January in Belgium (Les pecheurs des perles@Gent, Faust@Liège, Gioconda@De Munt/La Monnaie)

I saw two very nice productions last month, one in Gent and one in Liège. Although I am not fond, for different reasons, of either Bizet’s Les pecheurs des perles or Gounod’s Faust, both were very satisfying in terms of singers, conductors and directors and resulted eventually in very pleasing opera evenings.

Les pecheurs des perles was told in a sort of flashback: from an elderly home, Zurga and Nadir re-live the past and their love for Leila. The past is then visualized by a huge sea wave and three dancers. The stage rotated regularly from present to past and in some occasions the two merged, such as when the dancers representing Nadir and Leila, were actually cuddling on a table in the elderly home, surrounded by the seagulls. A very lovely and touching moment of magic realism. From all the voices it was Elena Tsallagova’s Leila who stood out while David Reiland delivered a direction underlining the languish aspect of the score throughout the opera, which was played without pause (a habit I support).

Liège showed us a production of Faust by Stefano Poda already performed in Turin. It’s a symbolic and philosophical vision. The stage is dominated by a giant ring, which turns and lifts and around which everybody moves. The effect is stunning, the idea brilliant, the content and position of the ring vary along the acts and it allows movement of singers and masses. The visual and light effects are beautiful and underline each scene efficiently,  the costumes are very nice and adequate and the Walpurgis ballet was beautifully choreographed. Patrick Davin directs with beautiful colours a score that I find far to “nice” for the subject. The cast was very good with a wonderful interpretation and a generous voice by Ildebrando d’Arcangelo as Mephisto and a good Faust by Marc Laho. Anne Catherine Gillet, except for a few pushed high notes in act 5, charms with a beautiful fleshy timbre.

I saw a less convincing Gioconda, too. “Py Makes it a sinister tale”, they wrote about the director,  or…”chooses for…black“. I’m not sure, however, the intentional choice is much in Py’s power. There are recurring themes and objects such as the all-black, the dog masks, the feeling of grim and oppressive. Sometimes this works well-where Py is indeed able to add more than a setting (Les Huguenots were excellent, Les dialogues des Carmelites impressive)-sometimes it doesn’t (Hamlet or this Gioconda). The continuous black was a bit monotonous, then nudity became a recurrent contrivance and trash came into the picture (having sex on a table, while holding a frying pan with a fish in it?) plus a group rape during the dance scene (ok we got it: sex and violence is a constant in this Py-world, wherever it is). I was bored halfway through the first part. Vocally the two casts weren’t exciting either. None of the two Gioconda’s were fully convincing, one because of the colourless interpretation, the other due a certain distance to the character. Of the two Laura’s I liked the warm voice of Szilvia Vörös in the second cast. Really credible were the Enzo and Barnaba of Stefano La Colla and France Vassallo. The latter vocally and scenically also very convincing. Carignani’s direction is dry and nervous with no space for sentimentality. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Overall two unsatisfactory evenings.

Les pecheurs de perles, Dirigent-David Reiland, Concept, regie & scenografie-FC Bergman, Regie-Stef Aerts, Marie Vinck-Thomas Verstraeten, Decor en belichting-Thomas Verstraeten, Joé Ageman, Kostuums-Judith Van Herck, Dramaturgie-Luc Joosten, Leïla-Elena Tsallagova, Nadir-Charles Workman, Zurga-Boris Statsenko, Nourabad-Stanislav Vorobyov. 15/01/19, photo-Annemie Augustijns

Faust, Conductor-Patrick Davin, Director, Set Design, Costume Design, Lighting, Choreography -Stefano Poda, Faust-Marc Laho, Marguerite-Anne-Catherine Gillet, Méphistophélès-Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Valentin-Lionel Lhote, Siebel-Na’ama Goldman, Dame Marthe-Angélique Noldus, Wagner-Kamil Ben Hsaïn Lachiri, 30/01/19, photo Edoardo Piva Ramella&Giannese

