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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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Opening Night at Paris' Opéra-Comique - Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring

by Frank Cadenhead

The second Parisian opening night is at the historic Opéra-Comique. I mounted the metro exit stairs at Auber (a station named for the composer) and arrived in the center of a busy traffic circle. turning around, you get the full effect of the grandiloquent facade of the Paris Opera's old house, the Palais Garnier, recently clean, dominating the square and glowing brilliantly in the night. To get to the Comique, however, you turn left after the stairs and head up Boulevard des Capucines. To my surprise, this very night, I noted a plaque high on a doorway at the building at the corner. Jacques Offenbach died in that building. How many times I have walked this route and never seen that sign. After two blocks, the name changes to Boulevard des Italians. This is not the Champs-Elysees and you pass chain restaurants and movie houses. But after six blocks you turn right on Rue Favart and the building entrance is 100 meters or so down the street, facing its own small plaza.

The historic Comique, also called the Salle Favart, saw many first performances: Bizet's Carmen, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust to name only a few. The latest in a series of theatres on that spot, the current one is from 1898 and seats 1200. It was recently refurbished and given a modest budget by the state after being used for popular events for several years. It has now directed its focus to the baroque and the new interest in French opera - something the post-War French completely neglected. This season, for example, includes Hérold's Zampa and Auber's Fra Diavolo with Rameau's Zoroastre next month, Chabrier's Le Roi Malgré Lui from Lyon in April and the Carmen in June will be conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The finest Parisian opera production so far this season was the December production by Deborah Warner of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Bill Christie and his Les Arts Florissants at their elegiac best. But there are newer operas on the schedule too, including the most recent opera by Peter Eotvos, Lady Sarashina and the opera tonight, Benjamin Britten's 1947 opera, Albert Herring.

Did you ever wish that the evening you are witnessing could be recorded? It was that kind of a night. It is a rarely produced opera and you know that it will not likely ever be as well done - a cast of honored veterans of the English operatic stage, a spot-on staging and an environment where the music could bloom at its best. Deliciously tart and witty, this comedy originally starred Benjamin Britten's lifetime companion, the tenor Peter Pears. The story centers on a Suffolk small town and their search for a virtuous May Queen. The town leaders go through the list of eligible young women, finding fault with all of them; in the contemporary updating, tapes from the omnipresent UK security cameras document the misbehavior. They decide, as a critique of the wayward girls, to name a reclusive young man, a store clerk named Albert Herring, as the May King.

The wide-eyed young man, the flawless tenor Allan Clayton, works at a convenience store owned by his mother. In the smart staging of Richard Brunel, the store front is glass and steel with all the fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic. Herring learns of the dubious honor he has received when the town leaders show up at the store. The mother is entranced with the small prize money but Herring is confused. The American soprano Nancy Gustafson was elegant is the imperious Lady Billows but her mushy pronunciation had me reading the French translation more than once. There were no problems like that with the brilliant mezzo Felicity Palmer as her assistant, Florence Pike. Andrew Greenan was the blustery police commissioner with the fine tenor Simeon Esper as an ever-smiling mayor. Soprano Ailish Tynan, as the moral Miss Wordsworth, and baritone Christopher Purves, the eternally upbeat vicar, completed the town leadership. Hanna Shaer was the overbearing mother and played that with a dry intensity that was chilling. Baritone Leigh Melrose and mezzo Julia Riley were splendid as Sid and Nancy, a randy young couple who tempt Albert to break out of his shell.

The smart and deliciously good-humored music was unexpected from the composer. Such fun was hardly anticipated from a composer who shows his petulant side in the collection of his letters recently published. Assisting in this special night at the opera were conductor Laurence Equilbey whose best-selling recordings with her chorus, Accentus, have made her a bright new star in France. Conducting a score of members of the orchestra of the Opera of Rouen Haute-Normandie, where this opera is a co-production, her reading of the score of this exceptional ensemble opera was warm and exuberant and could have not been more musically focused.

