Alagna, Roberto


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.

CarmenGeorges Bizet - Carmen

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Marc Piollet, Calixto Bieto, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Roberto Alagna, Marina Poplovskaya, Erwin Schrott, Eliana Bayón, Itxaro Mentxaka, Marc Canturro, Francisco Vas | Unitel Classica - C-Major

As one of the most popular operas in the repertory, and one where opera houses are reluctant to stray too far from the stock traditional performance, Bizet’s Carmen is all too often just being trotted out without a great deal of thought put into it, and there’s consequently a danger of the opera fan becoming somewhat jaded about yet another production. Carmen is Carmen, as far as I’m concerned, and personally, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again. Fantastic opera, brilliantly scored in a way that is full of life and passion, consummately operatic, but done to death, to the extent that it’s almost become a cliché, removed and detached from whatever real human emotions used to underlie it.

Consequently, until the recent Carmen in 3-D production from the Royal Opera House, I hadn’t seen or really listened to the opera in about ten years, and Francesca Zambello’s conventional and unimaginative staging for that production reminded me why. The production itself wasn’t bad, but there was just nothing new in it. It would really take something extraordinary to make me sit up and notice Carmen again, and not only notice it, but actually listen to it again in a new way. Calixto Bieto’s production for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, conducted by Marc Piollet, updating the opera to what looks like the 1970s is not then a staging that will appeal to traditionalists, but, personally, it most certainly is a version to make you sit up and notice just how incredible an opera Carmen can be.

From the standpoint of the casting alone however, there are plenty of good reasons to like this production, which has the right kind of blend that is needed in terms of experience for the two principal roles and up-and-coming young singers for the supporting roles. With Roberto Alagna and mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon, both native French, the roles of Don José and Carmen are not just in reliable hands, but both invest a great deal into the interpretation, singing wonderfully and maintaining a strong presence on the stage. Erwin Schrott is a good Escamillo, again another fine actor willing to push interpretation as well as possessing a fine baritone voice – but this is a minor role for his talent. Marina Poplovskaya finds the right blend of freshness, innocence and purity that the opera needs as Michaëla.

Carmen

As good as each of the cast are in their own right, the famous arias as good here as any interpretations I’ve heard – Alagna’s ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ is terrific – they work wonderfully together and it’s the duets and ensembles that make the biggest impression, presenting a refreshing new perspective on the opera. The orchestra and the performance are also superb. It’s everything you expect Carmen to be, but with enough character, verve and energy of its own, and a willingness to explore the dynamic that make this something more vibrant and alive, (the HD sound reproduction on the Blu-ray is also outstanding), the music seeming once again to be organically part of the drama rather than illustrating a bunch of clichéd routines. It’s a long time since I’ve heard this particular opera sounding so fresh.

How much of this is down to the stage production is debatable. Other than modernising the period setting however, the essence of the drama isn’t touched or played around with, the emphasis shifted slightly perhaps to emphasise the masculine aspect of the opera and the culture of machismo (although a full-frontal naked bullfighter might be too much for the more sensitive traditionalist). Even if it were just for the fact of stripping away all those old routines and hackneyed gypsy imagery, Calixto Bieto’s production, often minimal, the stage permanently giving the impression of a bullring, at least forces the viewer to focus once again on the characters and how they express themselves through Bizet’s score and the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, and that alone is a bit of a revelation. Yes, everyone knows that Carmen is all about jealousy, lust and Latin passions, but removing the set-pieces goes some way towards restoring the balance of the other more noble aspects the theme of love beyond all reason (“Love is a gypsy child who knows nothing of the law”) in the unconditional familial love on the part of Don José’s mother and also in the purity of Michaëla’s love for him. Whether it’s obvious or not (and all the better if it’s not), I’d say that the production and direction is certainly instrumental in achieving this.

Riccardo Zandonai - Francesca da Rimini

L’Opéra National de Paris, Opéra Bastille | Daniel Oren, Giancarlo Del Monaco, Svetla Vassileva, Louise Callinan, Wojtek Smilek, George Gagnidze, Roberto Alagna, William Joyner, Grazia Lee, Manuela Bisceglie, Andrea Hill, Carol Garcia, Cornelia Oncioiu | L’Opéra National de Paris, 3rd February 2011

Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini is the composer’s most famous opera, but it hasn’t been staged in Paris since its first performances nearly a century ago. For anyone unaware of what to expect from what is a relatively little-known opera, The Paris Opera promised a revival that would at least make a strong impression. They weren’t wrong about that.

