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Giuseppe Filianoti [Photo by E. Paiz]
18 Jun 2010

Revivals Sparkle in the City of Lights

Paris Opéra recently served up two past productions in vibrant performances that were fresh-as-new.

Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann; Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd

Les Contes d’Hoffmann — Hoffmann: Giuseppe Filianoti; Olympia: Laura Aiken; Antonia: Inva Mula; Giulietta: Béatrice Uria-Morizon; Niklausse/Muse: Ekaterina Gubanova; Mother: Cornelia Oncioiu; Dr. Miracle: Franck Ferrari; Andres, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio: Léonard Pezzino; Spalanzi: Rodolphe Briand; Nathanaël: Jason Bridges; Luther, Crespel: Alain Vernhes; Hermann: Vladimir Kapshur; Schlemil: Yuri Kissin. Director: Robert Carsen. Conductor: Jesus Lopez-Cobos.

Billy Budd — Billy Budd: Lucas Meachem; Captain Vere: Kim Begley; John Claggart: Gidon Saks; Redburn: Michael Druiett; Mr. Flint: Paul Gay; Lt. Ratcliffe: Scott Wilde; Red Whiskers: Andreas Jäggi; Squeak: John Easterlin; The Novice: François Piolino; The Bosun: Franck Leguérinel; Dansker: Yuri Kissin. Director: Francesca Zambello. Conductor: Jeffrey Tate.

Above: Giuseppe Filianoti (Hoffmann) [Photo by E. Paiz]


Director Robert Carsen’s take on Les Contes d’Hoffmann is arguably not perfect, once even verging on the vulgar, and more than occasionally, at odds with the text. So why can’t I stop thinking about it? (Make that “puzzling” about it.)

Perhaps it is because Carsen is quite masterful at developing meaningful character relationships and devising varied blocking to implement his intentions. Or perhaps it is because he is so ably abetted by a brilliant design team, who collectively decided to set the entire piece as Hoffmann’s fantasy, housed wholly in the theatre where Stella is performing in Don Giovanni.

As we enter the auditorium, our troubled hero is lying down right on a bare stage, struggling to write, and wrestling with his demons. As the piece begins, he is visited by his Muse, in diaphanous gown effectively illuminated by a ghostly beam of cross lighting. Then, damn if a huge wagon doesn’t appear, bearing an entire representational, stage-filling, eye-popping period courtyard set that slowly tracks across from stage right to stage left, where it once again disappears.

And not a moment too soon, for the ‘intermission’ revelers pour on stage and a looooooooong contemporary refreshment bar pops up out of the floor. Almost filling 3/4 of the width of the Bastille’s huge stage, and with the ‘service’ side of the bar facing us, it looked for all the world like any interval crush of patrons in any opera house in the world, the bartenders trying to serve the crowd in turn as they elbowed their way to the front of the queue. Hoffmann gets absorbed in this melee, and while his exposition does not quite work as theatre lobby banter, the milieu suits Carsen’s purpose. The Kleinzach aria is perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, creating the Dwarf of Song by having Hoffmann reverse his jacket, put his shoes on his hands to prance on the bar, with Niklausse sticking hands through from behind to gesticulate. Although the business didn’t wear particularly well it did serve to make that long tune (that also often does not wear well) go by far more quickly, and that can’t be all bad.

For the Olympia segment, we were back in the full Don Giovanni courtyard set that we saw sidle past, except this time with a perspective from behind the scenery, facing the prompter’s box and the ‘audience’ upstage. Once I accepted the fact that it made no sense for the cast therefore to be singing in our direction when performing to their supposed ‘audience’ would place them with their backs to us (picky, picky, picky), I managed to appreciate a good deal of the hi-jinks this mechanical doll seems to bring out of production teams.

On this occasion, Olympia is a randy, sex-charged Barbie doll, channeling simultaneously an American Idol wannabe and a Termi-Domi-natrix run amok. Especially funny was her use of a faux microphone a la Karaoke during the echo portion of her arpeggiated staccato figures, alternatively singing into the mike and then holding it out to encourage the audience to sing along on the repeats. ‘Un-amusing’ was having her force Hoffmann onto his back on a convenient hay wagon and then mounting him with thrusts of enthusiastic intercourse matching her surging coloratura. When she later peeled of her clothes to reveal a nude plastic sculpted baby doll body, Offenbach’s wit seemed to have been abandoned for cheap laughs. But, zut alors, you know what? Laugh they did. Vociferously. I had to remind myself that this is the same public that reveres Jerry Lewis. Eh bien, vive la difference.