While all operas at the Comique are not so flawlessly executed, witnessing opera in that house is not to be missed those attached to the lyric arts. Its intimate atmosphere is a perfect place to enjoy opera. Along with the operas they stage they also have concerts, lectures and events for young people illuminating the the work, the composer and his time. The website, in French, is

See also: Opening Night at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Opening Nights at The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Two Paris Theaters - Two Opening Nights

First Night: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro," February 25, 2009

by Frank Cadenhead

Getting there is half the fun. Coming up the escalator at the l'Etoile metro station, the Arc de Triomphe fills the entire field of vision. I turn and walk down the Avenue Champs-Élysées, appearing in the background of uncounted tourist photos. Turning right at Fouquet's restaurant, I continue past the Hotel Georges V (the crowd was trying to catch a glimpse of the band AC/DC.) After a left turn at the American Church it is only two blocks to the theater, where, standing in front, you have an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower across the Seine.

The theater is legendary. Opened in 1913, it is classic Art Deco style with crystal ornaments by Lalique himself. Only months after opening its doors, young Stravinsky was crawling out the back window to escape the angry crowd after Nijinsky danced his Sacre du Printemps. Historic names has been on stage there: Josephine Baker, Balanchine, Maria Callas. Elton John, Maurice Chevalier, Wilhelm Furtwaengler to sample a few. A recent makeover - taking up the auditorium carpets and installing more wood - has warmed the normally dry acoustics but it is still a ideal theater for the voice (even though the Orchestre National de France has been calling it home since its founding in 1934.) While mainly a venue for visiting soloists, orchestras and ballets, it does stage a four or five operas each season which, by their quality, are usually high on "must see" lists.

Last night it was the fourth revival of a production of Nozze di Figaro by veteran director Jean-Louis Martinoty which has been around for the past decade. Normally with Rene Jacobs and the Concerto Koln, this run features Marc Minkowski and his early music band, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble. With a particularly young cast this night, it compared well with others in the series with more established names.

One "regular" in this production is baritone Pietro Spagnoli. His Almaviva is polished to perfection after multiple appearances and his expressive gifts make him a critical part of the mix. Others returning include the solid bass Antonio Abete as Bartolo and the radiant mezzo Anna Vonitatibus as Cherubino. But it was the Susanna of Olga Peretyatko (Operalia laureate 2007) and the Contessa, Maija Kovalevska, (Operalia 2006), making her French debut, which most interested me this night. While the TCE usually features Mozart, baroque opera and bel-canto, the exceptions include Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The 2007 performances featured Peretyatko as Anna Truelove and won her critical laurels. Her Susanna was a delight, with an ease of musical delivery belying her age and a self-confidence on stage that suggests a important career in the making. Kovalevska, from Lithuania, has all the vocal gifts necessary for her role and her "Dove sono" was enchantingly sung. But, with a lingering lack of definition in the role itself, her Contessa is still a work in progress.

An appearance by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, as Don Basilio, is always an occasion; this veteran is one of the last remaining trained in traditional French vocal style and his light tenor always glistens. A "haute-contre," he has made a career of Monsieur Triquet from Onegin plus roles like Rameau's Platée, the wonders of which the French have only recently rediscovered. New Yorker Amanda Forsythe made a strong impression as Barbarina and mezzo Sophie Pondjiclis was obviously having fun as Marcellina. Vito Priante, as Figaro, has a clear, flexible baritone but did not seem comfortable in the role and had a tendency to bark.

The director, Martinoty, was present for hands-on direction of this revival and all the characters had clear theatrical definition. The stage was filled with a variety of outsized reproductions of museum art (the long list of works is in the program) which served to accentuate the themes of the acts and the players moved behind and around them during the action. The costumes were richly attractive and traditional. What was apparent, more that usual, was the complex interaction between classes, portraying this with such gusto that would have made Mozart's upscale audiences squirm. Marc Minkowski and his orchestra have been together for a few decades now and are a well-oiled machine. He conducts with brisk tempos - like most 'historically informed" groups - but with an infectious passion about the music that always raises the temperature in the hall. The happy opening night audience threw bravos all around. More important for the artists, it happens that the theater's current director, Dominique Meyer, is taking over the Vienna State Opera in 2010 and a success here might be important for their future.

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