Todorovitch, Marie-Ange


Charles Gounod - Faust

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Alain Altinoglu, Jean-Louis Martinoty, Roberto Alagna, Paul Gay, Tassis Christoyannis, Alexander Duhamel, Inva Mula, Angélique Noldus, Marie-Ange Todorovitch | Opéra Bastille, Paris – 16th October 2011

When is Gounod’s Faust not Gounod’s Faust? For many people who think they know the opera well, I’m sure that they would find the new 2011 production for the Paris Opera unfamiliar in many respects – but the question is historically a great deal more complicated than that. A great admirer of Goethe’s work, Gounod had been planning an opera on Faust for almost thirty years, but between finally starting work on it in 1855, it receiving its first production at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris in 1859 in a heavily cut form, and its appearance at the Paris Opera, many subsequent revisions were made to the work.  With additional arias inserted later to suit singers in productions around Europe, with the whole work revised again by Gounod in 1866 to eliminate spoken dialogue and make it a fully-fledged opera, it can be difficult to determine what exactly is the true form of Gounod’s Faust.

Faust has probably been debased even further over the intervening years. A popular favourite, the dramatic representation and any sense of coherence has often come secondary to ensuring that the crowd-pleasing songs, marches and waltzes showcasing the extravagance of the orchestration, the singing and the famous setpieces meet audience expectations. Many operas have scenes of iconic power, but are there any with quite so many in each act as Faust? With its initial meeting between Faust and Mephistopheles, the Fairground waltz and the Ivan the Terrible soldier’s march in Act 2, Marguerite’s Jewel song in Act 3, Valentin’s duel in Act 4 and the Walpurgis Night debauch in Act 5 – to name just a few of the stand-out moments – Gounod’s Faust is one long procession of memorable moments, drama and melodrama, mixed up in meditations on love, romance, nihilism, philosophy and religion. With so much to cover and so many expectations to meet – and with such a history of cuts and revisions – there’s not however much sense of coherency in Faust, and there’s little that bears resemblance to the original work and themes of Goethe.

Faust

How much of the opera is as Gounod intended is difficult then to determine, but it has certainly been molded a great deal by the necessity of meeting the demands and conventions of the French Grand Opera tradition. That’s how it’s traditionally presented, that’s how I am familiar with it, and that’s pretty much the way it was played at the fine Royal Opera House production directed by David McVicar broadcast in HD around the world just a few weeks ago. Surprisingly then, few of the familiar conventions were adhered to in the Opéra National de Paris’ new 2011 production at the Bastille directed by Jean-Louis Martinoty and conducted by Alain Altinoglu (after the departure of Alain Lombard early in the production). If there is some inevitable disappointment that all the old favourites aren’t played out quite as you remember them or would like them, the new Paris Opera production is at least a brave attempt to restore some of the true qualities of the work back to its original form. If you are going to radically rework a familiar opera however, you need to have something else to pique the interest of the audience, and while that is admirably achieved here to a certain degree, some of the decisions are nonetheless questionable and some of the staging is quite curious.

The staging, as is often the case at the Bastille, appears to be aiming to fill the large stage with as much impressive set design, spectacle and colour as possible, rather than being quite so faithful to the demands of the opera. In the case of Faust however, there are certainly plenty of showcase scenes to merit the spectacle, and some of them really have an impact. The main body of the stage – as it was with McVicar’s producton last month – uses the scientist’s study as the basis for the whole opera. Here, the semi-circular raised rows of bookcases are a constant reminder – while there is often not much else to remind you in the opera – of the desire for knowledge, experience and answers that has ultimately led the doctor Faust into a bargain with the demon Mephistopheles, selling his soul for a life of abandon and debauchery that, up until her dramatic sacrifice and salvation, almost also claims the pure and innocent soul of Marguerite.

Great vertical use is made of the stage, with huge crosses and an enormous skeleton descending down to the stage, as well as raising figures and objects, and no small amount of smoky dry ice from “down below”. If some of the choices are curious, not exactly naturalistic and perhaps not quite how we are used to seeing Faust depicted –the aforementioned skeleton and Marguerite’s bed covered in greenery and forming part of the garden scene some of the stranger elements – they all at least fit into the main themes and concepts of the battle between good and evil, science and nature, knowledge and the purposes that it is turned towards.

