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Sarah Connolly as Phedre and Topi Lehtipuu as Hippolyte [Photo by Agathe Poupeney/Opera National de Paris]
11 Jul 2012

Triple Delights in the City of Light

Paris Opéra seems to have saved the best for last as they wind up the current season with a trio of diverse and well-judged productions.

Triple Delights in the City of Light

By James Sohre

Above: Sarah Connolly as Phedre and Topi Lehtipuu as Hippolyte [Photo by Agathe Poupeney/Opera National de Paris]


Marco Arturo Marelli’s Rubik-cube of a set design for Arabella engaged the eye and the imagination as it constantly re-invented itself. At first glance a sumptuous, white curving drawing room (with a Magritte-like cloud-dotted blue sky painted on one wall), the structure consisted of swiveling panels, some of them backed with variegated mirrors, all of them trimmed with extravagant molding. With admirably precise coordination, furniture and props glided in clockwise on a turntable as panels yawned open to allow the set pieces through, and then closed again. Or not. The effect paralleled the shifting emotional and financial fortunes of the principal characters, and while the visuals were somewhat unsettling, they also looked reassuringly serene. Transitions to the party and back home again were seamless, with characters appearing almost prankish, leaning around various openings and/or effecting bold entrances at will. A series of highly detailed backdrops added color and depth.

Friedrich Eggert has lit the show with soothing washes, mellow cyc lights, well-timed area cross-fades, and occasional bursts of color, all of which took full advantage of the reflective properties of the white walls. Dagmar Hiefind has created luxurious period costumes, with especially glamorous results for the leading lady.

Within this fluid structural space, augmented by its well-chosen attire and atmospheric lighting, Mr. Marelli also donned his director’s hat and created some telling stage pictures, enabling distinctive character relationships of immense depth. He not only used every inch of the expansive playing area(s) with consummate skill, but also added immeasurably to the impact of this rather slight plot with cunning inventions. Witness the ball scene, where Mandryka’s over-stimulated imagination sees every woman as a ringer for Araballa, every man a handsome rival like Matteo. As the duplicate couples whirl and glide around the dance floor, Mandryka’s wrongheaded suspicions are multiplied ten-fold. When the lads later shed their shirts, bared their torsos, and sexually pursued their various ‘Arabella’s’ the poor man’s negative fantasies went into overdrive, as the corps cavorted in Twyla Tharp-inspired choreography.

It is easy to understand Mandryka’s obsession with the heroine. Who could fail to be bewitched and bedazzled by Renée Fleming’s definitive Arabella? For Ms. Fleming is here performing at the height of her powers. The creamy richness of her tone is generous and undiminished, her solid technique trumps every Straussian challenge, she mines every subtlety to be found in the role, and her acclaimed musicality is unflagging. Moreover, she is a stunning woman whose physique and demeanor partner with her artistry to completely persuade us that at the moment, Renée simply has no equal in the part.

The diva went from strength to strength, offering perfectly accentuated conversational ‘dialogue’ one minute and regaling us with thrilling, soaring passages the next. The extended ‘scena’ in which she pardons Mandryka and offers him the conciliatory glass of water, was heart-breaking in its simplicity, and found her celebrated soprano shimmering, pulsing, and vibrant. As my tears rained down, it was not just for the perfection of the moment, but that I just might not ever hear anything this ravishing again. “The Beautiful Voice,” indeed.

She was well partnered by Michael Volle as Mandryka, who reacts with such deep disbelief and gratitude to Arabella’s pardon, that he certainly heightened the soprano’s effect in this crucial scene. Mr. Volle has a voice with ample thrust and ringing presence but the extreme tessitura of the part on both ends finds it thinning out a bit. Don’t get me wrong, he is completely secure in everything he vocalizes, but the top doesn’t quite turn over. There maybe be a baritone out there that could sing this a bit more comfortably, with a bit more ‘ping’ upstairs, but surely no one could perform it more memorably. Like his winning Beckmesser (‘the’ glory of the most recent Bayreuth Meistersinger) Michael crafts a well-rounded and sympathetic character out of a man who spends much of the piece as a hectoring prat. The depths of his shame and remorse are so profoundly communicated that he has us in the palm of his hand. Together, he and his Arabella transmitted a real chemistry that fairly crackled in the house.

Genia Kühmeier was a winning, diminutive Zdenka, believably boyish for (nearly) the first two acts, then girlishly tormented for the rest. Ms. Kühmeier has a voice of individualized personality, meaty enough to blaze through the frequent orchestral outbursts but youthful and pliable enough to spin out Straussian phrases of great sensitivity. The tone has laser-like focus and a pleasing, slight vibrato. Although Joseph Kaiser was announced as indisposed, the strapping young tenor threw himself into the swinging emotions of Matteo, and his rich mid-voice promised that this is an instrument of considerable quality. He did have to somewhat ‘mark’ the uppermost reaches but never once conveyed any peril. Truth to tell, I have heard many a tenor in perfect health sing not half as well as Mr. Kaiser on this evening, and I will look forward to hearing him again soon at full throttle.

