23 Jan 2013
Pelléas et Mélisande in Nice
Pelléas et Mélisande, in t-shirts and jeans, were out riding bicycles. They came upon a fountain. You know what happened.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Pelléas et Mélisande, in t-shirts and jeans, were out riding bicycles. They came upon a fountain. You know what happened.
As we already did because it was all a flash back. We had seen Golaud, dead, a bullet hole on the top of his head, seated in a sort of chair carefully and cleanly created out of a piece of a classic Greek column. He was surrounded by a lot of strangely dressed people plus an even stranger one in a clown costume (lacking only the red bulb on the nose). This we soon found out was Yniold.
In a bit less than three hours Mélisande was dead too during a psychedelic light show that took place beyond the Zen garden behind the very gray, very angular Japanese pavilion that served as the unit set. This garden setting was perhaps intended to invite us to conjure in our meditations all those fountains and grottos and bleak seascapes that other times make Debussy’s masterpiece one of opera’s sublime experiences. We were however just then participating in a violent domestic tragedy making meditation difficult.
The day of Mélisande’s death and his own Golaud chose to wear a bright maroon suit with black stripes. Pelléas was of course already dead having chosen to wear red blazer and a yellow shirt with a colorful tie for his late night fateful farewell to Mélisande. Mélisande who had a short, pert haircut had to pretend that a blue and gold scarf, obviously from India, was the hair that Pelléas tried to wallow in.
Costumes were by the production’s stage director, René Koering (père), sets were by Virgil Koering (fils) who evidently has a thing about radio operated model cars because this high tech toy was also featured in Wolf-Ferrari’s Secret of Susanna [the secret was that she smoked dope] that he designed a few years ago for Montpellier. Arkel on the other hand was pushed around the stage in an antique wheelchair.
The Opéra de Nice, a Belle Époque monument, these days boasts fairly large pit, allowing a quite generous number of strings. The accomplished Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice did indeed provide some of the rich sonorities that can make this remarkable score an orchestral tour de force. The conductor was Philippe Auguin, its music director (Mo. Auguin is also the music director of the Washington National Opera).
The maestro surely will have had an agreement with the cast that they would be entirely on their own for the duration of the opera as he did not so much as even glance at the stage, remaining buried in the score when not energetically encouraging the various players and sections of his orchestra (Mo. Auguin was quite visible to me as I had press seats courtesy of the Opéra de Nice in a box directly over the pit and stage). This presumed agreement however had its flaws — the engrossed maestro did not connect with the stage. The huge, shattering moments that make Pelléas and Golaud two of the repertoire’s most complexly emotional roles were rendered orchestrally soulless, their impact filtered through the maestro’s ponderous orchestral processes.
The singers (directly below me) were in fact brilliantly connected to the Maeterlinck tragedy and were well able to negotiate the text rendered into Debussy’s urgent melodic shapes and rhythms. Baritone Franck Ferrari (a Niçois with an Italian surname) gave a powerful performance as Golaud. Ferrari possesses a dark hued voice with reserves of virile power, ideal for Maeterlinck’s tragic hero. He is a consummate singing actor who gamely executed even the strangest moments of the stage direction.
Lyonnais tenor Sébastien Guéze proved himself yet again to be a very accomplished interpreter of the French heroic roles (Faust as well as Pelléas as examples). His French is crystal clear, his voice is able to expand into ever greater fortes of emotional release in Debussy’s most intense moments. The scenes of his sexual discovery of and declaration of love to Mélisande were the most thrilling of the evening.
A last minute replacement for the Arkel listed in the program (no explanation why, leaving room for speculation) was American trained black bass baritone Willard White. Jamaican born White is one of the renowned basses of recent times. Obviously a powerful performer he added an unusual, lascivious magnitude to Arkel that seemed to make him the primary architect of the tragedy. Mr. White’s French had a bit of a twang at first but we got used to it.
French early music diva Sandrine Piau was the Mélisande. Her voice is of sufficient amplitude to convey the indecision of this famous enigma though the mise en scéne deprived her of the ambience and the persona needed to enflame the above gentlemen. Mlle. Piau gamely pretended that Mélisande had a psychotic breakdown before she died. Russian born, French trained soprano Khatouna Gadelia gave Yniold a far more energetic and knowing presence than this emblematic innocent usually possesses.
It is hard to fathom what quirk of old-boyism handed a new production of this masterpiece to veteran opera intendant René Koering when there are so many easily identifiable French stage directors who have the technique, experience and imagination to plumb its depths with intelligence and sensitivity. Mr. Koering is a jack-of-all-operatic-trades. This attribute served him brilliantly as general director of the Opéra National de Montpellier, but it does not give him the experience or artistic stature to mount a production on what should be an important provincial French stage.
Cast and Production
Pelléas: Sébastien Guéze; Mélesande: Sandrine Piau; Golaud: Granck Ferrari; Arkel: Willard White; Geneviève: Elodie Méchain; Yniold: Khatouna Gadelia; Doctor: Thomas Dear. Chorus of the Opéra de Nice Côte d'Azur. Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice; Conductor: Philippe Aiguin; Stage Director: René Koering; Costumes: René Koering; Set Design: Virgil Koering; Lighting: Patrick Méetüs. Opéra de Nice. January 17, 2013.