Posts Tagged ‘Opéra National de Paris’

Future Changes at the Paris Opera

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

By: Frank Cadenhead

September 13, 2018. The French website ForumOpé posted a 58 word note on Tuesday which announced something which has not appeared in the major press. It reported that the Minister of Culture, Françoise Nyssen, has already told Stéphane Lissner that his current term as director of the Opéra national de Paris would not be extended. He will leave, therefore, in 2021. The last sentence notes that the decision was apparently a result of a “bilan mitigé” (which Google translates as “mixed results”) but did not make clear whose opinion this might be. This post has since been deleted. It did, however, set off a storm of writing in the press which confirmed the story and acknowledged that the Culture Ministry is now looking for a replacement. Given the four or five year pre-planning for opera houses, the search is already somewhat tardy. A complication of this Forum Opéra post is that its chief editor, Sylvain Fort, is now in charge of relations with the press for the President of France, Emmanuel Macron. ForumOpé had spoken strongly against Lissner’s alterations of boxes at the Palais Garnier and posted other criticisms of his leadership so the since-deleted “bilan mitigé” comment might been a bridge too far between Fort’s new role and his editorial role at the website.

Lissner, director since July of 2014, will be 68 in 2021 and above the age of retirement for government positions. Some imagined that he might get a waiver, as has been done in the past, and continue for another three years. He has included more advanced staging from controversial directors and has balanced the books despite the annual reduction in government generosity by doubling the income from private sponsors from 10 million to 20 million euros annually. Attendance figures at the two houses are always in the high 90s.

Lissner’s past history is impressive: Théâtre du Châtelet (1988-1997), Aix-en-Provence Festival (1998-2006). At those same periods, Lissner directed two theaters with one of which, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, he co-directed with theater legend Peter Brook.  Lissner was the first non-Italian to lead the La Scala opera company, 2005 – 2012. Moving on from seven years at the Aix-en-Provence festival (which has almost no government support) he was aware that major commercial brands might be interested in contributing to, and receiving recognition from, the legendary company. With this new financial source, and more challenging programming, he restored the balance sheet and standing of the historic theater after a long period of decline.

For the period beginning in 2014, It was generally accepted that he, or Serge Dorny of the Opéra National de Lyon, might be the logical successor to the conservative Nicolas Joel to take the Paris Opera to a new level of artistic and financial success. Lissner, coming from the La Scala rescue, seemed the careful choice but his programming, productions and casting, while important, maybe lacks a particular flare to garner the international attention many in France would like to see. The artistically adventurous Dorny, who took a plodding regional company in Lyon into the international spotlight, is now only 58 and would still be high on anyone’s list for Paris but is now unavailable: in March, he was named the new intendant of the Bavarian State Opera to start in 2021 and is already spending some of his time in Munich. Dorny’s Opéra national de Lyon now has a broad and challenging repertory and, importantly, the full houses have an average age much younger than when he arrived.

Lissner was the first non-Italian to lead La Scala and Dominique Meyer was the first non-Germanic to lead the VSO. Among names who might take over in Paris, note that Dominique Meyer is approaching his final season, 2019-2020, at the Vienna State Opera. Meyer will be 65 in 2020 and his ten year term saw steady direction and solid attendance. Radical productions were avoided, outrage was seldom heard and conservative Vienna was satisfied. There is a separate company, the Theater an der Wien, whose mission is to probe the edges of modern opera, so Meyer’s job, to continue the tradition of the VSO, was not subject to controversy.  He imported Manuel Legris from the Paris Opera Ballet who revived the moribund ballet and brought it positive international attention. Meyer could be under consideration but there has been some movement in regional companies in France to look to a younger generation for a fresh approach to opera. Nothing has been leaked about a Culture Ministry search committee or have any candidate names been hinted at. At least we know that the process has begun.

A Healthy Paris Opera

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

By: Frank Cadenhead

The numbers for the Opéra national de Paris’ 2015-2016 season, recently released, gives a positive impression despite the effects of the murderous series of terrorist attacks on the 13th of November of last year. Attendance has remained steady and private donations are up. The attack on the Bataclan Theater, which lasted over three hours and killed 97 of the total 130 that evening, would have a major effect on the performing arts in most cities but Parisians continued to buy tickets. All venues were closed for a bit less than a week but, when they resumed, the public was there. The Bataclan opened again on the anniversary of the attack with a concert by Sting.

