Apr 29, 2008

Inside the Met

And now, for the forbidden pictures inside the hall, with the scolding from the crew attached to it, because you know, it's strictly forbidden to take pictures ;
Metropolitan Opera
April 19, 2008

Met by day

Metropolitan Opera April 19, 2008

Deutsche Oper 2008-09

Preview of the new season; Premiere Saison Eröffnung: 13. September 2008 (19.30 Uhr) TURANDOT - Giacomo Puccini Musikalische Leitung: Pinchas Steinberg Regie: Lorenzo Fioroni Einmalige konzertante Aufführung: 20. September 2008 (19.30 Uhr) L’AMICO FRITZ - Pietro Mascagni Musikalische Leitung: Alberto Veronesi mit Roberto Alagna und Angela Gheorghiu Premiere: 30. November 2008 (18 Uhr) TANNHÄUSER UND DER SÄNGERKRIEG AUF WARTBURG - Richard Wagner Musikalische Leitung: Ulf Schirmer Regie: Kirsten Harms Mit Nadja Michael Im Rahmen der RICHARD-STRAUSS-WOCHEN (8.12.08 bis 27.2.09) Premiere: 18. Januar 2009 (18 Uhr) DIE ÄGYPTISCHE HELENA - Richard Strauss Musikalische Leitung: Andrew Litton Regie: Marco Arturo Marelli Im Rahmen der RICHARD-STRAUSS-WOCHEN (8.12.08 bis 27.2.09) Berliner Premiere: 08. Februar 2009 (18 Uhr) ARIADNE AUF NAXOS - Richard Strauss Musikalische Leitung: Jacques Lacombe Regie: Robert Carsen Mit Violeta Urmana Weitere Vorstellungen in Berlin nur noch am 11., 19., 21., 27. Februar 2009 Produktion der Bayerischen Staatsoper München - Premiere am 24. Juli 2008 Premiere: 08. März 2009 (18 Uhr) CARMEN - Georges Bizet Musikalische Leitung: Yves Abel Regie: Jürgen Gosch Mit Angelika Kirchschlager Deutsche Erstaufführung: 09. April 2009 (19.30 Uhr) MARIE VICTOIRE - Ottorino Respighi Musikalische Leitung: Michail Jurowski Regie: Katharina Wagner Berliner Premiere: 20. Mai 2009 (19.30 Uhr) LA CENERENTOLA - Gioacchino Rossini Musikalische Leitung: Paolo Arrivabeni Regie: Sir Peter Hall Weitere Vorstellungen in Berlin am 24., 30. Mai sowie am 2. Juni 2009 Produktion des Glyndebourne Festival - Premiere am 19. Mai 2005 Also on the roster:
  • Aïda (Nadja Michael)
  • Elektra (Agnes Baltsa, Hanna Schwarz)
  • Der Freischütz (Peter Seiffert)
  • Lohengrin (Johan Botha)
  • Manon Lescaut (Neil Shicoff)
  • Der Rosenkavalier (Angelika Kirchschlager)
  • Salome (Hanna Schwarz)
  • Tiefland (Peter Seiffert)
  • La Traviata (Angela Gheorghiu/Anja Harteros)
  • Tosca (Jonas Kaufman/Neil Shicoff, Marcelo Alvarez, Angela Gheorghiu/Nadja Michael, Violeta Urmana)

Apr 28, 2008

A chat with Natalie

Yesterday, Natalie Dessay took one hour off her busy schedule to chat with her fans (her French fans basically, as the whole thing was exclusively in French).
Anyone who knows her character a bit understands she loves doing this kind of stuff, one of the reason why she's so popular in France. Of course most of the questions asked were conventional ones that were ultimately boring, but she did manage to give one or two news worth mentioning here.

First, as she once again repeated she doesn't want to do solo concerts (time constraints between her work and her family life and a genuine dislike for this kind of performances), she also indicated that she has indeed scheduled a joint concert with who else but Juan Diego Flórez for July 2010 (she didn't specify the location but from the discussion, it seemed pretty obvious it would be in Paris).

When asked which was the higher note she ever sung, she answered a high A in Léo Delibes' Le Roi l'a dit performed in Saint-Etienne in 1990.
This has of course no intrinsic interest but as singers are judged on their high notes, it can explain why she became a star (although of course there's no chance she can still sing that note).

Finally, she gave everybody a word of wisdom, quoting a Chinese proverb she says is always in a corner of her mind: "L'homme doit se méfier de la célébrité comme un porc doit se méfier du gras." (don't ask me, I have no idea how this can be relevant to anything).

Apr 27, 2008

2e Fille

A few notes after hearing yesterday's broadcast from the Met of La Fille du Régiment (previous review of the premiere here and of JDF's encore there). I basically concur with my previous impressions about both the conduction of Marco Armiliato, the speaking parts and the performances of Palmer and Corbelli. I thought JDF was lacking unison with the music at times (nothing serious, just a small tiny shift of nanoseconds) and almost missed a note at some point, but these critics are just picky because he is really magnificent and unique. Dessay's voice had some issues on this Saturday matinee, and I am indeed worried as well. For the French audience that stayed home last night and listened to the performance via the radio (France Musique), Natalie Dessay was kind enough to do an interview from her dressing room at intermission time, in which she sounded a bit upset and admitted she mixed up the lines in "Salut à la France", repeating the first verse in place of the third one (something I hadn't notice, to be honest).


This is the most beautiful staging I have ever seen in opera.
An artistic journey through slow-motion[1] perfectly complimented by the music of Philip Glass.
The work of English director Phelim McDermott and his company Improbable brought magic to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, making it indispensable to pass on a perfect spring saturday afternoon in New York.

