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Giuseppe Verdi
13 May 2009

Paris: Mostly Verdi Good Indeed

The Scottish Play’s ability to conduit bad luck is apparently not limited to the spoken stage, witness the new Paris Opéra production of Verdi’s Macbeth.

Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth

Macbeth: Dimitris Tiliakos; Banco Ferruccio Furlanetto / Dmitri Ulianov (5, 8 May); Lady Macbeth: Violeta Urmana / Larissa Gogolevskaya (29 April and 5 May); Dama di Lady Macbeth: Letitia Singleton; Macduff: Stefano Secco / Oleg Wideman (5, 8 May); Malcolm: Alfredo Nigro; Medico Yuri Kissin. Opéra national de Paris Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: Teodor Currentzis / Piotr Belyakin (17 April). Stage director, sets and costumes: Dmitri Tcherniakov.


But let’s start with the “good luck” portion of the evening, shall, we? Make that “very good luck,” for musically there was not only a great deal to admire, but specifically, Violeta Urmana served notice that she is now to be numbered among the great vocal interpreters of the cruelly difficult role of Mrs. Macbeth. Announced as indisposed, she nevertheless sang up a storm, displaying her usual rich, creamy tone; searing high notes; thundering chest tones; and a well-judged sleepwalking scene in which she admittedly took a sightly lower (but no less effective) option in the final rising arpeggiated phrase. This was splendid singing with “La luce langue” as gorgeously presented as you are ever going to hear it, a perfect marriage of artist and aria.

We were almost as fortunate with our Macbeth, for Dimitri Tiliakos’s warm and sympathetic baritone was enormously engaging in mezzo forte passages, of which there are thankfully many. When Mr. Tiliakos pushed the volume in upper stretches, however, his rapid vibrato caused the unfortunate effect of not always being on any one specific pitch, but rather in the general vicinity of the vocal line, a minor shortcoming that disappeared when the voice turned over into those forte pitches above, say, “f.” To be fair, our baritone’s technique was eerily similar to the renowned Leo Nucci, who also has a tendency to get riled up and bully the upper middle a bit, not a bad role model since Leo seems to have managed a “decent” career!

Dmitry Ulyanov’s commanding Banquo was richly voiced with rolling orotund delivery. The Parisians seemed to get more excited about Oleg Videman’s Macduff than did I, his stentorian presentation of the heartbreaking aria seeming more appropriate to an audition for the Forging Scene, albeit one with exceptionally pleasing steely tone.

The Malcolm of Alfredo Nigro was so nicely sung that I half wished he had been the one given a go at “A la paterno mano”. As Lady Macbeth’s Attendant, Letitia Singleton offered more vocal presence than usual, and Yuri Kissin was the wholly competent physician.

The best musical news of the night is that conductor Teodor Currentzis seems to have redeemed himself after last season’s disastrously slipshod Don Carlo (which I still consider one of the worst led performances I ever hope to hear). Perhaps less mature Verdi suits the young Maestro’s flash-bang, flailing, hair-flying, semaphoric gyrations, but whatever the reason, this was a highly individual, nuanced reading from an orchestra and chorus in top form (Allessandro Di Stefano was the effective chorus master).

To be sure, there were some Sinopoli-esque curiosities with occasional tempi slower or faster than are traditional. The great chorus “Patria oppressa” seemed comprised of attractive bits and pieces, instead of an unbroken arc. And the final scene became too deliberate, when a steadier tumble to the denouement was to be desired. But it cannot be denied that Teodor’s take on Macbeth was controlled, vibrant, and fiercely theatrical, a feat that was rewarded with a tumultuous ovation at final call.

macbeth_Paris01.gifScene from Macbeth [Photo courtesy of Paris Opéra]

In light of the rich musical splendors, it seems a pity to have to report at all on the turgid and uninspired physical production. No doubt where the blame lies, for Dmitri Tcherniakov was in charge of stage direction, sets, and costumes. True, Gleb Filshtinsky did the competent lighting but at crucial moments, Tcherniakov managed to keep the characters’ faces out of it anyway.