The government made an effort to compensate for the loss of sales for the week performances where shut down but it was only for the major venues and strictly related to lost revenue from the closure. It was not intended to cover the effect of the tourism slide. Tourism in Paris fell in the area of 15 to 20 percent and tourist often buy tickets to the opera. This was evident in the drop in income the Opéra collects from tours to the iconic Palais Garnier. Some 730,000 tickets were sold in the previous period compared with 556,000 for the 2015-2016 season.

Support from public sources, the national government and regional and city governments, has been steadily slipping noted Stéphane Lissner, the opera director. In 2010, for example, public support was 105.5 million Euros and is now 95.7 million. It still represents 47% of the budget, but makes increased private support all the more important. There is some hope that the announced 5.5% increase in the government budget for the arts for 2017 might begin to reverse this trend. Despite these problems, however, the ONP was in the red only 200,000 Euros for the 2015-2016 season compared with a 3.7 million Euro surplus the previous period.

Fortunately, Lissner’s effort to increase private sponsorship was successful and contributed income from corporations alone increased by 40%. Major names like Dior, Rolex, Total and BNP are among corporations on the donor list. As a total part of the budget receipts for the reporting period, 30% represents individual and corporate donations, a figure what was in the single digits only a few years ago.

While the opera managed a 92.65% occupancy for the past season, it was a slightly lower that the previous season and would also have been affected by the dip in tourism in France. Ticket income was down from 68.5 million euros to 64.1 million. The Opéra also had four performances cancelled because of strikes by opera unions in sympathy with national unions opposed to a government effort to contain social expenditures. The departure of Benjamin Millepied from the ONP’s ballet in early 2016 did not seem to hurt seat sales or private donations and, in general, two thirds of private donors increased their support level.

Some figures in the 2015-2016 report include a total budget of 200.2 million Euros, a payroll of 114 million (a 2.25% drop), 802,921 spectators for 362 performances (opera, ballet, concerts), tickets sold on the internet, 56.8% and the average audience age is an agreeably fresh 46 with the under 28s comprising 17.1% of that audience.

The Opening Night “Train Wreck” This Weekend

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

By: Frank Cadenhead

Where is Stephen Colbert when you need him? He certainly could do a comedy routine about the train wreck that is the opening of the musical season in Paris this year. The goofiness of multiple openings of world-class events on the same day would get lots of laughs. In his absence I will try to fill in.

The French go on holiday in August. On September 1 they all arrive home and start unpacking and restocking their refrigerators. For those who work in opera or orchestras, after some days they are off to rehearsals to prepare for opening night. This year, “opening night” is all on one night, September 16. That night is the remarkable opening of internationally important season at the Opéra National de Paris. Their daring risk is to open with an almost unknown opera, Eliogabalo of Francesco Cavalli (composed in 1667). This effort is part of a recent laudable effort to revive interest in lesser known opera composers and return their works to the stage. The audience at the Palais Garnier will hear a much anticipated local debut of Leonardo Garcia Alarcon in the pit with Franco Fagioli in the title role. Young Thomas Jolly will stage this work and it is expected to raise the artistic bar for the whole season (which will include productions staged by Calixto Bieito and Dmitri Tcherniakov.)

But wait! On that very same night, the Orchestre de Paris is having a flashy opening in their glamorous new home at the Philharmonie de Paris with their exciting new music director, Daniel Harding. The opening program is the entirety of Scenes from Goethe’s Faust by Schumann. This spotlight makes a statement about the work, a magnificent and little-played masterpiece with soloists and chorus and will feature the masterful baritone Christian Gerhaher as Faust. Harding has been particularly engaged by this opus and has featured it in broadcasts when he appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic and has recorded it with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. How could this singularly important event be scheduled on the same night as the opening Eliogabalo?

Easy… A complete lack of management. Here is Norman Lebrecht’s writing about the Orchestre de Paris on his website Slipped Disc on September 12:

“There was widespread discontent when the Orchestre de Paris sacked Didier de Cottignies ahead of the arrival of its new music director, Daniel Harding.
No-one in the music world has a bigger contacts book than Didier and few know more about music.
However, Didier went and Daniel was said to be considering an English mate for the job. Apparently, that was greeted by the French like a Brexit-burger with HP sauce.
So the French establishment chose one of its own.
The new Délégué Artistique at the OdP is Edouard Fouré Caul-Futy, a producer at France-Musique. His experience is entirely with baroque music. He has a lot to learn.
He also happens to be the son-in-law of Martine Aubry, former presidential candidate and still a power-broker in the Socialist Party.
Aubry’s daughter, Clémentine, is Administrator of the auditorium at the Musée du Louvre.”