The Antonia act was altogether quite brilliant, set as it was in a replication of the orchestra pit, with the false stage and act curtain looming above it. There was something altogether “right” about Antonia taking the score off the conductor’s desk, winding through the empty chairs and stands, and repairing to the piano, compelled to sing her hauntingly beautiful selection. Her mother appears above “on stage” as Donna Anna, Crespel was an orchestra violinist, and Dr. Miracle a mad maestro. This provided the ingredients for gripping drama. As the “orchestra” assembled in the pit and the conductor assumed the podium, Antonia rushed “on stage” to join her mother, dying just before the “downbeat.” Memorably effective.

Act Three’s Venice offered one final perspective, that of the rows of tiered audience seating as viewed from the stage apron, complete with footlights beaming at us. As the uninhibited chorus peopled the seats, they proceeded to give Sodom a run for its money, coupling, stroking, grinding and smooching with such abandon that it recalled an 8th Avenue adult movie theatre at the height of the Sexual Revolution. (Perhaps such things still go on in Paris?) By the time the chorus sang their last, um, climax, I felt we might should all collectively share a Gauloise. But no time for that. There was more confrontation to be played, and shadows to be stolen, but truth to tell, with only the empty seats in the background, this act ran out of visual interest. (Carsen was to use this stadium seating idea to more varied effect in last season’s Amsterdam Carmen.)

Still, by the time we came full circle back to the bar, and then the bare stage with the return of the Muse, an undeniably inventive and beautifully constructed series of theatrical environments had been lavished upon us by set and costume designer Michael Levine. Jean Kalman’s lighting was superb in its mood setting and focused isolation of important dramatic moments. Philippe Giraudeau devised clever, yet uncomplicated choreography for the chorus (well schooled Patrick Marie Aubert), most especially as visual back-up in the Olympia scene. What a wacky idea to have all the identical male choristers in a semi-circle strumming guitars for The Doll Song!

Having enjoyed Giuseppe Filianoti’s portrayal of the title role in Hamburg two seasons ago, I can happily report that he was even better here. Not only does he have the endurance for this killer part, but he has the right temperament. His ringing top notes never seemed to tire, and his substantial middle voice seems to have become more supple and expressive in the intervening years. Passion, good looks, commitment, star quality. . .what more could you ask for than Filianoti’s commanding impersonation?

Laura Aiken was a dizzy and dizzying Oympia, apparently willing (and able) to do anything asked of her by director and composer, all the while singing with accuracy and musicality. Her solid technique was wedded to a very pleasing instrument. If the voice lacks a unique aural personality, Ms. Aiken compensates with her savvy stagecraft skills. Inva Mula was a wholly convincing Antonia, regaling us with tonal beauty that displayed limpid tone and urgent desperation in equal measure. Lean and glamorous Béatrice Uria-Morizon used her statuesque beauty to good effect as Giulietta, and her substantial, slightly steely mezzo rang out in the house. I do wish she would pull back on phrase endings that dip near or below the break, though as they tended to splay ever so slightly, a minor flaw that also crept into the otherwise terrific Ekaterina Gubanova’s Niklausse. Gubanova strode the stage like a self-assured rooster, which was reflected in her no-nonsense, rock solid tonal production. Although it was not explained, Ekaterina also doubled as a well-sung Muse. A major talent. Cornelia Oncioiu’s rich, ripe contralto gave such pleasure as the Mother that it was a pity her contribution was so brief.

As a veteran of Carsen’s intriguing production, Franck Ferrari deployed his characterful, burly baritone to fine effect and he made much of the four villains, although I have to say they seemed less well delineated than the rich detail that Léonard Pezzino was able to achieve with his quadruple duty as Andres, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio. Indeed, Pezzino actually contributed the best take ever on Frantz’s comic ditty, singing almost all of it and eschewing the repeat of the embarrassing tired “joke” of his voice cracking. He just sang it out, Louise, to welcome appreciation from the audience. Rodolphe Briand was a perfectly competent Spalanzani, ditto Jason Bridges as Nathanaël, while stalwart company member Alain Vernhes was both a rousing Luther and a moving Crespel. Vladimir Kapshur made a solid contribution as Hermann, but Yuri Kissin was predictably soft-grained and undemonstrative as Schlemil.

Jesus Lopez-Cobos led an idiomatic reading, beautifully played, well-paced, and supportive of the singers. The Choudens version seems to have provided the bulk of this performance edition. At the risk of horrifying Offenbach scholars everywhere, my feeling about this piece is that it is just too long to sustain the premise. If there are options and editions from which to choose, why not sometime choose for a shorter one? That said, minute for minute this Tales of Hoffmann was musically resplendent and dramatically involving.

