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Foyer of Opéra de Marseille
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Marseille, Capital of European Culture

Marseille woke up this past January 11 stunned to find itself number two on the New York Times list of 46 places you should visit in 2013 (Rio was number one, Paris just made the list at number 46).

Marseille, Capital of European Culture

Commentary by Michael Milenski

Above: Foyer of Opéra de Marseille


Marseille has once again proved that making your way to the top is easy — spend some smart money! The Ville de Marseille boasts ten new spaces for the arts, among the more prominent the magnificent all-glass Museum of Civilizations and a gutsy new contemporary art venue in a huge graffiti covered old tobacco factory, not to overlook an old grain elevator on the docks that has become Le Silo, a high tech 1700 seat theater.

All this investment brought vibrant new spin to the Phoenician city (it’s that old) and propelled it to become the European Capital of Culture for 2013. Put this together with a snazzy new trolley system that descends to the Vieux Port (Old Port) with the Opéra just right there on Rue Molière and you have the Marseille that could be.

But sad to say Marseille has not invested recently is its opera house, badly in need of a well planned fire. Back in 1918 following the dress rehearsal of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine a very efficient fire left only the outer walls and the peristyle [the columned classical porch] standing. It reopened in 1925 having eliminated its original Italian horseshoe shape in favor of a large first tier that offers, with the front orchestra the best seats in the house, and a plenitude of them. Though there exists a superb acoustic for opera and an absolutely splendid spectator-stage rapport the auditorium and its public areas are in dilapidated condition.

The decor is high art deco, think American movie palaces of the same era, though hopefully this is not the reason it is designated an historic monument. The peristyle is from 1787 and therefore proudly qualifies it as France’s second oldest opera palace. This stately colonnade with its splendid frieze has survived all earlier fires and surely could survive most any future fire — may we dream of a state-of-the-art twenty-first century hall and stage behind it.

Plus to be sure there is a second tier and above that there is the once infamous, very vocal amphithéâtre (the upper most gallery) where Maurice Xiberras, its current directeur général, likes to say he was taken at seven years of age by his grandparents to be smitten by opera. Most of all monsieur Xiberras wants us to understand that the Opéra de Marseille now strives to be populaire, that its supposed audience of longshoremen, cafe waiters and petits commerçants want nothing more than steak-frites and moules marinières and bel canto.

After all if you want cutting edge opera you can go one half hour up the road to the prestigious Aix Festival (but only in July), or cross the swampy Camargue in a bit more than an hour to Montpellier where the Opéra National de Montpellier oozes artistic pretension.

In Marseille there is the Théâtre National de Marseille and the Ballet National de Marseille, entities that are primarily funded by Paris and therefore subject to France’s national artistic aspirations. The Opéra de Marseille is decidedly not an opéra national, a position underlined firmly in 2011 when France’s then minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterand descended in an attempt to impose Parisian standards on Marseille’s opera. He suggested that the director of the Théâtre National de Marseille, Mme. Macha Makeïeff, replace Mr. Xiberras and offer classier programming.

opera-facade-jour1.pngFacade of Opéra de Marseille

Perhaps Mr. Mitterand was smarting because Marseille’s longtime mayor (since 1995) Jean-Claude Gaudin managed a coup d’état by thwarting Mr. Mitterand’s choice, Mme. Catherine Marnas, for the directorship of the La Criée (the théâtre national) and naming instead Mme. Makeïeff (born in Marseille) to the post. A force to be reckoned with the Honorable Gaudin in a grand coup de théâtre then promoted Mr. Xiberras (born in Marseille) and at that point artistic director, to general director of the Marseille Opera.

Marseille born conductor Reynald Giovaninetti was general director from 1971 to 1974 when the post was given to Toulouse born stage director Jacques Karpo. Both artists were well known to San Francisco Opera audiences in the ’70’s. Mo. Giovaninetti conducted Leontyne Price’s Manon Lescaut in 1974, and a triple bill that included Magda Olivera in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine in 1979.

These were the halcyon years at San Francisco Opera when Kurt Herbert Adler was pushing operatic envelopes hard and fast, those of repertoire and production and singers. Jacques Karpo had come to San Francisco Opera as a lowly production assistant, then he graduated to assistant director and ultimately he staged Faust (1977) complete with a revolving disco ball (to catch the flashes of Marguerite’s jewels) plus Roberto Devereux (1979 — the one when Montserrat Caballé cancelled and it hasn’t been on the SFO stage since).