Edouard Foure Caul-Futy

Edouard Foure Caul-Futy

Googling the name Edouard Foure Caul-Futy today, September 13, made it absolutely clear that there is no current information in the French language about any such appointment on any French site. Are all the culture reporters still unpacking? Scrolling down his personal Facebook page, we see that he is just 35 and entered a note that he has left Radio France at the end of August. “Délégué Artistique, Orchestre de Paris,” is now shown as his current title. The Facebook page of the Orchestre de Paris shows nothing. Neither does their website and the only press contact listed on that site is for the excellent Annick Boccon-Gibod, who let us all know, on June 27, that she had left the orchestra. The speculation of Mr. Lebrecht, that this was an insider favor, seems more and more believable when the slim career of the new artistic director is more visible. It would be hard to image a serious job search resulting in the selection of someone with such a light CV, concentrated almost entirely in the early music scene.

But wait again! That same evening’s vital openings are not finished. September 16 has yet another important opening night, that of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in the auditorium at Radio France. Conductor Mikko Franck, starting his second year as music director, has recharged this orchestra and every concert shows the new excitement. This opening night has Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Lapsimessu (Children’s Mass). Rautavaara died just seven weeks ago and Franck, a fellow countryman of the composer, will conduct this work with the Maîtrise de Radio France, the children’s chorus. The Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1 is to be played by France’s most renowned violin virtuoso, Renaud Capuçon, and Franck, a well-appreciated interpreter of Richard Strauss, will finish with the Alpine Symphony. It would be hard to imagine a music lover willing to pass on that concert.

There is good news. With the new halls, the Philharmonie and the Radio France Auditorium, both with outstanding acoustics, the possibility of scheduling all opening nights on the same day is easier. Also, when you look at seat availability for all those events on the 16th, you will see that all will be full. The Parisian audience is ever-expanding and it is clear that the new halls, particularly the Philharmonie, have attracted new ticket buyers.

But the bad news is the failure of management to understand the need for more public notice about what the classical music community offers the public. Since newspapers everywhere have been giving more space and notice to more popular music-making, classical music has seen a sag in their amount of space in the media. While Parisian concert reviews are still a feature in major publications and newspapers, the fact that editors and journalists have to choose events to cover and exclude others would be totally unnecessary if there was a reasonable consideration, by managers, of how to space your major events to achieve the maximum notice.

Here is my concert and opera schedule for the next few days. Thursday is the opening concert of the new season for the Orchestre National de France. With Daniele Gatti taking over the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam this season, we are awaiting performances by the new Music Director, Emmanuel Krivine. Since any decision takes a great deal of time bouncing around the long halls of Radio France, his appointment was only announced in June, long after the schedule was fixed. Opening night will be conducted by the French conductor Stéphane Denève (who some imagine might have been a better choice than Maestro Krivine.) The all-French program features Ibert, Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Florent Schmitt’s La Tragédie de Salomé. The next night, the famous “train-wreck” Friday, I will be again at the Radio France Auditorium for the opening concert of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, already noted. I was forced to make that choice because this concert, unlike the other events on the same night, will not be repeated. Saturday night was free and I will see the revival of Tosca as the first opera at Bastille (with Anja Harteros, Marcelo Alvarez and Bryn Terfel) because after the previous night’s multiple openings, nothing was repeated the next night. It is Sunday afternoon for the Harding debut with the Orchestre de Paris. The Monday night ticket is for the second performance of Eliogabalo at Palais Garnier. I might write again after the experience is over but the concentration of delights is even now a bit numbing. Music critics cannot write about every event and editors will not consider making space for such a concentration of events. In almost any other city, managers would work together to fashion a two to four week opening so that all events get the attention they deserve. This idea has yet to occur to the musical establishment in Paris.

A Surprise Choice: Emmanuel Krivine as head of the Orchestre National de France.

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

by:  Frank Cadenhead

On Wednesday, during a morning interview on France Musique, Emmanuel Krivine was blunt. “I’m trying to go to the end by being a little less of an ass than at the beginning” His selection as the new music director of the Orchestre National de France, starting with the coming season, was much delayed and many see it as controversial. His statement is certainly a reference to his reputation as a difficult taskmaster. At 69, he also bucks the trend toward young music directors by Paris orchestras. Mikko Franck, 37, is the new head of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Daniel Harding, 40, is the incoming director of the Orchestre de Paris. Philippe Jordan, 41, is music director of perhaps the most talented orchestra of the four majors, the one at the Opera National de Paris.

