Degout, Stéphane


Pelleas

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Ludovic Morlot, Pierre Audi, Anish Kapoor, Stéphane Degout, Monica Bacelli, Dietrich Henschel, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Frode Olsen, Patrick Bolleire, Alexandre Duhamel, Valérie Gabail | La Monnaie Internet Streaming, April 2013

There are many ways to approach a work as mysterious, suggestive and as unique as Pelléas et Mélisande, and the stage production in particular is one that is open to free and imaginative interpretation. The opera is already symbolist and dreamlike in its origin and nature, so the question of whether to make a stage production traditional or modernist isn’t so much the issue. For the stage director, the challenge rather is whether to impose some sense of reading onto it or to give free rein to the work’s beautiful abstraction.

Ideally perhaps a production should have a balance of both elements in order to match Debussy’s intention to create “a mysterious correspondence between Nature and the Imagination” in his composition of the music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play. With this in mind, La Monnaie’s Pelléas et Mélisande would seem to be well-placed to provide both elements with Pierre Audi’s direction giving the work a meaningful context connected to human Nature, while the set designs by Anish Kapoor bring that other essential ingredient of abstraction and Imagination. The correspondence between them is more difficult to define, but that’s perhaps where Debussy’s music lies.

Owing something to Henry Moore’s huge curved sculptures, the centrepiece of Kapoor’s all-purpose set design is both abstract and organic in design, a large scooped-out object supported by steel girders with a staircase and a platform. From some angles it resembles or suggests an ear, an eye or a womb - all of which can be seen as relevant symbols for this work - which through rotation presents different aspects that represent a cavern, a castle, a tower or an immovable rock. It’s sufficiently abstract then to match the nature of the work that wouldn’t be as well-served by a more literal depiction of those objects.

Audi’s direction works effectively around this strong, resonant central image, requiring almost nothing else in the way of props. He resorts to a little bit of abstraction and symbolism also - it would be hard not to with the suggestiveness of this work - particularly with regard to the figure of Mélisande. In fact, everything in the production seems to be based on or seen in relation to Mélisande. From the moment she is discovered by Golaud, an open wound on her stomach can be seen through her dress, is caressed later by Pelléas and becomes fully vivid and bloody at her death scene. There’s certainly a case that Mélisande is at the heart of the work. All the other characters are defined by their relationship with her, and Mélisande herself becomes an object that is defined by how others see her.

This could perhaps explain why - as absurd as it might seem particularly when her hair plays such a symbolic element in the drama - that Mélisande here is also actually bald for the most part. When she leans down from the tower then in the opera’s critical scene, it’s not her hair that Pelléas caresses, but a silk scarf. Emphasising a symbol though its absence seems a strange thing to do, but it’s the meaning rather than the object that is important, and the impact and relevance of the scene here is scarcely lessened. What counts more than the pleasure of Pelléas is the response of Golaud since this is to have a much more profound impact on Mélisande, and Golaud is everywhere in this production, watching and seeing but not understanding, or not wishing to understand.

Audi’s direction and Kapoor’s abstract symbolism don’t perhaps fully connect to bring any new resonance out of this Pelléas et Mélisande, but Debussy’s impressionistic score is always suggestive and responds well to new ideas and new approaches. Ludovic Morlot, the new music director at La Monnaie, is alert to the lyricism of the work but he also brings out its expressiveness. This is not an entirely floating dreamlike account of the score, but one that seeks to indeed assert the music’s position as the intermediary between Nature and the Imagination.

It certainly brought out a fine performance from Stéphane Degout as Pelléas. With a lovely soft lyrical baritone and clear French diction that is alive to the rhythms of Debussy’s conversational writing for the voice, Degout is currently one of the best interpreters of this role. This is the third time I’ve seen him sing Pelléas and he brings a new deeper resonance and expressiveness to the role here. Monica Bacelli’s sings a fine Mélisande, with perfect timing, good French diction and a delivery that complements Degout well, if not with the same distinction. In a production that had an alternative cast, there were good performances also here from Dietrich Henschel as Golaud, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo as Géneviève and Frode Olsen as Arkel, with Valérie Gabail a bright Yniold.