End of Act III

This production is enlightened by very aesthetic effects that are accessible, meaningful and poetry, really. The beauty of the visual is what kept me very much in this 3 hours and a half of Glass' music. Not that I don't appreciate his music because I do, a lot, but three hours and a half is really a long time to focus on it. The mind-wandering experience gets annoying after a while (one hour is my usual limit).
Yet I couldn't leave early because of this extraordinary staging. Trying to describe the set and the lightning accurately is no easy task, but these pictures give a good overview and will definitely help me remember this afternoon at the opera.

The cohesion between the music and the staging is exceptional; the slow-motion in particular is a perfect fit for Glass' minimalism.
The puppets[2] everybody talked about can seem a bit over the top but in context, they offer an interesting display of the old battle of David vs. Goliath (especially in the first scene where the English monarchy, portrayed by a praying mantis is fighting against the Indian soldier in armor).

Beginning of Act II, ENO performance

The journey ends visually as it started, Gandhi being buried under newspapers, in the same way Glass' music is always going in circles, which was, once again, a very relevant and thoughtful touch.

The Vow (scene 3 of Act I)
ENO performance

Lightning and staging details

  • various supports are used to project words (English or Sanskrit) in the first scene (newspapers hold vertically by the actors) and then again in Act II (parts of the corrugated-iron walls[3]). The result is probably intended to be powerful and politically inclined (as this whole piece is), it was really just a nice visual effect in my dreamy journey.

  • the Tolstoy scene (scene 2 of Act I) ends with bar branches planted in the floor, dividing the space to show the different routes each character is going through. The tiny cottages brought on stage afterwards bring absolutely nothing to the atmosphere, but the windows opening high in the set walls provided very pictorial yet very meaningful frozen scenes.

Tolstoy Farm, 1910
Scene 2 of Act I

  • the alligator made of weaving baskets in the beginning of The Vow (scene 3 of Act I) did not do it for me; later in that scene, the hangers that descended from the ceiling and where everybody on stage hung his or her jacket were really successful. The gathering around the fire in the middle of the stage later on was well-choreographed and definitely added to the fantasy of the scene.

  • the second act was the least captivating at all, beginning with those strange costumes for the chorus, very different from any over designed for that production, and awkwardly irrelevant.

New Castle March, Act III
ENO performance

  • the last act however was incredibly powerful. The use of duct tape to build walls across the stage was not only visually brilliant, I also can't think of a better way to symbolize the New Castle March.

    At the end of Act III, the set completely opens up, leaving nothing but a very high and thin podium in the center, where an actor, back toward the audience, plays Martin Luther King and silently harangues an imaginary crowd. Some videos of MLK had previously been projected on the walls before they open.
    Not only does this reference make sense and perfectly relate to Gandhi (both being non-violent revolutionary leaders), but the timing couldn't be better, as we recently commemorated the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination.

I am pretty sure I wouldn't have survived this Satyagraha experience had it not been for that superb production of Phelim McDermott that premiered last year at the English National Opera and is his first opera direction.
This was indeed a unique and fantastic experience, one of those I will carry with me for many years.

Complete libretto translation:

[1] Although the slow-motion idea worked perfectly, it is also the reason for the only real issue I had with this production: the immobility of the singers when performing, which turned out to be a recurring theme and got rapidly boring
[2] "The struggle of the puppeteers and aerialists to create the large mythical figures would be a reflection of the Satyagraha struggle itself." Director Phelim McDermott
[3] The choice of "humble materials" for the set , such as newspapers and corrugated iron (used by colonials for fast building of walls and roofs) was once again spot on for this piece

More photographs of the production here.

More bloggers reviews:

More about this piece:

Metropolitan Opera
April 19, 2008

Apr 25, 2008


This production of Piero Foggioni (also responsible for the set, costumes and lightning) premiered at the Met some twenty years ago, in 1990 with Luciano Pavarotti and Aprile Millo.
The shortest way to describe it would be to simply state that it looks like Zeffirelli, fells like Zeffirelli and probably even smells like Zeffirelli, yet is not from Zeffirelli. Or maybe he used an alias and nobody ever noticed.

This XIXth century opera is staged like in the XIXth century, with the ostensible glittering elements and the usual fireworks on stage (scene 2 of Act I), the primitive lightning (spotlights on the guy singing) and a predictable lack of acting directions of any kind (the storyboard probably looks like : "when singing, do not move at all cost and open your arms wide so that the audience can see how much effort you put into it - after all, this is about the music, not the theater").

Stephanie Blythe
Sara Krulwich for the New York Times

So let's focus on the music.
Gianandrea Noseda's conduction was not very impressive, mostly in the lineage of Carlo Maria Giulini (whose approach of Verdi I've never liked): lacking fluidity and lightness. Angela M.Brown did not shine either as Amelia, and Salvatore Licitra has never been spectacular anyway (although he sounded way better than in last's year broadcast of Cav/Pag), especially because his high notes are always somehow on the brink of failure - but his low and middle registers were quite good indeed.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky had breathing issues in the first act, ending every replica with a very unelegant and guttural growl. All was forgotten by act II though, and his true vocal abilities were unleashed. And what a joy it is to hear Hvoro at his best.

Stephanie Blythe was the real star of the evening, as her performance as fortune-teller Ulrica was well-worth the evening.

Manhattan Opera House, 1900s

The old atmosphere at the Met:
  • gold curtain
  • curtain call at the end of every act

"Salut à la France", not so much in French though

Overall, this run of La Fille du Régiment is a bit disappointing.