Krivine replaces Daniele Gatti, who is going on to lead the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and is among top-ranked conductors, with regular appearances in Vienna, Berlin, Salzburg and Bayreuth. But Krivine’s career has not at that level and his leadership of the Barcelona Symphony and the Catalonia National Orchestra will come to end with this season. Since September, 2015, he has been the principal guest conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and he has recently ended a nine year stint as music director of the Luxembourg Philharmonic. He continues his direction of La Chamber Philharmonique, a chamber orchestra he founded in 2004. Like Krivine himself often does, It focuses on the original instrument performance style but mostly for the Romantic repertory.

It was the end of his term as music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (1976-1983) that I first heard about him. I remember the orchestra being more than a little unhappy with Krivine who had an difficult reputation with the musicians and who even avoided engagements with the orchestra during his last years at the helm. He also lead the Orchestra National de Lyon from 1987 through 2000 and, some say, brought them greater unity and international recognition but with much of the same grumbling by orchestra members and relief at his departure.

Monday’s announcement, by the CEO of Radio France, Matthieu Gallet, and the Director of Music and Cultural Creation at Radio France, Michel Orier, presumably was made after consultations with musicians of both radio orchestras; the Philharmonque’s office is a few doors down the hall from the Orchestre National, and there should be musicians there who remember his rule. We hear nothing about the ONF interim artistic director, Steve Roger, who was appointed for a one year term in July of 2015. One can assume that M. Orier or perhaps Gallet himself are taking on the role of artistic director (to save money?). The same is apparently true for the Orchestre Philharmonique with the angry departure of Eric Montalbetti, after 18 year of service, in late 2014. One does note that both Mikko Franck and now Maestro Krivine are found to be discussing an overall artistic concept and ideas for guest conductors, etc. in the press and interviews. One could assume that both orchestras have made the post of artistic director redundant.

The threats of combining the two radio orchestras and the subsequent strikes and controversy of more than a year ago are now in the past. Krivine seems assured that the budget threats are behind the orchestra and Radio France will not shrink its musician numbers. Much has been made of the fact that Krivine will be the first French conductor of the National since Jean Martinon (1968-1973). Not known for his French repertory, Krivine will not be, in his words, a “jingoistic missionary” but comments that “French music, it must be delt with, it’s very interesting.” He admits his repertory in this area is “limited.” “Therefore, I will invite whoever does the best work that I do not know, the type that would be absolutely appropriate for that composition.”

Regarding his previous experiences with the Orchestre National, he was equally candid: He recalls a 2004 engagement: “It was messy. It is true that it was not at all messy with Kurt Masur and with some other conductors. I’m just saying that I, that time, I felt I had too much to take care of with discipline.” His more recent experiences, in September of last year, were more positive. He found the discipline “was by listening, and that’s very healthy.” We will certainly know more about his alleged mellowing in the coming months and years.







Winter Discs

Tuesday, March 31st, 2015

Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais Garnier in Paris in 2012

Published: March 31, 2015

MUNICH — Arts projects in Europe with any visual aspect to them nowadays migrate to DVD whether or not there is a need, partly to justify public subsidy through distribution. Many are operas filmed too often, like Nationaltheater Mannheim’s just-released Der Ring des Nibelungen, which joins DVD tetralogies from Barcelona, Copenhagen, Erl, Frankfurt, Milan, Stuttgart, Valencia and Weimar issued since 2002. (The same staging nearly bankrupted Los Angeles Opera yet could not be filmed in the movie capital for lack of funds.) Others are more worthy or at least cover rarer material, and generally record labels can license their adventurous content with only modest investment. Here are seven such DVD releases along with some live or live-related European CDs, mostly from recent seasons.

Ivan Alexandre’s staging of Hippolyte et Aricie premiered in 2009 in the intimate Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse. Its fluid interweaving of Rameau’s vocal and dance elements and credible Personenregie adapted to the composer’s pace earned it a transfer to Paris in 2012, now viewable on a 2-DVD Erato set. Alexandre approaches scenography using methods consistent with period practice and potential. Helped by handsome flat designs and tight control of color, the effects were intriguing and refreshing to watch in both cities’ theaters, and happily they advance the story equally well through the camera lens. Indeed the project is of a quality to set beside Jean-Marie Villégier’s legendary Montpellier production of Lully’s Atys and faithful to Rameau’s tragédie lyrique in a way the modish competing Glyndebourne DVD of 2013 could be only in its audio. Dynamic musicianship underpins the effort, with an admirable cast, notably Stéphane Degout as a mellifluous Thésée (pictured, right, aux enfers). Emmanuelle Haïm’s conducting, all elbows and fists, apparently suits her orchestra, Le Concert d’Astrée.

