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Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

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Opera Bastille
05 Mar 2012

Paris: Tenors Trump Befuddled Productions

Two recent outings at the Paris Opéra might have been subtitled: “Max Bialystock is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”

Paris: Tenors Trump Befuddled Productions

By James Sohre

Above: Opéra Bastille


Remember Max, the hapless impresario in Mel Brooks’ The Producers? His auditor opines that no one investigates where the money goes after a show flops, so if he over sold the shares to investors, he could pocket the money with virtual impunity. Max puts on the worst possible, sure-fire flop, Springtime for Hitler. Except somehow, it becomes a hit. Based on the SRO status of the current egregiously misrepresented Manon maybe an accountant should be called to investigate where our ticket money was spent. ‘Cause it sure ain’t in the service of Massenet.

It can only be owing to Natalie Dessay’s star power that ‘the producers’ felt this Manon could possibly merit approval/interest. For those who remember the near flawless, Fragonard-inspired version late of New York City Opera, which was all of a (period) piece, this mixed bag of a design was as alienating and angering as it was confusing.

Elsa Pavanel’s eclectic costumes were perhaps the worst visual polluters. For no good reason, Lescaut was Almighty Goth, a leather-wrapped, chain-weighted, spiky-haired thug. Bretigny’s evening was spent in the burgundy palette, first in a satin disco suit, then Goth-icized in Act II, and later Goth-damn-it-all, in a swishy frock coat. Des Grieux first swam upstream in a tailored salmon-hued 40’s suit. Trixie, Dixie and Nixie (um, I mean Pousette, Javotte, Rosette) were each adorned in completely different period garb. In real time it was Mardi Gras, so maybe Ms. Pavanel was suggesting that this grab bag of motley variety just — ‘oopsie’ — spilled from the streets onto the Bastille stage. What else could explain first attiring the Chorus in (the correct) period court dress, then having them appear to have wandered in straight out of Meistersinger, then having the ladies got up in early 20th century day dresses? It may have still been Carnival in the real world but in the theatre we were already mired in Lent, the production awaiting redemption in vain.

There was nothing so awfully wrong about the massive set design created by Jean-Marc Stehlé and Antoine Fontaine. It just never added anything atmospherically to the effort. The huge staircase and upper landing of Act I seemed more indoor castle hall than outdoor courtyard, this in spite of the entrance of a 1950’s tour bus announcing its destination as Amiens.

Act Two’s simple garret has a seriously confused sense of architecture, with the one door up center used only by Des Grieux and a Concierge (who, no kidding, delivers pizza in a box just before the hero leaves to post his letter). Others entered from the wings, seemingly walking through the ‘walls.’ Nor was any of this helped by Hervé Gary’s sputtering, bluntly cued lighting effects, which many times left actors unlit. In what had to have been a miscue, all illumination abruptly went out on Manon at the end of Act II and she was left to make a long, arching exit off stage in the dim reflected glow of the pit’s music stand lights.

The Cours la Reine scene was arguably the least offensive with its pillars of flora and fauna set in a conservatory. If only the costumes had not evoked ‘Alt-Nürnberg.’ Having the foliage fold up and the pillars turn to become the interior of St. Sulpice was a decent enough effect, until the chorus ladies appeared on contemporary roller skates in the afore-mentioned 1920’s day dresses, like some demented, cut-from-the-final-print, what-were-we-thinking production number from “Xanadu.” (There’s a “Filles on Wheels” joke here somewhere but I can’t quite figure it out…). By the time we got to the Oh-My-Goth Casino all bets were off, as Manon flounced in looking like “Tommy’s” Acid Queen in her jeweled, distressed dress and a shock of a red fright wig.

As if it could get any worse, key moments were “captioned for the clinically bewildered.” Manon sings of jewelry, and a spot lit portrait of a beauty queen wearing a ‘Miss Arras’ banner and tiara flies in. As Des Grieux intones his reverie, he is upstaged by a framed paint-by-numbers front yard landscape, then (as if distracting us once was not enough) adding a mom with a frying pan, with dad and the kids in a Thunderbird straight out of a 1950’s magazine ad. When Daddy Des Grieux sings, his wedding photo descends, and on and on ad nauseam. Willfully provocative.

Director Coline Serreau must bear the brunt of the blame for these avoidable mis-steps, and more. Her placement of singers was most usually in total disregard of both the high caliber of her starry cast and the script’s requirements. All applause after set pieces is discouraged/eliminated (example: the priest speaks added comments and squelches the end of “Ah, fuyez…”). Seldom does anyone look at another character, but rather sings straight front. As Manon intones “N’est-ce plus ma main que cette main presse?” she is as far away from her intended press-ee as the space allowed (short of actually being off stage).