Faust

Some of this works however and some of it doesn’t. The skeleton forms one of the best effects during the waltz during the fair of Act II, whirling and trailing ribbons over Mephistopheles as he leads the dance beneath. On the other hand, Roberto Alagna’s transformation from old academic to young man isn’t the most inventive. Employing an actor who lip-sync mimes to Alagna’s off-stage singing, it avoids the tricky transformation (clevery done in quick change mode by Vittorio Grigolo in the ROH production) – but Alagna makes enough of an impression when he does appear to make up for this. Valentin’s death also lacks traditional impact, since he has no sword and is struck by Faust with an oblique blow (which indicates of course that it is Mepistopheles behind the action), but the extraordinary manner of him dying standing on his feet is quite striking.

Another reason for the seemingly deliberate lack of traditional impact however is the measured tempo of Alain Altinoglu’s conducting of the Paris Orchestra which avoids all the usual added punchy emphasis, sounding almost like how one would approach Wagner’s German Romanticism more than how we are accustomed to hearing Gounod played. The playing of the orchestra was marvellous and, although one misses all the usual tics, this more thoughtful and lyrical approach did however cast an entirely different perspective on the work and indeed worked marvellously with the romantic and religious elements that dominate it. The opera unfortunately still has many gaps and lapses of dramatic continuity that prevents such an approach from fully coming together, so it wasn’t entirely satisfactory, raising perhaps more questions in the curiosity and unfamiliarity of the staging instead of making it any clearer or coherent, but it was a welcome approach nonetheless.

Even if the dramatic action or the musical interpretation didn’t always play into the hands of the singer looking to make an impression in these great operatic roles, the singing was nonetheless wonderful. Roberto Alagna was in fine shape physically for the role and in good singing voice also. Personally speaking, I don’t find him the most charismatic of performers, but by the same token he’s not show-offy, he does have a beautiful tone to his voice and always delivers a flawless singing performance. You couldn’t ask for more from a Faust. Inva Mula, who I last saw singing wonderfully in the Paris Opera’s revision and restoration of Gounod’s almost forgotten Mireille (on Blu-ray), is in even finer voice here as Marguerite, her French pretty much faultless, her singing glorious, appropriate and in keeping with her character. Paul Gay didn’t always carry the kind of seductive charm of Mephistopheles or sound entirely firm on the lower register, but his performance was warmly received by the audience, as was Tassis Christoyannis – an excellent Valentin, even if he wasn’t given much leeway with the role.

HamletAmbroise Thomas - Hamlet

Opéra National du Rhin | Patrick Fournillier, Vincent Boussard, Stéphane Degout, Ana Camelia Stefanescu, Marie-Ange Todorovitch, Nicolas Cavallier, Christophe Berry, Vincent Pavesi, Mark Van Arsdale, Jean-Gabriel Saint-Martin, Dimitri Pkhaladze | Strasbourg, France - 26 June 2011

To be or not to be… an opera… that is the question.

That’s a bit of a predictable way to start a review of Ambroise Thomas’ opera version of Hamlet, but it’s still a relevant question that has divided opera-goers for years. Your view on that is likely to depend on whether you are an English-speaker and familiar with the Shakespeare drama or otherwise, and if you are more attuned to the traditions of French grand opera. The problem with Shakespeare in French – even though his work is venerated there almost as much as in the UK – is that it’s not really Shakespeare. In French it has none of the poetry of his Elizabethan period verse, and it translated into a rather prosaic, ordinary, commonplace (I know these all mean the same thing, I’m just listing them for effect) French that is almost indistinguishable from how modern French is spoken.

Adapting Shakespeare to opera is not without its problems either, but there are plenty of examples from Berlioz to Wagner, but most notably Rossini and Verdi, to indicate that there’s no reason why a lyrical presentation of the Bard’s dramas can’t work, and in some cases… dare I say it… even improve on the original. Well, maybe not improve, but there are certainly examples, such as Iago’s Credo in Verdi’s Otello, where the original elements are expanded upon to superb effect, but it’s hard to see how even the Gesamtkunstwerk nature of opera can add much that isn’t already contained within the original Shakespearean drama.

Particularly Hamlet, which in my view, and many others, is the greatest drama ever written. I may have been biased from the outset then, but, never having had the opportunity before to see Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet – or indeed anything by one of France’s most respected if little-known composers – I was keen to take the opportunity to see it performed on French soil in Strasbourg. Ambroise Thomas’ works are rarely performed, with only Hamlet and Mignon staged with any kind of regularity in France, but even here at the Opéra National du Rhin, Hamlet was billed as a rare classic rediscovered. Try as I might however, I couldn’t get the original text out of my head as the rather drab, colourless, dull (yes, for effect) and prosaic French libretto singularly failed to bring the drama and the poetry to life.