This recording of La Monnaie’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande was made on the 17th and 19th of April 2013 and broadcast via their free web streaming service from 4th to 24th May. Subtitles are available in Dutch and French only. The final web broadcast of La Monnaie’s 2012-13 season, a production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte by the Oscar-winning Austrian film director Michael Haneke (Amour), will be available for free viewing for three weeks from 26th June.

Dispute

Benoît Mernier - La Dispute

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013 | Patrick Davin, Karl-Ernst Herrmann, Ursel Herrmann, Stéphane Degout, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Julie Mathevet, Albane Carrère, Cyrille Dubois, Guillaume Andrieux, Dominique Visse, Katelijne Verbeke | La Monnaie - Internet Streaming, March 2013

For his second opera the Belgian composer Benoît Mernier set about trying to find a text that would work with that particular quality of opera that is able to touch on mythological and universal subjects and make them vital and human. The subject of La Dispute, based on an eighteenth century drama by Marivaux has a theoretical, experimental edge as well as a human drama at its centre which makes it a perfect fit for Mernier’s intentions. It’s one consequently that the composer scores with precision and sensitivity, even if neither he nor the production entirely succeeds in bringing it to life.

It’s somewhat appropriate however that Marivaux’s text, written in 1744, is treated musically in Mernier’s La Dispute not entirely unlike a French Baroque opera. At the outset, in the first dispute, you have Cupid and Amour defending their respective positions of influence over the human heart, Cupid advocating liberty and freedom of choice, Amour seeing him/herself as the protector of romance and fidelity. Who is to blame then when the rot sets in, as it seems to be doing in another dispute that is taking place in the mortal world between the Prince and Hermiane? Having been caught dallying with another woman at a party, the couple’s argument takes a theoretical turn as they debate whether it is the man or the woman who is ultimately responsible for infidelity.

To answer that question, the Prince says, you would need to go back to the beginning of time to the first man and woman, which of course is impossible. Enter Cupid and Amour, disguised as Mesrou and Carise, who are just as interested in the resolution of this question. It just so happens that they have four young people, two of each sex, brought up in isolation with no outside influences and completely unaware of each other. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how these perfect subjects interact with each other? Wouldn’t an experiment undertaken under these strict laboratory conditions provide some insight into the matter being disputed?

What develops does indeed follow the lines of a dispassionate scientific experiment and, unfortunately, that seems to apply to the music and the opera as a whole. Like George Benjamin’s recent Written on Skin, one wonders whether it is even possible now to really engage with operatic characters in modern opera or whether there isn’t necessarily always going to have to be some kind of detached observation and commentary. It’s all a little too coldly calculated here in La Dispute which never really seems to come to life for all the accuracy of the observations. The conflicts of Amour and Cupid and the Prince and Hermiane are really just a framework then, one that has been filled out by the librettists Ursel Herrmann and Joël Lauwers from other Marivaux texts, while the main part of the work indeed focuses on the lab experiment of the two young couples who are gradually revealed to each other.

This experiment takes place under observation within a brilliantly designed set by Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann, a neon lit cube framework within a Garden of Eden-like environment cut off from the real world. First we meet Églé, a young woman enchanted by her own reflection in a stream, who finds her belief in her own beauty validated when she is introduced to the adoring Azor. The young couple, who have never seen anyone other than Mesrou and Carise, are inevitably totally enraptured with the discovery of each other. Until, that is, they become aware of another young couple, Adine and Mesrin. Then, as they become less certain of their own uniqueness and start to develop insecurities, things begin to get complicated.

Principally, the answer to the question of ‘la dispute’ would appear to be clear enough from how things develop. The insecurities initially arise when the two women, Églé and Andrine, meet each other. It’s not a pretty sight. Jealousy arises out of the thought that someone might regard the other as more beautiful than themselves and that person becomes a threat. The only way to prove one’s superiority it seems is to win over the other’s lover, and since they are merely men that is not a difficult object to achieve. This might seem a rather slight if not entirely inaccurate observation, but it ought to be developed further and on a less theoretical level by the various other levels of the dispute. There is a little more edge and ambiguity introduced through the human presence of the Prince and Hermiane, but not to any real conclusive end. But perhaps a true conclusion ought not to be reached other than making the observation that, ultimately, human feelings cannot entirely be understood or even trusted.