It took me a while to realize why, because Juan Diego Flórez was as wonderful and exquisite as always, Natalie Dessay doing what she's best at: acting in a comic opera* is a joy to watch.
Felicity Palmer and Alessandro Corbelli were irreproachable and, having previously seen the broadcast from last year's run at Covent Garden, I already knew I liked the work of Laurent Pelly on this one (despite the usual ugly set of Chantal Thomas - one has to understand Pelly always works with the same team and Chantal Thomas is the set designer on this overall pretty good team).

The first issue of this run is Marian Seldes, who filled in last minute for Zoe Cadwell. She doesn't obviously have the comic talent of Dawn French and Agathe Mélinand, who adapts the librettos of Pelly's productions (probably the best element of that team), was well aware of the situation, as she added some replicas, in a desperate attempt to compensate for the lack of comic presence of Seldes.
Most noticeably, whereas Dawn French was only justifying the absence of Duke Scipio (to be married with Marie) by "olympic obligations" (in English dans le texte), Marian Seldes also adds "Bobsleigh team" (also in English).
The other problem with Seldes is her French diction, or her lack of rather. For a native French like myself, this was truly unbearable.
Furthermore, the notary (Jack Wetherall) was also disastrous (Covent Garden had the intelligence to cast a French actor, Jean-Pierre Blanchard); these two ruined the first scenes of Act II (despite the efforts of Felicity Palmer).

"Tous les trois réunis", scene 10 of Act II
Covent Garden 2007

Yet those points can seem picky to anyone who does not understand French (i.e. the vast majority of the Met's audience). And they can only partially explain my relative disappointment. Nor could the (also) very poor diction of the chorus or its stiffness (once again, chapeau bas to Covent Garden for the excellence of its chorus - both singing and acting).

The "ironing scene", "Au bruit de la guerre", scene 3 of Act I
Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera, April 21, 2008

fin de l'air "Au bruit de la guerre", scene 3 of Act I
Covent Garden 2007

My real discontent is the conduction of Marco Armiliato.
Or more accurately, the instinctive comparison I made with Bruno Campanella, who brought fuzz and lightness to this piece in London. In perspective, although far from mediocre, Armiliato does not play in the same league as Campanella. I won't say his reading of that piece is rigid or heavy, but it's undoubtedly the main reason for my relative upset.

"Salut à la France", scene 7 of Act II
Sara Krulwich for the New York Times, Met April 21, 2008

Relative because, all and all, nobody can come close to the combination Dessay/JDF in that particular piece.

scene 7 of Act II
Covent Garden 2007

Met Photo Gallery of La Fille here.

* It must be said that Dessay didn't get all the credit she deserved on opening night. After the arias of bravery of JDF (including the perfect 18 high Cs), her "Il faut partir" was sensational and brought tears to my eyes.
But then again, JDF was also sensational in his emotional aria, "Pour me rapprocher de Marie" (surprisingly full of sensitivity and honesty).

Apr 24, 2008

A well-orchestrated encore

La Fille du Régiment
Met premiere, April 21

Sara Krulwich for the NY Times
See the piece published in the NYT about that encore.

Flórez singing as brilliantly as he does, it was obviously a delight to hear him again in "Pour mon âme/Ah mes amis!" (Act I) on the opening night of La Fille du Régiment.

What was frustrating however, is how set up this encore was; and how naive the audience was, to think they had anything to do with it (one would think New Yorkers are not that naive).
Sure, JDF received a well-deserved ovation after his first run of "Pour mon âme". Yet, as I deeply agree with Maury d'Annato that the public response is to be judged upon its volume rather than its length, the ovation at the Met was not that impressive. I've heard much more fervent responses in Europe - none of which ever rewarded by an encore by the way.
As Maury also sharply noticed, M.Armiliato was indeed pretty quick to turn back the pages of the score when people were anarchically cheering.

Peter Gelb, the Met's GM, is undoubtedly the guilty part in that faked spontaneous highlight. JDF conquered Europe last year in that role, from London to Vienna and of course Milan, where his encore made headlines all over the world (ending the century-long ban set by Arturo Toscanini himself).

It was only right that he should equally perform and bis in New York as well.
For NYC image's shake.

Concentré de Nouveau Monde

Fast facts about the Met (full reviews to follow):
  • I'm so fed up with people thinking opera is about that and other superficial bullshits
  • Americans have no idea on how to applause properly, let me tell you. No unison, no roaring use of their feet to compliment their hands, no intelligible shouting ("bravo" is such a difficult word to shout distinctively, whereas monosyllabic growls are so easy to spit)
  • New Yorkers are definitely grafted with their cellphones; of the three times I went to the MET, not once was the performance free of any ringing. Because you know, in NY things are moving so fast you've just got to be connected at all times
  • Free programs are indeed a terrific idea (and basically very simple: print a common program for all performances of the month, and insert 4 double pages for each specific performance). Nothing to do with the free programs at the Paris Opera (basically one page with the cast)
  • Doors of the hall only open 20 minutes before the start of the performance; therefore, there's absolutely no need to rush inside the MET early
  • Getting a cab at the end of any performance is so easy it's actually pretty amazing; because you know, New Yorkers can't walk half a block, so they're all stuck at the same place competing for the same cabs; all you have to do is cross the street to Broadway (at least 50 meters away) where there are plenty of empty cabs passing by (this also worked on "the big night premiere" of La Fille du Regiment)

Apr 17, 2008

[Rigoletto] I. Le roi s'amuse

Le livret de l'opéra de Verdi, mis en forme par l'habituel compère Francesco Maria Piave dès 1850, est une adaptation "autorisée" de la pièce controversée de Victor Hugo, Le Roi s'amuse, dont la première eut lieu le 22 novembre 1832 au Théâtre Français (ancienne dénomination de la Comédie Française).

