Théâtre du Châtelet

NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2012 | Stephen Betteridge, Chen Shi-Zheng, Franco Pomponi, Alfred Kim, June Anderson, Sumi Jo, Kyung Chun Kim, Peter Sidhom, Sophie Leleu, Alexandra Sherman, Rebecca de Pont Davies | ARTE Live Web, Live Internet Streaming, 18 April 2012

If the Live in HD broadcast last year of Adams’ Nixon in China direct from the Met in New York around the world served to remind one of the relevance of the work to the advancement of technology and the power of the media that forms one of the main themes of the work - the US President’s visit to China in 1972 broadcast to American primetime TV via satellite to impress the electorate back home - the latest live broadcast of a new 2012 production at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, made freely available for viewing on the internet courtesy of the TV channel Arte, certainly emphasises that point. On a rather smaller and more intimate scale however than the revival of the Peter Sellars production at the Met, it was the power of the opera itself and ultimately its message that came across even more strongly in the new Paris production.

Having recently listened to a number of modern operas sung in English, I was beginning to question again whether it’s a sufficiently musical language for opera. Even with John Adams’ rather more accessible rhythms, it’s not always the case that the English language fits smoothly with the flow and meter of the music, and that’s not even necessarily the case with Nixon in China itself, so it’s wonderful to hear the work sung, as it is here, with such a wonderful sense of integration with the music, and with feeling for the language and meaning of the libretto itself. There is a softer tone to the arrangements played by the Chamber Orchestra of Paris here, conducted by Stephen Betteridge with a wonderful sense for the rhythmic interweaving of the music and the voices, that seemed to bring a newfound lyricism to the sometimes obscure pronouncements and interjections of the protagonists in Alice Goodman’s libretto.


In terms of production design, there’s not really a great deal you can do with Nixon in China, since it is indeed tied to the historical event of an official state visit of an American President to Communist China in 1972, and Shilpa Gupta’s set designs for Chen Shi-Zheng’s production accordingly don’t look greatly different from the original Peter Sellars’ production. There’s no taxiing onto the Peking runway of the ‘Spirit of ‘76’ here - President and Mrs Nixon descend on a pulley to the background of a Great Wall - and the set designs are quite minimal elsewhere (there’s little sign of a banquet at the end of Act I, and no actual beds in the closing bedroom scenes of Act III), but essentially apart from the Red Detachment of Women’s Revolutionary Ballet in Act II, there’s no great reliance on dramatic interaction in the work, the Heads of State for the most part addressing each other and the audience as the people and the watching public.

Leaving the stage fairly clear of props - those that are used are mostly suspended by cables - the production is directed then very much with a choreographer’s eye by Chen Shui-Zheng, often populated with Red Army troops and Chinese citizens of the Revolution who deliver the opera’s fabulous chorus work. And since the opera deals with a visit that is heavily “stage managed”, the management of the stage in this way is kind of appropriate, the effects achieved simply though the use of light, colouration and stage placement of the figures. The Act II ballet, which brings into focus the key central theme of “power fantasy” works wonderfully in this respect, looking marvellous, while also emphasising the delicate blurring between the disturbing reality of the ballet created by Madam Mao and the no less disturbing resonances it sparks off in each of those who view it.


It doesn’t take Nixon long at the banquet in Act I to realise that he was wrong about China, and that although they may appear to be diametrically opposed in ideology, they are united by a common sense of purpose - world domination, or at least an evangelical belief in the mastery of the great over the small that can be achieved through manipulation of the reins of power. Nixon can’t help but admire the cult of personality the Mao inspires and recognises that whether it’s through a little red book or through satellite broadcasts on primetime TV, it’s an effective means of propaganda that appeals as much as to his sense of self-importance as his ideals. Act II’s ballet then represents different facets of this power fantasy to each person watching - on a political level as well as an interpersonal and gender level, the strong dominating the weak, the great demonstrating mastery over the small, individuality powerless against the force of the masses. Act III of course reminds us that each of the personalities involved are all too human and weak themselves, struggling with their own demons and their sense of insignificance in the greater scheme of things. That doesn’t however lessen the influence and capability for long-lasting damage that they can inflict through their beliefs and the image they desire to uphold before the media.