Mme. Serreau also injects coordinated moves into certain sections that are more “Folies Bergère” than Massenet, witness the girls’ trio, hopping, bopping, and moving their heads from side to side as they gestured wildly like demented Supremes. Indeed, there is so much extra-musical “invention” that it seems like Coline was hell-bent to throw so many ideas at us that she hoped one might stick. Having the Love Couple escape to Paris on a motorcycle at the end of One was a decent idea, but it was utter nonsense when Lescaut drove the cycle into St. Sulpice and plucked up the couple after their impassioned duet.

Did we need to be ‘entertained’ by guys in laborer jumpsuits rolling on shopping carts of groceries and tossing them to other workers up the stairs and off stage as the Innkeeper sang of the food? And while much of the ballet was (in this case) mercifully cut, it is hard to know what the runway fashion parade was all about, with lithe models got up in Victoria’s Secret, three male hunks hung with chiffon ballet skirts, a smattering of S&M accessories, and the whole lot of them silenced with tape over their mouths. Hmmmm. Perhaps they attempted to tell the director what they really thought of it all? Hmmmmm.

One final unfortunate consequence of the massed milling about in group scenes is that Patrick Marie Aubert’s usually fine chorus, was atypically raggy and at times, downright muted. Serreau has a lot of explaining to do…

At this point in her successful career, the oft-sensational lyric-coloratura Natalie Dessay has branched out to heavier roles with somewhat variable results. Ms. Dessay is a supremely talented actress with few equals, however Manon demands more than dramatic acumen. These days, Ms. Dessay affects a slightly fuller, more pointed sound which serves her well in the upper, and upper middle range. She still reigns supreme in forays above the staff where her tightly-focused soprano can soar above the orchestra.

Alas, the more the phrasing dips into the lower middle, the less ‘present’ it becomes, and a (very) slight rasp can creep into lower phrases when she infrequently presses them. Still, her upper full voiced singing was free and clear, and possessed all the accustomed vitality and zing. Best of all, she looked petite, lovely and utterly believable, even when got up in improbable attire. Her golden blonde wig looked lovely, and when she stole into Sainte Sulpice in a diaphanous, hooded black cape she suggested the ultra -glam Witch from Into the Woods. While Manon is certainly a more comfortable fit than her recent encounters with Violetta, I keep wishing Mme. Dessay would go back to her former territory, in which she was always queen of the night.

Though Giuseppe Filianoti may not be a natural stage creature, he strives (to mostly fine effect) to be theatrically engaging. But there is no denying his was the star vocal presence of the night. Not for him the suave styling and crooning of say, Alfredo Kraus. Signor Filianoti can spin a tender line to be sure, but he is happiest when he can go for the jugular, and when he delivers the impetuous top notes he lands them right between your eyes. To his credit, his full-bodied approach complemented his leading lady quite well, and he was a generous and deferential colleague. But when firepower was required, Giuseppe provided salvo after salvo. He deserved a far better costume than the unflattering slacks and clinging knit top that he got stuck into for the last third of the opera. But never mind, by that point we were closing our eyes, and what we were hearing from him was uniformly exciting.

Franck Ferrari’s Lescaut was so solidly sung it helped us overlook his irritating get-up. Paul Gay contributed a sympathetic, clear-voiced Count des Grieux. Luca Lombardo was a sassy, un-stereotypical Guillot, and André Heyboer contributed a wholly competent de Brétigny. The often forgettable ladies trio was here made memorable by the clear-voiced, evenly matched, excitingly delivered solos and harmonies from Olivia Doray (Pousette), Carol García (Javotte), and Alisa Kolosova (Rosette). An unexpected delight.

I have admired conductor Evelino Pidò on other occasions, but on this evening he did not exude his usual presence, personalized point of view, or control. There was nothing wrong with the orchestra’s efforts, but the result was lacking in the last measure of effervescence that can lift Manon to a higher plane. I had the overall impression that the assembled artists might be trapped in an endeavor not wholly to their liking. Indeed, Natalie Dessay said as much, announcing her withdrawal from opera for a year owing in part to her experience with this production. When internationally applauded star singers are pushed to these measures, perhaps producers might look at what really draws patrons to buy opera tickets? (Hint: It is not to see the likes of Coline Serreau’s self-indulgent, inept direction. Just sayin’…)

Things were happily in far better order the next day with the mesmerizing musical execution of The Queen of Spades. Once again, and perhaps not unsurprising, the tenor took the laurels, this time owing to the muscular, rapturous, balls-to-the-wall vocal outpouring from Vladimir Galouzine. His is one of the biggest natural voices on display today, but that is not to imply that Mr. Galouzine does not also have finesse. Indeed, he created a multi-faceted Hermann, completely capable of sensitive, controlled vocalism at moderate and soft volumes. But when the money notes are called for, he can pour on the stentorian steam like few others. Vladimir sustained this spell over the audience for the entire piece, no small feat since, in this concept, he never leaves the stage.