Click here for additional production information on Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

If anything, the wonderful orchestra played even more vibrantly for Jeffrey Tate in the riveting revival of Billy Budd. This knotty, moral allegory is not an easy listen. Even now, well into the 21st century, the dissonant harmonies, melisma-laced recitatives, and unsettling, oft shifting centers of tonality can challenge the ear. But Maestro Tate obviously knows his way around the Britten opus, and inspired his assembled forces to a forcefully cogent realization of this masterpiece.

Not least, the pit relished every detail of the thrilling, exhaustively multi-faceted orchestration, playing with enthusiasm, panache, and crackling dramatic fire. Not to be outdone, the all-male chorus (Monsieur Aubert’s exemplary work again) and mass of soloists performed with a united white-hot result.

I was fortunate to re-visit this production, which has aged better than a fine wine. Every minute theatrical moment, every technical element was polished to a lustrous sheen. Alison Chitty has devised a Rubick’s cube of a ship with a floor that tilts, steps that accordion, hammocks that hang, doors that enable varied traffic patterns, and a dominating mast that evokes an Orthodox cross. It is the perfect unit environment in which director Francesca Zambello can work her substantial magic. (Chitty also contributed the meaningful costumes, correctly capturing the military uniforms and all-important ranks and social order.)

Ms. Zambello makes nary a false move, not only in the thoroughly believable and fluid movement of the assembled forces, but also with her unerring placement of soloists and creation of plausible beats of tension and release. In a brilliant coup de theatre Billy is executed by placing the noose around his neck, having his mates hold him aloft on a wooden plank (as they had in Act One in his triumphant welcome to the ranks) and then dropping it as he swung . . .and swung. . .and swung. . .until an opaque drop was lowered in front of him. The shadow of his hanging corpse still seen on the curtain, Vere reverted to his aged persona and completed the evening. This was among the best dramatic effects I have experienced in an opera house.

Nor were we shortchanged on the vocal side. Lucas Meachem has a lot going for him: a lean, clean lyric baritone that is even throughout the range, excellent musical instincts, fine diction, and a complete mastery of the musical demands of the handsome, simple seaman. As yet, he seems to be just on the outside of the character, coming off a little cool in spite of conscientiously going through all the right dramatic motions. Other interpreters with less beautiful voices have made me weep, while Meachem just made me admire (albeit a lot) his technique. Too, Lucas is a bit too solid of frame to fully compete with other muscled and toned exponents of the role. Billy’s exceptional physical beauty is a key component of the plot after all, and it does matter. Further experience and a couple months of Weight Watchers and Mr. Meachem could be climbing the mizzen mast with the best of them.

Kim Begley’s well-seasoned Vere struck all the right points. His responsive tenor could be be authoritative one moment, and heart-breakingly plaintive the next. His transitions from broken old man to in-charge commander and back were believably impersonated. I was also mightily impressed by the weighty, dark-hued singing from Gidon Saks as Claggart. His attraction to young Billy was subtly, and hence effectively played, and he managed to find some variety in what is pretty much a ‘one note’ part.
The other officers were a trio of fine singers, indeed. Michael Druiett (Redburn), Paul Gay (Mr. Flint) and Scott Wilde (Lt. Ratcliffe) each achieved a well-differentiated persona.

Among the sailors, Andreas Jäggi had real presence as Red Whiskers and John Easterlin’s made the most of his moments as Squeak. The Novice is always a scene- and heart-stealer and the excellent François Piolino did just that, displaying a well-tutored tenor to boot. Franck Leguérinel also impressed with his few solos as the Bosun. Only Yuri Kissin’s Dansker was a bit disappointing, not in intent, but once again in under-powered execution.

From the Minor Quibble Department: While Alan Burrett has devised a superb lighting design, effectively contrasting light and dark, shadows and washes, night and day, there is one important moment that stands as a mis-calculation. At the very end of the piece the story fades away, Vere retreats introspectively, and the instrumentalists drop out entirely. Immediately after the tenor’s final word the lights suddenly jerked to an abrupt blackout. I would hope that this was a miscue, and urge that the effect be reconsidered to mirror the slow fade that is happening musically and dramatically.

But none of my reservations can dispel the fact that Les Contes d’Hoffmann and Billy Budd have been lovingly revived with a freshness and sparkle that does honor to the City of Lights.

Click here for additional production information on Billy Budd.

James Sohre

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