Warner Classics, the new EMI, has issued a Berlin Philharmonic CD pairing live 2012 and 2010 performances of Rachmaninoff’s Kolokola (Bells) and Symphonic Dances. Simon Rattle’s urbane and at times sultry reading of the cantata — the composer called it a choral symphony — disappoints, with his veteran soprano thin-voiced and only Mikhail Petrenko, his bass in the concluding Mournful Iron Bells, injecting much Russian flavor. But in the dances the conductor’s refinement creates an enthralling balance of power and grace, and he presents a progression from the bucolic first movement, through a hardened Andante con moto, to the contrasts and drama of the suite’s lengthy third part. The string sound has bloom and the woodwinds find a huge range of expression and character.

The Pergolesi tricentennial of 2010 did the Jesi-born Neapolitan composer proud, prompting Claudio Abbado’s priceless 3-CD survey of his choral music as well as a 12-DVD “tutto” collection of the operas, filmed in Jesi. Perhaps the richest single work is the comedy Lo frate ’nnamorato, written at the same time as Hippolyte et Aricie but a world away from it (and pointing forwards to Mozart rather than back at Lully). It is ably led by Fabio Biondi in the big set, but Teatro alla Scala in 1989 had a cast for this opera of charming da capo arias that won’t soon be equaled in technique or liveliness, and their RAI-televised work is currently an Opus Arte DVD. Several Italian singers at the start of good careers — Nuccia Focile, Luciana d’Intino, Bernadette Manca di Nissa, Alessandro Corbelli — energize the story of Ascanio (Focile), “the brother enamored” unknowingly of his two sisters and, luckily, a third woman too. It is unavoidably a larger-scale staging than the piece wants, but Roberto de Simone directs the action neatly on a revolving unit set. The orchestral playing has poise and discipline even if Riccardo Muti propels the score at a tad slower pace than would be ideal.

Twelve years after Cecilia Bartoli’s exploratory Decca disc of rare Gluck arias, the label has issued a companion CD introducing German lyric tenor Daniel Behle. Recorded under sponsorship in Athens in 2013, it leaps out of the loudspeakers. The Bavarian composer’s pre-reform music, now more familiar, can still startle in its inventive turns and loose palettes, and Behle, who sang a riveting Tito in the Mozart opera last fall here at the Staatsoper, opts for several pieces that lie high. In two contrasted arias from La Semiramide riconosciuta he copes manfully with technical demands while keeping power in reserve, as he did on stage. Se povero il ruscello from Ezio brings relaxed lyricism and a mellow timbre that caresses the line. The stunning scena that opens La contesa de’ Numi is duly dramatic. But who oversaw this project? Everything is closely miked. Period orchestra Armonia Atenea accompanies vigorously as led by George Petrou, right in your ear. Misplaced vowel sounds from Behle, in the context of generally accurate delivery, were not fixed. And we jump to French arias at the end, familiar ones, including a bizarrely jovial J’ai perdu mon Eurydice. Producers matter.

Stage director Pierre Audi in 2009 combined Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride for the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and Christophe Rousset conducted imaginatively over an extended evening as Euripides’ heroine appeared first as teenager in a Greek port and then as adult exile somewhere in Crimea. Two years later Audi’s literally clunky conception — on metal steps and without backdrop — resurfaced in Amsterdam with a mostly changed cast and, alas, Marc Minkowski defining the music through irksome rhythmic stresses, missing much beauty. There it was filmed. Unenhanceable by camera blocking and with Aulide cut by thirty fine minutes, the production is now an Opus Arte 2-DVD set. Gluck’s first opera has the more lyrically inspired and stately score, with a terrific overture; in Tauride his musical frame is tauter and more overtly theatrical. Véronique Gens and Nicolas Testé excel as the young Iphigénie and her father, while Anne Sofie von Otter returns affectingly to Clytemnestre, a role she recorded 24 years earlier; Frédéric Antoun contributes a credible, unstraining Achille. Tauride revolves around the smart Mireille Delunsch, abetted by Yann Beuron (Pylade), Jean-François Lapointe (Oreste) and Laurent Alvaro (Thoas); all sing with imposing dedication.

