StradellaCésar Franck - Stradella

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège 2012 | Paolo Arrivabeni, Jaco Van Dormael, Marc Laho, Isabelle Kabatu, Werner van Mechelen, Philippe Rouillon, Xavier Rouillon, Giovanni Iovino, Patrick Mignon, Roger Joakim | ARTE Live Web, Internet Streaming

The choice of opera for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s 2012-13 season at the restored Théâtre Royal in Liège was an unusual one. Stradella is an unfinished work by César Franck - better known for his symphonic writing and pieces for the piano and organ - written in 1842 when the composer was just 15 years old and only rediscovered in 1984. There may not be too many classic Belgian opera composers to choose from, much less one who was actually born in Liège, but in the event, the production team and the completion of the orchestration by composer Luc Van Hove filled out the sweep of Franck’s lush Romanticism to make something more of this otherwise relatively slight work in its first ever staging. Directed by filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael (Toto le Héro), with some strong singing performances, it was moreover an appropriately near all-Belgian opening production and as such a memorable way to mark the occasion.

The plot of Stradella is relatively simple and unburdened with anything like psychological motivation or even depth of character. The Duke of Pesaro has ordered his lieutenant Spadoni to abduct the beautiful maiden Leonor in the middle of the Carnival in Venice. Having locked her away in his mansion, the Duke tries to win her love by employing the famous singer Stradella to woo her, unaware that Stradella and Leonor are actually an item. As well as being one mighty coincidence, one would think the Duke might have taken some time to investigate Leonor’s love-life, but as I say, such details seem to be of little concern to the young Franck, who instead focuses his attention on exploring the romantic tragedy aspects that this situation gives rise to. Franck’s symphonic scoring is certainly influenced by Wagner to some extent, but the composer clearly favours the more melodic approach of Gounod - Faust sounding like an influence in the ‘À demain‘ duet between Stradella and Leonor early in the first act before the abduction - and it bears a close relation with the composer’s near-contemporary Massenet in this regard.

With an abundance of water on the stage that on occasion tended to get in the way of the performance, the production certainly favoured spectacle over musical or dramatic integrity. It was dramatically justified to some extent by the opera’s Venetian Carnival setting of the opera, but the fact that just about everyone was kitted out in wetsuits or wearing Macs and carrying umbrellas should tell you that there was rather a lot more water than was strictly necessary both on the stage itself - the singers wading waist deep in it for most of the performance - but also in the English summer amount of rain (yeah, that much!) falling from the skies for long sections of the performance. Vincent Lemaire’s sets looked spectacular however, creating a fabulous atmosphere, but it was also more than a little noisy - particularly in one or two scenes from the First Act when Leonor is abducted by the Duke’s men from a canal in the middle of a thunderous downpour. It did however, particularly in the brilliantly staged finale with a floating fish, come over as something of an impressive technical achievement.

The deluge of water (45,000 litres apparently) and the design of the sets however had something of an absorbing effect or dampening of the sound (in more ways than one!) that didn’t really show off the acoustics of the theatre or allow the musical qualities of the work to carry, and it certainly did no favours to the singers who had to remain semi-submerged in it for the entire length of the work. Soprano Isabelle Kabatu had the necessary range and depth for the role of Leonor, but struggled nonetheless on one or two occasions to rise above the stage noise and the orchestration. There were so such problems for the Belgian lyric tenor Marc Laho however, who let none of the bizarre stage directions get in the way of a well-delivered performance, his singing clear and resonant with lovely tone, expression and diction. Bass-baritone Werner van Mechelen was a worthy counterpart to Laho’s Stradella as the Duke’s lieutenant Spadoni, but other than wearing a surreal floating cape borne aloft by black balloons Philippe Rouillon didn’t really make a strong enough impression as the Duc de Pesaro.

Under the musical direction of Paolo Arrivabeni and artistic direction of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, this was overall an impressive gathering of Belgian opera talent for an interesting and eye-catching opener to the 2012-13 season at the Théâtre Royal in Liège following their ambitious run at the temporary Palais Royal venue last year. Franck’s recently rediscovered early opera doesn’t prove to be a major work by any means, but it’s a lovely little piece nonetheless and a fascinating addition to the French-Belgian repertoire.

Recorded on the 25 and 27th of September 2012, Stradella was viewed via an internet streaming broadcast on the ARTE website, where it can still be viewed - in French language, with no subtitles - up until October 2013.