La Fille de Laurent Pelly

Laurent Pelly’s 2007 production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment was a coproduction of the Royal Opera House, The Metropolitan Opera and the Wiener Staatsoper which one make expect to produce a stodgy snoozefest.  It’s not.  It’s a fast paced, energetic and funny production.  There’s nothing especially cleverly conceptual about it but its well designed, well directed and well played.  If one were to be hyper critical it would be that the humour in Act 2 is rather laid on with a trowel but it’s not too seriously overdone.  The setting is updated from the wars of the first Napoleon to something vaguely WW1 like.  In some ways this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense but it does provide a visual “Frenchness” that’s probably easier for modern audiences and, anyway, the libretto as originally written is about as historically accurate as the average piece of bel canto fluff.  Best not get into serious military history buff territory and get on and enjoy the show.

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Dialogues of the Arkelites

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is not an opera I’m especially familiar with. It’s a strange piece based on a libretto by Maeterlinck. For much of the time it’s wordy without much action. There is a lot of philosophising. When the action does break out; Golaud’s mad jealousy in Act 3, the killing in Act 4, it gets musically and dramatically quite violent. The music is tonal and mostly quite dreamy. It’s almost mood music. All of this reminds me quite strongly of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites hence the title of this post. Also it’s French. Actually it’s very French.

Laurent Pelly’s 2009 production for Theater an der Wien is also very French; French director, French conductor, almost entirely French cast. In an opera where the words and the relationship between the music and the words matter a lot that’s a distinct advantage. The sets are semi-abstract and placed on a rotating turntable so that scenes can follow on with a minimum of interruption. The forest, the tower, the cave are all suggested rather than made entirely explicit. Even Mélisande’s extra long hair is not depicted explicitly. This fits the indirect nature of both the libretto and the music rather well. The costumes suggest somewhere around 1900 and the colour palette doesn’t stray far from “forest floor”. Lighting is quite dark but evocative. The sense of a gloomy castle in a gloomy (Breton?) forest is quite strong.

With the exception of a few outbursts from Mélisande’s husband, Golaud, and one fairly lyrical love scene between Mélisande and Pélleas the singers have few opportunities for vocal pyrotechnics. They do need to sing stylishly and articulate well though and this cast excels in that department. Natalie Dessay as Mélisande does the fragile Natalie thing which works really well in this role. Perhaps she could create more mystery around her character but her interpretation seems quite valid. Stephane Degout as Pélleas is a good physical actor and is lyrical where he needs to be. I’m not sure that there is much depth to be got out of the character anyway. Perhaps the most interesting role is the insanely jealous Golaud, sung here by the admirable Laurent Naouri. He has a fairly major emotional arc to go through and is strong in the scene of crazy jealousy where he gets his young son, Yniold (well sung and acted by Beate Ritter), to spy on the lovers. It’s a fine all around performance. The part of the old king, Arkel, is sung by Philip Ens. He conveys wisdom, sympathy and a kind of philosophical detachment in an extremely dignified but weary way. It’s a fine job of portraying a very old man without the voice sounding past it. Good supporting performances too from Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Geneviève and Tim Mirfin as the doctor.

Bertrand de Billy is in the pit with the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien. He seems to be thoroughly at home with the score and gets some lovely, transparent, sound out of the orchestra. The chorus, the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, does what little it has to do perfectly adequately.

The video direction, by Landsmann and Landsmann, is pretty sympathetic. A lot of the time not much is happening and they close in on the singer(s) which is fair enough. When there is a stage to be shown they show it. It’s nowhere annoyingly gimmicky. The picture is top DVD quality 16:9 and the DTS 5.0 sound is mellow rather than punchy which seems appropriate. AV quality is pretty much as good as it gets without going to Blu-ray. There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles. Despite being split over two disks there are no extras. The documentation too is limited to credits (there’s not even a track listing). It;s quite a major omission for a work like this. An interview or an article about the director’s reading of the piece and his approach would be very useful.

There’s some stiff competition for this release, notably from Zurich and WNO, so I’ll certainly be trying to get my hands on some alternative versions in an attempt to deepen my understanding of the work as much as anything.

L’Amour des Trois Oranges – Amsterdam 2005

Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges is a really peculiar work. It’s like an adult fairy tale crossed with a Dario Fo farce. A hypochondriac prince can only be cured by laughter. Conventional attempts fail but he is highly amused by the evil sorceress Fata Morgana. She’s offended and curses him to seek out the three oranges which are guarded by a giant ladle wielding cook. She is overcome by a magic ribbon only for the prince and his sidekick Truffaldino to get stuck in the desert with the oranges, by now grown huge, but without water. Trouffaldino taps two of the oranges for a drink and out pop two princesses who promptly die of thirst. The third princess is rescued from the same fate by the intervention of the chorus and the Ten Eccentrics who have been commenting on the action throughout. While the prince is off getting help, the princess is turned into a giant rat and Fata Morgana’s sidekick substituted for her. But back at the palace the good magician turns the rat back into the princess, the baddies are unmasked and the goodies live happily ever after. And all this takes less than two hours. There are Russian and French versions of the libretto. This production uses the French.

Laurent Pelly’s 2005 production for De Nederlandse Opera with sets by Chantal Thomas is a wonderful piece of direction supported by really slick stagecraft. The basic theme is of playing cards as we are in the realm of the King of Clubs. There are playing card moving flats creating the necessary farce like entries and exits, playing card dancers in the attempts to amuse the prince, a high level game of cards between the magician Tchelio and Fata Morgana. Giant card houses collapse to signify chaos at the end of act two and so on. It all moves at a breakneck pace with set changes on the fly and is very engaging.

Pelly is backed up by a strong cast of singing actors. The vocal lines are mostly not very interesting but the acting demands on the principals are up there for an opera production. This cast pulls it off really well. The full cast is listed below and it’s a bit invidious to single out individual efforts as this is very much an ensemble performance. That said, I would single out for special praise the acting of Serghei Khomov as Trouffaldino and Anna Shafajinskaya as Fata Morgana. Singing honours go to the prince and princess; Martial Defontaine and Sandrine Piau, who get one of the few lyrical bits to sing in Act 3.

Most of the musical interest in this piece is in the orchestra. Here we have the Rotterdam Philharmonic with Stéphane Denève. It’s a brisk and lively idiomatic reading. At times the orchestra tends to overwhelm the singers but I think that’s the score rather than the conducting. I’m mildly amused that one theme, a march, recurs throughout the piece and it appears to be what John Williams borrowed for the March of the Imperial Stormtroopers!

Direction for TV and video is by Misjel Vermeiren and it’s very good indeed. There’s a lot going on on stage, on the approaches to the stage and even in the pit. Vermeiren doesn’t miss anything and gives us a very good idea of the stagecraft and what the audience in the theatre saw. First rate! There’s a cast gallery, a useful synopsis some interviews as bonus material. On DVD the sound options are DTS 5.1 and LPCM stereo. The surround track is clear with decent spatial awareness. The picture is 16:9 anamorphic and really pretty good helped by the fact that, although quite short, the work is spread over two discs. There are English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch subtitles. This performance is also available on Blu-ray disc and based on previous Opus Arte DVD/Blu-ray productions I’d go that way if I was buying.

All in all this is a very satisfying and entertaining package.