Le lendemain de la première, Armand-François Jouslin de La Salle, directeur gérant du Théâtre Français (1833-37), est sommé par le baron Taylor, commissaire royal du théâtre (1825-30, 1831-38), qui est parallèlement en train de ramener l'obélisque de Louxor à Paris (place de la Concorde), d'arrêter les représentations du Roi s'amuse.
"Il est dix heures et demie, et je reçois à l'instant l'ordre de suspendre les représentations du Roi s'amuse. C'est M. Taylor qui me communique cet ordre de la part du ministre.
Ce 23 novembre.", écrit Jouslin de La Salle à Hugo.
Les choses s'aggravent encore le lendemain, puisque de "suspendue", la pièce passe au statut de "défendue". Un procès sera même intenté au théâtre, fin 1852, au cours duquel Hugo lui-même plaidera la cause de la liberté d'expression.

Les principaux reproches faits à la pièce sont que les moeurs y sont outragées et la figure du roi de France offensée ; en 1832, Louis-Philippe (cousin de feu Louis XVI) a rétabli la monarchie depuis deux ans.
Face aux mêmes critiques de la censure autrichienne* dès 1844, puis à nouveau début décembre 1850 (bien qu'un contrat ait été signé avec la Fenice) avec la 1ère version officielle du livret (La Maledizione), Verdi et Piave se voient dans l'obligation de refondre l'histoire.
Piave et la direction de la Fenice proposent quelques mois plus tard Le Duc de Vendôme, version acceptée par la censure mais violemment rejetée par Verdi. Dans cette version en effet, plus de souverain débauché, plus de bossu, plus de malédiction, pas plus que de cadavre dans un sac à la scène finale.
Piave et Marzari, un des directeurs de la Fenice, retravaillent l'intrigue et proposent enfin la version définitive du livret en janvier 1851, dans laquelle l'action a été déplacée de la cour de France vers un duché indépendant, avec modification du nom des personnages (François 1er devient le duc de Mantoue, son bouffon Triboulet Rigoletto, et la fille de ce dernier, Blanche, sera Gilda; enfin Saint-Vallier devient Monterone).
Toute référence à Victor Hugo, trop révolutionnaire, est ainsi bannie, jusqu'au titre de l'ouvrage, Rigoletto, que Piave a récupéré d'une parodie de la pièce de Hugo.

La partition sera achevée une semaine plus tard.

Drawing of Triboulet by Victor Hugo himself
(1479-1536) actually existed for real.
He is described by Rabelais as "
Proprement fol et totalement fol, fol fatal, de nature, céleste, jovial, mercuriel, lunatique, erratique, excentrique, éthéré et junonien, arctique, héroïque, génial"
Rabelais refers to him in his masterpiece, Pantagruel (1532)

A French satiric paper was named after him in the XIXth century (1878-1893)

The libretto of Rigoletto, written by Verdi's usual fellow Francesco Maria Piave in 1850, is an "authorized" adaptation of Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse which premiered on Nov.22 1832 at the Théâtre Français (now known as the Comédie Française).

On the very day next after the premiere, Armand-François Jouslin de La Salle, administrative director of the Théâtre Français (1833-37) is ordered by the royal commissioner of the theater baron Taylor (1825-30, 1831-38) to stop the performances of Le Roi s'amuse (the baron is preparing in the same period the transport of the obelisk from Louxor to Paris - place Concorde -).
Jouslin de La Salle writes to Hugo: "It is half past ten, and I just received the order to suspend the performances of Le Roi s'amuse. Mister Taylor has provided me with that order, that comes directly from the minister. On this 23rd of November."
Things worsen on the next day, as the status of the play is upgraded from "suspended" to "forbidden". A trial will eventually be carried on against the theater, at the end of the year 1852, during which Hugo himself will plead for the freedom of expression.

The main concerns are that the play describes depraved manners and insults the king of France ; in 1832, France is a monarchy again since 1830, under Louis-Philippe (cousin of decapitated Louis XVI - I admit the turmoil after the French revolution is a part of history not easy to follow - especially outside of Napoléon -); Louis-Philippe is the last king ever to rule this country, by the way.
Facing the same exact issues with the Austrian* censorship as early as 1844 and then again in december of 1850 (although a contract has been signed with Il Teatro La Fenice) with the first "official" version of the libretto (La Maledizione), Verdi and Piave have no choice but to change the story.

Piave and the directors of La Fenice introduce a few months later Il Duca di Vendome, a version that has been approved by the censorship but that Verdi violently rejects, arguing nothing is left from the initial story: no more flagitious king, no more hunchbacked jester, no more curse, and no more corpse in a bag at the end of the opera.

Piave and Marzari, one of the directors of la Fenice, work on the story again and introduce the final version of the libretto in January 1851. The story was moved from the French royal court to an independent duchy and the characters renamed (François 1er is now Il Duca di Mantova, his jester Triboulet becomes Rigoletto, Saint-Vallier Monterone and the daughter of Triboulet, Blanche, will be known as Gilda).
Every reference to Victor Hugo, whose name still carries too many revolutionary ideas in 1850, had to be removed, especially the title of the piece, that is now called Rigoletto (a name Piave first saw in a parody of Hugo's play and that comes from the French word "rigolo", funny).

The score will be finished one week later.