When you are getting into such matters in opera, this is where the music should say more than the text, but unfortunately - beautiful though it is - Benoît Mernier’s score doesn’t reveal any great depths to these academic characters. There’s something academic about the score also, which accompanies the situations perfectly, picking at the characters’ hesitant first steps, showing developing emotional awareness and curiosity, extending out into more complex personality traits as the characters interact through some marvellously written duets, but little of it seems to hint at anything more than is already apparent in the text and the dramatic situations alone. The musical language inevitably leans towards Debussy, but without the mystery and haunting impressionism.

If it doesn’t entirely come to life then or reveal any great depths, the qualities of the singing, the production and indeed the work itself are still clearly apparent. Stéphane Degout and Stéphanie d’Oustrac are two of the finest talents in French opera and sing beautifully here, but they aren’t really given a lot to work with in characters as insubstantial as the Prince and Hermiane. There’s rather more of a challenge in the roles of the young couples, and Julie Mathevet and Cyrille Dubois stand out as Églé and Azor, but there is fine work and good interaction also with Albane Carrère’s Adine and Guillaume Andrieux’s Mesrin. Dominique Visse throws himself fully into another ambiguous cross-dressing role as Amour/Carise with verve and personality, and is matched in this by Katelijne Verbeke’s Cupid/Mesrou.

The clarity of the diction and the purity of the singing voices are supported by a meticulously arranged score that is perfectly balanced between spoken accompanied dialogue, arioso singing, duets and purely musical interludes in a way that allows each of the singers and their dramatic expression to stand clear and shine. The Hermann’s sets, lighting and direction also work to enhance every aspect of the dramatic text, everything coming together to provide a superb spectacle and beautiful accompaniment for an interesting work that nonetheless never amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

La Monnaie/De Munt’s production of La Dispute was broadcast on the internet via their web streaming service, the performance recorded on the 10th and 13th February 2013. It’s available for viewing until 17th April 2013. Subtitles are in French, Dutch and German only. The next broadcast from La Monnaie is Pelléas et Mélisande, which will be made available for viewing for three weeks from 4th May 2013.

HippolyteJean-Philippe Rameau - Hippolyte et Aricie

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Emmanuelle Haïm, Ivan Alexandre, Sarah Connolly, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Andrea Hill, Jaël Azzaretti, Salomé Haller, Aurélia Legay, Topi Lehtipuu, Stéphane Degout, François Lis, Marc Mauillon, Aimery Lefèvre, Manuel Nuñez Camelino, Nicholas Mulroy, Jérôme Varnier | Palais Garnier, Paris, 9 July 2012

This new production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie comes at an interesting time in the recent revival of French Baroque opera. While William Christie has moved on to investigate further back through the works of Cavalli, Charpentier and Lully, the arrival - or so it seems - of Rameau’s first opera is freshly put into historical context. In some respects this works in its favour, allowing us to better understand the impact and the influence that Rameau would have on the world of French opera, but on the other hand, through Ivan Alexandre’s rather old-fashioned traditional production, the work suffers in comparison to the efforts that Christie and his collaborators have made towards making these works accessible and meaningful to a modern audience.

Mostly however, thanks to the musical direction of Emmanuelle Haïm, Hippolyte et Aricie does indeed show how much more modern a composer Rameau was in relation to his predecessors. The opera, the composer’s first and written late in his career, is perhaps still too mired in the conventions of the French tragédie lyrique, but coming after having published his Treatise on Harmony in 1722 and his New System of Music Theory in 1726 and having established his career as an accomplished composer of music for the harpsichord, technically Rameau’s music is much more advanced, breathing a freshness and sense of modernity into the ensemble arrangements, with the choral sections in particular sparking the work into life. In almost all other aspects however, but mainly in narrative or dramatic terms, Hippolyte et Aricie is a very dry, conventional baroque work that doesn’t hold up quite as well as some of the composer’s other great works, Castor et Pollux, Les Indes Galantes, Les Boreades or Zoroastre.

It might help if you are familiar with the background of the Greek tragedy Phaedra as told by Euripides, Seneca or Racine - certainly most of the audience in Rameau’s time would have been familiar with the mythology - but even then Pellegrin’s libretto puts its own particular spin on the subject, as making Hippolyte and Aricie the focus of the story might suggest. A lot of the reworking was undertaken in order to meet the demands of the lyric stage, and Rameau’s opera complies with all the conventions of the form, from the opening prologue in a pastoral setting where Diana and Cupid issue challenges to settle a dispute over who reigns over the hearts of men, with a love story then at the heart of the work and scenes set for spectacle and variety in storms and journeys to the Underworld, with Gods and mythological figures dropping in at every opportunity to show off the stage machinery.

