Huchet, Eric


ArabellaRichard Strauss - Arabella

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Philippe Jordan, Marco Arturo Marelli, Kurt Rydl, Doris Soffel, Renée Fleming, Genia Kühmeier, Michael Volle, Joseph Kaiser, Eric Huchet, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Thomas Dear, Iride Martinez, Irene Friedli | Opéra Bastille, Paris, 10 July 2012

You might detect a small note of annoyance in the tone of Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s letter of the 22nd December 1927 to Richard Strauss at one review of Der Rosenkavalier which criticised the failure to make the best use of the opera’s strongest character, the Marschallin. It’s tempting to think that, in this letter to Strauss discussing the composition of Arabella, Hoffmanstahl was indeed suggesting revisiting the 18th century world of old Vienna and addressing that criticism as well as improving the overall dramatic structure that was a little wayward in the earlier work. In many ways Arabella is indeed a more “perfect” version of Der Rosenkavalier, but it’s a work nonetheless that few would consider better than the earlier work, magnificent even with all its glorious imperfections. Given a sympathetic production, with the right kind of cast to draw out and linger over its elegance - such as the one assembled here for the Paris Opera - one would however have to seriously consider whether the latter isn’t worthy of comparison to its earlier incarnation.

Returning to the 18th century Viennese operetta setting, Arabella does indeed demonstrate the hand of a more experienced team capable of improving many of the elements that were slightly awkward and much too self-consciously clever in Der Rosenkavalier. The romantic Mozartian intrigue with identity problems and its cross-dressing farce fits better within the tone of the later work, the introduction of waltzes placed more naturalistically within the setting of a balls at a grand hotel. Everything runs smoothly along the narrative line laid out for the drama, with a musical continuity that effortlessly glides one right through the three acts. There’s always the danger of the music being a little too smooth with Strauss in this register, but there is an awareness of the darker side of the Vienna of Maria Theresia beneath the surface glamour.

This is one further significant difference between the conception of the two works. Der Rosenkavalier was composed in 1911 before the Great War, Arabella after it in 1933, and although both seem to wallow in a nostalgia for an idealised past, there are hints in the latter work - with its specific 1866 setting just after the war with Prussia - of a more meaningful reflection on the state of the post-war Austria of Hofmannshahl and Strauss’ time. There’s nothing too dark, just the hint that the world reflected in the monetary ruin and fall from grace of former military officer Count Waldner, is unable to sustain the illusion of living in the past much longer. What is wonderful about the work is how it manages to keep this within the spirit of what is essentially a comic melodrama, where one daughter Arabella will have to be married to a rich man, while the other daughter, Zdenka, must dress and act as a man, since the family cannot afford a marriage for two daughters, and Arabella is the better prospect.

Arabella moreover, despite the apparent light tone of the work, is indeed a more fully rounded human person that the Marschallin - who was more of a concept to embody the passing of time in the more philosophically-leaning Der Rosenkavalier, although fully and poetically developed in that respect - was never allowed to be. Arabella still has all the lush romanticism that Strauss and Hofmannstahl want to capture in this lost Viennese world for a time that, after the Great War, was ever more in need of it. Without denying that times can be difficult, that sacrifices need to be made, the opera offers up the hope that fairytales can happen, that goodness, fidelity and happiness have the chance to exist. With that kind of concept, Arabella can be played as too lushly romantic, too formally classical and over-elaborate in a manner that smothers the delicate balance that the music and the drama treads. Not so in this production at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, one of the final works of the current 2011-12 season.

The staging by Marco Arturo Marelli didn’t appear obviously special, but it worked wonderfully with the intended tone of the work. The whole purpose of Arabella is to create this world of 18th century Vienna in all its glamour - idealised though it may be - so there’s not a lot of point in changing the period or the setting. Marelli’s sets looked like the typical Opéra Bastille production, bright, with coloured lighting, filling the stage and making full use of the height of the stage, yet the luxury, smoothness and cleanness of the designs suited the tone of this particular work. The set was wonderfully designed also to match the flowing nature of the work, slipping elegantly from one scene to the next, although the actual stage direction for the characters within this was a little bit walk-on/walk-off. The cleverest touch was the fall of a blue silken curtain at the end of Act I, which managed to romantically set up the first wordless encounter between Arabella and Mandryka, to be taken up from the same position at the start of Act II.