Francesco Maria Piave

Le Roi s'amuse
Drame en 5 actes et en vers, 1832
Victor Hugo

Synopsis simplifié: un père ultra-protectif (Triboulet / Rigoletto) cache sa fille (Blanche / Gilda) des mauvais garçons.
Un de ces mauvais garçons (François 1er / Il duca di Mantova) la séduit.
Le père crie vengeance mais tue sa fille à la place du mauvais garçon.

Over-protective father hides daughter from bad guys.
Bad guy seduces naive daughter.
Father wants revenge but ends up killing daughter while bad guy lives happily ever after

Reproduction complète de la préface du Roi s'amuse (édition 1832) ici, préface et texte intégral numérisés par la BNF (ainsi qu'une note ajoutée à la 5e édition en 1852 décrivant le procès et reproduisant la plaidorie de Victor Hugo).

Further reading (in English): "Hugo and Le roi s'amuse".

* Venise est sous contrôle autrichien à l'époque
* Venice is under Austrian ruling at that time

From Pensée Libre
Nothing to do with the present post, but very funny indeed, on the place of Victor Hugo in today's French culture

Apr 16, 2008

Rigoletto Prelude

Lorsque je m'étais lancée, naguère, dans ma pléthorique série de billets autour des Pêcheurs de Perles, je ne me doutais pas du succès que cette section de ce blog remporterait. Pleine d'enthousiasme, je me lance donc dans pareille entreprise mais avec cette fois-ci, un opéra si connu que la simple tache de vouloir s'en entretenir sans paraître redondant apparaît comme pure folie.
Pourquoi vouloir en effet, s'ajouter ainsi à l'infinité de pages web concernant l'un des piliers de la trilogie de Verdi, Rigoletto?

Parce que cet opéra est magique, rien de moins.

Il est de bon ton, ces temps, parmi les amateurs d'opéra, de fustiger les opéras populaires. Rien ne vaut des livrets intelligents (Berg, Janacek, Stravinsky...) ou tout du moins une musique "évoluée" (Tchaïkovski, Wagner, Strauss...).
Comment le baroque et Mozart échappent à cet autodafé élististe est un des grands mystères de ce siècle.

Toujours est-il que quiconque ose aujourd'hui avouer que Rigoletto recèle de qualités profondes n'est perçu que comme un vil manant inculte.
Alors soit. J'en suis.
Et pour le prouver, j'entame une série de billets sur cet opéra.

When I started my series of posts about Les Pêcheurs de Perles, I wasn't expecting that this section of the blog would be so successful. So, full of enthusiasm, I intend to start another series but this time with an opera so famous, thinking of not being redundant can be seen as presumptuous, at best.
Why add anything to the zillion web pages already existing about Rigoletto?

Simply because this opera is magical, nothing less.

It is indeed trendy these days, among opera goers, to despise popular operas. After all, there's nothing like an intelligent libretto (Berg, Janacek, Stravinsky...) or at least an evolved score (Tchaïkovski, Wagner, Strauss...). How on Earth are baroque and mozartian operas spare that rejection is one of the great mysteries of the XXIth century.

Anybody who's foolish enough to admit that Rigoletto is full of qualities is somehow seen as barbaric and tasteless. So be it. I am one of those ignorant barbarians.
And to prove it, I'm starting a series about this opera.

Apr 15, 2008

Composers in the City

Théâtre Lyrique
Gravure publiée dans
L’Illustration, 15 décembre 1863

The Garnier Opera House in Paris was inaugurated in January 1875.

Thanks to the marvellous work of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, putting online tons of resources, here's what I found in La France Musicale (N°15, April 10, 1864): the naming of the Paris streets around le palais Garnier.

Agrandir le plan

" Les voies ouvertes aux abords de l'Opéra prendront les dénominations suivantes:
La première, partant du boulevard des Capucines et aboutissant à la rue de la Chaussée d'Antin, celle de rue Halévy ;
La deuxième, ouverte entre le boulevard des Capucines et la rue de la Ferme-des-Mathurins, celle de rue Auber ;
La troisième, prolongeant la rue de Mogador, de la rue Neuves-des-Mathurins au boulevard des Capucines, celle de rue Scribe.
La rue ouverte derrière le Théâtre Lyrique, entre le quai de Sèvres et l'avenue Victoria, recevra le nom de rue Adam."

NB. Rue Adam is not close to the Garnier Opera but to the former Théâtre Lyrique (now Théâtre de la Ville) near the banks of the Seine.

Apr 14, 2008

TCE 2008-09

Not much left of the 2008-09 season at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, if you get rid of Haendel, Haydn, Bach, Mozart and all the baroque repertoire (Lully, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Scarlatti and Purcell). Left are:
  • Altre Stelle, the new Era la notte kind of show, directed by Juliette Deschamps and sung by Anna Caterina Antonacci (April 2009)
  • Mendelssohn's Elias conducted by Kurt Masur, with Bryn Terfel (Jan.11 & 12)
  • Strauss' Die Rosenkavalier conducted by Christian Thielemann, with Renée Fleming, Sophie Koch and Diana Damrau (Feb.4)
  • Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict (Feb.5 & 6) conducted by Sir Colin Davis, with Joyce DiDonato (Béatrice)
  • Episode de la vie d'un artiste, "monodrame lyrique" by Hector Berlioz, conducted by il maestro Riccardo Muti, with Gérard Depardieu as the "récitant" (Feb.26)
  • Debussy's Le Martyre de St-Sébastien, conducted by Danielle Gatti, with fantastic French actress Isabelle Huppert as "récitante" (April 9)
  • Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper, conducted by Heinz-Karl Gruber (who will also take on the part of J. J. Peachum), with Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge (June 14)
Recitals include Thomas Hampson, Elina Garanca, Juan Diego Florez (Nov.24), Jonas Kaufmann, Diana Damrau (March 21) and duet performances by Rolando Villazon & Bryn Terfel (Jan.16) and Angelika Kirchschlager & Simon Keenlyside (Nov.5, Marc Minkowski cond.). NB. Tickets sold unline from Sept.1.

