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Portrait of the poet Frederic Mistral (1830—1914) by Félix Auguste Clément (1826 -1888) [Source: Wikipedia Commons]
03 Nov 2009

Paris: Off and Running

The Paris Opera season started with ‘un boum,’ scoring decisive successes with two infrequently performed stage pieces.

Charles Gounod: Mireille

Inva Mula: Mireille; Charles Castronovo: Vincent; Franck Ferrari: Ourrias; Alain Vernhes: Ramon; Sylvie Brunet: Taven; Anne-Catherine Gillet: Vincenette; Sébastien Droy: Andrelou; Nicolas Cavallier: Ambroise; Amel Brahim-Djelloul: Clémence; Ugo Rabec: Le Passeur. Paris Opera Orchestra and chorus. Marc Minkowski: Conductor. Nicolas Joel: Stage Director. Ezio Frigerio: Sets. Franca Squarciapino: Costumes. Vinicio Cheli: Lighting. Patrick Ségot: Choreography. Patrick Marie Aubert: Chorus Master.

Above: Portrait of the poet Frederic Mistral (1830—1914) by Félix Auguste Clément (1826 -1888) [Source: Wikipedia Commons]


At the Palais Garnier, a new production of Gound’s Mireille was unveiled in as lovely a “realistic” setting as could be imagined. Veteran set designer Ezio Frigerio proved he still has his magic touch, creating a wholly evocative and dramatically correct milieu for each and every locale.

The golden rolling field at curtain rise which filled the upstage recalled the realistic theatrical countryside of Dancing at Lughnasa with its practical footpath winding through the rows of vegetation. In a departure from the libretto, the second scene was also set here (not outside the Arles arena) but the addition of a farm wagon festively decorated and the hanging of pennants sufficed for the story-telling. The massive, roughly detailed stone wall lent ominous visuals in the Val d’Enfer, and the subsequent banks of the Rhone bordered a shimmering sheet of a river, glistening in the moonlight, and included a damn’ good sinking boat effect. (Shades of the Pirates of the Caribbean drop-off!)

Ramon’s substantial rustic farm-plus-house looked a bit more “Normandy” than southern France to me (yeah, like I am such a French farmhouse specialist!), but it was beautifully fronted by lush, green hills (once again, practical), and, oh, BTW did I mention all of the wonderfully atmospheric lighting contributed by Vinicio Cheli? Mister Cheli summoned up an unusally rich combination of illumination effects to establish time of day, season, climate, and emotional state of the characters. Merveilleux!

Indeed, the Crau Desert was a white hot curtain with an unforgiving sun as a rear projection, and a richly variegated ground cloth. The massive chapel steps stage right in the final scene provided a wonderful set of choral risers for the opening bars, and the pillar monument to Our Lady at their summit was effectively used as our heroine crawled her way up to embrace it in isolation during the score’s final moments (bathed in yet another effective lighting special). The appropriate and colorful costumes were designed by Franca Squarciapino.

Mais, zut alors! — no one revives Mireille for the scenery or the tech. It is mounted as a vehicle for a major soprano. And this Paris certainly had, in local favorite Inva Mula. Let’s cut right to the “chaise”: Ms. Mula has all the goods for this taxing role (it seems like she never leaves the stage). She is exceptionally lovely, petite, musical, well-schooled, dramatically engaged (and engaging), and …she is more than capable of singing the snot out of it.

All that said, I felt that she is still somewhat discovering how to more fully embody Mireille. This is not entirely her fault. The piece just isn’t done. While a soprano can find opportunities to sing and perfect Mimi in any number (like all?) of the houses in the world, this was probably Inva’s sole shot at this complicated role.

She has mastered most of it, to be sure. What a powerful account of the desert scene! The technique is solid solid solid, and she can float a pianissimo one moment, and crest the orchestra with real fullness the next. Her lower middle is (thankfully) carefully husbanded, and her coloratura is winning and accurate, if not done with real abandon, I find that while she is wholly successful on her considerable terms, she does not yet have the warm vocal sheen of a Freni, the deeply rich interpretive gifts of a Scotto, or a truly unique “sound.”

