Most opera professionals, including the individuals who do the casting for
major houses, despair of finding performers who can match historical standards
of singing in operas such as Aïda. Yet a concert performance in Aspen
gives a glimmer of hope. It was led by four younger singers who may be part of
the future of Verdi singing in America and the world.
Three years ago I made what may have been my single worst decision in a half
century of attending opera. I wasn’t paying close attention when some
conference organizers in Aix-en-Provence offered me two tickets to the premiere
of a new opera. I opted instead for what seemed like a sure thing:
William Christie conducting some Charpentier.
Advertised in the program as the first opera written in the New World,
La Púrpura de la Rosa (PR) was premiered in 1701 in Lima
(Peru), but more than the historical feat, true or not, accounts for the
That’s The Conquest of Mexico, an historical music drama composed in 1991 by German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). But wait. Wolfgang Rihm construed a few sentences of Artaud’s La Conquête du Mexique (1932) mixed up with bits of Aztec chant and bits of poem(s) by Mexico’s Octavio Paz (d. 1998) to make a libretto.
This Salzburg Norma is not new news. This superb production was first seen at the Salzburg Festival’s springtime Whitsun Festival in 2013 with this same cast. It will now travel to a few major European cities.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Sadistic revenge and sadistic challenge in equal parts. You know the story — if Oreste had not slaughtered his mother Elektra would have. And did over and over in nearly two hours of raving about killing her mother. Elektra is one of the repertory's more beloved operas.
Elektra in Marseille
A review by Michael Milenski
Above: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra
Photos by Christian Dresse courtesy of Opéra Municipal de Marseille
Elekta’s sadistic fantasies are surely equaled by the sadistic torture of the soprano by Richard Strauss. American soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (born in New Orleans) inhabited the cutaway basement of a soaring Mycenaean palace for the nearly two hour stint of vocal abuse.
There were no surprises in this restaging of Opera de Marseille’s 2003 Charles Roubaud production. There was no metaphor save image derivation from the first moments film art, this new medium at one with the distortions of reality mined by the new century’s exploration of psyche. Twisted psyches in particular. Set designer Emmanuelle Favre provided a greatly exaggerated double perspective in black and white, and costume designer Katia Duflot worked both in black and white and in color with an art nouveau richness though not tone. It was a simple and effective mise en scène by its producers.
Nicolas Cavalier as Orest and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra
Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet reads as an appropriately young Elektra, physically and vocally. She projected the degradation of physical beauty brought on by depressive obsession, and she evoked our basic sympathy for such a sad creature. She raged in big, pure tones that were sometimes beautiful and sometimes ragged, and sometimes we feared for her stamina only to be reassured and then put on edge again. Her dance finished, dead on the floor, la Charbonnet had convinced us she was a real Elektra, not simply a soprano who could sing it, more or less.
The conducting did hold surprise. Veteran maestro Pinchas Steinberg imposed a very measured pace that offered startling insight into the softer, even tender moments of Straussian expressionism. This when it did not threaten to stall all emotional flow. The Oreste and Elektra scene was of spectacular beauty and tenderness and still very brutal. Oreste, bass Nicolas Cavallier (an actor turned singer) exuded the not-so-subtle sexual satisfaction Elektra feels as her fantasies slowly and carefully moved toward climax.
The coup de grace of the afternoon was however the screams, possibly amplified, of the murdered Clytemnestra, sung screams rather than the usual extended gut grunt. Mezzo-soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch offered a well sung, through sung version of this complex, tragic personage that revealed in fact a much larger and far more complete personage than the usual half-voiced monster. Mme. Todorovitch made her scene with Elektra maximally vivid, reveling in the shattered exposition of her fears, exquisitely costumed in black gown with a platinum blond wig.
German soprano Ricarda Merbeth provided big, luminous tones non-stop as Chrysothémis, costumed in colorful flowers befitting her maidenhood (Mme. Merbeth sings Salome as well). This fine singer succeeded in projecting the larger attitudes of her character without plumbing the vocal and histrionic depths of this character antidote to sister and mother.
Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Clytemnestra adn Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra
Patrick Raftery retains sufficient voice to deliver a pallid Aegistus, the limit of the role for Strauss and metteur en scène Roubaud. The overseer and maid servants, train bearer and confidant were appropriately rendered (no small compliment), who with a number of strikingly costumed supernumeraries made sick and lively stage pictures from time to time on the upper levels of the soaring set.
The Opéra de Marseille deployed seventy-six musicians. That seemed not quite enough, particularly when the maestro needed huge string sounds to develop the voluptuous moments of the Strauss score. The baignoires on both sides of the pit each housed a partial number of the eight timpani Strauss requires, rendering the great climaxes in stereo — maximally powerful! Boxes further above housed percussion and harps whose sounds floated eerily in the higher reaches of the hall with an acoustic appropriateness to the psychic pings of the Strauss drama.
It was a fine afternoon.
Cast and Production
Elektra: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet; Chrysothémis: Ricarda Merbeth; Clytemnestre: Marie-Ange Todorovitch; First Servant: Lucie Roche; Second Servant: Christine Tocci; Third Servant: Simona Caressa; Fourth Servant: Bénédicte Rousseno; Fifth Servant: Sandrine Eyglier; Overseer: Anne-Marguerite Werster; Aegisthe: Patrick Raftery; Oreste: Nicolas Cavallier; Précepteur d’Oreste: Erick Freulon; Young Servant: Avi Klemberg; Old Servant: Christophe Fel. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg; Mise en scéne: Charles Roubaud; Scenery: Emmanuelle Favre; Costumes: Katia Duflot; Lighting: Marc Delamézière. Opéra de Marseille. February 10, 2013.