The Human Instrument

"When judged by its size, our vocal system fails to impress as a musical instrument. How then can singers produce all those remarkable sounds?"

Published in the December 2007 issue of Scientific American and the April issue of its French counterpart, Pour la Science (pages 40 to 47), this article by Ingo R. Titze is indeed very worthy of reading, especially since everybody can learn something from it (even the ones, like me, who already know how sound is produced by a human being).

"Wind instruments that approximate the pitches created by the human voice (trombones, trumpets, bassoons) typically contain much longer tubes."
Being such a freaks for the human voice, it had never really occurred to me that my favorite instruments might also be connected to that...

The French edition of this article also includes another fascinating one by French scientist Nicole Scotto Di Carlo (Université de Provence) whose main goal is to analyze Luciano Pavarotti's voice.
She introduces the concept of the "singing formant", in the range of 2500-3000 Hz that is the result of vocal tract's resonances, hence enabling opera singers to be heard over the orchestra (this range of frequencies is in the region of declining orchestral-sound energy, culminating around 450 Hz). My scientific background is always very appreciative of such rational explanations to understand well-known phenomenons.

Further reading:

"The acoustics of the singing voice", Scientific American, March 1977, pp82-91; illustrations there

Apr 13, 2008

Travel guide: Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse

Place du Capitole
View from the bar on the second floor of the Théâtre du Capitole

The Opera House in Toulouse, le théâtre du Capitole, is located in the heart of the city, on the biggest square of all, la place du Capitole, where one can find numerous brasseries and cafés and other places where you can spend your money while waiting for the doors of the Opera House to open (which they do, eventually, but only 20-30 minutes before the beginning of the show).

Le Capitole, the huge building whose façade was built in 1750, hosting both the City Hall and the Théâtre du Capitole

Both the tickets office and the entrance of the House are located on the far right of the gigantic building also hosting the City Hall. Both are not particularly well-indicated, so attending any show there starts with a bit of a treasure hunt: finding the House.

On the far right side of the building, two doors with no particular indications
the left one is the entrance to the tiny tickets office;
the right one is the actual entrance to the Théâtre du Capitole

The Opera House was inaugurated in 1818 and had to be rebuild after a fire in 1923. Architect Paul Pujol is responsible for the Neo-Baroque interior full of stucco and trompe l'oeil. The result is pretty ugly (green meringue is the image that comes to mind). The seats are amazingly comfortable, except for the loggione part ("le paradis" as we say in France).

Booking is not especially easy, as tickets simply can't be booked online via their website. You either go there in person (which a lot of people do, actually) or phone, if you can speak French and understand the Toulousains speaking French (when I moved to Toulouse to study more than a decade ago, I'll admit I had issues understanding them properly at first - and I'm a native French).

The prices are pretty high (from €34.50 in the loggione to €93), especially if you want to see and hear properly (basically, that means paying €93). The programs also follow on the expensive side (€10, same price as in Paris). But drinks in the various bars in the building (one on the outside of the first balcony, two one floor higher) are exceptionally cheap.

Even in the best seats available (first row of the balcony, facing the stage) the acoustics have substantial flaws, mainly because the orchestra pit is so buried under the stage the sound comes out muffled and smothered, therefore lacking both clarity and purity. That is, to me, the main drawback of this house.

It is widely admitted in France that this house is the second best of the country (to the Paris Opera); for once, I do agree with common sense. The real issue is to see how the overall quality of the performances will evolve as Nicolas Joël lives for Paris in September 2009. His last season will be presented in the next few weeks, and programs will be arriving in the mailboxes in the middle of May.


One can come directly from the train station (Gare Matabiau) via subway (ligne A, arrêt Capitole) in a mere 5 minutes; from the Blagnac airport, things are not quite so simple and I highly suggest taking a cab (at rush hours, it will take you about 30 minutes and €30).
By car, the city centre is full of traffic congestion (especially now that the tramway is under construction); there is an underground car park, operated by Vinci, with fares of €2 per hour under the Place du Capitole, if you can find your way around town (and good luck with that.

Apr 9, 2008

Confluence of Glass and Lyon

Lyon has been, for some time now, a city in love with Philip Glass. Over the last decade, he played here with the Kronos Quartet in 2000 (Dracula) in the Auditorium and then became a regular at the big Music/Dance/Drama/Whatever summer festival of Lyon, Les Nuits de Fourvière (performances are held in the Roman amphitheater). When I say regular, I'm not just showing off. His most recent appearances were in 2004 (Orion), 2005 (Naqoyqatsi), 2006 (La Belle et la Bête) and 2007 (Piano Solo, video extract of the concert under heavy rain that he insisted on not cancelling). This summer, although he won't be here, his music will open the festival as it will be the soundtrack of the new show of Bartabas (a guy whose only interest in life seems to be to make horses dance), Partitions équestres (a show sold-out on the very first few hours the booking was opened). Because you know, Lyon Opera GM Serge Dorny is so... imaginative, he suddenly realized the success of Philip Glass in Lyon could also be exploited by his house, and therefore he scheduled In the Penal Colony, a chamber opera Glass composed in 2000. I like Philip Glass quite a lot actually, but this piece I probably won't attend, for several reasons. 1. I find the "hors les murs" performances a waste of ressources. We have a great house with pretty amazing acoustics, only Serge Dorny thinks it's a good idea to forget about that and stage performances elsewhere (I guess that's what he calls accessiblity). 2. A night at the opera is supposed to be fun, entertaining, kind of ethereal and magical. I don't see at all that happening in a real prison (where real criminals are living and all). I get the correlation with the opera (based on Franz Kafka's famous book) I'm not stupid but I still think this is another of Serge Dorny's horrific ideas. When any program emphasizes that the audience have to bring their IDs because they will be needed to enter the facility, I suddenly have this urge to flee... Well-done beloved GM. Even operas from composers I like I can't bring myself (literally) to attend.