But such is her immense talent that someday…like Freni and Scotto…she will have. She is young. She is that gifted. I will follow the development of this wonderful artist with interest and enthusiasm and I urge you to do the same. You will be well rewarded.

We were even more fortunate with our Vincent, tenor Charles Castronovo, who is surely a (“the”?) leading exponent of this French repertoire now active. Mr. Castronovo gifted us with honeyed, ravishing tone all evening and as for the style, well, he just “gets it.” His melting sotto voce singing was matched by dramatic, arching outpourings that were affecting, beautifully judged, and achingly personal. A seasoned performer, he cuts a youthful and handsome figure on the stage with unforced, natural acting. He was a perfect musical and theatrical match for Ms. Mula and they displayed a winning chemistry. (Is anyone recording this? Sony? DG? Hel-loooo!)

Franck Ferrari made a distinctive impression with his sizable, well-modulated baritone as the odious Ouirras. Sylvie Brunet was bit too well turned out as Taven, and clearly this ersatz-crone did not need to use the cane in her hand, but her rich-hued mezzo gave much pleasure. Stalwart Alain Vernhes was suitably stern in a characterfully sung Ramon (the heroine’s dad) and he was well-matched by Vincent’s dad, Ambroise (aka Nicolas Cavallier).

Anne-Catherine Gillet displayed a lovely, limpid quality as Vincenette, and her duet with Ms. Mula was one of the evening’s many highlights. Exceptional, too, was Sebastien Droy in his brief but impressive solo as Andreloun the shepherd. This was in every way an exceptional cast, including the delightful Clemence (Amel Brahim-Djelloul), the portentous Ferryman (Ugo Rabec), and a pure, straight-toned Heavenly Voice (Sophie Claisse).

Conductor Mark Minkowski elicited gorgeous, beautifully shaped, rhythmically propulsive playing from the pit all evening, and the precision of the sonorous ensemble work was perhaps even exceeded by the first rate (and frequent) solo passages from the clarinet and oboe.

Director Nicolas Joel contributed unfussy, if unremarkable staging that at its very best kept the singers well placed to be heard to best advantage. This is a gift that not all opera directors possess, or even care much about, believe me!

So, I was quite willing to forgive the (more than one) pat operetta stances in the duets, the overall lack of dramatic specificity and detail, and the rather unmotivated ambling that sometimes passed for blocking. Less easy to excuse was the utter silliness when Ouirras’ required trident thrust obviously wildly missed Vincent, who then had to act mortally wounded. Ah, well, when you’ve got Castronovo and Mula, and a great supporting cast the best thing may be to just stay out of their way and let them thrill us with terrific vocalizing, and that Mr. Joel largely does.

In tandem with this beautiful new production, its first at the Paris Opera (can you believe that?), they have mounted a comprehensive Gounod exposition in a side hall to honor the work and its composer, with many artifcats and designs from the work’s first performance.

The next evening was no less thrilling in the Bastille house, as they premiered a stunning production of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (a time share from Vienna’s Staatsoper 2004 season).

The orchestra goes from strength to strength these days, and this night Pinchas Steinberg superbly paced the band in an incandescent reading that was by turns taut, expansive, lush, percussive, melodic, heart-rending and gut-wrenching in a definitive rendition of this too-seldom heard masterpiece.

Surely the principal hornist gave arguably the most dynamic musical performance of the night, not unnoticed by the Maestro who favored him with his own call. Over past seasons, I have begun to believe more and more that the Paris pit has at last come to rival Vienna, the Met, and Covent Garden for consistent quality. Bravi tutti!

While I had greatly admired Robert Dean Smith for his Bayreuth Tristan, as Paul he moved into an even higher league. He paced himself uncommonly well, and if he tired during this arduous evening of singing, he never showed it. To the end, Mr. Smith was able to caress soft lyrical phrases one moment, and pour out pleasing, full-throated phrases the next, all the while proving to be a consistent and committed actor. A certain brightness in his delivery not only helps to ride the orchestra, but also bespeaks a vocal health in his essentially lyrical tone production.

