I’m a bit surprised that Berlioz’ 1838 opera Benvenuto Cellini hasn’t come my way before. It’s got all the operatic elements; romance, politics, murder (and the Pope) etc and some really rather good music. There’s a lovely duet between Cellini and his girl, Teresa, in the first act and Cellini’s aria Sur les monts les plus sauvages is long and demanding in the way that Rossini writes long and demanding tenor arias. The plot maybe has a few holes. One might expect that after the pope has decreed that Cellini will be hanged if he doesn’t finish a statue by nightfall that he might just get on with it rather than running around fighting duels and stuff but there you have it. It’s French opera after all.
Laurent Pelly’s 2013 production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Liceu is one of those productions that’s a bit hard to take in at first go. Part of it is the performing edition used (Michael Kay and Jean-Christophe Keck) which seems to have added a lot of dialogue compared to any version I’ve seen before and includes Hoffmann killing Giulietta in Act 3. This produces a constant sense of “where they heck are we in the piece”. It doesn’t help that the DVD package contains no explanatory material at all. There are no interviews on the disks and the documentation is sub-basic.
Christian Chaudet’s film of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol started life as a 1999 studio sound recording of the piece conducted by James Conlon. Chaudet became somewhat obsessed with the recording and decided to turn it into a film, recruiting the original singers as part of the project. It’s an ambitious film which mixes live action, animation and a series of special effects to create something really rather weird and wonderful. It frames the Hans Christian Anderson tale in a modern setting involving a mobile phone, a weird internet cafe and a reality talent show. He throws in some Gilliamesque animation and a live nightingale for good measure.
Lully’s Armide is pretty much the archetypal tragédie en musique. It features an allegorical prologue praising Louis XIV’s multiple virtues, delivered as a dialogue by La Gloire and La Sagesse followed by five acts based on the Armida/Rinaldo story from Tasso. There are also, of course, lots of ballet interludes. As such, it isn’t all that easy to stage for a modern audience. Robert Carsen and William Christie’s approach for their 2008 Paris production is to frame the story in the context of Versailles.
Rameau’s Plateé is a comedy in three acts with the obligatory allegorical prologue and lots of ballets. It tells the story of the bizarrely ugly water nymph Plateé. In an attempt to calm down Juno who, as usual, is angry at Jupiter’s infidelities, Mercury and the satyr Citheron arrange for Jupiter to pretend to fall in love with and marry Plateé. Juno arrives during the wedding in a fury but when she sees Plateé she realises the joke and is reconciled with Jupiter. Plateé returns, distraught, to her swamp. It’s all really rather cruel but does have a few good jokes.. and lots of ballets.
Despite also featuring William Christie, Les Arts Florissants and François Roussillon, the 2004 Châtelet production of Rameau’s Les Paladins could hardly be more different from the recording of Lully’s Atys that I reviewed yesterday. The work is based on Orlando Furioso and is an utterly anarchic parody of pretty much everything that Rameau had previously written. It was considered shocking in its day. The production by José Montalvo with choreographic help from Dominique Hervieu is completely mad and tremendous fun.
When I reviewed the 1997 Zurich production of La Belle Helène about a week ago the commentariat was strong in the belief that I should take a look at the 2000 Paris-Châtelet production. So I did and they were right. It’s excellent. It also reinforced my belief that operetta; English, French or German, works best when it’s taken seriously by which I mean using the best available singer/actors, a good director and a top notch orchestra, chorus and conductor. All of these are in place in this Paris production. Continue reading →