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24 Oct 2010

Paris: La Saison a Commencé

Paris Opéra’s L’Italiana in Algeri had a lot going for it, including a star mezzo in her local debut, so why was I resistant to its merits?

Maurizio Benini brought admirable control to the musical proceedings, to be sure, and the orchestra responded well once past a rather characterless overture. Allessandro di Stefano’s male choristers were certainly well-tutored, singing cleanly and correctly even in the face of busy staging. Hmmm. Perhaps a smidge too cleanly and correctly. I might have rejoiced in a little spontaneity infused into the proceedings. That said, harpsichordist Denis Dubois was a highly responsive collaborator, and he partnered the soloists in the recitatives quite inventively all night long. It isn´t often that the dialogue imparts more pleasure than the arias. Hmmmm again. What’s up with that exactly?

Well, Viveca Genaux tried her considerable best in this, her first Paris Opera appearance, and that is indeed considerable. Several times in Act I, though, the voice seemed to not want to ‘speak’ and I wondered if she might be indisposed. And her vocal presence seemed curiously --what’s the word? — muted. My question was answered when, before Act Two’s curtain rise, our diva was indeed announced as under the weather. And that is a pity, since you could tell Ms. Genaux likely had more to offer than was on display. Having enjoyed her in Semele at NY City Opera and in I Capuletti in St. Paul, I find her voice just a bit on the dry side for Italian opera, but a terrific match for Handel. Lacking the ballsy baritonal richness of a Horne, or the quirky abandon of a Bartoli, Viveca relies on evenly produced, well-connected phrases; and technically accurate, assured melismas. Alas, it sounds a little better on paper than it came off in the house. What cannot be disputed is that the lady brought a sultry and spunky physicality to the role, with an easy and pliable sexuality that was hard to resist (and arguably the best gams in the business). Given that she inhabited the character so completely, and given that she was perhaps operating on half steam vocally, I will defer final judgment of her Isabella to another occasion.

Lawrence Brownlee was a sweet-voiced Lindoro and his stage comportment is boyishly appealing. But looking cherubic is perhaps not quite enough to lift the hero to an equal footing with the heroine. It just seemed there was not enough at stake challenging their relationship, and we weren’t rooting for them. We did get to bask in Mr. Brownlee’s high-flying, arching phrases, and admire his well-grounded technique. Although light, his pretty tenor was well-deployed and a good match in timbre with his mezzo. He does a little trick of covering the very top notes, but the result is that they are wondrously steady. Marco Vinco was a generally successful Mustafa, if a bit anonymous. There wasn’t anything about his portrayal that seemed highly personal, and in fact could have been interchanged with several other Rossinian buffo roles with no noticeable difference. His orotund voice was enjoyable and secure, although a bit diffuse, occasionally lacking the bite that might have scored more comic points. Jael Azzaretti’s Elvira was on the opposite side of the fence, offering clean, incisive tone but unable to vary it, thereby suffering from a rather ‘one-note’ vocal portrayal.

Alessandro Corbelli was a seasoned Taddeo, and may have even been memorable in more remarkable company and in a better production. His singing was spot-on, varied, and highly engaging. And he has one of the more splendid baritone instruments currently assessing this Fach. Cornelia Oncioiu brought plummy tone to the small part of Zulma and made solid contributions to the ensembles. Vocal honors of the night to my taste went to baritone Riccardo Novaro for his buzzy, ringing take on Haly. His solid, slightly burnished tone rang out well in the house and his acting was pleasingly poised.

In promotional materials hyping this revival of Andrei Serban’s production, one pulled review declared it ‘hilarious.’ An old New Yorker cartoon came to mind depicting a couple in the stoic audience at an SRO performance, in which the wife hissed to her husband: “I imagine it is far more hilarious with a theatre full of laughing people.” The manic hi-jinks in Mr. Serban’s fussy mounting just didn’t land. Oh, there was a guffaw here, a sustained titter there. But the lack of chemistry between the characters sorely handicapped the hilarity, and the frantic antics didn’t compensate.