The production, directed by Ivan Alexandre with set designs by Antoine Fontaine, does its best to replicate a sense of the original spectacle using period-style props, backdrops and stage effects, the Gods descending impressively on clouds, on top of huge deluges of waves and from the mouths of giant mythical sea monsters. It looks terrific, but none of it really does anything for a dramatic style that already feels dated, failing to find a way that makes a modern audience want to care about the figures in this ancient drama that flits from scene to scene without making a great deal of sense. The colour schemes and lighting used don’t help matters, pale green and sepia under subdued lighting make this look dusty, faded and murky.

There are however compensating factors that make this more than worthwhile. First, of course, is Rameau’s music. If it’s not greatly attuned to the emotional undercurrents, it at least has musical variety (enough for ten operas according to Campra) and is full of wonderful harmonies and melodies. In narrative terms it’s a hugely disjointed work, a series of standalone scenes with linking recitative, interrupted even further and with regularity for choruses and ballet sequences at the most inappropriate of times, all to give the original intended audience the variety and contrast they would have expected, but the leaps and lurches at least allow Rameau to vary the rhythm and tempo with that distinct freshness of character. Most impressive are the choruses, which came across quite stunningly as sung by the Choir of the Concert d’Astrée, as well as a trio of voices of the three Fates. Musically, all of this was directed with a great sense of verve and rhythm by Emmanuelle Haïm.

Also very much in favour of the production was the terrific cast assembled here at the Palais Garnier, even if not all of the roles came across equally as well. Topi Lehtipuu and Anne-Catherine Gillet sang the parts of Hippolyte and Aricie well, with beautiful tone, but caught up in the disjointed narrative, their roles never really came to life and they were as dull as the costumes they were dressed in, slipping into the background. They did have a lot of colourful characters and singers to contend with however, such as Sarah Connolly’s dominant Phèdre, Jaël Azzaretti’s sparkling Amour (Cupid) and Stéphane Degout’s brooding Thésée (Theseus).

PelleasClaude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Philippe Jordan, Robert Wilson, Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Franz Josef Selig, Elena Tsallagova, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Julie Mathevet, Jérôme Varnier | Opéra Bastille, 28 February 2012

The sheer perfection of the match of Debussy’s music to Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande is unparalleled in the world of opera. It stands alone as a unique piece of music-theatre that is incomparable with any other opera - even Debussy was unable to repeat the experiment with unfinished attempts at some works by Edgar Allan Poe, and it remains the only opera he ever composed. It’s not possible to improve on perfection of course, but there is another element that is just as important when it comes to actually staging the work, and those are the choices made by the director. Robert Wilson’s production for the Paris Opéra, first seen in 1997 has been revived several times over the last 15 years, and is revived again in 2012 for good reason. Once seen, it’s hard to imagine Pelléas et Mélisande being staged in any other way. The match of Wilson’s unique vision to the opera is as close to perfection as Debussy’s music is to Maeterlinck’s drama.

Everything that has become familiar with Robert Wilson productions over the years is here in his production of Pelléas et Mélisande, but rarely has it been employed so evocatively, expressively, imaginatively and as a whole with the tone of the original opera work as it is here. Reflecting Debussy’s own Belle Epoque symbolist, oriental, ancient Greek and Egyptian influences in the arts (the subject of an exhibition in Paris at the same time as the opera is revived there), Wilson’s stylised imagery of hieroglyphics come to life is perfectly fitting. Placing angular figures in dramatic poses framed in silhouette against luminous pale blue backlit backdrops, with floating objects and geometric shapes placed prominently on a bare stage, subtle gradual shifts of light and the occasional flash of bold colour, the effect when matched with the moods of Pelléas et Mélisande is completely beguiling and utterly beautiful. What Robert Wilson brings to this particular opera however, more than just a bag of theatrical tricks that have been employed over the years to different effect in works as varied (and with varying levels of success it has to be said) as Aida, Madama Butterfly, Einstein on the Beach, Orfeo and Orphée et Eurydice, is a revelatory visual expression of the mystical haunted quality of the almost surreal fairytale.

