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Juan Diego Florez as Giacomo V [Photo by Agathe Poupeney/ Opéra national de Paris]
18 Jul 2010

Stars Sizzle, Productions Fizzle in Paris

So when did you last shout “bravissima”?

La Donna del Lago and Die Walküre at Opéra national de Paris

Above: Juan Diego Florez as Giacomo V

Photos by Agathe Poupeney/ Opéra national de Paris


For me, I had to think way back to Birgit’s return to the Met in Elektra. Or Joan in the all-star Puritani. Well, my drought has been broken with Joyce DiDonato’s breath-taking performance in Paris Opera’s La Donna del Lago.

When last I experienced this tremendous artist, it was in the delightful Cenerentola in Barcelona. I never dreamed she could exceed the heat she generated on stage that day. I was wrong. For with her consummately realized Elena in La Donna del Lago we are privileged to experience that rare perfect marriage of role and artist. This day there was nothing her voice could not do, and she (and Rossini) asked it to do a great deal. Perfectly realized coloratura one moment, melting legato the next, heady leaps to the heights and spot-on plunges to the depths, fizzy fioritura, and plangent despair — Elena la, Elena qua — Ms. DiDonato makes short work of any such challenges as if she were born with this role in her throat.

The great final set piece Tanti Affeti was such stuff as legends are made of, with our diva not so much singing the aria as inhabiting it. The inevitability of every phrase, the quick-silver contrasts of emotion, the flawless musical instincts backed by one of the best techniques in the world held us utterly mesmerized. Indeed, at one momentary rest I became aware that no one seemed to be breathing. Although we were poised in our seats, mouths agape at the pyrotechnical display, no air was moving in or out lest the perfection of the moment be marred. Only the greatest artists giving the greatest performances can inspire that reaction holding an audience rapt, and Joyce DiDonato must certainly be numbered among them. Her aria effortlessly dispatched, all that was left was for us to roar our approval with such ferocity and persistence that it threatened to bring the plaster down upon our heads. Bravissima, Joyce. Oh hell, Bravississima.

It is a pleasure to note that she was not alone in her musical accomplishments for Paris fielded a starry cast of equals including one of the leading tenors of the day, Juan Diego Florez. If there is a superlative left to lavish on JDF I am not sure what it is. His familiar and acclaimed bright lyric sound is buoyed by healthy production, unerring passage work, and an ease of communication that really are the ‘total package.’ JDD and JDF are a Dream Pair in this Fach, of course, not only for their infectious joy in singing (and skill at same), but also for the youthful good looks, stage savvy and charisma that enliven even the most implausible plots and more obscure repertoire.

Colin Lee was a revelation with his authoritative performance as Rodrigo. He was an excellent choice to contrast with Mr. Florez since his fluid tenor is a bit darker, although no less flexible. Hearing the two boys swapping high C challenges and batting them out of the ballpark was quite thrilling. The ’discovery’ for me however, had to be luminous mezzo Daniela Barcellona as Malcolm Groeme. Her first aria summoned echos of the young Marilyn Horne with the rich, pulsating melismas and the ringing baritonal chest tones. All evening she went from strength to strength and her varied and well-modulated rendition earned the evening’s second biggest ovation. Bass Simón Orfila brought rolling, orotund tones and dramatic conviction to the role of Duglas. Diana Axentii lent solid support as Albina, Jason Bridges showed off a very pleasing tenor as Serano, and Philippe Talbot was fine in the small part of Bertram.

dame-florez-didonato-agathe-poupeney.pngJuan Diego Florez as Giacomo V and Joyce DiDonato as Elena

Would that the physical production had been up to the level of its world class singers. Ezio Frigerio is incapable of designing anything that is not handsome at the least, and here his imposing unit set consists of a three-tiered, formal stone structure that in a way seemed like it was based on the Palais Garnier itself. The semi-circular, arched and vaulted construction was fronted with steps not unlike choral risers. At rise, there was a split in the middle with a Mylar mirror panel backdrop that reflected the three crystal chandeliers, making us feel like, well, we were perhaps in the lobby. And the choristers were dressed in 18th century evening wear for the whole night. Franca Squarciapino created these and the lovely traditional period costumes worn by the principles.

As the mirror flies away, a sort of “torn” stone/steel diagonal back drop replaces it and the walls endlessly, repeatedly closed and opened, opened and closed until we were ready to scream “enough already.” In fact, there was a lone but persistent boo-er who was having none of this but at least relegated the disapproval to musical play-offs. False doors were set within the lower arches and they too kept opening and closing to allow the chorus to file on and stand in formation like a concert (see “like choral risers,” above).

The trap door center stage also wore out its welcome quickly. When first used it was a really fine star entrance for Elena who appears from the floor “lake” seated on a bench with rather effective area gobo lighting, one of designer Vinicio Cheli’s better effects. Most of the night he only gave the stage pools of light and when a singer moved out of them, oh well, they were in the dark. Meanwhile the trap fell, it rose, fell, rose, this time providing a step up for Giacomo, that time a railing, and then in an incredibly duff effect, a cheesy harp which is joined by a chandelier for a “sun” effect as the harp in the pit plucked away (beautifully I hasten to add). And that is pretty much it from the design perspective.

