26 Mar 2010
Mark Lamos’ production of Chabrier’s L’Etoile is perfectly ridiculous.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
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.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
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.
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.
Mark Lamos’ production of Chabrier’s L’Etoile is perfectly ridiculous.
This would be most unsuitable — if this post-Offenbach operetta of 1877 were anything but a perfection of ridiculousness. The gentlemen in bowler hats, bouncing up and down like pistons! the ladies whose mourning frocks and veils are instantaneously transformed into the can-can frippery of rejoicing! the lead singers on scooters! the backdrop that itself becomes tipsy when the mad King Ouf sings a tribute to Chartreuse (the lighting changes at that point too)! the fun-house mirrors that enclose (and might as well describe) the action — which will strike Americans as “Gilbertian,” though Gilbert got his ideas from Offenbach, too.
In the City Opera’s quest to re-establish and re-present itself to New York as the opera company that does what the Met isn’t going to do, Chabrier (the production has already been seen there in 2002) is an excellent place to start. The melodies are light in a slyer way than Offenbach’s, with more opportunity for harmonious display, as in the “kissing” quartet in Act III. The choruses are not mere background, and in the Lamos production give the City Opera ladies and gents a chance to strut to a Broadway standard, all the while singing at a rather higher one. The wit of the piece is the kind of froth that so often evaporates when the Met attempts operetta, and it wouldn’t work at NYCO either if it were not so elegantly presented and if we were not all used to surtitles by now. Ideally, such a work should be given in the vernacular and in a small house, but that’s true of Rossini’s comic operas too — and of Shostakovich’s The Nose, for that matter, concurrently doing sell-out business across the plaza.
The story of L’Etoile makes one reflect on the deep philosophical import of The Mikado. The tyrant here, King Ouf I (I guess that should be le Roi Ouf Ier), always celebrates his birthday with festivities climaxing in a public execution. Knowing this, his subjects are on their best behavior at that time of year — but Lazuli, a boy from out of town, falls into the trap of resenting the world because he is unhappily in love with a strange girl he met on the road. Before he can be impaled on a booby-trapped armchair, however, the royal astrologer discovers that he — Lazuli — is destined to die precisely one day before the king does. (Date unspecified.) The king thereupon decides to spare the boy — which is good news for Siroco, the astrologer, whom the king has condemned to die fifteen minutes after the king does. But Lazuli does not want to live without his adored Laoula — despite the fond attentions of the ladies of the court — and attempts to drown himself. And Laoula, it turns out, is not a traveling cosmetics saleswoman (her disguise) but the princess next door, betrothed to King Ouf. Ouf, like Gilbert’s Koko, prefers life to love-death and orders the lovers wed. “And we’ll have two executions next year,” he consoles his delighted subjects.
Jennifer Zetlan as Laoula, Julie Boulianne as Lazuli, and Liza Forrester as Aloès
Everyone loves a comic villain, and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s King Ouf is the joy of this occasion — as he was in his NYCO debut as Rameau’s frog-nymph Platée. He is the joy of the costume designer Constance Hoffman as tiny Ouf stomps about “in disguise” in the largest overcoat in captivity, and the joy of the conductor, the joyous Emmanuel Plasson, as he warbles his song of Chartreuse ecstasy, his high tenor mated with François Loup’s low bass, and he is the joy of everyone present as he caricatures tiny men with too much power, in his bloodthirst, his lust, his cowardice, his egotism. I heard Fouchécourt last month singing Satie’s Socrate to accompany Mark Morris’s choreography; he was splendid, but he’s far too much fun on stage to let him languish in any pit. Morris should have let him dance.
I was less thrilled with Julie Boulianne as the boyish Lazuli, on purely vocal grounds. Like so many boyish roles in French opera (and theater), the part is written for a young woman, and when Frederica von Stade sang it, her famous charm and musicality conquered all. But Boulianne, though she has a solid technique and many pretty notes (at least high ones — she faded out on lower lines), suffered intonation problems throughout the first act, often landing just shy of otherwise good, clear tones. Too, her trilled “kisses” lacked body, and the joke is not a good one without genuine trills. Only in the quartet, when obliged to intone the extremely musical name “La-ou-la,” did her vocal appeal make the proper effect.
William Ferguson as Hérisson de Porc-Épic, Jennifer Zetlan as Laoula, Andrew Drost as Tapioca, and Liza Forrester as Aloès
Tiny Jennifer Zetlan was charming as the princess, but tall Liza Forrester, as her confidant and abettor in tickling strange sleeping men, had a mezzo that made me daydream of hearing her in many larger, more rewarding roles. The supporting parts in this opera are numerous and were all cast with City Opera folk who sang elegantly and cavorted stylishly. Style, the essence of Chabrier, was also the essence of the silly evening.