The less rare Werther received an uncommonly strong cast at the Bastille home of the Opéra National de Paris in 2010, resulting in a 2-DVD Decca set that is reportedly selling well. Sophie Koch and Jonas Kaufmann impersonate Goethe’s awkward soulmates, both fresh of voice. Originally created for London, Benoît Jacquot’s innocuous yet intriguing, glum and sparse production presents the characters faithfully, the action plainly. Unusually Jacquot serves as video director too, lending style by shooting from behind the scenes and above the proscenium as well as from out front. These angles provide glimpses of the conductor, Michel Plasson, who unfortunately blunts the contrasts in Massenet’s score and weighs it down.

When the French, or at least the Franks, helped the Roman Church standardize chant cycles and structures for worship in order to make the liturgy operable and enforceable across regions, their effort left out Milan. Charlemagne’s 8th-century directives invoking St Gregory encouraged steps to document if not yet notate chants, but in the city where St Ambrose had promoted the Church’s adoption of Latin — his small corpse still lies there wondrously on display — a divergent liturgy prevailed. Canto ambrosiano has accordingly stood apart, its manuscripts complete in one place, unlike the scattered repositories of Gregorian chant. In 2010 the Arcidiocesi di Milano, manager of this legacy, commissioned a book and recordings to survey and better disseminate the chants.

The resulting Antifonale Ambrosiano is invaluable. It reproduces scores in early and modern notation. It details Milan’s chant practices in italiano and truly spans the subject: chants for the Ordinary of the Mass and for the Hours (Vigilie, Lodi, Prima, Terza, Sesta, Nona, Vespri, Compieta), chants proper to seasons and saints, chants with psalm and canticle texts — each in one musical line, most to be sung antiphonally. Although not free of audible splices, the recordings are vivid yet with a resonant aura. Italian women and men sing in glorious Latin (and the vernacular), a joy in itself. The three CDs hold about as much music as Parsifal and are issued, with the book, by Libreria Musicale Italiana, an academic body whose website offers a handy carrello and U.S. shipping.

Then there is Bejun Mehta’s Orlando. The countertenor first personified the mad soldier at Glimmerglass in 2003 and must relish the vocal fireworks and range Händel gives him. A performance in Brussels leaked onto video, but in 2013 the same team reconvened in Bruges for a studio recording that Forum Opéra justly hails as an “Orlando d’une époustouflante intensité.” Mehta rises to every ornamental challenge, adjusts his tone to paint words, sings with evenness from bottom to top, and sounds so believably on the fringes of sanity that a Zoroastrian mend is only logical. Senesino lives. But it is not a one-man show. The other principals likewise inhabit their roles even if they crush countless Italian consonants. Sophie Karthäuser: super trills, too closely miked. Sunhae Im: charm in the voice, sweet-sounding. Kristina Hammarström: a focused alto with smooth, masculine tones. Konstantin Wolff: assured and agile. The conducting lacks subtlety but René Jacobs does support his singers, and Ah! Stigie larve! … Vaghe pupille, the accompagnato climax to Act II, properly showcases Mehta. Engineers of the 2-CD Archiv set alas place the B’Rock Orchestra Ghent far forward, so that even the expertly played harpsichord can grate. Fine, fleet woodwinds announce themselves in the overture.

Equally brilliant on a 2012 disc of seldom-heard Mozart concert arias is Rolando Villazón, the tenor whose voice and career were supposedly kaputt. After streamed (and moving) portrayals of Offenbach’s Hoffmann here at the Staatsoper in late 2011, he went to Abbey Road to make this Deutsche Grammophon CD with the London Symphony Orchestra. There the sound engineers proved that the art of balancing musicians hasn’t been totally lost, and conductor Antonio Pappano proved a resilient foil in the bold, precocious, clever, sad, amusing scores, even gracing one aria with a dryly comic bass voice. The results are essential listening, largely because Villazón gets straight to the heart of every piece and finds all the color, truth and humanity anyone could wish for. Even the juvenile work sounds masterly.

Alexander Pereira’s long years as Intendant at Opernhaus Zürich (1991–2012) brought a wave of sponsors for the company and, significantly, its “cantonization,” making it the charge not just of the city but of a wealthy catchment area reaching to the German border. Pereira had a confident ear for talent, built an ensemble, and gave lead roles to unknown singers like the tenors Piotr Beczala (from 1997), Kaufmann (1999) and Javier Camarena (2007). Working with a quintet of conductors — Nikolaus Harnoncourt, William Christie, Nello Santi, Ádám Fischer and Franz Welser-Möst — he widened the audience for the small house through DVDs, ahead of a trend. Two such projects late in the tenure were Rossini operas led by veteran Muhai Tang, with Bartoli, Liliana Nikiteanu, and Camarena in stagings by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. These are now out on Decca after a delay, poles apart in nature but both vividly impressive.