Perhaps it was because I had not encountered her gifts before, but Ricarda Merbeth knocked my socks off as Marie/Marietta. This was a warm soprano instrument of substantial size and weight throughout the range, and with a solid technique that can convey a fearlessness in dramatic delivery all the while being in total control. The last time I was so overwhelmed by a solo performance was in this same house last season with Eva Marie-Westbroek’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Well, move over Eva, Ricarda is here! Ms. Merbeth’s powerful portrayal definitely gets added to Jim’s ‘as-good-as-it-gets’ category.

Acting with great élan, Stéphane Degout’s burnished baritone and suave delivery made a fine impression as Frank/Fritz. Doris Lamprecht proved luxury casting with her opulent mezzo and its polished presence. The uninhibited quintet of revelers were all securely voice and included Alexander Kravets (Count Albert), Elisa Cenni (Juliette), Letitia Singleton (Lucienne), Alain Gabriel (Victorin) and Serge Luchini (Gaston).

Director Willy Decker’s original staging was re-mounted by Meisje Barbara Hummel to great effect. The ingenious scenery and costumes by Wolfgang Gussmann were strikingly lit by Wolfgang Goebbel.

The curtain reveals a somewhat plain box of a denuded sitting room with the obligatory portrait propped on a wall down left. Two overstuffed chairs complete the furnishings. Oops, wait, not quite. There are additional pieces of the portrait strewn about — an eye here, a chin there, a hair curl yonder — and a scattering of dried roses. Paul’s emotional lunar landscape, if you will.

The visual monotony does not last long as the ceiling twists and turns, the walls bend outward, and the floor slides. Poltergeist for opera lovers. The staging makes telling use of each minimal prop. The portrait is carried about, an upstage scrim reveals a duplicate smaller sitting room with character doubles (very Magritte), Marietta perches on and inhabits the chairs with feline precision.

In Paul’s Walpurgishnacht, Hollywood chorus boys in top hats and tails surround a gold lame-clad “Marie;” Brigitta, crucified on an angled white cross is rolled across stage by a living tableaux of penitents; houses of Bruges spin on stage out of control (Franz appears from within one). This was a Felllini-esque orgy of eye-popping visuals that not only heightened the musical glories of this performance but embraced them. The rowdyl cheering at Act One’s close was indication of how special the evening was going, and was yet going to be.

It is hard to over-praise the costuming. Marietta’s vibrant yellow day traveling dress with cloche hat and wrap afforded as lovely a diva entrance as can be devised. The carnival figures were in raunchily re-invented black and white Commedia garb by way of Beate Uhse. In a brilliant stroke Fritz, having been got up as “Gilles,” later puts the clown’s costume on Paul with the finishing touch of a white mask, a truly gorgeous and meaningful visual.

In another bold stroke, when ‘Marie’ steps out of the portrait, she first takes off her long hair wig and hurls it at Paul, then spends the rest of her Act Two time as a bald banshee tormenting him. The hair had been in a glass box reliquary, now re-introduced with the religious procession atop the floating houses. No less than the Pope (!) holds the hair aloft like the host, which gets passed under the scrim to Paul as His Eminence is revealed as nothing but a good-time chorus boy while revelers deface the portrait. (I will have to say ten “Hail Mary’s” just for reporting this.)

Of course, the madness subsides, the spell is broken, Paul is released and all is restored, but not before a sober reflection on all that preceded, and all that would follow for our hero. A slow curtain. End of show. Total silence.

And then one woman spoke for all of us as she simply uttered a heartfelt, awe-inspired: “Superbe.”

The place went nuts. The season was off and running. Not to be anti-climactic but mention must be made of Patrick Marie Aubert’s well-schooled chorus, who performed superbly both nights like the first rate ensemble they are.

James Sohre

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