07 Jan 2010
Cendrillon in Marseille
Rare repertory but not truly rare, Massenet’s Cendrillon makes an appearance from time to time.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Rare repertory but not truly rare, Massenet’s Cendrillon makes an appearance from time to time.
One of the more notable recent revivals occurred at the Opéra National du Rhin (Strasbourg) in 2003 in the mise en scène of French born director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and Canadian designer André Barbe. The production is well traveled, including a stopover at the New York City Opera two years ago, and just now it was again revived in a splendid evening in Marseille (December 29.)
This staging team is far better known in the U.S. and Canada than in Europe, in fact the entire 2009-2010 four opera season of Florida Grand Opera (Miami) consists of stagings by Messieurs Doucet and Barbe. Was it not in the 1950’s that the exodus to Florida began?
The Doucet/Barbe Cendrillon looks backwards at the fabulous American 50’s, our out-sized and shiny kitchen appliances, our long and sleek automobiles, the giant juke boxes and the big screens for our Hollywood movies. Like all French glances at the U.S. this one too is vaguely anti-American, rubbing it in that though we may have all these flashy contraptions we do not have royalty and titles — i.e. breeding, that which money cannot buy.
Thus at the center of the Doucet/Barbe production is the American princess, Grace Kelly whose kingdom, Monaco, is just down the road from Marseille, and whose fairy tale royal marriage filled the giant black and white movie screen suspended from a branch of Massenet’s giant, magical third act oak tree. The coloratura incantations of Cinderella’s fairy godmother had brought the Prince and Cinderella together for a vocally sumptuous if chaste seduction scene at the drive-in movies.
The Doucet/Barbe production wore its concept like the skin-tight, low-cut gown of the 1953 Calendar girl hanging above the juke box. Cinderella, here named Lucette, emerged scrubbing, from the oven of a giant Admiral [brand name] stove, the giant kitchen radio expelled first the magical tones and then the personage of her fairy godmother. Per the fairy tale the dream soon vanished. Lucette awakened among endless rows of the cracker-box homes of an American subdivision, only to find herself soon again at the Prince[ton] ball (get it? — he had a P on his varsity sweater).
In Marseille conductor Cyril Diederich made Massenet’s marvelous score move seamlessly from the opera buffa fantasies of Lucette’s father and her stepmother and stepsisters to the late nineteenth century style opera seria heartrending outpourings of Cinderella, from the musical banality of balletic processions to the kinetic brilliance of above-the-staff singing. You had to pinch yourself to keep from believing it to be the most delightful Rosenkavalier you could possibly imagine. After his initial downbeat Mo. Diederich’s Cendrillon never touched ground, vindicating Massenet’s score as the most magnificent of French musical confections after Hoffmann!
The stage was in fact seen through the distorted lens of a crystal ball, somethings huge, somethings small, nothing as it really is. The costumes were fabulous exaggerations too, only Cinderella was left in a plain, gray skirt and sweater. But were those the colors (pinks, purples and greens) and shapes of the 1950’s? Certainly Messieurs Doucet and Barbe did their research, and certainly knowingly threw in some of the electric colors of the 60’s, and a pure 60’s Cadillac grill at the drive-in movies to boot.
Singing is solid in Marseille, and this Cendrillon was no exception. Canadian born, Juilliard trained mezzo soprano Julie Boulianne was Lucette, her beautifully even, bronze-hued tone was easy to imagine as the ideal singing voice of the regal Grace Kelly, plus she possesses a fine upper extension able to project Massenet’s very occasional sentimental exuberance. Her studied polish however betrayed her artistic youth. Prince Charming was Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun who trained at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and is a veteran of the New York City Opera production. He is handsome, brooding and accomplished, and just right for twisted takes on the heroes of his fach (Almaviva, Tamino, Nemorino, etc.).
Baritone Francois Le Roux took Pandolfe (Lucette’s father) well beyond the caricature of his costume to the highest level of later buffo style, magnifying ever word and smallest feeling to truly human proportion. Lilana Faraon was the Fairy Godmother of your dreams, her coloratura impeccable, her diminutive figure irreale and her energy indefatigable. Veteran Marseille mezzo soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch made hay of singing a comic role for once (she is most often the stalwart heavy-duty mezzo in Marseille), and Julie Mossay and Diana Axentil were truly believable Miami Beach adolescent females.
Choreographer Doucet’s production requires four zany ballerinas and three beautiful female jugglers, and a lively small chorus that does not mind executing a few dance steps, not to mention a brief pas de trois by the stepmother and stepsisters. In Marseille the Doucet/Barbe production achieved a near perfect balance of real and irreale, of humor and sentiment, and of spoof and beloved fairytale,
Massenet’s original Prince Charming is a soprano trouser role to be sung by a so-called Falcon soprano, a dark-toned French soprano voice, though in modern productions it is most often transposed for a male voice, satisfying current, particularly French sensibilities. The 1983 New York City Opera production though used a female Prince Charming (Suzanne Marsee) to reportedly wonderful effect.
This same 1983 NYCO production marked the first use of supertitles in the occidental world. Then NYCO general director Beverly Sills had seen supertitles used in Chinese opera in Peking and thought it might be a good idea to let her audiences know what was happening in this unfamiliar opera while it was happening. Now, a mere twenty-five years later, in spite of the excellent diction of the all Francophone cast, even in Marseille this Cendrillon was supertitled!