In 1974 young Karpo took everything he learned in San Francisco back to Marseille and made Marseille one of the most important stages in France for the next seventeen years. The impresario used colorful, vulgar language, chain smoked and died at 51 years of age. He is legend in Marseille, and it is legend that you couldn’t find a spare ticket to Marseille Opera during those years.

A hard act to follow. With its taste for the big time Marseille made Karpo’s assistant Élie Bankhalter its general director (1991-1997). Mr. Bankhalter now offers training in motivational speaking on his website where he boasts associations with just about every important singer of the ‘90‘s you can think of, many of whom actually appeared on the Marseille stage in signature roles, i.e. the most standard repertory.

It was time for change.

In a swing to exploring repertoire instead of stars its next director (1997-2001), Jean Louis Pujol flamed out with a season based entirely on Oriental legends, including an operatic setting of Racine’s Bérénice [queen of Palestine] by Massenet’s student Albéric Magnard, premiered in 1911, and then rediscovered by Mr. Pujol. Not to overlook other Pujol resurrections — Mârouf, savetier du Caire by Henri Rabaud (1914 premiere at the Opéra Comique, picked up by the Met in 1917), and L'Atlantide (1954) by Henri Tomasi (born in Marseille).

Renée Auphan, the Opéra de Marseille’s born-in-Marseille general director from 2001 to 2008 one-upped Mr. Pujol. She programmed Tomasi’s Sampiero Corsu (1956) that was not only composed by the Marseille native, but it’s protagonist Sampiero recreated that splendid moment of Corsican history when he strangled his wife right there in Marseille.

Mme. Auphan had been director of both the Lausanne and Geneva operas before returning to Marseille. Surely her finest hour was Marius et Fanny, music by Vladimir Cosma, a film composer best known for Diva (1981). Marius et Fanny is a love story construed from three plays about Marseille by Marcel Pagnol, the born-in-Marseille beloved-by-Marseille novelist who wrote Manon de la Source. The opera takes place right on the Vieux Port. Its characters, longshoremen, cafe waiters and petits negociants included Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in happier days.

Well, Mme. Auphan is a hard act to follow. This able stage director turned soprano turned directeur général imposed solid vocal standards and solid if mostly uninspired production values. Mr. Xiberras, Mme. Auphan’s assistant during her entire tenure, is cut from the same cloth. Though he has ventured from Pagnol’s Italian immigrants on the Vieux Port to the Italian immigrants of Menotti’s New York tenements with The Saint of Bleecker Street. And of course not to be outdone by la Auphan he has commissioned film composer Jean Claude Petit to provide music for a libretto based on Merimée’s Corsican tale Colomba. Mr. Petit provided the music for the famous film of Pagnol's Manon de la Source (1986) and was the arranger for Billy Vaughn’s best selling LP “Greatest Country Hits” back in the ’70’s.

Born-in-Marseille metteur en scène Charles Roubaud will stage Colomba (2014). Jacques Karpo gave the very young Roubaud his first job, staging Massenet’s Don Quixote back in the 1980’s, a production that soon made its way to San Francisco (1990) further enriching the Jacques Karpo legacy in that city. Since the Don Quichotte Charles Roubaud has created more than twenty productions for the Marseille stage, including the above mentioned Bérénice. This past January he restaged his 2003 production of Elektra to solid critical appreciation.

Just now, June 15 - 23, Mr. Roubaud is creating a new production of Massenet’s forgotten Cléopâtre for the Marseille stage with the same designers, Emmanuele Favre (scenery) and Katia Duflot (costumes) as the Elektra. Mme. Duflot is another protégé of the Jacques Karpo era who now heads the Opera de Marseille’s prolific and ubiquitously credited atelier couture.

July 12 and July 15 Roberto Alagna and Béatrice Uria-Monzon sing Aeneas and Didone in Berlioz’ Les Troyens (concert performance) conducted by Los Angeles born Lawrence Foster, the recently appointed music director of the Opéra de Marseille — maybe its first since Reynald Giovaninetti. Maestro Foster, former music director of the operas of Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Los Angeles, is a refugee from the recent brutal reshuffling of forces at the Opéra National de Montpellier.

The Opéra de Marseille operates on a budget of 16,000,000 euros. The current seasons is four or five performances each of seven operas, thirteen orchestra concerts (most at the Opéra, others in various venues), plus a number of recitals and chamber music concerts. The concert Les Troyens is part of the Marseille’s 2013 Capital of Culture initiative. The Opéra de Marseille seats 1800.

Michael Milenski

To read reviews by Mr. Milenski of some of the various operas mentioned in this article type the name Milenski and the name of the city in Opera Today’s search box.

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