I can think of no other city than Paris which can boast two spectacular opera houses. There are, no doubt, wonderful opera houses all over the world, and I only know very few, so maybe I’m just talking nonsense. But the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille are certainly, both by their architecture and by the quality of their productions, truly exceptional. I was very lucky indeed to witness two samples of this magnificence, one in each opera house, in the space of a week. Of course, both belong to the same venerable institution, the Opéra National de Paris, in existence , under different forms, since 1661. The Palais Garnier, opened in 1875, is a model of Neo-Baroque architecture. Garnier is said to have answered to Empress Eugénie, who was complaining that the building was in no definite style, neither Louis XIV, nor Louis XV, not even Louis XVI, that she should be happy as it was pure Napoléon III! The controversial Chagall ceiling is probably out of place, but has a grace of its own. The Opéra Bastille, yet another monument of the Mitterrand era, the work of uruguayan architect Carlos Ott, is as austere as its older companion is ornate. Both the exterior and the interior are almost starkly simple, but actually quite majestic, if only because of its dimensions. I find the gleaming, steely façade stunning and the hall itself magnificent both as to space and acoustics. There are no bad seats, you see and hear well from everywhere. That is luckily the trend in the newer concert halls, as witness the Berlin Philharmonie, Rome’s Parco della Musica, the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid, the Sala Nezauhalcoyotl in Mexico – but I think I’m repeating myself, I’ve said this somewhere before. But as beautiful as the buildings are, they are only the shells and it is the productions that they shelter which should be the focus of our attention. And so it is, especially when the said productions are of the quality of those I was so lucky to attend. So, we started out, counter-chronologically, at the Bastille. One could have expected not only to start out in the older building, but also to have the older opera of the two in that building, and the newer in the more modern one. But actually, the Bastille was the perfect setting for this gorgeous Strehler production of Nozze, and the jewel-box like stage of Garnier was ideally suited to Capriccio as seen by Robert Carsen. I could find very little amiss with any of the two productions. I’m not as familiar with the opera scene of today as I am with instrumental or chamber music, so I must confess that I didn’t know all of the singers, which has the advantage of totally unbiased listening. The Nozze production is obviously not a new one, as Strehler died in 1997. It was premiered in 1973 at the Palais Garnier and, I read in the program notes, was immediately and durably a smash hit. Not surprising. Everything in the production strikes the right note (if you will forgive the unintentional pun). The sets are simply (I mean that literally) perfect –the minimalist yet quintessentially 18th century décors are a delight throughout the opera, an ideal background which never interferes with either music or words. As I write this I cannot help but remember a catastrophic D. Giovanni at the Staatsoper in Berlin, which is a superb house but somewhat disaster-prone through excessive experimentation, in which D. Elvira made her entrance on a Vespa and listened to Leporello sing her the Catalogue aria as he pretended to scribble the list on a concrete wall, graffiti style. None of this here. Just sheer elegance in the sets and the costumes. In the third act in particular, the action takes place in a room of lovely proportions and period architectural detail, empty except for a beautiful harpsichord. How splendidly do the music and the singing spring out from such a backdrop! As to the performers, I was thrilled that Luca Pisaroni, the magnificent Met Leporello, was to sing Almaviva. His is a wonderful baritone, and he used it as it should be, with all the appropriate haughtiness and grandeur. It makes one again wonder whether the roles of Leporello and D. Giovanni should not have been inverted at the Met. Actually, Pisaroni is a versatile singer who excelled in both roles. I was not so thrilled by Emma Bell, the Countess, although her “Dove sono…” aria was very moving. Her voice is a little heavy at times. Figaro was a little disappointing too, lacking the usual panache and presence. I could say something similar about Susanna, in whom I would have liked to find a little more “spark”. But none of these performances was deleterious, just not on a par with Pisaroni’s. The one who was was Cherubino, Anna Grevelius, a lively Swedish mezzo, who sung and moved equally well. The orchestra was excellent under the direction of Pidò, who, according to a friend who was seated high enough to notice, also did a great job of egging on the occasional sluggish