Olga Guryakova was a secure, if a bit cautious Lisa. The hint of metal in her full-voiced top notes served her quite well, and in the more conversational middle passages her instrument assumed a richer, vibrant sheen. But on this occasion, Ms. Guryakova came across as on the outside of the role looking in, well-voiced but unengaged. Not so home boy Ludovic Tézier whose rich baritone ravished us with gleaming, deeply felt phrasings as a powerful Prince Yeletski. The celebrated mezzo Larissa Diadkova confirmed her reputation with a vocally distinctive Countess that was at once plush velvet and barbed commentary. Count Tomski was ably taken by Evgeny Nikitin, who commanded his every scene.

Best of all, conductor Dmitry Jurowski drew stylistically informed, dynamic ensemble playing from the orchestra; supremely responsive singing from the soloists; and full-throated vocalism from a chorus confidently back on form (Chorus Master, Alessandro di Stefano). There was no musical effect that escaped Maestro Jurowski’s detailed attention, and the shaping of the entire opera was wonderfully calibrated.

The good news is that the setting (David Borovsky) was most professionally executed and highly realistic in detail. The bad news is that the Concept sets the entire piece in a Soviet era asylum, where a bed-ridden Hermann is what…dreaming? Hallucinating? Reminiscing? Small matter, since the bottom line is we are stuck looking at a slime green, paint-peeling, bare bones loony bin, and it is unsurpassingly ugly. Make that “Fugly.” (Figure it out…)

Still, with this as a (depressing) ‘given,’ the dramatic conceit works after a fashion. Since Hermann is crazed (even more so than I was having spent €180 to look at this dreariness), anything goes. Nothing has to make linear sense or observe the Unities, right? Chloé Obolensky’s costumes can veer all over the place, sometimes finding characters in ‘civilian’ clothes, others playing dress-me-up, many in hospital worker uniforms. The chorus initially comes on to a wide, shallow platform upstage about five feet off the floor. It is not clear why, but see “nothing has to make sense,” above. Hermann spends the first act in the bed, behind the bed, on top of the bed, left or right of the bed, and in a bold move, he leaves the bed and very very deliberately crosses to the other side of the empty stage.

I can’t recall when, but the shallow platform sunk to floor level, and the upstage walls parted to reveal a kinda wintery, ersatz sculpture garden with a large staircase in profile up stage left. I would like to say this was the pretty setting we had been desperately hoping for, but I would be lying. I ‘get’ that this is part of the recollection, but it does not offer any real visual relief. The one designer to emerge unsullied was Jean Kalman, whose well-considered lighting brought some vibrant color and definition to the playing space. Ah well, it is short-lived as the walls eventually close back up and we wind up where we began. (What is Russian for “Bedlam,” anyway?)

I have to say that once certain interpretive decisions were made at least director Lev Dodin was consistent about them. But having Lisa faint to the stage after her suicide aria instead of jumping in the river, immeasurably lessened Tchaikovsky’s great moment. Especially after the ‘dead’ Countess comes on to help her get back up and walk offstage. Not a ghostly apparition she, our Countess was a nurse, coming to check on her patient. Whoa, Lev, dude, that is so not the same thing!

There is nothing quite like the communal experience of a fully, expertly realized musical theatre performance. And this weekend, I was elated to have had my goose bumps raised by two top notch tenors who definitely delivered the goods. But after having often sat with my eyes closed through two stumbling high-profile shows which could not even seriously claim good intentions, I have to wonder:

Might a fine CD really be preferable?

James Sohre


Manon: Natalie Dessay; Des Grieux: Giuseppe Filianoti; Lescaut: Franck Ferrari; Count des Grieux: Paul Gay; Guillot de Morfontaine: Luca Lombardo; de Brétigny: André Heyboer; Pousette: Olivia Doray; Javotte: Carol García; Rosette: Alisa Kolosova; Conductor: Evelino Pidò; Director: Coline Serreau; Set Design: Jean-Marc Stehlé and Antoine Fontaine; Costume Design: Elsa Pavanel; Lighting Design: Hervé Gary; Chorus Master Patrick Marie Aubert

The Queen of Spades (La dame de pique)

Hermann: Vladimir Galouzine; Count Tomski: Evgeny Nikitin; Prince Yeletski: Ludovic Tézier; Tchekalinski: Martin Mühle; Sourine: Salint Szabo; Tchapalitski: Fernando Velasquez; Naroumov: Yves Cochois; The Countess: Larissa Diadkova; Lisa: Olga Guryakova; Macha: Nona Javakhidze; Master of Ceremonies: Robert Catania; Conductor: Dmitri Jurowski; Director: Lev Dodin; Set Design: David Borovsky; Costume Design: Chloé Obolensky; Lighting Design: Jean Kalman; Choreography: Yuri Vasilkov; Chorus Master: Alessandro di Stefano.

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