The act curtain consisted of a swirling computer driven video projection of an aerial view of small modern town. The cursor at times scrolled over and selected a house or square for closer view and the video took us on a bird’s eye trip to the new locale. It was sort of a mix of that annoying projected scenery from Webber’s Woman in White and an Architectural Digest HBO Special.

The opening scene featured not witches nor a mysterious locale (Plot? What plot?) but an open courtyard lined with houses that inexplicably looked like seaside homes. The entire chorus, presumably residents of this square, simply milled about haphazardly, and there was no dramatic focus at all to the important predictions (we don’ need no stinkin’ plot).

The Macbeth’s live in a 19th Century mansion, and the sitting room (with working fireplace, Morris chair, and later, dining table) had sets of front drapes (one scrim, the other damask) that got pulled open and closed by our principals at various unmotivated junctures, rendering the room a stage within a stage. The fact that the picture frame around this playing space cut the actors off mid-calf was a constant, and avoidable visual annoyance.

And that sums up the entire set concept. We kept coming back to the quad for the outdoor scenes, and to the mansion for all the indoor scenes. Oh, except that the final battlefield scene was actually in the sitting room with Macbeth standing atop the table holding a hard copy of the city map in front of him. As he began “Pieta, rispetto, amore” he cast the map aside to reveal that, save his black DKNY boxer briefs, he was naked from the waist down. Thus he sat and lounged and stretched out and finally assumed a fetal position on the table, writhing in what remained of his formal wear.

The chorus burst in, and Macbeth ran off through the door, to be drug back on in a bloodied shirt for the not-oft-used death scene (very affectingly sung). But as he died, everyone left, and the great final chorus (including the Malcolm-Macduff solos) was sung offstage, slightly amplified, while salvos crashed through the Styrofoam walls destroying the house in a noisy assault that mercifully subsided for the final soaring choral statement.

Such directorial misjudgments were many and depressingly frequent. Lady M’s somnambulism was not allowed to be the usual solo act, oh no. Here she had to interact with the doctor and her servant, fighting, threatening, struggling, and even strangling her servant all the while; and at scene’s end, the focus was directed to the Lady in Waiting who was given the final word by sobbing hysterically. Can I tell you something Dmitri, just between us directors? This aria is not about the doctor nor the servant!! Not at all!! Not a bit!!!! It is about a great diva moving us with a great scena!!!!! (Whew. . .I feel better now).

The list could go on. Macduff came in to announce Duncan’s murder with his hand held to his forehead throughout in a way that suggested he was trying to stem a nosebleed. Then our poor tenor later had to sing his lament seated in a toy-cluttered child’s playpen. As if singing the “Brindisi” is not challenge enough, The Divine Lady M was asked to perform party magic tricks all during the aria, knotting silks and pulling them out of a top hat that she was made to carry with her later as a sleep walker. All of the apparitions simply failed to “appear” on stage at all(!), including Banquo’s ghost, asking way too much of Macbeth as an actor, and indeed way too much of the audience to know what the hell was going on.

The worst offense by Tcherniakov The Designer was arguably the pedestrian contemporary costuming, which reached criminal proportions (word carefully chosen) in the unflattering attire for Ms. Urmana, who sadly looked more like the leading man’s Wal-Mart shopper mom than his political and sexual equal. Are the days gone forever when gifted costumers and make-up artists and wig makers could fabulously glamorize full-figured artists like Joan, Leontyne, Marilyn, Montserrat? A pretty woman, and a major star soprano, Violeta deserves far far better.

At the end of the day, though, the utter nonsense of the staging was triumphantly swept aside by the conviction of as well-judged a musical reading of Macbeth as is likely possible today. A heads up in case you are Russia-bound: this is a co-production with the Opera of Novosibirsk where Teodor Currentzis is in charge, but where the available musical assets may not be of the same high quality. Just didn’t want you to wander in unaware.