Francesca

The biggest impression was made during Act One, Giancarlo del Monaco’s elaborate gothic-tinged nature morte set for Polenta Palace gardens in Ravenna resembling a colourful version of Jack Clayton’s film The Innocents (an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw). It proved to be the perfect setting for the lush romantic and at the same time faintly sinister tone of the First Act, Zandonai’s score emphasising the sweepingly romantic element of Francesca and her ladies awaiting the arrival of Giovanni Malatesta, the man she has been arranged to marry, while minstrels offer foreboding songs of Tristan and Isolde and Galahad and Guinevere. The build-up to the arrival of the young man is incredible, the ladies of the household wound-up to a level of near hysteria at his imminent arrival, presaged by a strident rising crescendo that descends into a reverent hush, a murmur reminiscent of the humming song from Madama Butterfly (coincidentally also being performed at the Paris Opera in the current season), as Paolo el Bello, Paolo the Beautiful, arrives on stage. Roberto Alagna doesn’t even need to sing a note in the first Act – the curtain descends and the audience, if not necessarily impressed, are at least left somewhat dumbfounded.

The tragedy, as a careful reading of the above description will reveal, is of course that it is Paolo and not his brother Giovanni who arrives, so Francesca is badly mistaken when she immediately falls in love with the young man (and who wouldn’t with an entrance like that!), because in reality Giovanni, as she is about to discover, is a much less inviting prospect – harsh, cruel, ugly and crippled. As in Verdi’s Don Carlo – which Roberto Alagna played in the recent Met production – it’s another unfortunate in a love match that is over before it has really begun, and there are similar romantic complications, family troubles and political consequences that ensue. While there is accordingly similar sweeping romantic scoring, there is nothing thereafter quite as pronounced as in the First Act. That section was Zandonai’s Puccini, while what follows thereafter shows up his other two major influences, Wagner and Strauss. It’s almost as if Zandonai picks and mixes according to the mood and requirements of the scene. A light outside a bedroom as the signal for Paolo to steal surreptitiously into Francesca’s room evokes Tristan und Isolde, and Zadonai accordingly evokes Wagner.

Rather than being a jumble of influences and references however, Francesca manages to form a coherent musical whole, retaining a character of its own, one that, although it has a strong literary basis in the works of Dante and D’Annunzio, is certainly far from the Italian verismo school that the composer is usually associated with. But it’s not quite impressionistic either, as some of the Paris Opera’s writing on the opera in the programme notes suggest. Francesca da Rimini rather is romantic in a Verdi sense – political and romantic intrigues conflated, with a touch of Wagner Romanticism and post-Wagner modernism leading towards a more mid-twentieth century style. Ultimately however, it is fairly traditional in its operatic plot and intrigue, not offering any great surprises in the narrative development, in the romantic expressions of impossible love or in its inevitably tragic finale. Yet, every moment is perfectly judged by the composer and carried off impressively.

Francesca

Giancarlo del Monaco’s staging – always a matter of questionable taste – does however match the tone of the opera perfectly, drawing inspiration from the home and gardens of the story’s writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s villa the Vittoriale deglo Italiani. The sets are never as elaborate after Act 1, but matching the tone of the music, they provide solid, traditional, period rooms that are sparse but with significant bold touches. It would be unfair to say that Roberto Alagna has all his work done for him by the score, particularly after the huge Act 1 build-up, but rather it’s more a case that he often has to fight hard to keep above the huge sound of the orchestral accompaniment that underscores every emotion and utterance. He proves to be more than capable and is understandably and justifiably the big name attraction for his return to the Paris opera, but it is Svetla Vassileva as Francesca who impresses most. Both have challenging roles, with little pause or parlando – everything is sung and the opera is beautifully written for the voice, particularly for the female roles. The fascinating score, the dynamic arrangements and the sometimes unusual instruments featured gave the Orchestra of the Paris Opera at the Bastille a chance to show what they could do and they were most impressive, playing with clarity and precision.

Don CarloGiuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Nicholas Hytner, Marina Poplavskaya, Anna Smirovna, Roberto Alagna, Simon Keenlyside, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Eric Halfvarson. | The Met: Live in HD - December 11, 2010

Verdi’s Don Carlo is a great example of how opera has the power not only to transform and heighten reality, but also to evoke and elevate the nature of human emotions and aspirations in a manner that no other artform can match. It’s not that the original historical circumstances of the real-life Don Carlos need a semi-fictionalised dramatisation, being rather interesting in their own right. Elisabeth de Valois was indeed betrothed to the Spanish prince Don Carlos but eventually married to his father King Philip II, a union between the French and Spanish royalty that would lead to the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. Where real-life is stranger than fiction is the fact that Elisabeth was actually 13 years old when she married the 32 year-old King, while Don Carlos, aged 14, was a lame, epileptic hunchback with a stutter.