Worse, they distracted. I cannot recall one aria that was not accompanied by shuffling feet, semaphoring hands, skittering set pieces, or undulating slave girls performing choreography that looked to have been devised by St. Vitus. (In fact the fidgety dances were created by Niky Wolcz). Marina Draghici’s settings were wonderfully colorful and mostly very functional, but her costumes were less successful, especially the male chorus got up as bulbously fat, naked, turbaned eunuchs. The Act Two curtain rise which revealed the men bent over mooning the audience drew a few well-deserved boos.

Okay, to be fair, there were a few good goofs, like the sinking of the massive cut out of a luxury liner upstage, a veritable comic book Lusitania. And having Mustafa mount stairs to a platform to sit and eat the spaghetti, and then to have the platform pulled away leaving him obliviously dangling and chomping away in mid-air was good fun. But alas, with mis-fired timing, lack of inner comic fire, and highly competent vocalism that never quite achieved the required bravura, this Rossini was decidedly a rather tame affair at the Palais Garnier.

Not so the thrilling “Il Trittico” that inhabited the Bastille house, with a career-capping tour de force (and tour de farce) from veteran Juan Pons. At sixty-four, Mr. Pons is at the culmination of a distinguished career that has taken him to virtually all of the world’s stages. On this occasion he was operating at the top of his game. His Michele in Il Tabarro was easily the finest of my experience, characterized by richly grainy, rolling tone in all registers. If the high G’s did not ‘quite’ have all the spin and ping of yore, they were solid, steady, and they filled the house as powerful statements. His acting is unaffected yet supremely affecting, and he scored every dramatic point. As Gianni Schicchi, Juan flat out nailed all the comedy, too, and I found myself laughing aloud at thrice familiar material I thought could never tickle me again. This was Operatic Royalty at work and we willingly worshipped at the throne.

In the tricky role of Giorgietta, Sylvie Valayre was in good enough form, but it has to be said that her lower middle voice does not have quite the oomph to make the most of the part, such as the low-lying duet with Michele. Give her a high passage, though, and Ms. Valayre is your gal, as she can pour out zinging top notes with effortless abandon. Marco Berti as Luigi reveled in his high notes, too, pushing them out into the auditorium with a vibrant squillo that was a real crowd pleaser. I feel there is a bit more to the role than volume, though, and while he modulated his voice conscientiously, there is no doubt that riding the full orchestra with exciting results is his forte (as it were).

Tinca and Talpa are often comprimario turns but not so here as Eric Huchet and Mario Luperi fleshed them out with expertly sung impersonations. Both did similarly fine work in the last third of the night as Gherardo and Simone, respectively. Marta Moretto was an admirable Frugola and a deliciously bitchy Zita. She knows her way around the stage, turning in inspired comic performances without a hint of shtick yet missing nary an opportunity to get a laugh. She husbanded her substantial mezzo resources well although the tone was a bit rough around the edges at times, especially at the break to chest voice. Small matter, since she is a consummate professional and made nary a false move all night. Even the smallest roles were cast from strength: Hyung-Jong Roh’s shining tenor as the Song Seller could persuade anyone to make a purchase; and the Two Lovers were the loverly, honey-toned Anne-Sophie Ducret and Gregorz Staskiewicz.

I have always found Suor Angelica to be all about sublime atmospheric establishment and one terrific aria (okay, okay and a short mid-opera bitch fight). The piece was well-served indeed by an unsurpassable ensemble of female soloists. All from the front ranks, I could single out Marie-Thérèse Keller for her secure, silvery soprano and her beautifully voiced Mistress of the Novices. Ms. Keller also switched gears later to contribute a seething La Ciesca. Barbara Morihien’s creamy instrument also did excellently by La Badessa, and no less so as Schicchi’s more acerbic Nella. If Fiorenza Cossotto passed her mantle to anyone it just may have come to rest on the imperious Luciana D’Intino (La Zia Principessa). But then Ms. D’Intino is no one’s ‘copy.’ Hers is a personal, sizzling, sizable instrument with just a touch of metal in the middle and top, but with the whole Mother Lode in the chest voice. She is a masterful technician, knitting her registers together with near seamless artistry. She has that elusive ‘star quality’ in spades and dominated her short scene as she must. This was a powerhouse of a performance.