Hamlet

Act I and II set out the dramatic content of the opera. It opens with the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius (a invented scene not in the original, but effective enough to establish the context of the drama) two months after his brother King Hamlet’s death, and is then followed by the appearance of the ghost of the father talking to his son Prince Hamlet, telling him that he was poisoned by Claudius and that he must be avenged (“but go easy on Gertrude”, he bizarrely warns), and Act II ends with the travelling players re-enacting the crime (strangely and confusingly in this production, implicating the real people into the drama and not leaving much room for ambiguity).

Musically, it’s hard to find anything attractive about the early scenes, the score conventional and dull, full of old-fashioned academicism that has little relation to the dramatic tone or context of the piece, with one-note continuo during speaking sections and only the chorus coming in from time to time to add dramatic emphasis. Any attempts at originality are quite eccentric, such as a solo saxophone at one point. The staging at Strasbourg Opéra didn’t really find any interesting way to make this come to life (the appearance of the King’s ghost walking vertically down a wall notwithstanding), with a generic Court setting that never changed, with variation only in the lighting – but it did at least keep the dramatic action fluid.

Act III and IV however, post interval, present a totally different side to the opera, putting aside the exposition of the dramatic plot and allowing the emotional tone to find its own footing through some lovely duets and arias – in Hamlet’s confrontation with the Queen, and particularly in Ophelia’s extended lament and death scene. It becomes more like scenes from Hamlet (or inspired by Hamlet) set to music, and it certainly kills the plot progression stone dead, but the musical qualities work in favour of the opera and this is certainly preferable to the dreary dramatisation of the first half. As wonderful as this might be, it comes at the cost of the excision of some important and famous scenes, with several of the characters given short shrift. Laertes has a walk-on/walk-off part (pointlessly wandering through the dramatic scene between Hamlet and Ophelia with a suitcase at one point in this production), there are no Rosencrantz or Guildenstern (not a loss really), and alas, poor Yorick’s name is forgotten by the gravediggers, giving Hamlet no opportunity to pose with a skull and meditate upon life (although he does so here, and quite effectively, in relation to Ophelia’s death). Even Polonius is reduced to a bit-part of about three lines, playing no significant part in the drama, and consequently coming out of the drama alive!

Hamlet

As do many other characters, for Thomas and his librettists Michel Carré and Jules Barbier (taken admittedly from a reworking of the drama by Alexandre Dumas) – suddenly realise that they need to find a way to quickly wrap-up this non-drama. Shakespeare is thrown out the window and instead they tack on their own ending where the ghost of the dead King appears before the assembled guests, hands a knife to Hamlet and tells him to get on with it (“but don’t forget, go easy on your mother”). Hamlet duly obliges, despatching Claudius before himself expiring over the grave of Ophelia. To say I was bemused at the finale would be an understatement – flabberghasted, perhaps – and this is the revised version of the opera that was forced upon Thomas for the English permiere of the opera, as it was felt that the English audience wouldn’t accept the happy ending in the original version where Hamlet lives on and is crowned King! Putting Shakespeare aside however – and the developments of Act III and IV are such a thoroughly enjoyable musical experience that one is finally able to do this – it was a however a dramatically effective conclusion.

It helped that the singing at Strasbourg was of a fairly high standard. Hamlet is a baritone role, which one feels it should be even though it’s not a great operatic role (he’s even upstaged by Ophelia), but we had Stéphane Degout here (who I’ve previously seen doing Rameau) and he was in fine voice, as was Nicolas Cavallier in the bass role of Claudius. Hamlet of course notes that women are fickle and inconstant, and there was some inconsistency to the Romanian Ana Camelia Stefanescu as Ophelia, and Marie-Ange Todorovitch’s Gertrude, but they were mainly hampered by the dramatic expression of the first two acts and both came through to excellent effect in the final two acts, particularly in Ophelia’s beautifully heartfelt lament. Despite the liberties taken with Shakespeare’s verse and characterisation then, and despite some conservative grand opera tedium in the drama of the first half, and with the help of some judicious pruning by Patrick Fournillier of the opera’s ballet sequences, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet proved to be such an experience that one can see why the opera remains popular in France, as well as why it’s not so highly thought of elsewhere.