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Scene from Salome [Palais Garnier / Opéra Bastille © Jean-Pierre Delagarde]
21 Sep 2011

Paris: A Thrilling Leap and Then a Stumble

Stylish, spirited vocalism that rang convincingly through the Palais Garnier was the hallmark of Paris Opera’s thrilling revival of one of Mozart's least appreciated mature operas.

Richard Strauss: Salome; W. A. Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito

Opéra national de Paris

Above: Scene from Salome [Photo: Palais Garnier / Opéra Bastille © Jean-Pierre Delagarde]

 

“Thrilling” and La Clemenza di Tito do not often occur in the same sentence, but thanks to a near-perfect cast, characterful instrumental effects, a visually handsome playing space, and cunning direction, this splendid revival makes a fine case for the infrequently performed opera. Perhaps the piece should be called The Sesto Spectacular since the mezzo role not only dominates the story, but has many of the best tunes.

Lean, lanky Stephanie D’Oustrac was a perfect physical fit for the pants role, and her vibrant, throbbing mezzo easily encompassed Mozart’s challenges. Ms. D’Oustrac has a beautiful evenness to her instrument whether nailing the writing in the chest register, sailing above the staff (where she slightly lightens her tone, only slightly), or railing through rapid fire melismas with supremely controlled accuracy. The best-known set piece Parto, parto was delivered with a powerful sense of discovery. Indeed such freshness, immediacy and excellent diction marked her singing throughout the evening. Stephanie’s dramatic impersonation was well-considered, her gait and demeanor were believable, and her phrases were meaningful and theatrically vivid. I might suggest she consider modifying the slight breathiness she uses to convey anguish or incredulity, but all things considered this was an accomplished, galvanizing performance.

We were no less fortunate with our Vitellia. The sensational soprano Hibla Gerzmava is the most remarkable new (to me) talent I have encountered in many a year (I ran-not-walked to Google her name right after the show). This Russian diva is possessed of a gorgeous, pliable spinto voice that is not only capable of caressing a phrase with meltingly beautiful piano singing, but also has no problem bouncing searing dramatic outbursts off the back wall. Ms. Gerzmava is also capable of considerable variety and she found an unusual depth in her interpretation of the villainess. Nowhere was this more evident than in her take on the lengthy aria “Non piu di fiori”, which the soprano made into an uncommonly meaningful mini-drama, all the while singing it flawlessly. Ms. Hibla is scheduled for a run of Met Mimi’s this season and I would not be surprised if this were the springboard to widen the reputation of this remarkable talent.

Allyson McHardy has a well-schooled mezzo which recalls von Stade’s responsiveness, as well as her controlled economy of vocal gesture. The vibrato is a bit quicker, but engaging. Her solid sound was a bit similar to Sesto’s, and in a perfect world, the casting director might have found a contrasting type. But it has to be said that Ms. McHardy gave substantial pleasure. She was excellently paired with the clear-voiced Servilia of petite, attractive Amel Brahim-Djelloul. Ms. B-D’s richly glowing timbre was jot only a perfect complement, but also blended beautifully with Sesto on the flowing duet Ah, perdona al primo affetto. Balint Szabo was an exceptionally colorful Publio, his penetrating bass making us wish for once that his second act aria was a bit longer.

But what to say about Klaus Florian Vogt as Tito? Having quite enjoyed Mr. Vogt as Walther in Bayreuth a few seasons back, I wish my second encounter with this in-demand tenor was as happy as the first. Tito definitely could benefit from a heroic young Wagnerian instrument, but that was not what Vogt served up on this occasion. I am not sure if he was affecting a precious, Mozartean delivery, or if the rather light voice has been affected by heavier roles. Here it sounded rather characterless with a somewhat dull tone that resisted coming out of the mask. Klaus did, however, essay the role with consummate professionalism, good communication of the character, clear diction, and a thorough understanding of the part. He certainly held his own. It’s not that he really missed anything in the role. It just seemed the role missed him.

There was nothing at all missing from the pit, however, where Adam Fisher elicited a wondrous account of the score. Clemenza especially benefits from this kind of knowing, dedicated rendering and the orchestra proved to be a willing accomplice in creating a memorable night of lyrical theatre. The bass clarinetist is to be especially commended for the incomparable obbligato to the two famous arias.

Willy Decker proved yet again that he is one of the best directors around for clarity of blocking, meaningful development of character relationships, and knowing use of the entire playing space. Decker was well-served by designer John MacFarlane, who provided a highly effective in-one set design that incorporated evocative historic architectural elements, and a series of eye-popping front drops that resonated with meaning. The huge, slightly leaning semi-circular wall enclosure on-stage suggested a Pantheon, and the stage right half of the unit could slide around front a bit to reveal upstage darkened skies in various stumbled effects. The master stroke was to start the show with a huge block of marble center stage, which the principals regard, variously, during the overture, and on which one of them eventually takes a piece of chalk and writes “Titus” in block letters. This monolith serves as a barrier, a reviewing platform, and eventually a bust of Titus. MacFarlane has devised a journey for this marble that involves revealing it in various states of development by an unseen sculptor. Mr. Decker obliges by bringing action periodically in front of the show drop to facilitate changing out the work-in-progress behind. And what show drops!

