Gay, Paul


Lucrezia

Gaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Julian Reynolds, Guy Joosten, Paul Gay, Elena Moşuc, Charles Castronovo, Silvia Tro Santafé, Roberto Covatta, Tijl Faveyts, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Jean Teitgen, Alexander Kravets, Justin Hopkins, Stefan Cifolelli, Alain-Pierre Wingelinckx | La Monnaie - Internet Streaming, February 2013

La Monnaie’s production of Lucrezia Borgia maintains a consistency of style and quality of interpretation that has been evident in all their works broadcast this season via their internet streaming service. Like La Traviata, Lulu and Manon Lescaut, it’s not without a certain amount of controversy either. Modern, boldly coloured and neon-lit, with a stage set that is far from conventional in concept and configuration, much less traditional in period in design, it was however another bold vision where the spectacle was rivalled by the interpretation of the music and excellent singing from an intriguing cast line-up.

It’s well established that the plot and characterisation of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia are not the most convincing. The work is filled with inconsistencies, improbabilities and weak characterisation. Donizetti’s music too, if we’re honest, has its moments but there’s an awful lot of plodding conventionality in the scoring. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense or at least it’s expecting a bit much for the audience to sympathise with the idea that there’s a loving mother beneath Lucrezia’s notoriety as a monstrous killer who even in the opera commits a number of atrocities that include the inadvertent murder of her own son. The nature of her love for Gennaro is itself somewhat dubious and borderline incestuous. Gennaro’s actions and motivations and love unfortunately are no more credible. And that’s to say nothing of the plot involving poisoned wines and antidote plot twists.

The complications of the characterisation and the melodrama in Lucrezia Borgia do however provide a wealth of material that can be worked effectively by a strong cast of real personality, particularly if they have strong direction. It’s a work that builds up scene upon scene towards a magnificent dramatic finale in the way that only Donizetti or Rossini can do, if the production has singers of sufficient stature to pull it off, particularly in the title role. La Monnaie’s production benefits in this respect from a strong committed central performance by Elena Moşuc, who not only hits all those extraordinarily difficult high notes but she does so with a soft unforced expressiveness and true dramatic conviction.

As Gennaro, Charles Castronovo’s lovely rounded lyric tenor is more than capable of the necessary range and power, but he’s a little declamatory and unable to really bring anything out of the role and the complicated (badly-written) relationship with Lucrezia. There’s a suggestion that the director has to some extent modelled this Gennaro on Donizetti himself, but I’m not sure this is established entirely successfully. The adventurous and successful casting of the two leads extends to the other roles. Paul Gay’s lighter bass-baritone is revealed as being much better suited to the bel canto of Don Alfonso than the boom of Grand Opéra, while Silvia Tro Santafé makes a good impression as Orsini.

It’s also been well established that a “realistic” period setting isn’t necessarily going to make Lucrezia Borgia any more convincing. It’s not a historical drama nor is it a movie or a documentary. Like any operatic work from this period, the emotions expressed principally through the singing - love, anger, betrayal and revenge - are far more important than the historical characters or the period. Guy Joosten’s setting of the opera, with sets by Johannes Leiacker, looks like a circus or even a nightclub with a catwalk leading down from a curtained entrance that has Borgia written up in neon-lights. Large menacing figures representing aspects of Lucrezia (Maternity, Death, Evil, Nobility) loom over the circular stage of the Cirque Royal, with the orchestra located to the right hand side at the back. There’s evidently some conceptual layers added here, but the drama itself is nonetheless played out within this according the intentions of the libretto. More or less.

There are some liberties taken then in the stage production, but no more than Donizetti and Felice Romano’s working of Victor Hugo’s fictional drama and only as much as is necessary to make the notoriously difficult and somewhat static dramatic staging for this opera work. This was no stand-and-deliver performance and at the very least it was visually impressive in its colourful stylisations, with figures wearing masks and costumes - pigs, clowns, ‘Clockwork Orange‘ droogs, topless ladies in saucy nun costumes - that not only fit with the Venetian Carnival revelry in Lucrezia Borgia, they also give a sense of characterisation and personality that is hard to find in the work itself. The success of the production was assured by the superb playing of the La Monnaie symphony orchestra and a lively, intense and invigorating interpretation of the score by conductor Julian Reynolds.