Some creative licence is required then upon the part of the composer and the librettists (Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle), and some suspension of belief is required on the part of the audience to the love-at-first-sight encounter between Carlo and Elisabeth in the forests of Fontainebleau at the beginning of the opera, but it is all towards a greater good and a deeper emotional truth. Of course, it’s not just opera that plays fast and loose with historical accuracy for the sake of drama and art – one need look no further than Shakespeare, or indeed Friedrich Schiller, whose original play is adapted in Verdi’s version of the story of Don Carlo. The encounter between the two young people and the love that briefly inflames them is only the starting point for the great complexity of emotions and conflict that exists between no less than six principal characters, each of them with distinct ambitions and personalities, each of them with different facets to those personalities depending on the person they are dealing with. It is here that opera goes to places that other art forms can’t reach.

It is not common for there to be so many principal characters is an opera and Don Carlo is consequently Verdi’s most complex and sometimes difficult opera – at three and a half-hours long, it is not quite as accessible in its subject, themes or its musicality for example, as the more popular Verdi operas like La Traviata or Aida. Simply listening to Don Carlo on CD isn’t enough to reveal its layers of complexity, and it’s certainly an opera I’ve struggled with in the past for those reasons. Seeing it performed live on stage, undergoing particular interpretations in performance and staging, will bring out the dramatic power of the opera better, revealing how well the dark tones of the music work with the deep brooding performances, but, personally speaking, The Metropolitan Opera’s latest production (a co-production with the ROH, Covent Garden and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet), broadcast live on December 11, as part of The Met Live in HD’s 2010-11 season to cinema theatres worldwide, was a complete revelation of the opera’s qualities.

What can seem like inconsistencies in the behaviour of the characters and in the performances of the singers, is revealed in this powerful but nuanced production to reflect the multifaceted nature of the characters, their changing moods and temperaments, and the duality of their inner conflicts between duty and their own personal desires. And, my goodness, related to the political turmoil in Europe in the 16th century, taking place between major historical figures and royalty with their duty towards their citizens, and with conflicting political, religious and personal aspirations and ambitions, those are drives on another scale entirely. The sweep that uplifts Don Carlo in his love for Elisabeth at the start of the opera (a relationship that reaches Greek mythological proportions when she becomes his “mother”), only plunges him deeper into despair and to almost dying at the loss of that love in her marriage to his father.Don Carlo

That same dynamic can be seen in each of the character’s own personal struggles, which is impressive enough on this kind of scale, and in so many principal characters, but it is infinitely more complicated when there is interaction between them. A good performance of the opera, mainly in the singing, can bring out subtle nuances of the different levels that the characters are working on, but it also requires strong acting, and that was assuredly in evidence here, particularly on the part of Marina Poplavskaya as Elisabeth, and the most historically complex character of King Philip, marvellously interpreted by Ferruccio Furlanetto. If there were any weaknesses in Poplavskaya’s singing, they were minor and to be expected for a young singer making a name for herself, in a technically difficult role. This was however more than made up for in an impassioned and superbly acted performance that relied heavily on glances and body language as much as in what was said, particularly when the two often contradict one another. Such subtlety can only be conveyed fully when the music is there to support it, and Verdi’s scoring is magnificent in this respect, contributing just as significantly to the definitions of the characters, and that was equally effectively achieved in the orchestration under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Even so, no matter how good the production and the performances, even watching this live in the theatre, you are not going to pick all these qualities up from a seat at the back of the stalls, and it’s here that Opera Live in HD comes into its own, picking up little details in the gestures and expressions of the singers in close-up, emphasising the framing and positioning of the characters in relation to one another on the stage. Nicholas Hytner’s staging is perhaps not as impressive as other Met productions this season, but it succeeds nonetheless in bringing the elements effectively together. One’s appreciation of the efforts put into the production are deepened by the interviews with the cast in the intervals, literally, just as they come off the stage, and even by the behind-the-curtains looks at the stage-hands getting the huge sets into place for the next act. From an eye-catching and ear-splitting opening with Robert Lepage’s Das Rheingold for a new Wagner Ring cycle production, the standard was set a very high level for the Met’s new season of Live in HD broadcasts, and subsequent productions have continued to impress right up to the invigorating and buoyant Don Pasquale last month, but Don Carlo may well top them all.