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Commentary

Paris Opéra
12 Sep 2006

Opera in Paris

What a difference a year makes. Music lovers who rely on their memories to find the right places to hear music in Paris could be for a surprise if they do not check beforehand what France has now to offer.

Paris has several halls where music can be heard. In the center, you will find the Old venerable “Palais Garnier”, the Opera House build under Napoleon the third as well as the new Opéra-Bastille, both ran under the leadership of Gérard Mortier. Not far from these is the “Théatre du Chatelet” which beginning from this year, is run by JC Choplin. The Orchestre de Paris and the Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique, Christoph Eschenbach and Myung-wung Cung’s Orchestra will resume their residencies at the “Salle Pleyel”. Further East in the elegant and glitzy Avenue Montaigne is the “Théatre des Champs-Elysées”, better known as the place where Stravinsky’s Rite was created. It is a hall of the right size for chamber music or piano recitals, but where the Vienna Philharmonic comes three times per year and which will usually produce two or three Operas as well. There are other less known smaller places where interesting programs can be heard but I will leave them out in this article.

In recent years, the Paris orchestra was exiled in the “Théatre Mogador”, not far from the Galeries Lafayette. This hall was usually used for musicals and was an artistic disaster—musicians could not hear themselves well which is the basis for crafting good ensembles, nor could they have a regular place for rehearsals. This is over as the Salle Pleyel will officially reopen this week. It has been renovated and early impressions are very positive. Be aware though, that in order to improve the acoustics, the capacity has been reduced to less than 2 000 seats. Concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle, the London Symphony Orchestra under Haitink and Gergiev are nearly sold out.

The Théatre du Chatelet used to be for several decades Paris’s most exciting place. It used to be run by Stéphane Lissner who now runs La Scala, no less, and Jean-Pierre Brossman who has retired this year. Both managed the near impossible: develop a faithful audience as well as secure long-lasting relations with some strong artists who would come regularly on the strength of the working conditions. This is the place which could boast ambitious programs at full capacity: New works by Peter Eötvös, John Adams, Luciano Berio, … , a Strauss Festival with Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia Orchestra from London, Rattle conducting Janacek with his Birmigham Orchestra, Barenboim coming with his Berlin Ensemble for some superb Strauss, Beethoven and Wagner, Minkowski reinventing Offenbach, Paris’s last Ring and the first ever complete Troyens with Gardiner’s ensemble, month-long regular visits of the Mariinsky under Gergiev up to Baroque Operas. The Orchestral and recital season was also very strong and to make things even better, price ranges was wide, this enabling everyone to come at all budgets.

This seems sadly a thing of the past. The new administrator, Jean-Luc Choplin has made a first season whose new major production is the outdated Lopez operetta The singer from Mexico. There are other works by Rock composers or other operettas. The only real work is Pascal Dusapin Opera about Faust. The Orchestral season has been given away to Pleyel. In other words, this is a musical disaster.

This positions the Paris Opéra as the clear leader for years to come. Gérard Mortier in his third year, has put his mark on what Verdi used to call the old house. It is now clearly Mortier’s place. Do not come to expect extravagant Metropolitan-like productions of La Bohème with big names singers, expect to be challenged by thoroughly rehearsed productions with the artists that Mortier has always worked with: Singers like Angela Denoke, Christine Schäfer, Jose van Dam, … conductors like Sylvain Cambreling, Valéry Gergiev, Kent Nagano, … as well as producers like Peter Sellars, Luc Bondy, the Hermanns, ..

All that Mortier touches does not turn to gold: last year’s Cardillac did not manage to convince that it was a work worth resurrecting. The staging of Simon Boccanegra by the Dutch avant-garde producer Johan Simons as well as of Don Giovanni by Cannes Festival winner Michael Haneke were disappointing, …, however, there is always something to enjoy: Denoke as Cardillac’s daughter was superb and Boccanegra’s principals: Carlos Alvarez, Anna-Maria Martinez, Stefano Secco and Ferrucio Furlanetto could rival memories of La Scala’s Paris visit in the 70s. When Mortier gets things right, they are very very right: Two seasons ago, the Tristan staged by Peter Sellars, conducted in the spirit of Debussy by Esa-Pekka Salonen; and, with Ben Heppner and Waltraud Meier, this is the sort of evening that shows what an outstanding unique performance the Opéra can be.

Mortier has also taken some important initiatives:

  • He has worked on the acoustics of the Bastille by raising the orchestra which now is balanced better with the singers.
  • A last minute ticket scheme similar to Vienna has been created where 5 € can be bought on the day. Come early and be sure to enter.
  • Finally, he runs some fascinating conferences for every production with the artists where he proves to be a fascinating speaker. If you can understand French, look for these. They can be revelations.

The “Théatre des Champs-Elysées” pales by comparison. It has less coherence in its programming from either Pleyel or the Paris Opéra. It hosts however the French National Radio Orchestra whose director is Kurt Masur. Should Anna Netrebko give a recital with her frequent singing partner, Rolando Villazón. Do not think of finding a ticket, it is sold out. The key event should be at the end of the season a staged Pelleas with Madalena Kozena conducted by Bernard Haitink, who has already done several seasons ago this work in concert performance of which several French National Orchestra players were quoted saying this was the highlight of their careers.

In the end, if you come to Paris, look for programs carefully, there are many events happening. However, if you just have one place to go and want to experience something uniquely Parisian, go to Bastille or to Garnier. It is a safe bet that whatever will be performed is likely to be original, forward-looking and always stimulating.

Antoine Leboyer

(PS: this piece was written on September 11. As Opera Today’s readers are mostly American, I, like all of us here in France, want to join you in remembrance of this tragic day that no one will ever forget.)

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