La Gioconda, Muzikale Leiding-Paolo Carignani, Regie-Olivier Py, Decor En Kostuums-Pierre-André Weitz, Belichting-Bertrand Killy, , La Gioconda- Béatrice Uria-Monzon /Hui He, Laura Adorno-Szilvia Vörös/Silvia Tro Santafé, Enzo Grimaldo-Andrea Carè/Stefano La Colla, Barnaba-Franco Vassallo/Scott Hendricks, La Cieca-Ning Liang, Alvise Badoero-Jean Teitgen, Isèpo-Roberto Covatta, Zuane / Un pilot-Bertrand Duby, Un Barnabotto/Una Voce-Bernard Giovani, Un Cantore-René Laryea, Una Voce-Alejandro Fonté, 30/01 and 01/02/19. Pictures from http://www.Lamonnaie.be

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Jerusalem @ Opera de Liège

Like many other Italian composers before him (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti just to mention the main contemporary ones), Verdi was invited to compose for the Parisian stages. It was decided to stage a grand opéra as it was fashionable since the 1830’s. But instead of composing a brand new opera, Verdi adapted one of his earlier operas, I lombardi alla prima crociata. The writers of the libretto Royer et Vaëz  rewrote the plot (which makes more sense than the Lombardi one) while Verdi re-adapted and rewrote bits and pieces. The result is not really a grand opéra in the sense of Meyerbeer, Halevy et al. It sounds like any contemporary Verdi with all his characteristics and flaws. So if you like Verdi you probably liked this one as well, if you were expecting a grand opéra you probably were disappointed. Mazzonis di Pralafera and Jean-Guy Lecat provide red-bricked columns on each side, a wall at the back and a painted decor with an otherwise empty stage (except cushions for Gaston’s aria in act III, hastily removed for the ballet). Beautiful the costumes shaped as idealized and colourful Middle Ages apparel. The ballet was the only modern bit in an otherwise traditional setting and although i liked some parts, the performers danced in a modern, hectic, nervous kind of style.

Speranza Scappucci does her best to keep it going though I again miss the extra bit to make the music sparkle. Marc Laho’s voice expands well, his registers equally even; a fine interpretation. Elain Alvarez and Roberto Scandiuzzi both had some issues with very low or high notes in act I. Maybe not warm enough? But in the following acts Scandiuzzi developed his beautiful bass voice and was a delight as Roger (and hermit). Elain Alvarez has a somewhat “slow” voice, her embellishments not very light and and the interpretation lacked the punch of the Verdi heroines. Overall i preferred her Hélène to her Elvira 2 years ago, but was not fully convinced either.

Director-Stefano Mazzonis Di Pralafera, Conductor-Speranza Scappucci, Set Designs-Jean-Guy Lecat, Costume Designs-Fernand Ruiz, Lighting Designs-Franco Marri, , Gaston–Marc Laho, Hélène–Elaine Alvarez, Roger–Roberto Scandiuzzi, Comte De Toulouse-Ivan Thirion, Raymond-Pietro Picone, Isaure–Natacha Kowalski, Adémar De Montheil-Patrick Delcour, A Soldier-Victor Cousu, A Herald-Benoît Delvaux, Emir Of Ramla-Alexei Gorbatchev, An Officer-Xavier Petithan; 21/03/17

Guillaume Tell by A. E. M. Gretry @ Opera Liege

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André Ernest Modeste Gretry is one of those fairly forgotten composers whose operas receive rare but regular revivals. Gretry was born in Liege in 1741. Then Principality of Liege, the city became part of France in 1795 when it was part of the Ourthe department. At the Fall of the First French Empire it became Dutch and in 1830 Belgian (we opera lovers know this story quite well. Thanks, Auber!!). Gretry wasn’t touched in the least with all this, as he left for Italy, Switzerland and Paris already in the 60’s of the 18th century. He became quite a famous composer, he knew Voltaire and Rousseau; later-guillotined Marie-Antoinette  made him court-composer of her husband, and he found a way to ingratiate himself with Napoleon who knighted him Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He died in 1813, is buried in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris but his heart rests in an urn, placed under the statue in his honour in front of the Opera Royal de Wallonie in Liege.