singer! All in all, a beautiful, homogeneous, elegant, in every way Mozartian production. I believe it even beats my up to now favorite, except for the singing which was all around a tad better at the British festival, the 1994 Glyndebourne production. Exactly one week later, we (my dear friends Rosa and Bia attended both operas too) entered that completely different décor, the almost Rococo Palais Garnier, to see Capriccio. I hardly knew (and still hardly know, one performance is of course not enough) the opera by Richard Strauss, whose Rosenkavalier I have seen so many times. But the subject and the production’s fame attracted my attention and I had to check the Internet at all times of night and day as it was sold out and, for some reason, seats make themselves occasionally available for half a minute and if you are not there, you miss them. Fortunately, I was there one evening at the right time and could secure three excellent seats, two of them in a loge, which added to the charm of being in the old house. First surprise, the empty stage was open, with people milling around, moving furniture back and forth – and we weren’t that early. At second glance, I thought the stage hands were very well dressed and looked quite aristocratic, and then it dawned upon me – the production had already started, and the stage was being set for the performance of the string sextet for the Countess. So, a play within the play, music within the music, not new, but so well done! As was the Countess herself seated in a loge just underneath ours, to watch the performance. A very auspiciously clever beginning to what was to prove one of the most stunning productions of any opera I have ever seen. I knew none of the singers, all superb. To an excellent voice, Michaela Kaune adds a regal demeanor which fills the stage from beginning to end. The Count, Olivier, Flamand and especially La Roche were also first-rate – this production was as well rounded vocally as it was visually. Carsen’s extraordinary mise-en-scène relied intimately on the quality of the sets (Michael Levine) and costumes (Anthony Powell). The alternation between the gray stone outdoors and the lavish indoors is brilliant, as is the huge mirror in the background of the living-room which reflects the action at the forefront and, at the end, shows the Countess’s expression as she cannot bring herself to make the decision the opera is about – what is more important, music or poetry, notes or words, and, ultimately, who deserves her love, the composer or the poet? We shall never know. And I think we are also left in doubt, as both are so important. In this instance, Strauss’s superb music and his engrossing lyrics. At least, here the Countess would have had no dilemma, as both came from the same man! I must not allow my utter fascination with the production to lead me to neglect the music. Strauss’s very particular orchestration produces a tone quality which is absolutely unique and magical. This is patent in all his work, but maybe most striking in his vocal compositions, lieder and operas, due to the added interest of the human voice. Listen to the Four Last Songs and you will see what I mean. For Capriccio, the Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris was conducted by Philippe Jordan, the very talented music director of the Opéra, who received a just ovation along with the singers at the end. I searched for, and found, a DVD of the original 2004 production with Renée Fleming and Gerald Finley, among others. I haven’t seen it yet, but I believe it is a very worthwhile acquisition. Isn’t it extraordinary to be able to relive such wonderful moments – even if the grandeur of the live stage is missing, the recording serves as a diving-board into your memory. And every moment of this opera deserves to be seen again and again.
A Tale of Two Operas
Opera Bastille September 20, 2012 W.A. Mozart/Lorenzo da Ponte – Le Nozze di Figaro Production: Giorgio Strehler/Humbert Camerlo Sets: Ezio Frigerio Costumes: Franca Squarciapino Opéra National de Paris Orchestra and Chorus Evelino Pido, conductor Luca Pisaroni / Il Conte d’Almaviva Emma Bell / La Contessa d’Almaviva Camilla Tilling / Susanna Alex Esposito / Figaro Anna Grevelius / Cherubino Mary McLaughlin / Marcellina Carlos Chausson / Bartolo Carlo Bosi / Don Basilio Antoine Normand / Don Curzio Christian Tréguier / Antonio Zoe Nicolaidou / Barberina Andreea Soare, Anna Pennisi / Due Donne Palais Garnier September 27, 2012 Richard Strauss/Clemens Krauss and Richard Strauss – Capriccio Production: Robert Carsen Sets: Michael Levine Costumes: Anthony Powell Opéra National de Paris Orchestra Philippe Jordan, conductor Michaela Kaune / Die Gräfin Bo Skovhus / Der Graf Joseph Kaiser / Flamand Adrian Eröd / Olivier Peter Rose / La Roche Michaela Schuster / Die Schauspielerin Clairon Ryland Davies / Monsieur Taupe Barbara Bargnesi / Eine Italienische Sängerin Manuel Nuñez Camelino / Ein italienischer Tenor