Stendhal described Rossini’s Otello, ossia Il moro di Venezia, as “volcanic”; certainly it is an unsettling score and a contrast in sensibility to the other heroic operas. Zurich’s staging straddles the line between tragedy and melodrama, with credible interactions and an inner focus that does not let up. Sparse but graphically textured sets lend a tension of their own. Otello needs three tenors who can cope with a high tessitura and sing accurately through wild embellishments, and these it received when filmed in 2012. John Osborn is a duly martial moro, while the romantic role of Rodrigo is ardently taken by Camarena. The two are phenomenal in Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue, their bilious Act II clash. Edgardo Rocha is skilled as Iago (strictly “Jago”), a smaller role. Bass-baritone Peter Kálmán makes an imposing Elmiro (and Graham Chapman lookalike), but the capable women come across less ideally: Bartoli’s Desdemona machine-gun in delivery and Nikiteanu’s Emilia a deer in the headlights. Tang has the mood of the piece and conducts it with unfailing propulsion.

Great fun is Le comte Ory, a farce that brought down the Swiss house when premiered in Jan. 2011. Anyone who knows it through Bartlett Sher’s misfiring production for the Metropolitan Opera owes it to themselves to see Decca’s DVD: it is full of joie de vivre, keenly observed in its humor by the directing partners despite a seven-century advance in the action to 1950s France. Carlos Chausson sang hilariously at the premiere as the Gouverneur, who has a smug early scene, but he is alas replaced in the video (filmed later) by a discomfited Ugo Guagliardo. That said — and the Gouverneur does fade from the plot — there are outstanding musical turns from the other principals and all play the comedy straight. Bartoli moves from Isolier, the suitor role she sang in Milan long ago, to Adèle, Comtesse de Formoutiers, and is a stitch, literally, as directed, exuding dignity except where circumstance overtakes her. Rebeca Olvera essays a chain-smoking warrior of an Isolier. Nikiteanu is deadpan as Ragonde, making sparing use of emotive poses. Camarena smirks sweetly as the “ermite” but upholds due gravity as “Soeur Colette”; he and Oliver Widmer, the excellent Raimbaud, parade the virtues of ensemble acting as well as singing, not to mention comic timing. Tang and the orchestra breezily convey the score’s spirit.

Against the odds, Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten (1964) has become a repertory opera in German-speaking lands. The visionary magnum opus with its depraved storyline sanctions a grab bag of what are now Regietheater clichés, magnified by pluralism, simultaneous scenes and surround sound. Its 110 minutes embrace various musical forms and want a massive orchestra, plus jazz combo, such that, all told, the composer’s concept remains barely feasible. Recent stagings in Salzburg (2012), Zurich (2013*) and Munich (2014*) inevitably went their separate ways; the first, by Alvis Hermanis, is now a EuroArts DVD. Filmed in the Felsenreitschule and presenting a row of arched vignettes mimicking the venue’s rock-carved backdrop, it is preset for simultaneous drama. But once adjusted to the tritone stills of vintage porn backed by live-action images of walking horses, masturbating soldiers and Peeping Toms, the viewer tires of the left-and-right back-and-forth. A striking cast is headed by Laura Aikin as Marie; Ingo Metzmacher works magically with a somewhat backwardly balanced Vienna Philharmonic, not heard with the impact experienced at the venue.

[*Presumably in the DVD pipeline, worth or not worth the wait. Zurich’s has Marc Albrecht conducting a Calixto Bieito concept (less refinement, more degradation, spatially restricted and with lesser musical forces); Munich’s offers Kirill Petrenko on the podium and Andreas Kriegenburg directing traffic (less sex, more clichés). John Rhodes on the Swiss show: “Most sexual perversions and some torture were presented quite graphically … . Marie was in a constant state of undress. At the end she poured blood on herself and stood … as though crucified at the front of the stage.” In Munich the opening scene was overplayed, weakening what followed. Kriegenburg’s box-based staging offered unedifying and in the end unenlightening views, but Petrenko presided over an inflamed Bavarian State Orchestra and a superb cast centered on Barbara Hannigan’s Marie.]