Against a blazing white background, and with a nod to Cy Twombly, MacFarlane begins with streaks of dazzling reds and yellows, with a ghostly central impression of the crowned Titus. This swaps out, tellingly, to another drop that features a Jasper Johnsian heart ,stabbed by a dagger; counter balanced by an image of a distended spirit reaching in vain for the crown. At opera’s close, a final drop depicts a stylized, Voldemorte-ish Titus, having (mortally?) fallen with the crown dislodged from his head. These were stellar images that masterfully underlined the major plot themes. The only other piece was a white chair-cum-throne that figured prominently at key moments, especially as used metaphorically in conjunction with the white “royal” cape and rudimentary, pointed crown that looks like Bart Simpson’s hair-do (this standard issue European opera house model is apparently the only crown allowed in use — there must be an EU rule about that).

Indeed, when Vitellia sang her last aria, it was done on, and around the chair, laden with the cape and crown, and perched atop a mound of marble chips that were residue from the creation of the bust. Director and soprano mined many exciting moments of stage business from those elements. Another interesting visual was the introduction of a victor’s bouquet of brilliant red roses that recurs as imagery at key points, and corresponds to a vision of Berenice, a drop-dead gorgeous extra in a fiery red gown. MacFarlane’s fanciful costumes seem to have been drawn loosely from Mozart’s time, with liberal adaptations of the silhouette for chic strapless gowns fresh off the runway (Vitellia and Berenice get treated to these). Having dressed Servilia in canary yellow, it was a witty touch to mirror Annio’s growing passion for her by having the maiden first present her beau with a similar colored waistcoat, but then to have the boy completely change to an all-yellow suit. This sexy playfulness was ingrained into the whole concept with a sultry (and manipulative) byplay between Vitellia and Sesto that was quite torrid, indeed.

A small suggestion to directors and performers everywhere: when a substance is supposed to be “marble,” don’t hit it, slam things down on it, or stomp around on it making it ‘thump’ like the painted wood it is! Theatre is an illusion, after all, and anything that breaks the spell should be avoided if possible. But that very very minor quibble aside, at the end of the night this was just the sort of dynamic, committed, top notch treatment that could convert anyone to the pleasures of the under-appreciated La Clemenza di Tito. Strauss’s thrice-familiar, and widely played Salome needs no such advocacy, of course, although its glories are frequently more substantial than those on display the next day at the Bastille.

Up front, let me say that Stig Andersen is giving a tremendous performance as Herod. His round, stentorian voice sounded fresh and vital, belying his years and with no apparent consequences from the many memorable outings in world houses as various Siegfrieds, Siegmunds and Tristans. He is perhaps uniquely a Herod who sings the whole role, his approach lyrical, musical, sensitive, with nary a bark or a bray, even in the most agitated passages against thick orchestral competition. I hope Mr. Andersen keeps singing this well for a very long time for we surely need his treasurable artistry. But no one comes out of Salome humming the Herod. So what of our titular princess?

I am a great admirer of Angela Denoke, having heard her give very fine accounts of Elsa, Agathe, and the like. But Salome does not employ quite the same skill set and Ms. Denoke’s generous jugendlich-dramatisch soprano is more responsive at the top than in the lower middle where much of the conversational passages live. She has a commendable technique, and completely understands how to husband her resources to accomplish the task at hand. She had capital to spare even by opera’s end, and she immersed herself into the part and the directorial concept. But she seriously disregarded consonants at points that called for strong-voiced phrases. Ich will deinen Mund küssen for one example was so mushy that Angela made Joan Sutherland seem a model of clipped pronunciation. The sound poured out, but the words kinda set-up the whole plot. It would have been nice to have heard them. Although perfectly tuned 99% of the time, she also had a tendency to sing upward leaps just shy of the pitch, such as Allein was tut’s. Frau Denoke is a very fine singer who I fear may have assumed the wrong part. Not at all bad, many notable stretches, but in the end not yet a vocally mesmerizing Salome.

I would welcome another chance to assess Juha Uusitalo’s rolling bass, for when he infrequently sang lyrically, he displayed a most enjoyable color and size. Unfortunately, Mr. Uusitalo chose to sing not in phrases but in decibels, and spent most his stage time bellowing as loudly as his instrument would allow, I guess in an attempt to be dramatic. Pity. The wonderful Doris Soffel seemed to be infected with the same volume obsession, and her attempt to be imposing as Herodias resulted in her singing first loud. And then louder. Stanislas de Barbeyrac has a sturdy tenor which he put to good use as Narraboth, but his singing was about as stiff as his stage demeanor, which was not much more engaged or animated than when he was lying dead on the floor.

Isabelle Druet was a remarkably good Page, commanding our attention with each well-focused, burnished musical statement. The many featured roles were cast from strength, with the section of bickering Jews particularly clean and well-sung. I also found Scott Wilde’s First Nazarene to be authoritatively voiced with a handsome bass.