La Monnaie/De Munt’s production of Lucrezia Borgia was broadcast on the internet via their internet streaming service, the performance recorded on the 23rd and 26th February 2013. The next broadcast of their exceptional season is the world premiere of a new work by Benoît Mernier, La Dispute.

RavelMaurice Ravel - L’Heure Espagnole, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges

Glyndebourne, 2012 | Kazushi Ono, Laurent Pelly, Elliot Madore, François Piolino, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Alek Shrader, Paul Gay, Khatouna Gadelia, Elodie Méchain, Julie Pasturaud, Kathleen Kim, Natalia Brzezinska, Hila Fahima, Kirsty Stokes | Live Internet Streaming - 19 August 2012

It seems only natural to bring together the two short one-act operas by Maurice Ravel, the only two opera works written by the French composer, but they are strangely - perhaps on account of the different challenges presented by the two works - more commonly performed separately or alongside short works by other composers (Zemlimsky’s fairytale Der Zwerg is often seen as a younger audience-friendly companion for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges than the risqué comedy of L’Heure Espagnole). Glyndebourne’s production for the 2012 Festival therefore provides an interesting opportunity to compare two works that aren’t often performed, all the more so since they are both directed for the stage by Laurent Pelly, a director with a good affinity for the works who is able to highlight both their commonalities and their contrasts.

One thing that both operas have in common, even if they use different means of expression, is Ravel’s playful and inventive approach to musical accompaniment. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges might be made up of apparently more conventional set pieces for singing, while L’Heure Espagnole is more declamatory in recitative than sung, but both make use of American influenced jazz and ragtime and other unconventional arrangements and instruments in order to express the variety of situations, movements, gestures and attitudes that take place from moment to moment over the course of both of the works.

Ravel

Set inside a clock shop in Toledo, if the music of L’Heure Espagnole isn’t conventionally rhythmic outside of the famous synchronised ticking of three different clock times at its intro, there is nonetheless a definite metronomic timing to the pace of the opera itself. While the clockmaker is out of the shop for an hour - by deliberate arrangement - checking the town clocks, the presence of a customer, the muleteer, forces his wife Concepción to have her lovers transported pendulum-like back and forth to and from her bedroom inside grandfather clocks by the unwitting but brawny muleteer. The opera has all the timing and rhythm of a typical French farce of slamming doors and hiding of a succession of lovers in wardrobes, and the rhythm of all these comings and goings even reflects the sexual implications that are suggested but not shown.

If that seems a bit of a limp subject for an opera, well imagine how this only reflects the disappointment felt by the clockmaker’s wife at the disappointing performances of the poet Gonzalve and the banker Don Iñigo Gómez who talk a good line but prove to be not really up to the job - unlike the muleteer Ramiro who handles all the exertions demanded of him by Concepción unfailingly. All such considerations are taken into account by Ravel, as lightweight as they might seem, including the suggestive double-entendres that come along with talk of pendulums, and the work is scored accordingly with flirtatious melodies, bursts of bluster, and shrill lines of frustration and disappointment, everything moreover seeming to play to the deliberate pace dictated by the presence of the muleteer. Ravel’s knowing treatment belies the apparent lightness of the work - the nod-and-a-wink ensemble finale offers no moral other than the intention of the work to “stress the rhythm, spice up the lines, with a soupcon of Spain” - but it’s never so clever as to get in the way of the genuine comic potential and satire of the subject.

Ravel

L’Heure Espagnole is not an opera that you would think requires much in the way of sets or props, but set designers Caroline Ginet and Florence Evrard pull out all the stops for this Glyndebourne production, fitting out the Toledo clock shop with a variety of timepieces, religious icons and assorted junk. It serves the purpose of being eye-catching as well as perfectly functional for the farcical operations of the plot, but it also serves that perfect sense of situation that you find in Laurent Pelly productions, where you feel not so much in a real-world location as in the world of the music itself. Evidently, in such a work it’s all about the timing and Pelly, along with conductor Kazushi Ono, find that ideal pace of rhythm and direct the five-person cast through the work wonderfully well.