But Angelica is nothing if not about creating sympathy for its hapless heroine, and really the whole show rests on her. Happily, Paris Opera enlisted the services of the gifted Tamar Iveri for the title role. It fits her like a second skin, and Ms. Tamari succeeds in creating a well-rounded personality and distinctive character in spite of the handicap of looking just like (about) everyone else on stage. She is possessed of a handsome spinto which is securely deployed, and uncommonly vibrant in the lower range. She also commands a gleaming top and admirably floats the end of the aria, which has brought many a soprano to grief. I am not sure Tamar is widely known outside of Europe but she should be. This is a major Puccinian.

Of the large, superb ensemble in Gianni Schicchi not already mentioned, Ekaterina Syurina made a laudable role debut as Lauretta. If there is a more famous aria than O Mio Babbino Caro I am not sure what it is (a Callas excerpt is in an advert on CNN about every five minutes right now). Ms. Syurina not only makes the piece her own, voicing it lovingly with her pure lyric soprano, but she also soars joyously in the duet passages. Saimir Pirgu was a memorable Rinuccio, equal parts secure, ringing lyric tenor; and dramatic persona slightly ‘prosciutto crudo.’ When he semaphorically addresses the audience directly, which he does on most solo passages, he seems a Pavarotti wannabe who has lost his white hankie. But he is good-looking, charismatic, and sings with stylistic security, so what the heck, just give him the hankie and be done with it. Alain Vernhes was in fine voice as Betto, and Roberto Accurso made the most out of Marco. Yuri Kissin was bit of luxury casting as Maestro Spinelloccio, and young Christian Helmer used his pleasing baritone to good ends as Amantio di Nicolao.

The production was stylized, and somewhat eccentric but grounded in truthful imagery. Tabarro’s ship was tilted a bit cockeyed, almost like an ice breaker with its bow lifted up during heavy going. But it served the story’s purpose well and additional playing spaces were created by a gangplank going up to a quay, and a gate in the railing opening to the stage apron. The textured grays of the color palette conveyed the workaday repetition and entrapment inherent in Giorgietta’s environment. The back wall had an Arp-inspired opening in it that framed the upstage action on the platform. Lighting effects and rear screen projections were well-judged by designer Gianni Mantovanini. There were some abrupt light changes such as the sudden dimming just in time for Luigi’s fatal entrance at the end of Tabarro, or the white-hot spot on Angelica as she departs this life that might have been modulated differently. But Mr. Mantovanini’s overall work was beautifully evocative and contributed greatly to the overall impression.

Suor Angelica was the most non-representational setting of the night, with a massive Virgin Mary (a replica of the statue in the shadow box on the landing) lying face down (dead?) on the stage floor. All the action was brilliantly played out atop and around this defeated religious icon. What volumes this imagery spoke about our poor heroine’s crisis of faith. The choice to use the Principessa confrontation as the only portion played out on the apron was highly effective. Just when we thought we had seen every possible trap door, stair, and entrance used, Angelica’s little son scrambled out from under the Virgin’s splayed arm, and scurried excitedly to join his mother above just as she threatened to rend the giant statue’s veil in torment. A perfectly judged effect.

Gianni Schicchi plays out in a milieu of skewed platforms, all draped in devilish red fabric that is artfully and weightily swagged up right, accenting the over-sized bed-as-bier. The rear platform this time had a mini-elevator that allowed Schicchi a star entrance of sorts as he descended into the scene. While a projection of the Duomo eventually appeared, and while our lovers ended on this platform as a stand-in for the specified rooftop, the first projection looked suitable for Dante’s Inferno, providing a perfect visual subtext for the ‘grieving’ relatives. The benches and raked playing spaces afforded director Luca Ronconi ample opportunity for varied groupings, and the visual environment encouraged meaningful characterization and story-telling. In collaboration with Assistant Director Ugo Tessitore, the staging did not miss a trick.

Indeed, the artistic leadership not only read and understood Puccini’s specific intentions, but — *gasp* — they embraced them! Zut alors! Numbered among the huge payoffs was the chilling finale to Tabarro which followed the stage directions to the letter and trusted that three highly skilled singers could wring every bit of melodrama out of the thundering closing measures. The audience roared approval ( Eurotrash directors please take note). There was a delightful piece of business in Schicchi in which two large candles, one on each side of Buoso’s death bed, were reverently lit ‘in memoriam’ and then, when the non-bequeathals are made evident, very quickly and unceremoniously blown out. Funny stuff. Traffic management was just magnificent in Schicchi with constantly moving principals who were always motivated, always connected, and always in the right place to make their solo moments count (Mr. Pirgu being the prime, but not the only, example). Mr. Ronconi has put on display a veritable Masters Class of meaningful operatic stage direction, one that is traditional yet bursting with freshness and truth. Bravo, Signor!