Still image from video © Warner Classics

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“Tristan” and “L´Italiana” in Paris

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

28165_256[1]By Rebecca Schmid

While Berlin is famous for its three-house opera system, Paris boasts at least as rich a cultural landscape. Last week, Opéra Garnier revived an Andrei Serban production of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri while Cecilia Bartoli starred in another Rossini opera—Otello—at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. At the Opéra Bastille, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde returned in Peter Sellars’ 2005 take featuring video art by Bill Viola. Parallel to the event, Viola was featured in an exhibit at the Grand Palais—the first video art retrospective in the history of France’s national galleries.

Sellars’ Tristan, commissioned as it was under the tenure of Gerard Mortier, took on its own historic importance, prompting a moment of silence for the late impresario before the first performance on April 8. The production proves a living memory of Mortier’s risk-taking, with scenery consisting exclusively of Viola’s videos and a simple black platform on the Bastille’s enormous stage. The setting, much like the Passions Sellars has staged for the Berlin Philharmonic, draws attention to the director’s mastery of interpersonal dynamics (in German, Personenregie ), while the video art—at its best— serves to immerse the viewer in characters’ emotional worlds. Although it took a few scenes to become accustomed images such as those of Viola and his partner dunking their faces in water before Kurwenal’s entrance in the four scene, the artwork ultimately allows the characters to emerge as universal emblems of a passion that, in a very Schopenhauerian sense, transcends their physical forms.

Sellars also plays with the entire dimensions of the theater to give the audience a more active experience. After submerging most of the first act in darkness, he brings up all the lights at Kurwenal’s line, “Heil, Tristan,” as if to expose the entire experience as artifice, making voyeurs out of those both off and onstage. Throughout the evening, singers and select wind instruments are placed on the balconies—such as the young sailor who opens the first scene and the solo English horn at the onset of the third act which transports Tristan. While his ascension as a rising stream of bubbles in which the body levitates from a tombstone (a video portrait which is at the end of the Grand Palais exhibit) risks being too explicit, the repeated images of water serve to engulf the viewer much as the orchestra creates an ocean of endless time.

Music Director Philippe Jordan created sensuous waves of tension and release with the orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris, with particularly elegant playing in the woodwinds, while the brass was less homogenous. Violetta Urmana remained a powerhouse in the role of Isolde despite some screechy high notes. As Tristan, Robert Dean Smith did not possess the same volume but gave a performance of moving vulnerability. The bass Franz-Josef Selig was indomitable in the role of the betrayed König Marke, and Janina Baechle and Jochen Schmeckenbecher gave fine performances as the lovers’ confidantes, Brangäne and Kurwenal. Raimund Nolte was a nasal-voiced, menacing Melot; the performance of Pavol Breslik, as the young sailor and shepherd, bordered on the mannered but there is no denying the seductive qualities of his tenor.

The following evening, at the Opéra Garnier, brought together a stellar cast for L’Italiana in Algeri. I have been sceptical of the baritone Ildebrando D’Arcangelo in roles such as Don Giovanni, but he seems born to sing the role of Mustafà, the Bey in Rossini’s opera who is duped into the phony rite of “Pappataci” (roughly, father of silence) which allows the enslaved Lindoro and his lover, Isabella, to flee back to Italy. The mezzo Varduhi Abrahamyan was sovereign as the Italian seductress from her first aria “Cruda sorte! Amor tiranno,” with smooth coloratura and excellent comic timing. She was more than well-matched by the Lindoro of Antonino Siragusa, whose technical assurance could blow several commercially-known tenors out of the water. The soprano Jaël Azzaretti was charming as Mustafà’s spurned wife, Elvira, leading the zany Act One stretta “Va sossopra il mio cervello” with sharp musicianship. In the role of Taddeo, Isabella’s accompaniment, the baritone Tassis Christoyannis at times stole the show with his understated physical humor even if his voice is on the less voluminous side.

Credit of course goes to Serban for capturing the spirit of Rossini’s comedy in a modern context. The Bey is cast a terrorist hooligan—with furs and a golden pistol to match—while the “Pappataci” scene is portrayed with dancers dressed, respectively, as a giant bottle of wine, a pizza pie and a bed (sets and costumes by Marina Draghici). From the ape which greets Isabella and Taddeo after their ship crashes to the dancers which insinuate themselves into ensemble scenes (choreography by Niky Wolcz), there is always a great deal happening onstage, but never at the expense of distracting from the story. The male chorus—now pot-bellied eunuchs, now suited Mafiosi—were always on the mark (preparation by Alessandro di Stefano), and Riccardo Frizza propelled the orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris with high energy and clean attacks, even if rubato was wanting to create dramatic emphasis in scenes such as Mustafà’s initiation.