With Philippe Jordan at the helm, there were some truly astonishing sounds coming out of the orchestra pit from the remarkable Orchestra of the Paris Opera. It seemed directed with a Wagnerian punch and heft that ought to be out of place with this light comic drama, yet it only served to underline the dramatic and romantic tone to its fullest extent. It was the intelligence of the wonderful singing performances however that really carried through the full beauty of the work and the complex depths that are suggested in Hofmannstahl’s libretto and Strauss’ music. Renée Fleming’s silken tones graced Strauss’ music with warmth, glamour and sensitivity, although her performance was certainly enhanced by Jordan’s direction and in her well-matched interaction with the other singers. Alongside Michael Volle, the pairing of Arabella and Mandryka felt every bit as perfect as it should, bringing the full romantic content out of the work, but Kurt Rydl as Waldner and Genia Kühmeier as Zdenka also impressed on every level, contributing to the overall richness of the piece and showing what it can be capable of in the hands of a strong team. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a spontaneous standing ovation for a production as a whole at the Paris Opera, but it was well-merited here.

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Sir Mark Elder, Robert Carsen, Christof Fischesser, Christopher Ventris, Stéphane Degout, Stanislas De Barbeyrac, Tomasz Konieczny, Eric Huchet, Wojtek Smilek, Nina Stemme, Sophie Koch | Opéra Bastille, Paris - 17th October 2011

As one might expect from Robert Carsen – or indeed any modern director really who is confronted with the challenge of updating Richard Wagner’s grand subjects into a meaningful setting – the stage director has little time for the trappings of Tannhäuser’s ancient Teutonic mythology. He determines – quite correctly – that Tannhäuser is all about the struggle of the artist to find new challenges and inspiration and not rest on the laurels of acclaim and easy public acceptance (a subject no doubt close to the heart of the composer himself). Accordingly, there are no dramatic classical vistas of Venusberg with nymphs, fauns and satyrs all skipping around in his production for the Paris Opera, but rather, right from the outset of the wonderful overture to this opera, Carsen strips back everything to the essence of an artist driven but tormented in his attempts to paint the naked Venus, his inspiration, his obsession, his aphrodisiac – the urges all intertwined into everything that makes him an artist.

Tannhauser

The stage, still during the overture, consequently becomes filled with this obsession, the artist appearing in multiple forms, producing fevered canvasses – the paintings, the artists, the stage itself, all smeared and dripping with red paint, their own lifeblood. It’s a dark obsession, and the dark stage, stripped down, filled with frenzied activity, perfectly choreographed and atmospherically lit, captures everything that is there in the overture and expanded upon in the first Act. With great simplicity of design and movement, the nature of Tannhäuser’s predicament is fully achieved by making him a painter, his necessity to look elsewhere and start anew reflected in the blank canvasses that form a backdrop to the contest at Wartburg in Act II.

If there are any doubts about the approach to take with regard to the opera’s themes, one need only listen to the music itself. Tannhäuser was composed in 1849, when Wagner was still searching for a new form of expression for German art, leading towards the music-drama, yet had not yet totally escaped the conventions of the traditional form of Grand Opera. The need to confront the conflict between physical and spiritual urges, the imperfections that arise out of this, and the necessity for those imperfections in order to create a dialogue or dialectic, are there within Tannhäuser itself. Heinrich seeks to and needs to push the boundaries of convention and challenge the public and risk offending their delicate sensibilities, ultimately to serve God or a higher purpose. It’s what Wagner does also, and it’s what Carson, in a way, does in turn when he extends the scope of the stage in Act II by having characters walk down the aisles, as if the Paris audience were stepping onto the stage. That’s an old trick of course, but it’s meaningful here, since it directly addresses the question of public perception of art, and even the notorious response to the opera when it was first performed in Paris.

Tannhauser

Such an approach doesn’t always fully cover the complexities of Wagner’s vision and imagination – Tannhäuser to my mind is almost as esoteric, indefinable and personal to Wagner as Parsifal – and I’m not sure how any stage production could be, but the direct focus on the theme of art at least allows attention to be focussed on the characters, and here at the Bastille, the performances were extraordinarily good. Christopher Ventris handled the most demanding role of Tannhäuser terrifically. He has a beautifully toned voice and sung the role well, embodying the enthusiasm and the conflict of the struggling artist with every gesture and vocal expression. Nina Stemme’s Elisabeth also lived up to the high expectations that were placed on her, but the most pleasant surprises were Sophie Koch’s commanding and clarion-voiced Venus, and Stéphane Degout’s well-rounded baritone was consistently impressive as the conflicted Wolfram. The quality of the lower end of the vocal register is just as important to sustaining the whole scope of the opera’s musical and artistic themes, and we certainly got that here.

