Opera Critic » Opera National de Paris

For an opera that premiered in the fateful year of 1933, Richard Strauss’s Arabella tries very hard to capture the nostalgic spirit of the composer’s masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier, which first graced audiences more than twenty years earlier. If Arabella’s story of an impoverished noble family marrying off its daughter to a stranger with whom she falls in love at first sight is a naturally happy one, the circumstances of the opera’s premiere were not. Strauss’s librettist Hugo von Hofmansthall left the text unfinished at the time of his sudden death in 1929, just two days after his son committed suicide. The July 1933 premiere came only a few months after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany. Nazi political directives in the cultural sphere had already led to the dismissal of the premiere’s conductor Fritz Busch. Strauss only salvaged the situation by using this disruption to secure the appointment of his own preferred artists to carry on. Busch was replaced by Clemens Krauss, in whom Strauss justifiably put much faith, and Viorica Ursuleac, who would later become Krauss’s wife, created the opera’s title role. Nevertheless, Arabella never rose to the top tier of the Strauss repertoire. Apart from a burst of international performances (and the Decca/London recording) starring Lisa della Casa, the opera has languished until the near present. The Paris opera staged it for the first time in 1981, despite the direction’s slight bent for recent German works during the World War II occupation.

Only the superb Straussian talent of Renee Fleming, one of the few singers today who merits the diva mantle, seems to give Arabella much currency. Indeed, her performance in Paris’s new production by Marco Arturo Marelli proved why this is the case. Possessed of a voice that she herself describes as fitting Strauss’s music “like a glove,” Fleming has the ability to deliver both the dramatic complexities of the composer’s major characters and float the sumptuous notes needed to reconcile the competing harmonies of his demanding scores. The first act narration “Aber der Richtige,” a soulful meditation on meeting the love of her life, sounded reticent, perhaps even a bit devoiced, but the vigorous passion of her second and third act singing more than made up for this deficiency. I last heard Fleming in the role eleven years ago, in the Metropolitan Opera’s current production. She has lost some of the thrilled girlishness the role demands, but her dramatic effect has only strengthened, with the addition of intriguing nuances that few other singers can match.

Beyond the title role, the cast functions essentially as an ensemble in a comedy of manners. Arabella’s true love Mandryka came out in fine form in the capable singing and acting of Michael Volle. A certain roughness on the vocal edges only added to the character’s allure when contrasted to the suave facilities of Arabella’s callow suitors. The promising young German soprano Genia Kuhmeier brought brilliance to the strange role of Zdenka, Arabella’s sister who has been raised as a boy to economize the family finances. Zdenka’s beloved Matteo, himself a rejected suitor of Arabella, emerged convincingly thanks to the talented tenor Joseph Kaiser. His portrayal sounded nobler and less pathetic than is usually the case. Arabella’s faded aristocratic parents, Count Waldner and Adelaide, handsomely fell to veteran bass Kurt Rydl, whose aging voice fit the role to perfection, and to mezzo-soprano Doris Soffel, whose Herodias in Strauss’s Salome last September launched what has been an astoundingly entertaining season of opera in Paris. Philippe Jordan carried the orchestra with a flair and determination that has justifiably distinguished him as one of the most exciting young conductors at work today.

Marelli’s production saved the opera from late Romantic Viennese kitsch with an imaginative staging based on revolving wall segments and a rotating floor that allow swift changes of scene and mood while sustaining dramatic tension. The visual effect is dominated by white and sky blue, suggesting the heavenly aspirations of Arabella’s passions. A particularly intriguing innovation freezes the action at end of the first act, when Mandryka dreams of finally meeting Arabella, only to have it resume seamlessly at the beginning of Act II, when the newly introduced couple pledge their love to each other before Arabella goes off to dump her suitors. This fine effort stands as the last in a series of fine new productions presented this season. We can only hope 2012-2013 is as generous to Paris’s deserving audience.

- Paul du Quenoy

As Russia approached its revolutionary year in 1917, masks and magic entered its performing arts culture with such a fevered pitch that the desire for escapism has rarely been more gratingly obvious. Prokofiev’s youthful opera, which tough political circumstances forced to premiere in Chicago in 1919, grasped on to this trend. Loosely based on the work of the eighteenth-century Venetian dramatist Carlo Gozzi, The Love for Three Oranges parodies the traditional quest epic. It tells the tale of a melancholic crown prince who will die if he is not saved by laughter. Schemers who want to seize his rightful place as heir enlist the black magic of Fata Morgana to ensure this never happens, but are foiled when he laughs at Fata Morgana herself, both saving his life and defusing their plot. The wounded sorceress curses him with an incurable love for three magical oranges, which he must steal before crossing a barren desert. Punished by thirst, he opens each one to discover a princess inside. The first two die of thirst, but the friendly sorcerer Tchelio, Fata Morgana’s enemy, provides water to save the third. The spiteful Fata Morgana turns her into a rat, but the true power of love restores her to human form before the schemers can take advantage of the situation. In the end all is forgiven, and even the schemers are spared the hangman’s noose. All the while, masked mystics watch the action and debate the merits of comedy and tragedy.

What the opera could have meant in revolutionary Russia’s turbulent cultural universe is anyone’s guess. Simple escapism or a contemplation of a world in which nothing is really what it appears stand out as explanations. Gilbert Deflo’s production, which premiered in 2005, evokes the era of Russian modernism with a cool accuracy. The epic unfolds in period costumes, while the stage movement reflects the innovative, stylized approach of the modernist director Vsevolod Meyerhold, a radical supporter of the Russian Revolution who nevertheless became one of its victims.