I would be remiss not to praise the outstanding costumes designed by Silvia Aymonino. From the drab, oppressive work clothes of Tabarro to the crisp white habits of Angelica to the designer mourning clothes on the Florentines, these were character-specific duds that ably supported the characterizations. Since Schicchi was updated in every other way, I did question the choice to put the title role alone in a (gorgeous) 13th Century costume. Not sure what it meant — that things haven’t changed since then? I got used to it but it was a momentary distraction in an otherwise pretty much perfect evening.

And ‘perfection’ is just the word to characterize the playing that Phillipe Jordan elicited from the orchestra. Seldom have I heard such nuanced and sensitive music-making in a Puccini opus, but Maestro coaxed chamber music sensitivity from this fine band. Nowhere was this more evident than in the lustrous account of Suor Angelica with evocative work from the winds (including haunting passages from the bass clarinet) and luminous ensemble from the banks of strings. Not that Monsieur Jordan shied away from the fire and brimstone of, say, Michele’s sinister aria, or the sassiness of the prankish Schicchi motifs. Never have I heard this pit in more responsive form, and credit for that lies in Jordan’s musical leadership. The Maestro and his orchestra received an enthusiastically vociferous, prolonged acknowledgment of their exceptional music-making at evening’s end.

James Sohre


L’Italiana in Algeri

Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Director: Andrei Serban
Set and Costume Design: Marina Draghici
Lighting Design: Andrei Serban and Jacques Giovanangeli
Choreography: Niky Wolcz
Chorus Master: Allessandro di Stefano
Harpsichord: Denis Dubois

Mustafa: Marco Vinco
Elvira: Jael Azzaretti
Zulma: Cornelia Oncioiu
Haly: Riccardo Novaro
Lindoro: Lawrence Brownlee
Isabella: Viveca Genaux
Taddeo: Alessandro Corbelli

Il Trittico

Conductor: Phillipe Jordan
Director: Luca Ronconi
Assistant Director: Ugo Tessitore
Set Design: Margherita Palli
Costume Design: Silvia Aymonino
Lighting Design: Gianni Mantovanini
Chorus Master: Alessandro di Stefano

Il Tabarro

Michele: Juan Pons
Luigi: Marco Berti
Il Tinca: Eric Huchet
Il Talpa: Mario Luperi
Giorgietta: Sylvie Valayre
La Frugola: Marta Moretto
Song Seller: Hyung-Jong Roh
Two Lovers: Anne-Sophie Ducret, Gregorz Staskiewicz

Suor Angelica

Suor Angelica: Tamar Iveri
La Zia Principessa: Luciana D’Intino
La Badessa: Barbara Morihien
La Suor Zelatrice: Louis Callinan
Mistress of the Novices: Marie-Thérèse Keller
Suor Genovieffa: Amel Brahim-Djelloul
Suor Osmina: Claudia Galli
Suor Dolcina: Olivia Doray
Prima Cercatrice: Zoe Nicolaidou
Seconda Cercatrice: Carol Garcia
La Suor Informiera: Cornelia Oncioiu
Una Novizia: ChengxingYuan
Prima conversa: Anne-Sophie Ducret
Seconda conversa: Marina Haller

Gianni Schicchi

Gianni Schicchi: Juan Pons
Lauretta: Ekaterina Syurina
Zita: Marta Moretto
Rinuccio: Saimir Pirgu
Gherardo: Eric Huchet
Nella: Barbara Morihien
Betto: Alain Vernhes
Simone: Mario Luperi
Marco: Roberto Accurso
La Ciesca: Marie-Thérèse Keller
Maestro Spinelloccio: Yuri Kissin
Amantio di Nicolao: Christian Helmer
Pinellino: Ugo Rabec
Guccio: Alexandre Duhamel

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