The term haunted seems an appropriate way to describe the dreamlike experiences of the figures in Pelléas et Mélisande. Here in Wilson’s production, the characters seem to float or stand frozen in strange poses, as if they are ghosts compelled to reenact a series of actions that have been played-out time and time again, detached from their original context, their movements reduced to a series of mannerisms. They each inhabit their own space, crossing by each other without touching. So when Mélisande lets down her hair, it’s a mimed gesture, and when Pelléas wraps himself in it, he’s not even close to the tower where Mélisande is standing. Likewise, Golaud talks about lifting little Yniold to spy on his brother and his wife, but he doesn’t physically hold him, and nor does Yniold, reporting their actions, actually see them on the stage. When figures do actually touch, it’s at very specific moments and the impact is every bit as dramatic as the situations that the drama and the music describe.

Pelleas

Seen like this, much of the mystery that has surrounded Pelléas et Mélisande for over a century can suddenly be seen in a new light. It is indeed as if all the figures are merely spectres caught in a timeloop, doomed to continually play out their own part in the drama that has unfolded in an attempt to understand the mistakes they have made that has led to such a tragic conclusion. Nothing ever changes, they repeat empty gestures, coming no nearer to understanding the sequence of isolated events, and have no hope of averting the fate that is in store for them. Suddenly then the mystery of Mélisande’s strange appearance in the forest at the start of the opera and her cries of ‘Ne me touchez pas! Ne me touchez pas!‘ begins to make sense. She doesn’t know how she came to be there, but it’s as if she has a sense of the tragic destiny in store for her - the crown at the bottom of the water perhaps the one she later wears when she marries Golaud, the prince of Allemonde - and her words are a vain attempt to stop it before the train of events are set in motion once again. In Wilson’s production, Mélisande rises after she has been declared dead at the end of the final act, and the story seems to be about to recommence all over again.

One would think that a native French singer would be a prerequisite for the rhythms of the sung/spoke dialogue that Mélisande has to deliver (the dramatic singing qualities of Nathalie Dessay for example, who I’ve heard singing the part exceptionally well), but Elena Tsallagova is one of the more outstanding young Russian singers who have come to prominence through their association with the Paris Opera’s Atelier Lyrique. A magnetic, ethereal presence in her flowing, angular costume, she sang the role flawlessly - a perfect fit for the role. I can’t say I’ve ever seen characters actually smile in a Robert Wilson production, and one would think it even less likely in this melancholic work, but on the couple of occasions when such an expression came over Mélisande’s face, Tsallagova managed to make it seem quite unsettling. Stéphane Degout didn’t seem quite so comfortable striking poses as Pelléas, and his beautifully lyrical baritone seemed a little light for the role, but it complemented Tsallagova’s Mélisande well and suited the ethereal tone of the production.

Pelleas

The singing in the other roles was immensely powerful to balance the lightness in tone of the two main protagonists. Vincent Le Texier was a terrific Golaud, commanding and a little frightening in his rage, jealousy and suspicions - you can understand exactly why Julie Mathevet’s Yniold quivers the line ‘J’ai terriblement peur‘ in his presence. Franz Josef Selig’s deep warm bass and beautiful enunciation gave genuine warmth to his Arkel and Anne Sofie Von Otter was a likewise solid presence as Geneviève.

One of the greatest and most enigmatic works ever composed for the stage, it’s the endless fascination of its mysteries and its inescapable tragedy, as well as the feeling that the answers are there somewhere within and the words and actions of the characters and might eventually yield some clue as to its meaning, that ensures the work’s enduring popularity. Always thought-provoking, illuminating works in a new way, Robert Wilson is particularly brilliant with a work that has particular significance and a special place in the repertoire of French music. Performed live, Pelléas et Mélisande is one of those works that take on an entirely new dimension, and in such a context with the cast assembled at the Bastille in Paris, and with the terrific orchestra of L’Opéra national de Paris conducted by Philippe Jordan working its way through the intricacies of Debussy’s score, the effect is incomparable.

There will be a live internet steaming of the performance of 16th March 2012 via the Opéra National de Paris’ web-site. It will remain available for internet viewing until 16th June.