Kurt Rydl brought a lifetime of experience and a maturity of utterance to the willful, gambling-addicted Count Waldner. Doris Soffel, another treasurable seasoned artist, used her powerful, dark-hued mezzo to etch a three dimensional Adelaide, the self-pitying mother. I am not sure there is a less grateful role in all Coloraturadom than Fiakermilli, for she either prances on at full tilt and nails all the over-written, exposed, fiendish pyrotechnics or…not. Luckily, Iride Martinez, petite of stature but big of voice, warbled freely and accurately, and managed to make a decent case for a perky role that is really not very well integrated into the story. As the suitors, Eric Huchet brought an over-sized presence and pleasant tenor to Count Elemer; Edwin Crossley-Mercer used his refined baritone to good purpose as Count Dominik; and best of all, Thomas Dear cut a fine figure and sang a very solid, coltish, preening Count Lamoral.

Conductor Philippe Jordan impresses me even more with each outing, and he elicited a luminous performance from the excellent resident orchestra. The Maestro drew forth rich coloration, resonant banks of sound, and stellar solo work, and imbued the whole with an urgent forward motion that was cohesive and pliable. Jordan not only has poster boy good looks but is also racking up a growing resume of top level musical results. If he does not achieve superstardom in the very near future I will eat my beret. He is surely among the top conductors of our day, and a local ‘rock star’ who generates cheers simply by entering the pit. (Mr. Gelb, are you paying attention?)

Click here for a video presentation of Arabella.

Director Gilbert Deflo appears to have looked to Cirque de Soleil as inspiration for his Cecil B. DeMille staging of The Love of Three Oranges. Set designer William Orlandi has given him a circus ring of a set; tracks full of curtains of various colors; a flown, white, bi-parting architectural show drop that suggests the Opéra Bastille facade; a circular balcony that encompasses the playing space; platforms and ramps that morph to various useful configurations; and assorted colorful chairs and stools for the players as well as the observers. Oh, and of course, three pretty darn’ terrific oranges!

Mr. Orlandi did double design duty, also creating a wide array of magical costumes, many “commedia”-based (the Prince in white pants and smock recalled Watteau’s “Gilles”). Others were pure fantasy, witness Princess Clarice’s slinky slit green vamp gown (with matching wig), Tchelio’s buttercup yellow morning suit and hat; the lovely, delicate white dresses for the three princesses that looked like stray Wilis wandered in from “Giselle;” and the colossal drag creation for the cook, constructed atop a ‘skirt’ concealing a rolling wagon, that enabled the actor atop it to appear twelve feet tall. The huge masks, the rat head, the oversized props, every fanciful item was carefully wrought. Only the black-faced Pickaninny concept for Smeraldino mis-fired. I appreciate the intent, but the blunt minstrel look stopped one step short of “I speks I’se de wickedest crea-chuh in de worl’.”

Joel Hourbeigt’s clever assortment of lighting specials provided constant delight with a design to be counted among the finest he has accomplished at the house. In addition to excellent inclusion of spotlights (including five used for atmospheric back-lighting from the onstage balcony), Mr. Hourbeigt devised any number of tricks that greatly enhanced our enjoyment: star lights flying in during the love duet; silhouettes on the upstage curtain as the baddies are chased around the set; side lights that accentuated the treachery of the plotting; and subtle changes of color and intensity in the general wash. The production also incorporated dazzling pyrotechnical duels, surprising flash pots, and clever solutions to the all-important sliced-orange moments. The complex scenic components were transported, placed and removed with utmost precision by the exemplary running crew.

Mr. Deflo generally used the space exceedingly well, allowing the “commentators” to reside on the stage apron far left and right, keeping the chorus (outfitted in evening wear) seated on semi-circles of chairs under the onstage balcony left and right, maintaining much of the action in the central ring. However, he also made clever use of the entire stage, reserving use of the balcony for the most effective moments like the extended chase, where the pursued as well as the pursuers clambered up and down ladders and traversed every inch of the balcony. Fata Morgana and Tchelio also squared off imperiously in their “card game” atop opposite perches on the upper level. Flying the Prince and Truffaldino as they left on their quests (not once but twice) over the upper level high into the wings, was a real audience pleaser. Even with the bare bones script and dialogue of the piece, Deflo has worked with the performers to create individualized movement and character-specific gestures that informed the audience of their personalities.