At next night’s marvelous Un ballo in maschera, conductor Renato Palumbo’s style could not have been more different. With economy of gesture and a complete, under-stated understanding of how the piece works, the Maestro led a sensitive and sensible account that provided ample support for the first rate soloists and chorus.

ballo_Paris.gifScene from Un ballo in maschera [Photo courtesy of Paris Opéra]

Visually, too, there was much to admire in William Orlandi’s handsome period costumes and monumental sets seemingly inspired by Mussolini’s architectural visions. At rise, Riccardo is discovered seated on a pretentious white marble throne, in the center of an amphitheater peopled by the male chorus, and surmounted by a huge marble eagle.

Such iconic images served the work very well indeed, with the gibbet consisting of two large square pillars, topped by menacing ravens, wings spread about to take flight; a mausoleum of a sitting room for Rentao and Amelia; and a perspective of a ballroom defined by a profusion of black marble pillars capped with large, softly lit, Lalique-look glass lamps. Ulrica’s lair seemed more uniquely “American” with its profusion of open flames and bayou voodoo-inspired milieu. Joël Hourbeigt’s evocative and atmospheric lighting could hardly have been bettered.

While the entire costume concept was also black and white, there were well-chosen flashes of color such as Ulrica’s rich red tunic and turban; and less well chosen, with Oscar plumped into a red vest that had the somewhat unfortunate effect of making our cross-dresser look a bit like a white suited Robin Red Breast. Especial praise should be reserved for the vibrantly detailed commedia dell’arte garb worn by the corps de ballets, although Micha van Hoecke’s busy choreography made their effect a little dizzying.

Stage director Gilbert Deflo knew how to tell the story, developed meaningful blocking and visually pleasing stage groupings, maintained excellent focus on the dramatic moments, and mostly appeared to stay out of the way of his exceptional cast. Only the duet scene might have benefited from more specificity of interaction, but that is a minor point in a very fine piece of direction.

This night’s indisposed singer was Ramon Vargas (the French announce this with some drama, with a great pause before . . .“but. . .Mr. Vargas has indeed accepted to perform the role for you”). Although Mr. Vargas chose his battles carefully in selecting which high notes to ring out and which to husband and nurse, my first reaction upon hearing him live is that this is a gorgeous heavy lyric sound. He is also a very fine musician, shaping and coloring his phrases with a fine sense of Verdian line and a good deal of dramatic imagination. His acting is honest and heartfelt. Perhaps his rather short, boyish, round-cheeked appearance does not make him as marketable as other over-hyped tenors, but as an artist this guy easily outclasses many an operatic poster boy. A class act this Senor Vargas.

My other real interest was in hearing Angela Brown, who has emerged in recent seasons as a Verdian of note. Her Amelia did not disappoint. The lovely Miss Brown commands the stage with star presence, and her ripe, dark tone communicates well in all registers and at all volumes, but most especially in the upper reaches at full throttle when she is downright thrilling. If her generous vibrato gets a bit in the way in lower parlando passages, and if she cannot quite float a high note as pristine as say, Mme. Caballe (who can?), this is nevertheless a very sound technique married to well-schooled musical instincts. On a non-musical note, the diva did milk her (solid) ovation a bit too much past the sell-by date. Leave them wanting more, Angela!

Anna Christy contributed a perky, spot-on, clear-voiced Oscar, although I wish she had strutted and play-acted the “boy” a little less. Elena Manistina was a force to be reckoned with as a fine Ulrica with a searing baritonal chest voice that blossomed quite seamlessly into a ripe middle and a secure top. The duo of dark-voiced Etienne Dupuis and Michail Schelomianski were luxury casting as an exceptionally powerful Silvano and Sam, and Scott Wilde presented a decent Tom.

But without a shred of doubt, the night (and the weekend) belonged to the tremendous performance by Ludovic Tezier as Renato. Once every five years you might encounter a Verdi turn with this shock-and-awe factor, and Mr. Tezier thrilled and chilled us the entire night. Having enjoyed his Figaro Count, and even more his Werther Albert, nothing prepared me for the richness, the moxie, the clarity, the size of that great instrument with its manly buzzy tone pinging off the back wall of the Bastille and pinning us in our seats. There is nothing quite like “discovering” a new star Verdi baritone, and wow, what a night he had! Us, too.

James Sohre

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