La Scena Musicale

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Paris Opera 2009-2010 Season

by Frank Cadenhead

It was as if the Gerard Mortier years at the Opéra National de Paris were a bad dream. The new 2009-2010 season, announced Monday by incoming director Nicolas Joel, 56, is a sharp shift to the right. Gone are the provocative regietheater productions that enraged audiences and the off-beat repertory. Back are the A-List stars and productions shared with the other top companies. Gone too is a house without a music director: Joel has given the empty chair to Philippe Jordan who takes the helm of an orchestra which, after years without leadership, needs serious care and feeding. Jordan, son of the late giant of the baton Armin Jordan, is a real prize - one of the most acclaimed of the young conductors and not yet 35. Jordan does not appear often this first season but will be in charge of a new production of Wagner's Ring which will take place over two years. The first two operas next season, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, will be staged, like the others the following season, by German director Günter Krämer. Jordan is currently conducting the Ring to high praise in Zurich.

The star system, despised by Mortier, is back in place with the return of today's most famous French soprano, Natalie Dessay. She will be repeating her Metropolitan Opera triumph as the sleepwalking waif in Bellini's La Sonnambula and tackles her first Puccini as Musetta in La Boheme. Joel features Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon in the popular Laurent Pelly production of Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore", and, more remarkably, in a revival of Luc Bondy's production of Mozart's "Idomeneo." Marcello Alvarez will sing in Andrea Chénier (Gordiano) and star tenor Jonas Kaufmann will be paired with the extraordinary mezzo, Sophie Koch, in a production of Werther (Massenet). Joel pointedly ignored last month's unpopular production imported from Munich and will import the Covent Garden hit. Tenor Juan Diego Florez and sopranos Waltraud Meier and Joyce DiDonato will also be headliners.

Koch is only one of the several top ranked French singers largely ignored by Mortier. Back are baritones Ludovic Tézier (Posa in Don Carlo) and Vincent Le Texier (Wozzeck), soprano Karine Deshayes (Rosina in Barber of Seville), soprano Mireille Delunsch (in one of her signature roles as the Muse in Rameau's Platée) and tenor Gilles Ragon (Faust by the contemporary composer Philippe Fénelon).

Joel opens the season with a hit from this season at the Toulouse opera, Mireille of Gounod, which Joel believes ranks at the same level as the composer's Faust or Roméo et Juliette. This is a rare case of Joel programming his own staging - which he agreed to do only rarely when he took the job. Also in the first season is Die Tote Stadt of Korngold, an early 20th Century masterpiece and Rossini's La Donna del Lago, one of the early seeds of Romantic opera. "The only thing I ask of a director is to be musical," he explained in an interview Tuesday published in Le Monde. The only director introduced by Mortier who will return is Christoph Marthaler, whose production of Berg's Wozzeck has been programmed. The others, which resulted in noisy opening-night protests, are not likely to reappear.

Nicolas Joel earned his stripes as a young man working with famed directors Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Patrice Chereau, helping the latter with his legendary Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. His career blossomed at the Opéra du Rhin in Strasbourg and he has been directing the opera in Toulouse for the last two decades. A world-acclaimed stage director, he has worked at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, La Scala and other major houses throughout Europe and the world. He is still recovering from a major stroke suffered last August but, walking with a cane, was present to lead the new season's press conference. In August, he will take official control of an opera and ballet company with 1800 employees, an annual budget of 180 million Euros and which gives some 300 performances a year in both the iconic 19th Century Palais Garnier and the modern Opera Bastille (1989). There are 20 opera productions the next season, the same as this year, will nine new productions. The renowned ballet will remain under the leadership of Brigitte Lefèvre and continue their patented mix of contemporary ballet and classics which routinely fills houses.

In Le Monde, he explained his philosophy: "You need to know first what makes up an opera, how it was constructed, its idea, its structure, to put together what we see and hear on the stage. You suggest a path for the public and hope they will follow. My tastes are only a rather minor part of the work. I am very attentive to the audience and very pragmatic. I mount the works when I think I have the singers, the conductor and the director to do it." The new season is now at the opera's website, recently with English pages, at

Update (2009-03-26):

Meanwhile, in Stuttgart, there is heavy seas for the swan in Lohengrin. The noted director Stanislas Nordey has taken his name off the production which is to open Sunday. The
German press reports "artistic differences" between Nordey and Manfred Honeck, the Generalmusikdirektor. Did it revolve around the placement of the choir or more serious
differences? Another change of interest is that Canadian hendentenor Lance Ryan, who recently sang a widely acclaimed Siegfried in nearby Strasbourg, was being released to
be replaced by Scott McAllister. At this date, the framework of the Nordey staging will be used but will be uncredited. Stay tuned.

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