His most famous opera’s are Richard Coeur de LionZemire et Azor, and Pierre le GrandGuillaume Tell was premiered 9th April 1791 in Paris at the Comedie Italienne, two years after the French revolution. It was the same year of Mozart’s Zauberlföte (which he started to compose in April of that year), of La Clemenza di Tito, of the Clarinet Concerto and of Mozart’s death in December of the same year. Gretry’s biggest accomplishment lies in opera comique and his influence is still noticeable with Adam, Boildeau, Auber and others. For today’s ears (or MINE, anyway) he sounds fairly “light”. Although Gretry has been praised to have a gift for melody, the music overall sounds quite trivial, alternating more dramatic passages and characters with heroic and affectionate ones. He recurs to ariette (literally small aria’s), hopping rhythms and popular songs with simple accompaniment, using as couleur-locale a clarinet playing alpine music, octave leaps to imitate yodel and similar know-how, trying to merge italianism with German music and French declamato.

It is the Opera de Liege, who commemorates the 200th death anniversary of the composer. This opera house is doing a very good job in resuscitating rare opera’s, though with very alternating results.

If the audience expected to hear a famous finale, an even more famous gallop during the ouverture, and cry a little moved by tragic events, they probably mistook this with Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, composed 38 years later, although Rossini might have known the opera, which was staged in May 1828, the time Rossini worked on his Comte Ory (In an interview Scimone said that he noticed in the first bars of music the musical theme that Rossini used for his sumptuous finale (with a light difference in rhythm, he added).

The plot is well known to everybody: Tell refuses to salute a hat placed on a mast by the mean local lord and is forced to shoot an apple from his son’s head. The end is happy.

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The main set shows elements put one behind the other as to give a sense of depth. The set elements depict mountains, a village, a castle and even puppets of peasants and soldiers in a fighting scene etc. They are all mobile and quite beautifully created (Jean-Guy Lecat). They are moved by stagehands dressed as sailors, as, so tells us Mazzonis de Pralafera, at the time of Gretry, the ropes and strings were entirely moved by sailors (were they? really??). The result is very effective and charming. Costumes are averagely convincing. Di Pralafera makes the singer all act with overly-dramatic voices and gestures (to be funny one shall assume) but for my taste they achieve the contrary (the Belgian public is not amused or moved either, but then again….sometimes I wonder what does….)

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The singers are all Belgians, commemorating a Belgian composer in a Belgian opera house…..
Anne-Catherine Gillet is very well cast as Madame Tell. She is at the starting ramp of her career and is now adding Traviata’s to her repertory (sic!). M.me Tell, who is the only character to have an aria in the opera, sings with a strong voice over the whole range, though her voice sounds a bit metallic at times. Marc Laho as Tell has a clear voice with a pleasant timbre. Lionel Lhote never really convinced me as a singer (Figaro in Rossini’s Barbiere in Ghent, Dandini in Brussels etc), sometimes a bit unrefined and uneven with a backward voice. As Gessler he lacks the low notes required in his entrance piece but otherwise he sings with a pleasing timbre. Liesbeth Devos’ timbre reminds me a bit of Mady Mesplé’s, so not one you would define as round and mellow, but she sings the small role of Marie well. And so does the rest of the cast.

Scimone directs well though little theatrically, but orchestra and choir are both approximate and croaky.

This production is overall very interesting, it increases our knowledge of Grétry as a composer of music for the theatre  Nothing is really out of place, the production is sparkling and satisfying. A very pleasant evening.

Ouverture and excerpts of the Liege production can be viewed online

Musical direction-Claudio Scimone, Direction-Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Set design-Jean-Guy Lecat, Costumes-Fernand Ruiz, Lightning-Franco Marri, Guillaume Tell-Marc Laho, Madame Tell-Anne-Catherine Gillet, Gessler-Lionel Lhote, Marie-Liesbeth Devos, Melktal senior-Patrick Delcour, Melktal junior-Stefan Cifolelli, The traveller-Roger Joakim

Liege, 7/6/2013