02 Jul 2012
The Marriage of Figaro in Montpellier
Perfection. A seldom used term in critiques of opera performances. There it was, almost (and will be, maybe).
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Perfection. A seldom used term in critiques of opera performances. There it was, almost (and will be, maybe).
Haute couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier created costumes for Mozart’s masterpiece in this new production of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Opéra National de Montpellier with set design and stage direction by Jean-Paul Scarpita. The most theatrical among haute couture stars Gaultier is uniquely suited to Mozart comedy, sharing with the venerated composer both sharp wit and a preoccupation and fascination for women.
Gaultier had a particular fascination for his grandmother’s underclothes, structural corsets above all, and this preoccupation with structure permeates his oeuvre (currently on exposition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, through August 19). In Montpellier he literally exposed the understructure of late 18th century couture in visible linear sculptures that resonated wittily with Mozartian musical structures.
Like all haute couture that of Gaultier is elegant and luxurious. In Montpellier (France’s most elegant city) Mozart too became haute couture of rarefied elegance and luxury. The reduced Orchestra National de Montpellier was in splendid form responding to Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel’s delicate and obsessive shaping of the multiple instrumental voices that sang out in flights of studied splendor. Mo. Goetzel evoked a multitude of unusual colors and musical shapes by exploiting the sharper sounds we associate with early music rendered by the virtuoso forces of this exceptionally fine modern French orchestra.
Now let us talk about true perfection (and the suspicion that you had to fit the clothes to get the role). Czech baritone Adam Plachetka was the epitome of the libidinous Almaviva, in a costume masterpiece that resonated with the darkness of a Don Juan figure. Mr. Plachetka towered as the male, thirty-ish libido in full force, his voice with a sharp, maybe sadistic edge, and power, know-how and vulnerability. Svelte blond Italian soprano Erkia Grimaldi countered with a precociously full lyric thirty-ish Rosina and an astounding vocal technique (the reprise of Dove sono sung in a sleepy pianissimo). When not the sensuous woman in a form-fitting white early Hollywood gown lying on the floor or petting in a corner with Cherubino she donned a towering white wig-like construction to become the Countess.
Cherubino, young Israeli soprano Rachel Frenkel entered in white underclothes eschewing all trouser affectation. She was soon dressed by Rosina and Susanna to be Cupid himself as he remained for the rest of the opera. This Cherubino sung in an unusually lyric fashion was an ephemeral blue presence. Bartolo, Italian basso Antonio Abete, and Marcellina, svelte, not-at-all tall French mezzo Virginie Pochon were dressed in brilliant crimsons and were colorful rather than buffo objects, as was the brilliant yellow Basilio of French tenor Loîc Félix.
Loïc Félix as Basilio, Rachel Frenkel as Cherubino and Adam Plachetka as Count Almaviva
Both Figaro and Susanna were light on their feet, German baritone Konstantin Wolff effecting a few very graceful full body falls (not to ignore a spectacular body roll over the fourth act bench by Almavia himself). Mr. Wolff was in black leather pants and white shirt with criss crossing details that hinted Harlequin. An exquisite actor and fine singer he created a Figaro of genuine, even moving innocence, assuming finally the fetal position next to Marcellina during her fourth act aria. Québécoise soprano Hélène Guilmette, Susanna, carried an exposed traverse bustle under construction on her hips for most of the opera. The opera’s catalyst, its constructive and destructive forces she delivered her Deh, vieni alla fenestra with consummate innocence, its words emerging with such vocal naturalness that it seemed nearly spoken.
Designer and stage director Scarpita offered a vaguely detailed architectural space of neutral color in which the vividly costumed actors assumed high relief. There were very few props — an abstracted Susanna/Figaro bed subsequently also served as the chair for the first act trio (though the only idea of a bed in the Countess’ boudoir was the Countess lying on the floor). There was no window for Cherubino’s escape (he ran off stage right), and there was no shrubbery to hide behind in the fourth act. This minimalism was strikingly elegant, and carried into Mr. Scarpita’s story telling by his omission of most gestural detail, streamlining the action into fleet, sometimes abstractly narrative lines.
There were some real problems in the performance on June 26. Conductor Goetzel concentrated his attention on his instrumental voices, the stage voices left to fend for themselves. But sometimes these brilliant young artists missed the dramatic and musical confidence to be on their own, and, well, maybe opera does need an opera conductor after all. At the worst moments, and there were many, the pit and stage seemed absolutely unconnected (at best, in the fourth act, Mozart was more magical than ever).
Peter Longauer as Antonio, Konstantin Wolff as Figaro, Erika Grimaldi as Countess Almaviva and Hélène Guilmette as Susanna
The brilliance of the costume design and the refinement of the staging seemed to overwhelm the simple humanity of the repertoire’s most succinctly human opera.
It could be that everyone’s game was a bit off that evening. The performance was postponed for 30 minutes so that the chorus, orchestra and stage hands could make the audience aware of their dissatisfaction with Jean-Paul Scarpita as general director of the Opéra National de Montpellier. Among the complaints was that Mr. Scarpita had banished the chorus to the pit for this production because he did not want “fat cows” (des vaches grasses they said he said) on the stage, replacing them with the lithe bodies of supernumeraries who presumably fit more suitably into haute couture.
Such artistic considerations would have been more commendable had Mr. Scarpita used a corps de ballet (even better bodies than his supernumeraries) and a choreographer for his servants and peasants. These scenes were regretful, clumsy moments.
There are two more performances as part of the Montpellier Radio France Festival, July 14 and 15. It is quite possible that stars may align and forces may converge to achieve the perfection we imagined on June 26.