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Sir Mark Elder, Robert Carsen, Christof Fischesser, Christopher Ventris, Stéphane Degout, Stanislas De Barbeyrac, Tomasz Konieczny, Eric Huchet, Wojtek Smilek, Nina Stemme, Sophie Koch | Opéra Bastille, Paris - 17th October 2011

As one might expect from Robert Carsen – or indeed any modern director really who is confronted with the challenge of updating Richard Wagner’s grand subjects into a meaningful setting – the stage director has little time for the trappings of Tannhäuser’s ancient Teutonic mythology. He determines – quite correctly – that Tannhäuser is all about the struggle of the artist to find new challenges and inspiration and not rest on the laurels of acclaim and easy public acceptance (a subject no doubt close to the heart of the composer himself). Accordingly, there are no dramatic classical vistas of Venusberg with nymphs, fauns and satyrs all skipping around in his production for the Paris Opera, but rather, right from the outset of the wonderful overture to this opera, Carsen strips back everything to the essence of an artist driven but tormented in his attempts to paint the naked Venus, his inspiration, his obsession, his aphrodisiac – the urges all intertwined into everything that makes him an artist.

Tannhauser

The stage, still during the overture, consequently becomes filled with this obsession, the artist appearing in multiple forms, producing fevered canvasses – the paintings, the artists, the stage itself, all smeared and dripping with red paint, their own lifeblood. It’s a dark obsession, and the dark stage, stripped down, filled with frenzied activity, perfectly choreographed and atmospherically lit, captures everything that is there in the overture and expanded upon in the first Act. With great simplicity of design and movement, the nature of Tannhäuser’s predicament is fully achieved by making him a painter, his necessity to look elsewhere and start anew reflected in the blank canvasses that form a backdrop to the contest at Wartburg in Act II.

If there are any doubts about the approach to take with regard to the opera’s themes, one need only listen to the music itself. Tannhäuser was composed in 1849, when Wagner was still searching for a new form of expression for German art, leading towards the music-drama, yet had not yet totally escaped the conventions of the traditional form of Grand Opera. The need to confront the conflict between physical and spiritual urges, the imperfections that arise out of this, and the necessity for those imperfections in order to create a dialogue or dialectic, are there within Tannhäuser itself. Heinrich seeks to and needs to push the boundaries of convention and challenge the public and risk offending their delicate sensibilities, ultimately to serve God or a higher purpose. It’s what Wagner does also, and it’s what Carson, in a way, does in turn when he extends the scope of the stage in Act II by having characters walk down the aisles, as if the Paris audience were stepping onto the stage. That’s an old trick of course, but it’s meaningful here, since it directly addresses the question of public perception of art, and even the notorious response to the opera when it was first performed in Paris.

Tannhauser

Such an approach doesn’t always fully cover the complexities of Wagner’s vision and imagination – Tannhäuser to my mind is almost as esoteric, indefinable and personal to Wagner as Parsifal – and I’m not sure how any stage production could be, but the direct focus on the theme of art at least allows attention to be focussed on the characters, and here at the Bastille, the performances were extraordinarily good. Christopher Ventris handled the most demanding role of Tannhäuser terrifically. He has a beautifully toned voice and sung the role well, embodying the enthusiasm and the conflict of the struggling artist with every gesture and vocal expression. Nina Stemme’s Elisabeth also lived up to the high expectations that were placed on her, but the most pleasant surprises were Sophie Koch’s commanding and clarion-voiced Venus, and Stéphane Degout’s well-rounded baritone was consistently impressive as the conflicted Wolfram. The quality of the lower end of the vocal register is just as important to sustaining the whole scope of the opera’s musical and artistic themes, and we certainly got that here.

On that front also, the Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris was in magnificent voice (and isn’t Tannhäuser a glorious opera for Wagnerian choruses?) both off-stage and on-stage as sirens and pilgrims. With Sir Mark Elder conducting the orchestra wonderfully through the score, this was – as you would hope for considering the themes of the opera itself – an evening of supreme artistic effort.

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.

BoreadesJean-Philippe Rameau - Les Boréades

Opéra National de Paris, Palais Garnier, 2003 | Robert Carsen, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie, La La La Human Steps, Barbara Bonney, Paul Agnew, Toby Spence, Laurent Naouri, Stéphane Degout, Nicolas Rivenq, Anna-Maria Panzarella, Jaël Azzaretti | Opus Arte

It’s hard to imagine how Rameau’s last opera would have been staged 250 years ago – particularly since, written a year before the composer’s death in 1765, it was abandoned unperformed and has since disappeared into near-obscurity – but Robert Carsen’s typically brilliant direction finds an appropriate perfect balance between simplicity and modernity that allows the music, singing and the dancing to be seen in the best possible light.