No one embraced this concept more effectively than Charles Workman as an endearing Prince. Mr. Workman was all flowing limbs and mock-balletic poses, and his physical work was matched by a flexible, warmly pleasing tenor. A little adjustment of technique might be in order to tame a couple of sudden jumps to (very) high notes that almost came to grief, but still his was a memorable, touching portrayal that earned an appreciative ovation. I find the real star potential of “Oranges” to be Truffaldino, and Eric Huchet did not disappoint. At times Mr. Huchet’s enjoyable tenor seems deployed with comprimario sensibilities, only to jar us a moment later with radiant, secure tone as he luxuriates on the odd lyrical phrase. While his dramatic performance had all the animation required, he might consider just a bit more physical abandon. That said, his climbing up on the Cook’s skirt and riding along on the rolling wagon was an inspired goof. Eric proved to be the audience favorite, earning a cascade of approving shouts at curtain call.

Arguably the vocal honors of the night belonged to Lucia Cirillo in the unsympathetic role of Smeraldine. Hers is a wonderfully even, throbbing, fiery mezzo, and she dispatched the extremes of the writing with plucky aplomb and reserves of power. Amel Brahim-Djelloul was a sweet-voiced, bell-like Ninette, and her well-founded technique and placement allowed her slender soprano to enchant even the top balcony. Marie-Ange Todorovitch was an imperious Fata Morgana. Her searing top notes and robust chest tones served all the needs of the enchantress, although her middle voice got a mite cloudy at times with a bit too much cover. Patricia Hernandez struck a lovely figure as Clarice, but she occasionally pushed her pleasant medium-sized mezzo one size past its comfort level, resulting in a bit of a wobble and the occasional splayed release on longer sustained tones.

As the King of Clubs, old hand Alain Vernhes brought all of his considerable experience to the befuddled character. Mr. Vernhe’s resolute baritone serves the role well, and if a bit of dryness has crept into the tone over the years, his was still a commanding presence. Igor Gnidh sang with ringing, refined tone as a pleasing Pantalone. I found Nicolas Cavallier’s Leandro a bit a bit barky and blustery, but his sizable, pointed singing was a decided hit with the public. Vincent Le Texier relished each of Tchelio’s pronouncements and treated us to a rolling bass that was all suave menace. It’s hard for a singer worth their fee to miss with the silliness of the (Man-as-Lady-)Cook, and Hans-Peter Scheidegger put his burly bass and comic sensibilities to maximum use in an infectiously giddy portrayal. Antoine Garci made such a solid impression in the brief role of Farfarello, it was a shame he didn’t have more to sing. As the expiring princesses, Alix Le Saux showed off a gleaming soprano in her brief turn as Lisette, and Alisa Kolosva followed up with a warmly tinged, glowing cameo as Nicolette.

In the pit, Alain Altinoglu conducted with verve and utmost authority, keeping the massed forces in perfect sync and eliciting handsome playing from his musicians. The score’s brief moments of introspection seemed a tad ‘cool’ but the overall piece bubbled with admirable drive. Needless to say, the world-famous March sparkled on its every appearance.

Click here for a video presentation of The Love of Three Oranges.

These days, when an opera production takes your breath away it is usually because it is so unutterably dreadful. What a joy then to be ennobled by the impeccable period design for Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais Garnier. Antoine Fontaine’s remarkable forced perspective scenery was an eye-popping Masters Class in theatrical tradition. Mr. Fontaine’s inventiveness knew no bounds as each succeeding setting tracked in from the wings, descended from the flies, or arose from the depths. Just when you thought one lovingly rendered environment could not be bettered, another surpassed it. Surprises were constantly forthcoming. To name one: a crossbar bearing three bodies suspended by their feet gets lowered to hover near the ground, and somehow the ‘live’ faces of the Three Fates rose from the rocks to superimpose over the heads of the strung up victims.

The other-worldly ambience of this and many another chilling visual was owing to Hervé Gary’s superb approximation of lighting from Rameau’s time. His footlights’ shadowy wash was artfully and subtly augmented by modern day pin spots, such as those that illumined the heads of the three Fates. Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz has given us virtually a non-stop parade of luxuriant costumes, one rivaling the other for accuracy, color, and opulence. The physical production revealed that artistic marvels created in a simpler time could still thrill us when so expertly executed and so lovingly recreated. Even the sound effects were ‘true’ with a thunder sheet, and muslin-and-turning-drum wind machine. But all this magnificence would been for naught had the music been lacking.

With her own ‘orchestre et choeur du Concert d’Astrée’ peopling the pit and the stage, conductor Emmanuelle Haïm led the most exciting ‘period ensemble’ performance I could ever have imagined. While this is a tightly knit ensemble, Maestra Haïm has also coaxed vivid dramatic playing from her solo instrumentalists. The fierce, brilliant trilling from the horns, the droning of the bagpipe/musette, the acrobatic arpeggios from the winds, the urging of the drum, all of these memorable moments were accumulated into one, colossal musical achievement.