This is fantastic production then of a work that continues to exercise a fascination and meaning way beyond its historical 1970s context. It looks good, it sounds great and it full gets across all the qualities, implications, undercurrents and relevance of the work. Getting the right balance between self-importance and self-parody, Franco Pomponi sings Richard Nixon masterfully with genuine feeling and a wonderful lyricism, but he’s wonderfully supported also by an impressive performance from June Anderson as Pat Nixon. There are a large number of Chinese and Korean singers and dancers here that contributes towards an ethnic realism, but all sing well in their own right, notably Alfred Kim as an enigmatic and impassioned Mao Tse-tung, Kyung Chun Kim a dignified and troubled Premier Chou En-lai and Sumi Jo coping well with the high vocal demands of the role of Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing.

Recorded at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 18th April 2012, Nixon in China is currently available, free to view, from the Arte Live Web site.

PostinoDaniel Catán - Il Postino

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris | Jean-Yves Ossonce, Ron Daniels, Plácido Domingo, Daniel Montenegro, Amanda Squitieri, Cristina Gallardo-Domâs, Patricia Fernandez, Victor Torres, Laurent Alvaro, Pepe Martinez, David Robinson, Théo Vandecasteele | Paris, France - 30 June 2011

The death of the composer Daniel Catán in April this year, just as the first-run production of his fifth opera Il Postino (The Postman) was being prepared for its performances at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris was undoubtedly a great loss not only to the music world, but to the development of Spanish language opera. Alongside work done by Plácido Domingo, who helped Catán bring this production to the stage, the creation of a new school of Spanish opera was one of the principal aims of Catán, and his ability to do that is demonstrated well in the composer’s final opera. What Il Postino also demonstrates is that Catán’s death is also a great loss to a type of modern opera that can touch on simple but meaningful subjects in a way that is accessible to new audiences.

Those audience-pleasing qualities are already evident in the source material – the novel ‘Ardiente Paciencia‘ by Antonio Skármeta, but even more so from the 1994 film Il Postino directed by Michael Radford - a simple story of a postman on an Italian island who learns about life and poetry from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who is living there in exile. If the practice of making an opera out of a recent film seems pointless, it’s worth pointing out that opera in the past has always traditionally drawn from the popular entertainments and artforms of its day, whether from popular literature or theatre, and although film does indeed have a rather more “fixed” sense of imagery, it also has many other facets that can be expanded on and explored in opera through other means – primarily musical, but also through a different kind of intimacy through the the theatrical experience. Catán’s Il Postino presents the work wonderfully through this medium.


On the surface however, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of difference in how the opera approaches the subject and how the story is recounted in the film version. The storyline remains simple. Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, has been exiled form his home country for his Communist leanings, and has taken up residence on the small island of Cala di Sotto (Neruda was indeed exiled for a period from Chile, but actually lived a short time on the island of Capri, and the story recounted here is otherwise entirely fictional). It’s a poor island, the inhabitants have no running water (despite promises from local politicians), but while his other brothers have left for America to look for work, Mario Ruoppolo remains and is given the job of postman for the new arrival – the only person on the island to receive any mail, and all of it, it seems to Mario, from women. Hoping to gain some understanding of this power that Neruda seems to have over women, and observing his close, sensual relationship with his wife that Neruda has immortalised in poetry (Desnuda – “Naked”), Mario hopes to gain some tips from the great poet. With Neruda’s instruction in the use of metaphors and some borrowing of ideas and actual lines from his work, the postman is able to win the love of Beatrice Russo, the beautiful girl that he has seen working in the local bar.

The opera follows the original film closely, working in short scenes. Catán states that he went back to Skármeta’s source novel in order to bring out the political dimension that is just as important in a consideration of Neruda, his life and his work, but it still remains very much in the background to the fictional love story and the friendship between Neruda and the Postman. What does come out more – and surely justifying the film being made into an opera – is the depth and force of those relationships, which are beautifully sketched in scene by scene, and how they tie into the nature and rhythms of life. These are wonderfully evoked in the libretto and in the music which clearly bears the marks of the acknowledged Puccini and Debussy influences on the composer. The intention is to find the right expression for each scene and emotion, and if that means it evokes other composers, it’s no less effective for it. What helps it is the fluidity with which one scene flows into the next, each building on the previous to deepen the characters, the emotions and the connections between them. The flowing stage design – directed by Ron Daniels – capturing a sense of sea and clouds, carries us smoothly through the first two acts which are the main body of the production.


The libretto is also of vital importance since, when you get right down to it, the opera is essentially about the power of words. They appear on the screens behind and in front of the performers throughout, and, as a Spanish opera, it couldn’t be more important to have the poetry and the sound of those words expressed and highlighted in this way. Words, poetry, sun, sea and clouds are all there in the original film, but what gives them another dimension of expression and – most importantly – what brings them all together, is the power of the music and the singing, and on those fronts, the opera is most persuasive. The themes and their presentation in this respect also reminded me of Richard Strauss – another influence on Catán – particularly Capriccio which considers the construction of words, music and theatre in opera perhaps from a more academic viewpoint, but in intent, Il Postino is also about the individual power of each of these elements combining in a way that gives its subject the best means of expression.

