was sung by Frédéric Concalvés, while Claire Gibault conducted positively.

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 10 February 1999

This production came from Pesaro via Lyon to Paris. The music by Rossini is a long series of arias and ensembles à la Mozart, except for being less boring than in certain Mozart operas. However agreeable the music is, there is less first rate material than in works such as La donna del lago. The staging, costumes, scenery were by Yannis Kokkos. They serve the work well (we are far from the miserable production offered by Gockley in Houston) and are never distracting, as a good production should be. You did not notice it. On the musical side, the tenors were not too good a lot. The better of the two is Antenore, sung by William Workman. Workman has a quite agreeable, audible voice for the villain part. But this role was an outstanding one for the Chris Merritt of the good old days, and Workman is a quite an harmless villain, but he does not distract from the quality of the performance. Ilo, the good guy if I may say, is sung by Paul Austin Kelly, a tenorino with not much voice and very unpleasant high notes. A complete failure. In the lower masculine voices, Leucippo, a companion in crime of Antenore, is admirably sung by René Schirrer. Schirrer has a good sound, singing aggressively and depicting his part with great credibility. Lorenzo Regazzo sings the other low part, Polidoro, with beautiful sound and conviction. On the female side, Sonia Ganassi, Zelmira's confidante, is admirable. Unfortunately her part is not a big one and she has only one aria at the beginning of the second act, where she displayed her great talent. In the main part of Zelmira, Mariella Devia started by husbanding her forces in act 1, before giving her full power in act 2. Devia was outstanding in the finale. Maurizio Benini was the perfect accompanist. The only regret during that evening were the two tenors. All those belcanto tenors (Vargas, Workman, Kunde, Austin Kelly, Neill, Gimenez, Dale, Olsen, Ford, Lavender etc) that we have to listen to nowadays, have all one thing in common: not much voice.

Opéra-Comique, 2 February 1999

Another staging/scenery disaster, the producer (Louis Erlo, Gockley would love him) decided that the stage of the Opéra-Comique was too small to have all the people necessary to fulfill the libretto requirements: no people walking around the plaza making what the soldiers sang meaningless, the last act cortège no longer exists, the music plays in front a curtain full of red light bulbs, and so on. The scenery, by Bernard Michel, does not suggest Spain, in fact it suggests nothing. It is made of pieces of wood awkwardly placed on the floor to make it more difficult for the singers to move around. Those two guys forgot that this work was performed hundreds of times in this place in a fully understandable way. The best performance of the evening was the Carmen of Katarina Karneus: good voice, good stage presence, good acting and excellent French for the spoken dialogs. The Don José of Antonio Nagore was good. His only drawback, since the spoken dialogs instead of recitatives were given, is his spoken (not sung) French. This would have been a good reason to perform the recitatives. The Escamillo (Ludovic Tézier) had all the problems that baritones have with the part, good high register, but weak low register. The Micaela (Sandra Zeltzer) was very musical, but she could not project well. Zuniga (Emidio Guidotti) and Moralès (Olivier Heyte) were excellent. The conductor Andreas Stoehr kept the whole affair moving well ahead.

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