Ms. Haïm accomplishes this highly theatrical reading with great economy of gesture, no baton, a pumped fist here, a toss of the head there, a bump of the hip thrown in for good measure. Her responsive players and singers (chorus master, Xavier Ribes), schooled to a fare-thee-well, delivered a totally mesmerizing account of the score.

Director Ivan Alexandre devised a non-fussy staging approach for his singers, allowing choreographer Natalie van Parys to fill the stage with pleasant suggestions of court and folk dances. Mr. Alexandre keeps mostly with the tradition of moving the principals around economically and then allowing them to stand-and-deliver, and his exciting roster singers needed little further embellishment.

If Stéphane Degout’s brilliantly sung Theseus is not a career best, it certainly must be numbered among his many highpoints. His robust lyric voice, resonant and emotion-laden, boasted great range of expression. And Mr. Degout evoked great sympathy as he imbued the character’s challenging journey with eloquently plangent phrasing. Star mezzo Sarah Connolly also scored a success with her assured Phaedre. Ms. Connolly contributes an intense, tightly-wired characterization, and unleashes a torrent of glowing bravura singing that fairly zings off the crystal of the famed chandelier.

Click here for a video presentation of Hippolyte et Aricie.

Anne-Catherine Gillet is a most appealing Aricia, singing with poise, heart, and gleaming tone. Andrea Hill’s assured mezzo made for a commanding Diana. Jael Azzaretti proved an ideal Cupid, delectable, sassy, and assured, with polished, honeyed tone. Topi Lehtipuu was a thoroughly engaging Hippolytus, gifting the role with his mellifluous, fresh tenor which he uses with considerable skill to achieve a well-rounded portrait of the tortured hero. The balance of the large cast is uniformly accomplished, offering good diversity of vocal color and focused theatrical involvement.

But at the end of the night, the responsibility for reaching the highest pinnacle of communal artistry belonged to Emmanuelle Haïm, and her resounding achievement was vociferously, joyously celebrated.

James Sohre


Count Waldner: Kurt Rydl; Adelaide: Doris Soffel: Arabella: Renée Fleming; Zdenka: Genia Kühmeier; Mandryka: Michael Volle; Matteo: Joseph Kaiser; Count Elemer: Eric Huchet; Count Dominik: Edwin Crossley-Mercer; Count Lamoral: Thomas Dear; Fiakermilli: Iride Martinez; Fortune Teller: Irène Friedli; Conductor: Philippe Jordan; Director and Set Design: Marco Arturo Marelli; Costume Design: Dagmar Hiefind: Lighting Design: Friedrich Eggert; Stage Direction Collaborator: Anrico de Feo; Chorus Master: Patrick Marie Aubert

The Love of Three Oranges

King of Clubs: Alain Vernhes; Prince: Charles Workman; Princess Clarice: Patricia Fernandez; Leandro: Nicolas Cavallier; Truffaldino: Eric Huchet; Pantalone: Igor Gnidh; Tchelio: Vincent Le Texier; Fata Morgana: Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Linette: Alix Le Saux; Nicolette: Alisa Kolosova; Ninette: Amel Brahim-Djelloul; Cook: Hans-Peter Scheidegger; Farfarello: Antoine Garcin; Smeraldina: Lucia Cirillo; Master of Ceremonies: Vincent Morell; Herald: Alexandre Duhamel; Conductor: Alain Altinoglu; Director: Gilbert Deflo; Set and Costume Design: William Orlandi; Choreographer: Marta Ferri; Lighting Design: Joel Hourbeigt; Chorus Master: Alessandro Di Stefano

Hippolyte et Aricie

Phaedre: Sarah Connolly; Aricia: Anne-Catherine Gillet; Diana: Andrea Hill; Cupid: Jael Azzaretti; Oenone; Salomé Haller; Tisiphone: Marc Mauillon; Diana’s Grand Priestess: Aurélia Legay; Hippolytus: Topi Lehtipuu; Theseus: Stéphane Degout; Pluto/Jupiter: François Lis; First Fate: Nicholas Mulroy; Arcas/Second Fate: Aimery Lefèvre; Mercury: Manuel Muñez Camelino; Neptune/Third Fate: Jérôme Varnier; Hunter: Sydney Fierro; Conductor: Emmanuelle Haïm; Director: Ivan Alexandre; Set Design: Antoine Fontaine; Costume Design: Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz; Lighting Design: Hervé Gary; Choreography: Natalie van Parys: Chorus Master: Xavier Ribes

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