Opéra National du Rhin


FarnaceAntonio Vivaldi - Farnace

Opéra National du Rhin, 2012 | George Petrou, Lucinda Childs, Max Emanuel Cencic, Mary Ellen Nesi, Ruxandra Donose, Carol Garcia, Vivica Genaux, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro, Juan Sancho | Strasbourg, France, 18 May 2012

Originally created in 1729 for the Teatro Sant’ Angelo in Venice, Farnace was subjected to revisions by Vivaldi in 1738 for a new production in Ferrare, the composer adapting the airs and recitative for the tessitura for the Ferrare singers, but also seeking to rework the opera in the Neapolitan ‘galant style’. The performances were however cancelled - for reasons unknown - and Vivaldi left the new version of the work unfinished after revising only the first two of the opera’s three acts. Fascinated by Vivaldi’s work on the Ferrare version, one of the last pieces of work written by the composer, and considering it worth reviving and preserving, George Petrou, along with Frédéric Delaméa and Diego Fasolis, undertook the task of continuing the revisions made by Vivaldi through to the third act, and the revised Farnace was given its first ever complete live performance (it was recorded in 2010) by the Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg on 18th May 2012, premiered some 274 years after it was written by Vivaldi.

The resulting work then is perhaps not musically 100% pure Vivaldi, but as a best guess interpretation of the composer’s intentions, the work has certainly been carried out with scholarly authority and it’s probably no less “authentic” than just about any interpretation of the music, style, tempo and instrumentation for most Baroque opera seria works of this period. If the first two acts were to ever be reconstructed and performed, it was however essential to either rewrite the third act or simply play the opera in its incomplete state. Simply grafting the original third act from the Venice Farnace onto the revised Ferrare version wouldn’t have worked, so small but significant modifications had to be undertaken for the sake of the singers. Directed for the stage at Strasbourg by Lucinda Childs, the validity of the new version or the power of Vivaldi’s energetic writing for the content of the opera itself was never in question, although whether the stage production managed to find an expression that was equally as successful was less certain.

Farnace

Lucinda Childs is better known for her ballet creations and choreography for the US avant-garde musicians and directors who came to prominence in the 1960s - Childs most notably being involved in the Gesamkunstwerk of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach. She has however increasingly been working as an opera director in recent years, although ballet inevitably plays a part in her style, and indeed in her Farnace for the Opéra National du Rhin Childs pairs each of the singers with a “double” who dances the role while the other sings. Farnace is however not an opera-ballet and Childs recognises this, so the dancing doesn’t play as large a part in the stage direction as you might imagine, but what is used is well placed and appropriate. The rhythms of Baroque music certainly lend themselves to expression in this way, helping to bring out the emotional undercurrents and turmoil of a very heated dramatic situation where Farnace, the King of Pontus, son of Mitridate, has been defeated by the Roman army under Pompeo with the aid of Berenice, his own mother-in-law. He orders his wife Tamari to commit suicide with their young son rather than be taken by the enemy, and, driven to distraction by the events that are unfolding, and gaining an opportunity through his sister Selinda sowing discord and gaining favour among the Roman military command, he attempts to assassinate Pompeo.

Childs’ direction and the use of dancers do work to an extent in getting across the dark drama that unfolds, and combined with the stage designs of Bruno de Lavenère and some interesting choreography by Childs it does prove to be an effective way of overcoming the challenge that the rather static nature of opera seria drama often presents, finding a way of getting to the heart of the characters’ inner turmoil, albeit in a fairly conventional theatrical way that isn’t particularly inspired, but shouldn’t upset traditionalists either. If it doesn’t always find a way of bringing the work to life, Vivaldi’s furiously energetic writing is fortunately more than capable of achieving the necessary impact on its own. Perhaps not enough to sustain an audience through the somewhat gruelling two hours of the first two acts, which were combined without a break, but it helps if the singing is of a high quality and, with most of the principal cast from Diego Fasolis’s 2010 recording of the Ferrare version reprising their roles onstage here at Strasbourg and the score propelled forward by the Concerto Köln under George Petrou, that at least was achieved in no uncertain terms.

Farnace

The star attraction was undoubtedly the singing and performance of Max Emanuel Cencic, a countertenor with remarkable strength in this high register, much more forceful than you would normally expect to hear from this kind of singer, yet he loses none of the underlying lightness and lyricism that is required also. This was exactly the tone you would like to hear in the character of Farnace, considering the extreme range of emotions and development that he undergoes throughout the opera, and Cencic handled the flowing coloratura of the da capo arias impressively and expressively in this respect. Force was evident also in the casting of the four mezzo-soprano roles in the opera, the most commanding of which was undoubtedly Mary Ellen Nesi as the formidable Berenice, but Ruxandra Donose was also a strong, determined and driven Tamiri. Vivica Genaux was also notable as Gilade, and Carol Garcia fine as Selinda. The tenor roles of Auilo (Emiliano Gonzalez) and Pompeo (Juan Sancho) were also well performed.

The Opéra National du Rhin production at Strasbourg will be recorded for broadcast on France 3 television, and will be made available to international audiences via internet streaming on ARTE Live Web from 30th May 2012.

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.