Conductor Pinchas Steinberg helmed a rather dispassionate and noisy reading from the pit, more cerebral than internalized. The musicians played cleanly, of course, and things started to loosen up a bit with The Dance of the Seven Veils. But if you haven’t been emotionally engaged by then it is a real uphill battle, no matter how erotically the cellos ‘moan’ in the beheading segment. Maestro Steinberg also had his hand on the volume button and did not always show enough sensitivity to the text and the singers ability to project it in lower registers, resulting in more than a few lost phrase endings.

Nicky Reiti has come up with a ‘beaut’ of a set design, a filigreed Moorish palace courtyard with a number of doorways and terraces that allow for varied traffic patterns. And it has been superbly lit by André Diot, with well-calculated area lighting, well-cued specials, and terrific moon projections (the blood-red eclipse for the final scene was chilling). And I liked the effect of reverting to a garish light of morning at the end which removed all the moody atmosphere and was an excellent prompt for Herod’s order to kill the princess. The costumes were another matter, inspired by modern dress, but with biblical twists. (Or, biblically ‘twisted.’) Salome came off a bit of a petulant debutante, Herod was in a smoking jacket, Jochanaan sported a prayer shawl and yarmulke, and worst served, Herodias looked like Norman Desmond performing an Evil Queen in, oh, say, a Disney cartoon production of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. (Doris, did you have to keep swooping that cape? Didja?)

Since this was a revival, I am not sure how much of director André Engel’s original thoughts remained, but most of the goings-on were quite thought-less. Or at east not thought through. When Jochanaan first becomes verbally contentious with Salome, Narraboth draws a knife. Later, when the J-Man actually grabs her arm forcefully, Narraboth does nothing. Not even a facial reaction. Hmmm. It gets established that Herod abuses his wife’s Page, allowing him to get kicked around by his lackeys, pushed aside, well, you get the picture. Yet when no one else acts to kill Salome as he commands, it is the Page who rushes through a door and slits her throat. Why would the Page do Herod’s bidding? Why not kill Herod instead? Hmmmmm. Engel strands poor Salome quite shamefully after the very antiseptic head is delivered. It looked as though he simply said “take this latex creation and do something with it.” And she gamely tries. But without inventive subtext there are just so many ways you can address a rubber head. Right profile. Left profile. Stand up. Kneel down. Hug it. Hold it. Out of ideas now, and only 246 bars of music to go. . .

If nothing else, I was handed a worthy addition to my collection of Worst Operatic Moments Ever: The Dance of the Seven Veils (marked down from ten). Everyone got shooed off stage so Salome could dance for Herod alone. She began by swooshing her skirt a few times and then hopped up on a window ledge and extended her feet to him and wiggled her toes like a school girl. This is apparently very exciting to Herod, who fumbles a cigarette out of a case and nervously fails to be able to light it. So, he throws it aside and looks smolderingly at Ms. S. She oh-so-deliberately Takes. Off. One. Shoe. And. Then. The. Other. (She is shameless, I say, shameless.) And Herod, unable to contain himself Does. The. Same. They hurl the shoes aside like in a Carol Burnett sketch. And I suddenly think, should I be giggling at “Salome”? Oh, there was more cat-and-mouse hide-and-seek, ballroom dancing that made Bristol Palin look talented, our heroine rolling on the floor like a giant ball of chiffon, and then crawling on her belly like Little Sheba, with poor dear Stig trying very hard to look aroused by all this. Or even interested. God bless him. The choreography was not by St. Vitus, oh no, it was credited to Françoise Grès.

With no clue as to how to engage the characters assembled on stage by having them react in some meaningful way during Salome’s last shocking monologue, the director simply had them all turn upstage, out of character, facing away from the performance. They were the lucky ones.

James Sohre

La Clemenza di Tito

Tito: Klaus Florian Vogt; Vitellia: Hibla Gerzmava; Servilia: Amel Brahim-Djelloul; Sesto: Stephanie D’Oustrac; Annio: Allyson McHardy; Publio: Balint Szabo; Conductor: Adam Fischer; Director: Willy Decker; Set and Costume Design: John MacFarlane; Lighting Design: Hans Toelstede; Chorus Master: Alessandro di Stefano

Salome

Salome: Angela Denoke; Herod: Stig Andersen; Herodias: Doris Soffel; Jochanaan: Juha Uusitalo; Narraboth: Stanislas de Barbeyrac; Page of Herodias: Isabelle Druet; First Jew: Dietmar Kerschbaum; Second Jew: Eric Huchet; Third Jew: François Piolino; Fourth Jew: Andreas Jaggi; Fifth Jew: Antoine Garcin; First Nazarene: Scott Wilde; Second Nazarene: Damien Pass; First Soldier: Gergory Reinhart; Second Soldier: Ugo Rabec; Cappadocian: Thomas Dear; Slave: Grzegorz Staskiewicz; Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg; Director: André Engel; Set Design: Nicky Rieti; Costume Design: Elizabeth Neumüller; Lighting Design: André Diot; Choreography: Françoise Grès.

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