The singing in this production could hardly be faulted. Daniel Montenegro sang well in the the role the part of Mario Ruoppolo on the night I caught the performance (sharing the role in this run in Paris with the equally fine Charles Castranovo), with a fine clear lyrical tenor that befitted the role and differentiated it from the deeper tenor of Domingo. Cristina Gallardo-Domâs made a strong impression as Neruda’s wife Matilde, and the other main female roles of Beatrice Russo (Amanda Squitieri) and her mother Donna Rosa (Patricia Fernandez) were also well cast, bringing different tones of light and shade to the singing and to the characteration. It helps too if you have someone as charismatic and still as powerful and emotive a performer as Plácido Domingo in the main role of Neruda, but the singer is also a voice for Spanish opera and it is wonderful to hear him express the rich poetic resonances of the words in the libretto so masterfully in his native tongue. It’s a wonderful role, trailor made for him and he defines it utterly. If Il Postino is to succeed in the future – and one would like to think that it has the necessary qualities that would see it more widely performed – it will need an equally charismatic presence in that role, but that will surely follow.

TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens

Théâtre du Châtelet Paris, 2003 | John Eliot Gardiner, Yannis Kokkos, Peter Maniura, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Susan Graham, Ludovic Tézier, Laurent Naouri | Opus Arte

Presented across two dual-layer BD50 Blu-ray discs, Berlioz’s adaptation of Virgil’s The Aeneid is truly an epic undertaking, both in terms of the production and the opera itself. His penultimate opera, Les Troyens is considered to be the composer’s masterpiece, and indeed it brings together all the elements and the variety that is characteristic of Berlioz’s range, from darkness to light, from blood and thunder to tender lyricism, with rousing choruses, dramatic singing performances, musical interludes and dance sequences.

Despite that, the opera was never performed in full during the lifetime of the composer, the first two acts dealing with the fall of Troy to the Greeks despite Cassandra’s highly emotive premonitions of doom, excised in favour of the Trojans in Carthage section of Acts 3 to 5. There is certainly a strong division between the two parts, with many of the principal’s inevitably dying at the sacking of Troy at the end of Act 2, including Cassandra and her lover Choreobus (Hector already dead before the start of the opera nevertheless makes a highly effective appearance at the start of the Second Act in the form of a projected apparition), but it’s hard to imagine the opera feeling complete without the darkness and the powerful impact of the first half. Anna Caterina Antonacci, in particular, showing what the role of Cassandra has to offer the opera as a whole, a striking contrast to Susan Graham’s Dido, who dominates the second half, though no less effectively.

As the surviving Trojans flee, they receive temporary shelter in the North African city of Carthage established recently by exiles from Tyre, under the rule of Queen Dido. Both exiles, the respective leaders of the two tribes, Aeneas and Dido, find comfort for their loss in love for each other, but only until the gods remind Aeneas of his duty to lead his people to Italy. In contrast to the opening acts, the second half of Les Troyens consequently covers a wider range of emotions and the musical accompaniment is likewise as broad and as colourful as the set designs for Carthage, the tone darkening again at the end in a manner that echoes the restored opening of the opera.

The 2003 production at the Châtelet in Paris is accordingly spectacular, the stage filled with movement and action, but never cluttered, the score dominated often by the power of the choral writing, but individual roles are strong and the performances are exceptional, Gregory Kunde a fine Aeneas to stand alongside Antonacci and Graham. Everything about the production, the orchestra under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, is of the highest order, every single scene offering something of fascination and wonder, whether it is in the music, the singing or the staging. But, particularly in this full version of Les Troyens, there is an overall impression of completeness here. Total opera.

Les Troyens is perfectly presented on Blu-ray, the division between the two parts of the opera much better than on the 3-disc DVD edition. Act 1 and 2 are on the first disc along with the extra features, the other three acts on the second disc. Image and sound can hardly be faulted, the audio presented in PCM 2.0 and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1. The tone on the surround track is soft and warm rather than clean and precise, but the dynamic range is nonetheless excellent, handling the extremes well, and it is well suited to the arrangement. The hour-long documentary features contributions from the main performers and makes some interesting observations, but is over-long, being mostly made up of a complete walk-through of the synopsis by John Eliot Gardiner, illustrated with extended sequences from the opera.