On that front also, the Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris was in magnificent voice (and isn’t Tannhäuser a glorious opera for Wagnerian choruses?) both off-stage and on-stage as sirens and pilgrims. With Sir Mark Elder conducting the orchestra wonderfully through the score, this was – as you would hope for considering the themes of the opera itself – an evening of supreme artistic effort.

OtelloJacques Offenbach - Les Brigands

Opéra Comique, Paris | François-Xavier Roth, Macha Makeieff and Jérôme Deschamps, Éric Huchet, Julie Boulianne, Daphné Touchais, Franck Leguérinel, Philippe Talbot, Francis Dudziak, Martial Defontaine, Fernand Bernardi, Löic Félix, Léonard Pezzino | Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique, Paris, France - 29 June 2011

With a few notable exceptions in the bel canto repertoire, comic opera, buffa, and particularly operetta, have never been taken seriously by lovers of the more traditional romantic, dramatic and tragic opera. Comedy, of course, shouldn’t be taken seriously, but it is nonetheless another aspect of life that opera is equally as good as representing, and it can be no less intelligent in this form, and no less incisive and satirical on social and political issues – sometimes even moreso than earnest attempts at political commentary.

But let’s not get carried away too soon. Offenbach’s Les Brigands (1869) – one of the composer’s lesser known operettas, certainly not well known outside France – is first and foremost a sparkling, bright entertainment set to catchy tunes, full of humorous incident, intrigue and dressing-up in disguises. Notionally drawn from a work by Friedrich Schiller, it taps into a popular setting of bandits, smugglers and gypsies that would reach its peak in Bizet’s Carmen (1875). In fact, the first laugh of the evening at this production of Les Brigands at the Opéra Comique in Paris was raised from the outset, as the orchestra launched straight into the overture from Carmen before descending into chaos as the fake conductor’s ruse was discovered. It was an appropriate opening for an operatta that rather knowingly plays with the conventions of the artform, but not at all in a deprecating way.

Brigandes

The setting for Les Brigands is, after all, the geographically impossible location of the mountains that border Spain and Italy, where a political alliance is to be made between a Princess of the Court of Grenada and the Duke of Mantua. When the notorious brigand Falsacoppa and his gang get wind of a dowry of three million that comes with the alliance, they come up with a plan to capture the Spanish party and pass themselves off as the royal entourage, having substituted a picture of Falsacoppa’s daughter Fiorella (who just happened to recently have her portrait done in a fancy gown), delivered to Italy by a messanger. This scheme proves to be more complicated than they initially thought, as the brigands have to hold-up the staff at the inn where the Spanish royal party are due to arrive, disguise themselves as hoteliers, and then as carabinieri when they unexpectedly turn up, and finally as the Spanish, before making their way to Mantua.

It’s all played as a tremendous farce (every time a gun is fired in the air, it invariably brings down a bird, and on one occasion a rabbit), making great fun at the expense of the carabinieri whose loud boots ensure that they always arrive too late (“nous arrivons toujours trop tard” – the most famous and memorable tune of the opera, reprised at the end of each of the three acts), at the exaggerated Flamenco gestures and hissing speech of the Spanish (who insist on claiming that they are real Spanish, which distinguishes them from fake Spanish), and at the conventions of operetta comedy itself, with multiple disguises within disguises (and even one breeches role to complicate matters further). The staging in this production by Macha Makeieff and Jérôme Deschamps (a revival of their 1993 production for the Bastille), using old-style painted backdrops and generic costumes, was most effective in conveying the necessary comic tone. The stage was often populated by up to fifty people and by numerous live animals that includes donkeys and hens running around, yet it never appeared cluttered.

Brigandes

It’s easy to dismiss Les Brigands as low farcical entertainment, but the skill with which the situation in the operetta is arranged and performed (there are no great virtuoso singing performances here, but it’s played with verve and gusto by all the main roles), the drive of the score (full of can-can style jaunty rhythms), and the playing out of the clever libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (the librettists for Bizets Carmen), reveals great sophistication. Not only is it in tune with the political and social climate at the end of the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, making reference to the financial scandals of the time which has resonance today (emphasised at one point when the coffers are revealed to be empty with a distainful interjection of ‘Banquiers!’), but Offenbach’s work, and that of the French opera-comique, has a quintessential French quality that one doesn’t find elsewhere, and which – judging by its reception at the Théâtre de l’Opéra Comique on a hot evening at the end of June – is still as thoroughly entertaining and accessible today.