The emphasis, as ever with Carsen, is on the lighting and colour to achieve the appropriate mood and atmosphere, but every other element works perfectly alongside it. The costumes are smart and elegant, a classic formal 1940s Dior look, which you might not think of as being the dress of ancient mythology, but the opera itself uses familiar figures and creates its own mythology from them, much like Rameau’s Zoroastre. The sets are minimal, but props, when they are used, are used to impressive effect, the director finding a perfect balance between the colours and the tones of the dress, never letting the stage become cluttered even when it is filled with singers, chorus and dancers.

There’s a sense of harmony in the stage arrangement then that is appropriate for the subject of the opera that is bound up in nature and the seasons. Alphisa, the Queen of the mythical land of Bactria (the same fictional kingdom used in Zoroastre), is bound by law to marry one of the sons of Boreas, the God of the North wind, but she is in love with Abaris, a man of unknown descent. It turns out of course that he is the son of Apollo and one of Boreas’ nymphs, making him of Borean descent and capable of marrying Alphisa, but there is a lot of turmoil and tempestuous exchanges before this little fact is dramatically revealed. That conflict is expressed in the seasons in the most colourfully theatrical manner with an immaculate sense of the musical, dramatic and aesthetic principles of the opera.

It’s a French Baroque opera, of course, so there are also ballet elements, and the intricate modern movements and gestures of the La La La Human Steps fit perfectly into the overall spectacle. And a wonderful spectacle is what it is intended to be. Regardless of the intricacies or the meaninglessness of the plot, with its Masonic overtones and pre-Revolutionary class conflict, Les Boréades is a supreme diversion and an entertainment, combining all the elements that make up Baroque opera and where the noble expressions of love, honour and liberty are restored and win out over the twists of fate and whims of the gods.

We are fortunate to be able to have someone like William Christie to bring this kind of opera back to the stage, who, along with Robert Carsen, has such a deep understanding and love for the Rameau and his works. The performance of Les Arts Florissantes under Christie’s direction is marvellous, attacking the rhythmic dance score with verve, but also with a degree of sensitivity for the sentiments of love expressed in the arias. The same can be said of the terrific cast – particularly in Barbara Bonney’s strong and impressive Queen Alphisa, and Paul Agnew’s gorgeously lyrical high-tenor Abaris (listen out for his heartbreaking aria ‘Je cours fléchir un dieu sévère’ in Act IV) .

Filmed in HD, if only available on Standard Definition DVD, the recording of performance still looks and sounds extremely good, the sound mixes in LPCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 (there is no DTS track here). The opera is spread over two discs but, since the five acts of the opera are played straight through without even any natural breaks between the acts, the split is unfortunate but unavoidable. There is also an hour-long documentary on the opera, which is relatively informative but over-long. A fine package.

ComteOryGioachino Rossini - Le Comte Ory

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Juan Diego Flórez, Michele Pertusi, Joyce DiDonato, Stéphane Degout, Diana Damrau, Susanne Resmark, Monica Yunus | The Met: Live in HD - April 9, 2011

The big selling point of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s 2010/11 season has of course been the start of their new Ring cycle, the season opening with a technically impressive set and some wonderful singing for Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and it is due to end the season and prove the worth of its Ring cycle with the second instalment of the tetralogy Die Walküre later in the month. In between however, while there have been many highlights among the varied productions broadcast around the world live in HD, it’s undoubtedly been the bel canto operas that have stood out like sparkling little gems amidst the rather more solid fare of Boris Godunov, Don Carlo and Iphigénie en Tauride during the Met’s current season.

Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Lucia de Lammermoor where however revivals of successful Met productions, with Anna Netrebko and Nathalie Dessay slipping almost effortlessly into roles that they can be relied upon to perform exceptionally well, but the challenges of producing Le Comte Ory by Rossini, the father of bel canto, are rather different. One of the final operas composed by Rossini in France, a year before he prematurely retired from opera writing in 1829, Le Comte Ory features some of the composer’s most challenging singing roles in a rather more sophisticated composition that would draw on arrangements from some of his earlier Italian operas. Less well-known than the more famous Rossini works, it’s not so much then that Le Comte Ory is a lesser work by any means, but rather that it’s only recently that singers of sufficient ability have been trained to tackle the formidable challenges that Le Comte Ory – and indeed many other bel canto operas that are currently undergoing revival – present.