Apr 8, 2008

Opéra de Lyon 2008-09

Nice cover for the new program, wouldn't you say?

One could give credit to Lyon Opera director Serge Dorny for his consistency. I won't.

The role of a GM should not be to ostensibly build a season exclusively based on his personal taste. Yet once again for the 2008-09 season, the schedule will be filled with Mozart (La Clemenza di Tito directed by Jérémie Röhrer in a new production by Georges Lavaudant, Oct.2008), Russian composers (Prokofiev's The Gambler, Jan/Feb.2009) and 20th century operas (a mere 5 out of 10 this time). I'll admit in that context, I was flabbergasted to see he did find some room to schedule La Traviata (as unoriginal and redundant as this choice may be).

The other problem with Dorny is how unbalanced the 2008-09 season will be.

On one hand, he chose operas that are either rarely performed anywhere (Franck Martin's oratorio Le vin herbé from 1940 in the 2007 production of Willy Decker already seen during the Ruhr Triennale -reviews in German here and there with many pictures -; In The Penal Colony by Philip Glass after F.Kafka, Jan/Feb.2009) or specifically in Lyon (Berg's Lulu in yet another Peter Stein production in April 2009, Britten's Death in Venice in May, Prokofiev's The Gambler); on the other hand alas, these previous selections seem to have exhausted all of his neurons, and he ends up filling the rest of the schedule with unimaginative choices that ultimately savage any chance of having a coherent season (although of course he claims otherwise and is presumptuous enough to entitle this season "Lost heros").
In this unattractive patchwork theme, Lyon will see again Chabrier's Le Roi Malgré Lui (revival of the 2005 production directed by Laurent Pelly, Feb/April 2009), Strauss' Die Fledermaus (that has been played with consistency once a decade for the past 30 years here: 1979-80, 87-88 and 95-96) and Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito (already played in 1982-83 and 94-95, another "once a decade" tradition Dorny perpetuates).

Le vin herbé, Willy Decker's production, 2007
Paul Leclaire

About Serge Dorny and the way he spoke tonight (can someone please take the time to teach him how to speak French properly? He has been living here for some time now, yet he still can't finish a sentence without something wrong in it - either grammar or vocabulary).

As usual, he managed to make me leave early (and to prevent me from attending the Giselle ballet, which just shows how talented he is on the accessibility part -see below-). When he started his speech by stating very demagogically that the Opéra de Lyon is internationally famous ("de renommée internationale"), I almost chocked there. Seriously? Can anyone please wake him up?

Also, I wanted to point out another quote so typical of him (don't you dare say I'm blinded by my feelings, Dorny is the one encouraging my dispair): "Il faut que l'opéra soit accessible à tout le monde. Dans le choix des répertoires, c'est aussi extrêmement important. Il faut quand même que je vous fasse plaisir, que JE me fasse plaisir" (strong emphasis on the "je"), which can be translated as "Opera has to be accessible to everyone. It's particularly important to keep that in mind when choosing the repertoire. I have to entertain you, I have to entertain myself". [I'm so not dreaming when I focus on his self-centered side].
He also added later on, that, to him, the score of Strauss's Die Fledermaus was one of the most beautiful ones in classical music (seriously?), showing, once again, his taste is the only one that matters when it comes to building the new seasons.
Excuse me while I go and vomit.

All in all, the highlights of the season will be:
  • Anna Caterina Antonacci's concert (Jan.18 2009)
  • the end of Donizetti's queens cycle with Anna Bolena (concert version) once again conducted by Evelino Pido (as always, coproduced with the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris), Nov.20 2008
  • Ermonela Jaho in both Anna Bolena and La Traviata (she made quite an impression as Violetta a few months ago in Covent Garden), June/July 2009

Full brochure available for download here (pdf).

Apr 7, 2008

Il Turco in Italia, poco fa

Il Turco in Italia 

Drama buffo in due atti di Gioacchino Rossini (1814)
Libretto Felice Romani (in Italian, here)

Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse
Sunday, April 6, 2008 (last performance)
Maurizio Benini conducting
Tobias Richter directing
Marco Vinco - Selim
Inga Kalna - Fiorella
Alberto Rinaldi - Don Geronio
Lawrence Brownlee - Narciso
Brigitte Hool - Zaïda
Philippe Do - Albazar
Pietro Spagnoli - Prosdocimo (poeta)

Coproduction with the Lausanne Opera (performances in Sept/Oct 2006) and the Deutsche Oper Am Rhein (premiere on June 14).

" Un sot qui voit des esclaves nègres pour la première fois s'imagine que tous se ressemblent; les jolis airs de Rossini sont des nègres pour les sots."
Stendhal, Vie de Rossini

Did I made it all the way to Toulouse (originally a 4-hr train travel which turned out to be a 5-hr ride - sabotage seems to have become the new national sport these days*) to attend this Turco in Italia? Of course I didn't, silly you. I just happened to be in the neighborhood, making it very unethical not to see Maurizio Benini conducting and the direction of Tobias Richter.