Lluis Pasqual is credited as the director but it is hard to know what he did really, except have the chorus remain on the sides totally unengaged in the action, and have the soloists routinely circle the stage a bit and the tromp down center one by one in a numbingly repetitive pattern. Pasqual also kept having people spook around on the second and third levels of the balconies, without adding visual interest but at least too boring to even be distracting. Montse Colomé claims the distinction of devising perhaps the dorkiest dances I ever saw for three men and one woman as warriors, flailing arms and extending legs like Xena Meets The Matrix.

But there was always the sublime music-making, to include assured orchestral playing under the experienced baton of conductor Roberto Abbado. You will likely never hear La Donna del Lago better performed. What a missed opportunity for the production to have matched the stars’ fire power.

Across town at the Bastille, pretty much the same scenario played out with the new Die Walküre: Music 10, Design 4, Direction 1. Jürgen Bäckman’s variable sets began with an Act One that had structural schizophrenia. The hut was down right, sort of. Two mostly black vertical beams flanked center stage like a second proscenium, sort of. A set of (what?) blinds, rather defined the wall of the hut… sort of. Until similar blinds in a “sort of” mountainous outline upstage served as the basis for a rippling water curtain which burbled in conjunction with Wagner. There is a pit the width of the stage at the apron and when characters stand in it they are cut off to the knees.

Director Günter Krämer has invented a plodding and overt political “message,” starting with refugees cowering center stage who get slaughtered in the prelude by armed marauders that seem to be Hunding’s Hateful Henchman (or H3). The corpses lie there for the rest of the act, occasionally prompting acknowledgment, occasionally not. At first appalled, Sieglende later traipses quiet gaily through the killing field once she is in love. H3 arrive home and in a nod to Christ feeding the multitudes, Sieglinde feeds them all out of one small soup tureen (just like the one at home on my refrigerator). Aw, heck the food is pantomimed (poorly) anyway.

Eventually the burbling backstage blinds prove to be a scrim revealing a big full moon, with (I think) apple trees in bloom. A black curtain is pulled back on the stage right support which reveals a red framed painting of The Ash Tree. Which the twins slash up with a dinner knife. Slightly later Siegmund pulls Nothung out of the red frame, an idea that Herr Direktor must have pulled out of his ass. There is no chemistry at all between S&S, or really anyone else, because clearly no connectivity was asked of them. Du bist der Lenz w as sung to the first balcony, not to the incestuous love interest.

Act II featured a huge tilted mirror that reflected stairs below, and at first this was a very intriguing look. The only other set pieces were two big banquet tables with apples. In fact, all the Valkyries are on stage playing catch with the apples (Freia’s?) while we try to locate the source of the Ho-jo-to-ho’s. Oh, there she is seated in the melee. Wotan is in a big fur coat which he doffs to put on an evening jacket. Now, men in Edwardian underwear (Nibelungen?) trudge up the stairs reflected in the mirror bearing huge letters G E R MA N J A which they place on stage. I couldn’t see the “G” from my seat and puzzled for the longest time what “Ermanta” might mean, but I digress. Wotan, when piqued, throws the GER down in a fit leaving MANJA. Subtle stuff, huh? Throughout the act a shiny silver helmet, spear, and breast plate are placed and spotlit on the down right apron, a passing reference to what the piece is actually about I guess.

Fricka enters in an odd looking costume, as though a young girl had put on a red, off the shoulder hoop skirt over a mesh black long-sleeved net of a top. The quirky but spunky costumes were devised by Falk Bauer, including a rather butch Brünnhilde in don’t-mess-with-me boots, what appeared to be upscale sweat pants and a roomy linen smock, resulting in a look akin to an on-call Medic at Dinah Shore Golf weekend. After Fricka has made her case, the curtain falls for no reason then rises to reveal the tables gone and all the apples strewn about the floor, which Number One Daughter arranges slowly in a big circle until Siegmund scatters them with a petulant kick. Remember Siegmund? Well, H3 are back marauding and they crowd around him. We never see the sword break, or Siegmund get stabbed to death, important plot points, donchyathink? As wounded Hunding crawls and keeps crawling Wotan’s Geh…Geh is meant for the Henchmen, who scatter. Fricka lurks imposingly up left. Ooh, a symbol!

Lord help us as Act III starts with “morgue” tables bearing bloodied, naked cadavers. The Valkyries as nurses give them a sponge bath, gesticulate, “pray,” and touch the victims’ heads, at which point they stand up and walk away. This gets repeated. Some lone idiot in the audience enthusiatiscally applauded every time these “corpse” extras laid down or got up. Behind all of this was a scrim with German scribblings with the H3 group got up as white-clothed firemen ready for a back-draft, and what seemed to be dog masks. They execute a Slo-Mo, Goose-Step-By-Way-Of-Thriller routine staged by Otto Pichler. Curtain down. Curtain Up. Now there are only two tables center, some bland looking institutional chairs down right and the shield-helmet-spear combo up right. Eventually the plot unwinds, Wotan storms in bearing Siegmund’s corpse in a sack which he lays on the upstage table and, after more laying on of Wagner, Brünnhilde gets put to sleep lying next to him.