We’re talking evidently of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, one of a very few tenors who can consistently hit and hold the High Cs and Ds littered throughout the minefields of operas like La Fille du Regiment and Le Comte Ory to catch out and expose tenors who are rather less nimble and lacking in the kind of stamina they demand. Receiving its first performance ever at the Met for these reasons, it is indeed difficult to imagine anyone else but Juan Diego Flórez being able to carry off the role of the Count off with any conviction. It’s not however just a matter of being able to find a lead tenor who can meets the demands of the opera, Le Comte Ory also presents challenging roles for soprano and mezzo-soprano, and with Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato being drafted in to form a remarkable trio, the Met can justifiably make excuses for waiting so long to be able to assemble a worthy cast for Rossini’s late masterpiece.

ComteOry

Even after these successful performances, whether the opera is a masterpiece or not is however still open to question. The plot of the comic opera, based on a one-act 1816 vaudeville written by Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson – who also produced the libretto for the opera – is not the most sophisticated. The story is little more than a Carry-on affair revolving around the activities of a notorious libertine who dons disguises in order to seduce as many of the women of the land as possible while their husbands are away fighting in the Crusades. In Act 1, wearing a long black flowing beard, he passes himself off as a wise hermit who dispenses advice to the women folk in exchange for offerings and one-on-one “consultations”. His ultimate aim is to bed the beautiful Countess Adèle, sister of the Count of Formoutiers, but he has a rival in the form of his own page, Isolier. His disguise rumbled by his own tutor, Ory regroups his forces and plans another assault on the women of the castle by disguising himself and his big bearded men as nuns on a pilgrimage.

The fact that Le Comte Ory is a comedy is in itself no reason why the opera can’t be great and reveal deeper truths about men, women, love and lust – Mozart’s operas with Da Ponte stand as testament to the deeper human urges and the tragic impulses that lie beneath them, expressed both through the music and the subtleties of the libretto. Le Comte Ory isn’t on the same level musically or in the libretto, but it is certainly a little more musically sophisticated than most other bel canto operas, and if the libretto doesn’t reveal any great truths or insights, the quality of the singing does at least raise it to another level. Flórez, unsurprisingly, is dazzling as the Count – even despite being up all the night previous to this performance and taking to the stage only a half hour after assisting his wife give birth – playing with verve and perfect comic timing, making it all look effortless yet consistently hitting all the high notes with not so much as a flutter or waver in tone. Diana Damrau was even more impressive as Adèle – her singing role equally if not even more challenging than that of the Count – adding colouratura and displaying impeccable legato in a performance that was not only technically flawless, but accompanied by fine, entertaining comic acting.

Despite having wonderfully written singing roles to demonstrate the exceptional singing ability and technique, the real test of the opera and its true brilliance is found however in the interaction of the singers, and in this respect, Flórez, Damrau and DiDonato formed a delightful team that fully justified the Met’s efforts to bring them together in this way. In this particular opera that close interaction is tested to its limit in a three-in-a-bed ménage-a-trois romp in Act II that not only lived up to the sauciness that was promised in the advance publicity for the opera – the scene exploiting the fact that DiDonato was in a trouser-role – but was as expertly orchestrated and choreographed as anything out of The Marriage of Figaro’s most complex mistaken identity denouements, with five to ten minutes of the most dazzlingly brilliant singing and entertainment delivered between the trio in the most tricky of acting situations. Simply stunning.

ComteOry

The stars all made their big impression then, but elsewhere they were well supported by a fine all-round production. Even though he explained the rationale behind the reduced scale of the production during his between act interview on the HD broadcast, I’m still not entirely clear why Bartlett Sher chose to stage the opera as a period opera staging-within-a-staging. It certainly put a little necessary comic distance between the theatricality of the old-style farce drama, but was also effective in allowing the performance to flow without long scene-change interruptions, which was ultimately to the benefit of the piece. The conducting of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Chorus by Maurizio Benini similarly played to the strengths of the opera’s fast-paced rhythms, and there was fine singing and performances also by Susanne Resmark as Dame Ragonde, the castle stewardess, and Michele Pertusi as the tutor.