Staging this Rossini's opera is nothing short of climbing the Mont Blanc (or in my case, just the staircase of my building). The problems here are:
1. producing a performance for grown-ups (not in a vaudeville-for-dummies kind of way)
2. overcoming the dull yet intricate libretto
3. preventing the audience from the boredom that is always just around the corner, musically speaking
4. casting good enough singers that are also believable comedians.

All in all, reasons for failure are everywhere, while success seems almost unreachable. Nicolas Joël, whose era in Toulouse is almost over (leaving to head the Paris Opera for his first season in 2009-2010), managed to secure Maurizio Benini in the pit, thus instantly preventing a musical disaster.

But what can a world-class conductor do with a 3rd-string orchestra? (I am not gratuitously mean here; when Joël took charge of the Théâtre du Capitole a few years back, the house had sunk so low the orchestra was all amateur).

Well, Maurizio Benini did marvels.
The performance of the orchestra under his conduction was light-years ahead of the current quality anywhere in France (Paris included)(or even La Scala, where things are really messy now).  

Tobias Richter (first season as head of the Grand Théâtre de Genève also in 2009-2010) took on the challenge to direct Il Turco.
When I found out he had chosen to transport the action in the 1950s, I thought to myself: not again! (it has been the basic dogma of every Rossinian production in France for the last few years).
Yet, Richter added many personal touches that resonated with my grown-up side, very meaningful, yet very subtle details.
I loved the two black bodyguards of Sultan Selim (black for Moors, obviously) in white costumes who then were dressed up in black with white masques on for the Ballo in Maschera scene in act 2. The posters hung at the rear of the stage at the end of act 2 when the zingarella Zaïda is leaving with Selim where also a noticeable idea, though I suspect foreigners (such as the numerous Spanish audience) didn't get it: after all, you'd have to understand the French word "Gitanes", know it's a very well-established cigarettes brand and get that the posters were an almost perfect reproduction of the iconography of the brand. Subtle sure, but also very powerful and cohesive with the Zaïda of Richter, somehow more corrosive and poisonous than simply naive and innocent as portrayed in the libretto.

See the Gitanes posters at the rear of the stage, on the right? Of course you can. Look harder. 

On the comic side, Richter was also very enjoyable, mixing obvious tricks with yet again many successful details; my favorite ones include the use of the orchestra to shout out another "ha ha" at some point in the second act, as well as an added replica by the barman when called on by the poet under his name Orazio (Act 1, scene 14, recitativo); he replied, irritated, "Mon nom, c'est Hervé!" (considering the first name of the actor was actually Hervé, I'm wondering if the replica had anything to do with a deliberate choice to use this particular first name (categorized as redneck in the French culture).

Anyway, Richter gave a memorable interpretation of this piece, and used the whole space of this small stage to perfection (something pretty uncommon in opera). He was well-served by a good acting cast, except for Marco Vinco (Selim) who has to understand there's a fine line between funny and ridicule that should never be crossed (his singing was excellent though).

From left to right: Pietro Spagnoli, Alberto Rinaldi, Brigitte Hool, Marco Vinco, Maurizio Benini, Inga Kalna, L. Bronwlee, Philippe Do

Pietro Spagnoli (the poet) who has virtually no aria but appears in many recitatives (and otherwise acts as the messenger figure in the story) was by far the most impressive comedian. He gave an intoxicating performance. As for the singing, the weakest elements were undoubtedly the two tenors. Both were mediocre in the middle register, and both were disastrous in the high notes. Fortunately, Philippe Do (Albazar) had only a couple to attempt (and fail).
As for the only non-European cast member, American tenor Lawrence Brownlee (Narciso), here a a few things he should really be concerned with (and work on):
1. his high-notes (the high Cs were horrendous)
2. his timbre (or maybe he just had a cold, but I seriously doubt it)
3. his nuances (nothing there but loud, and yet still inaudible over the orchestra)
4. his stage presence (non existing)
5. his weight (this is just US atavism I suppose).
The program states that his repertoire includes Nadir (and there is only one Nadir in opera, the lead role of Les Pêcheurs de Perles); not to be over-sarcastic, but he has neither the voice nor the charisma to make anything but a fool of himself in that part. So may Lawrence Brownlee happily return to his US engagements and leave us Europeans alone.

No successful Rossini production can ever occur without a prominent baritone buffo (in this case, the old, weak and coward husband Don Geronio). Alberto Rinaldi was unarguably phenomenal in both compartments (acting and singing).
He's obviously Italian, which is of the utmost importance to sing that kind of part, because the diction of a non-Italian native is never precise enough to cope with the speediest bars (Peter Mattei comes in mind to illustrate this; as Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the MET a few years back, he ended up singing probably no more than half of the notes of those bars in arias such as "Largo al Factotum").

Finally a few words about Inga Kalna (Fiorella): hilarious, vocally spot on but fading by the middle of act 2. I'm so glad circumstances allowed me not to skip this performance, which was overall one of the best I've seen in recent years; not very difficult you may add, considering I haven't been travelling much lately; furthermore here in Lyon, it's either a brilliant direction (Lehnhoff's Lohengrin) or a good cast (Swenson's Maria Stuarda) these days (or neither). And things won't be evolving anytime soon, as long as Serge Dorny will be in charge (more on that tomorrow after the evening to introduce the 2008-09 season).

* since France sucks at soccer, rugby and all other major sports

Many more photographs of the production here.