The back curtain rises slowly to reveal dead (apple?) trees, a bombed landscape and red light. Lots of red light. No fire, but man was there ever red light (effective lighting design was by Diego Leetz). But there is one final tweak to go, as Brünnhilde (channeling Freddy Kruger) comes back to life, takes off the breast plate, gets under her table on the floor, and goes back to sleep in fetal position. Oops, one more tweak as a veiled, Gay Nineties clad Woman-in-Black walked in silhouette from stage left to stage right. Erda? Cosima? Victoria?

But be heartened to know the performance could hardly be faulted musically, starting with a incisively and insightfully let reading by Philippe Jordan. The orchestra responded with thrilling results and Maestro Jordan elicited chamber music-like playing of a delicacy I have rarely heard in a Wagner performance. The opera’s opening bars were at a faster clip than usual but they were certainly exciting. He paced the entire evening well, and imposed a welcome elasticity and fluidity on what can sometimes be ponderous stretches of narrative. The maestro was taken to task by some for not unleashing more power in certain climaxes but I say that this was arguably the best balance I have encountered between a Wagner pit and the singers. Mr. Jordan treated the vocalists as first among equals and it paid off beautifully. And what vocalists we had before us.

Katarina Dalayman is deservedly singing Brünnhilde all over the map. She has an uncommonly warm, round soprano with good thrust and a well-grounded, lyrical approach to the part. Her sizable, instrument nonetheless is able to convey a girlishness befitting the young Valkyrie and her stage demeanor is unforced and appealing. Thomas Johannes Mayer is a rising exponent of Wotan and he has all the stamina, buzzy tone, and snarling authority you want from the god. While his was a fine achievement and well received, I wish he might not push so hard on the the upper forte held notes, which tend to spread when they shouldn’t need to. Mr. Mayer could also bring more tenderness to the mix when deciding his daughter’s fate although with this production it was hard to tell if that was our Wotan’s fault.

As the Wälsung twins Ricarda Merbeth and Robert Dean Smith are giving JDD and JDF a run for their money for the title of Paris’ Dream Team. They were one of last season’s glories in “Die Tote Stadt.” First rate singing. Ms. Merbeth has a well-rounded lower voice, secure top notes, excellent legato and superb diction. Mr. Smith has a solid core to his substantial tenor and he knows how to use his resources to convey weight and heft without unduly pushing his pleasing tone past its limits. He too has excellent German, and a superb sense of pacing. Singly they were dreamy, together they were a Wagnerian’s answered prayer. I do have to say that Mr. Smith and Maestro Jordan have conspired to give us the longest held, steadiest Wälse I have ever heard. Yvonne Naef was a magisterial Fricka, with her imposing mezzo scoring all the musical moments asked of her. The Valkyries were well cast and while blending well, displayed good individuality. I particularly admired the talented Silvia Hablowetz as Waltraute, but girls! Girls! You were all pretty!

This jumble of a Die Walküre may not bode well for the coming Ring installments, and the longueurs of La Donna del Lago make me “long” to warn La Scala and Covent Garden, with whom it is shared and who have yet to see it. But nothing can diminish the fact that musically, we were treated to two of the disparately finest outings of the season.

James Sohre

Die Walküre

Siegmund: Robert Dean Smith; Hunding: Günther Groissböck; Sieglinde: Ricarda Merbeth; Wotan: Thomas Johannes Mayer; Brünnhilde: Katarina Dalayman; Fricka: Yvonne Naef; Gerhilde: Marjorie Owens; Ortlinde: Gertrud Wittinger; Waltraute: Silvia Hablowetz; Schwertleite: Wiebke Lehmkuhl; Helmwige: Barbara Morihien; Siegrune: Helene Ranada; Grimgerde: Nicole Piccolomini; Rossweisse: Atala Schöck. Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Director: Günter Krämer. Set Design: Jürgen Bäckman. Costume Design: Falk Bauer. Lighting Design: Diego Leetz. Staged Movement: Otto Pichler.

La Donna del Lago

Giacomo V: Juan Diego Florez; Duglas d’Angus: Simon Orfila; Rodrigo di Dhu: Colin Lee; Elena: Joyce DiDonato; Malcolm Groeme: Daniela Barcellona; Albina: Diana Axentii; Serano: Jason Bridges; Bertram: Philippe Talbot. Conductor: Roberto Abbado. Director: Lluis Pasqual. Set Design: Ezio Frigerio. Costume Design: Franca Squarciapino. Lighitng Design: Vinicio Cheli. Choreography: Montse Colomé. Chorus Master: Alessandro di Stefano.

Co-production with La Scala, Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

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