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Cecilia Bartoli
08 Jun 2008

Zurich Has Malibran to Thank

If you are going to produce Jacques Fromental Halevy’s forgotten opera “Clari,” I urge you to first make sure you have a signature on the contact from a superstar with the firepower of Cecilia Bartoli.

Jacques Fromental Halévy: Clari

Above: Cecilia Bartoli


Ms. Bartoli is the raison d’etre for Zürich Opera’s colorfully mounted rarity, continuing in her celebration of the 200th anniversary of operatic legend Maria Malibran for whom the piece was written. But for our star’s committed interest, I am not sure it may have seen the light of day, nor certainly would it have scored such a big success with its public.

In case you have missed it, Ms. Bartoli has made a specialty of late unearthing little-known pieces and/or creating compilation albums around themes, or composers, or both. Witness the recent promo campaign attending the release of “Maria,” a CD in which she (quite spectacularly) covers all things Malibran. Happily, Ms. Bartoli’s unquenchable musical curiosity (and perhaps, marketing acumen) are wedded to a passionate artistry, unfailing musical and dramatic instincts, and a uniquely personal sound served by a reliably sure-fire technique.

Indeed, in “Clari” it seemed there was nothing our diva could not do. Complex arpeggiated licks, perfect trills, spot-on wide-ranging interval leaps, superb diction, secure tone in all gradations of volume, melting lyrical outpourings, and nuanced coloratura with fiery temperament — all were on display in La Bartoli’s bravura performance. An added plus is that the smallish Zürich house perfectly showcases her medium-sized voice. Oh, yeah, and she is simply a beautiful woman with an effortless star presence.

The company assembled a strong cast to partner one of the world’s most famous singers. As the “Duke,” tenor John Osborn displayed a very winning presence and lovely voice with a solid technique that allowed him to not only match Ms. Bartoli in their sizzling duets, but also to pin our ears back with some dandy climactic high notes. Mr. Osborn surely must be numbered among today’s top leggiero tenors.

Eva Liebau deployed her clean,sparkling soprano to good end as “Bettina” especially with a well-sung canzonetta. As the father “Alberto,” Carlos Chausson made every booming note count and offered a well-rounded, humorously self-pitying portrayal. Slightly less effective, although still eminently enjoyable, were Stefania Kaluza’s mother “Simonetta” and Oliver Widmer’s “Germano.” The former sometimes seemed short of voice at the break, and the latter sometimes disappeared into the orchestral textures in florid passages.

The well-tutored chorus sounded good, wore their succession of outlandish costumes well, and did every goofy piece of stage business and choreography (by Beate Vollack) that was asked of them with dedication and good humor. And now we arrive at the goods news/bad news part. But first, bear with me.

Clari_titel360.jpgSome years ago, before I really knew Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” at all well (or really, at all), I saw a dizzy Euro-putzy production of it based on the comic book “Asterix and Cleopatra.” Well, you can imagine what it was like, right? But not knowing any better, it was well sung, so I really sort of liked it. Never mind that it was entirely the wrong tone for the piece. I had fun, dammit, laughing in all the wrong places. And that is a bit how I felt as I was discovering this production of “Clari.”

For it seems that its gentle charms should be more akin to the sincere and sentimental village milieu of “Sonnambula” than Act I’s nutty Once-and-Future-Guggenheim of a drawing room. Brazenly colorful modern furniture provides a modest island of repose in a riot of modern art, not least of which is a huge bright red bust of a gorilla. Which our heroine mounts in an unhinged Fay Wray moment at Act One’s end. Not to impugn Christian Fenouillat’s witty and beautifully executed designs. Setting Act II in a very realistic modern hospital waiting room, into which the female chorus of nurses wheels the suffering “Clari” in a hospital bed, was brilliant. As was Act III’s shallow farmhouse kitchen and entry way (with soiled rubber farm boots lined up). The goof of having a drop with a valentine cut-out fly in to frame our heroine for her final solo as she pokes her head through the hole left for the bride’s head was a delight.

Too, Agostino Cavalca’s colorful costumes were perfectly calibrated to support the concept, notably the bumble-bee-black-and-yellow servants costumes, the outrageous “beautiful people” look at the birthday party, and the pseudo-Alpine dress for the peasants. It must be said that Ms. Bartoli was ravishingly attired. Her first entrance costume was an ice blue sequined suit, rivaled by her birthday party get-up as she pops out of a cake in a bugle-beaded pink strapless cocktail dress. Stunning. Even her peasant dress flattered and did not visually let us forget who was the star.

More Good News: Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier co-directed their principals exceedingly well. There was nice, varied blocking with good motivation and character interplay. They invented meaningful and clever business for the very long set pieces to inject variety and (yes) humor. The “Duke” as preening peacock (Liberace with a nod to Elvis) was a winning touch, and his vamping of “Clari” by slipping his robe off his shoulder (yeah, like that would inflame her) was a hoot.

Another brilliant device was the use of a framed “painting” in the opening location, which morphed into a succession of projected photos detailing the prequel to the opera’s action, namely “Clari’s” leaving home and being held captive by the “Duke.” Funny funny images that did, however distract from the long, well-played intro to the soprano’s opening aria. The bit of “Clari” hiding herself from her dad in the farm vestibule by putting a coat over her head to match the other similarly adorned coat hooks was another master stroke. And I loved “Duke’s” third act entrance in a roadster.

Bad News Part: I wish the directors had showed more care with their uses of the chorus. Often they were relegated to performing the most cliched and timeworn shtick, looking all the more obvious for having it amid so many other inventive goings-on. I mean, please, servants endlessly “polishing” the same spot on the chair/floor/wall/air/fill-in-the-blank? And doing ersatz Teutonic folk steps that would have been rejected from “The Producers”? We have seen it all before and these guys are too good to settle for that.

Things in the pit were under Adam Fischer’s sure hand. He elicited secure playing from the resident “La Scintilla” period instrument band. I am not sure that this sound made the best possible case for Halevy’s score, but, save for a few periodic stroppy moments in the horn section, they played with stylistic commitment. Side note: I have never ever in my life seen/heard an orchestra tune this much. They easily took five minutes to do just that after we were all ushered to our seats in a very hot auditorium. Maybe they could start tuning up before the house manager rings the bell?

“Clari” is not likely to show up in many (if any) other major houses, but it might be a good fit for smaller opera festivals looking for intriguing variety. Glimmerglass? St. Louis? The score is certainly pleasing enough, and true to its times and performance practices, Ms. Bartoli interpolated a Rossini aria as well as an Halevy aria from a different piece into the performance. (Hell, we would have listened to Cecilia do “Proud Mary” if she wanted!)

Quibbles aside, with “Clari,” Zürich Opera produced a solid success, well cast, with excellent production values, and an all-too-infrequent chance to revel in Cecilia Bartoli at the top of her game. Really, does opera get much better than that?

James Sohre

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