The American tenor Charles Workman starred as the Prince. The voice is not of heroic proportions, but the limpid sounds demanded by composers working in the modernist genre suit it well. The major vocal plaudits go to the fine baritone Vincent Le Texier for his character portrayal of Tchelio. Marie-Ange Todorovitch was not quite his equal as Fata Morgana, but still catapulted into a fireball of energy thanks to the splendid scenes Deflo created for the character and her spiteful machinations. The lesser roles all went to excellent young singers who brought the plot into greater relief. The talented Franco-Algerian soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul brought a limpid beauty to the role of Princess Ninette, the surviving princess who captures the melancholic prince’s heart. And the bass Hans-Peter Scheidegger received a well deserved ovation for his brief appearance as the cook whose kitchen houses the enchanted oranges. A very rare case of a bass role written for a female character, he endowed his scene with superb comedy. The orchestra was fortunately placed in the hands of the excellent conductor Alain Altinoglu, who mastered Prokofiev’s complex score and delivered rousing renditions of the opera’s famous march.

- Paul du Quenoy

Alban Berg died without finishing the second of his two important operas, leaving a fragmentary score for performance in the years after his death.  The fullest construction of what he envisioned first appeared at the Paris Opera, only in 1979.  This three act version is what rests in the repertoire now.  Willy Decker’s s stylized production is somewhat bland but leaves little to the imagination.  All of the action transpires in the cartoonish but approximate settings called for in the libretto, with the major stage innovation resting on a cut away ceiling that yields a steep black staircase rising to the top of the proscenium.  It is there that the chorus observes the action.  It is the setting for Lulu’s off-stage cabaret in the third act.  And, this being opera, characters can descend from it into the action as it unfolds within the main set. Sometimes this is done via ladder, but in the most evocative moments, such as Lulu’s first husband Dr. Schoen’s entry and brief scene involving a fatal heart attack, the character is simply dropped in by the chorus.  Eerily, we also see it in full use as Lulu and her lesbian paramour Countess Geschwitz contemplate their own savage deaths.  Traditionally murdered by Jack the Ripper, who does kill Geschwitz by himself in this production, Lulu’s demise is at the hands of the entire chorus, who are dressed to resemble the notorious serial killer.  It is unclear whether we are meant to believe that it is in fact an oppressive society that drives Lulu to insanity and a most unsavory end, but I wondered whether this approach was a bit heavy handed or possibly even misguided.  Lulu surely does enough damage to herself and others as a result of her amoral and lascivious behavior.  Her toxic persona could be created by her strange relationship with her possible father and pimp Schigolch, but who is he but some old pervert? The answers to these questions of developmental psychology are largely left unanswered.

Berg’s score emerged through fine voices, but Michael Schonwandt’s slow paces on the podium delivered less drive than one might prefer.  Nevertheless, Laura Aikin well deserves the international attention she has won in the title role.  She soared stratospherically, held back only by the lacking orchestral music.  Jennifer Larmore’s Geschwitz also excelled in producing resonant mezzo tones that could inhabit both evil seduction and hopeless desperation.  Franz Grundheber’s Schigolch has only brief appearances, but stood as the full equal of his fine recent performances of Wozzeck, the title character in Berg’s other best opera.  In the role of Alwa, written in that modernist pinched tenor Fach that communicates neurosis so well, Kurt Streit acquitted himself admirably.  Wolfgang Schoene did some fine character acting and singing as both Dr. Schoen and Jack the Ripper, a double casting that suggests that Lulu’s murder at Jack’s hands is really revenge for the grief-driven death she caused Dr. Schoen.

The Paris Opera’s new season may have begun with a revival of its striking production of Richard Strauss’s Salome, but those who still remember the traditional Palais Garnier’s legacy as the main operatic stage in the French capital can comfort themselves with this delightful production of Mozart’s last opera. Dating from 1997, Willy Decker’s effort reduces the work’s heavy imperial Roman idiom to stylized surroundings that suggest Mozart’s own era en grotesque, mainly through the costuming of soloists in mild colored eighteenth-century dress and the chorus in severe black with eccentric hairstyles and odd accoutrements. John MacFarlane’s set centers on a large block of marble that is rotated after each scene and progressively sculpted into an accurate bust of the historical Emperor Titus. Just as each scene opens with more of the man’s image revealed, we follow the evolution of Tito’s character to the extreme magnanimity on display in the opera’s conclusion. The effect reminds us that the opera was written for one of the composer’s principal patrons, the Habsburg Emperor Leopold II (reigned 1790-1792) and that the clemency shown by the title character represents a plea for measured rule on principles of charity and reason. Since I last saw the production in 1999, it has been streamlined to eliminate extraneous action that detracted from the larger theme.

It is always a great pleasure to see larger repertoire works presented in the Garnier, but the evening’s musical talent made this especially true. Klaus Florian Vogt’s successful career in the lighter Wagner tenor parts did not make him a natural choice for Tito’s more sensitive music, but he accomplished the role with suitable restraint. Hibla Gerzmava played a sultry Vitellia, at first a spurned woman who engages in political and sexual intrigue to bring about Tito’s death but who, however unlikely, becomes a paragon of virtue and honesty once she learns that her affections are returned. A really artful interpretation of the early coloratura runs written for the part eluded her, but the overall portrayal was effective and memorable. In the trouser part of Tito’s friend-turned enemy-turned friend again Sesto, Stéphanie d’Oustrac delivered a virtuoso performance. I found the role’s signature aria “Parto, parto” a touch restrained, but it was not clear that this was the fault of the singer. Amel Brahim-Djelloul sang a clear voiced Servilia. Allyson McHardy’s Annio and Balint Szabo’s Publio were welcome additions to the cast. Adam Fischer led the orchestra with superb musicianship and relayed the score with a worthy delicacy.

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