The singers too realise that it’s all there in the music and match the tone of their performances to the sense of comic timing and the intricacies of the score. Stephanie d’Oustrac is alternately flirtatious and ferocious as the man-eater Concepción, commandingly delivering lines that demand obedience and satisfaction. Alex Shrader puts on a fine comic performance as the poetry-spinning Jim Morrison-lookalike Gonzalve, with a lovely tenor voice to match his lyrical musings, while Paul Gay’s bass-baritone seems better suited to the lighter comic delivery of Don Iñigo Gómez here than the heavier dramatic roles such as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust that I’ve seen him sing before. Elliot Madore was excellent in the vital role of Ramiro, as was François Piolino as Torquemada.

With its surreal imagery, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is a stage designer’s dream (or perhaps nightmare), but there is a deeper psychological element to author Colette’s original libretto of a naughty schoolboy and its treated to some ravishingly beautiful as well as inventive and playful arrangements by Ravel. In the case of the Glyndebourne production, it’s definitely a dream to have the imagination of Laurent Pelly set loose on a work like this. You get a sense of being somewhere unique with Pelly at the best of times, but it’s even more the case with a work like this. By the laugh raised from the Glyndebourne audience right from the moment the curtain opens on an over-large table and chair that miniaturises Khatouna Gadelia as an ‘enfant’, you can tell that the stage design has already made the right kind of impact. But there are still considerable challenges that have to be met not only to have the child’s mother appear as a grown-up within this set (it’s very well done), but in the rapid changes of scene that are required over the course of the rest of this short work that also relies on the keeping of a regular rhythm.

Having a tantrum at being told he has to do his homework, the victims of the child’s violent and selfish actions come back to haunt him as enchanted objects, each forming a little scene of their own. A dancing Sofa and an Armchair give way to a spinning Clock, than a Teapot and a China Cup, the Flames from the fireplace and then the Shepherd and Shepherdess from the wallpaper that the child has torn in his bad temper, each of them scolding the child for his behaviour, the Princess from the ripped-up storybook making him tearfully aware of the consequences of his actions. The separate pieces slip in and out of the dark like flitting figments of a child’s imagination, each imaginatively assembled, but contributing to create a surreal mood that has more sinister, or perhaps just deeper psychological significance that becomes clear with the final cry of ‘Maman’ at the arises out of the musical arrangements as much as from the psyche of the child.

The challenge of staging the work then is not just in keeping that procession of scenes moving, but in linking them together in a way that they lead to that natural conclusion. That progression is there in the music too, which seems to be made up of a variety of styles, some melodic, others less so, some abstract and playful, such as the song of the Cats, whose mewling vocalises their discontent just as effectively as an words. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges does feel at times like it’s trying to be too clever in this regard - and exercise in mood expressed very precisely and evocatively in musical and visual terms - all the more so considering the light subject of a naughty child being scolded by the objects that he has inflicted his anger upon, and it might indeed come across like that were it not for the ending in Colette’s libretto and the interpretation placed on it by the strong combination of Pelly’s direction and Ono’s approach to the score.

That really comes together then, as it should, in the final scenes where the knife-scored trees and the creatures of the woods - squirrels, dragonflies and frogs - bring us back to nature and, through them, to the essential nature of the child itself. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges isn’t just a clever theatrical show of animated objects and anthromophism - well, it is and it needs to be, but it’s also more than that. The director and conductor have their part to play in making the work more meaningful than that, in making its meaning come to life, but the singers have a large part to play in that as well, and it’s a work that is just as challenging in that regard. Khatouna Gadelia isn’t the strongest of singers to rise above this cacophony, but she doesn’t have to be, and it’s much more important that she gets across that this is the journey of a child’s experience. Kathleen Kim takes on the challenge of the coloratura Fire, Princess and Nightingale roles well, but there’s strong work here also from L’Heure Espagnole’s team of d’Oustrac, Gay, Madore and Piolino. The work of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus was also instrumental in maintaining that continuity within the work as well as in the combination of the two works as a fascinating double-bill.

The Ravel Double Bill was reviewed here from the Live Internet Streaming broadcast via The Guardian.

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.