Despite a thin to non-existent plot and music that sounds like a remix of all the other Offenbach operettas, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, performed by largely French forces and recorded at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2004 is a highly enjoyable romp. The plot centres on the susceptibility of the Grand-Duchess to fall rather hard for younger men. This makes it a perfect vehicle for Felicity Lott who rather seems to specialise in such roles; whether Strauss’ Marschallin or La Belle Hélène. She’s brilliant. She sings gorgeously except where she doesn’t want to and her comic timing is impeccable. She’s well backed up by Yann Beuron as the young soldier Fritz who she promotes from private to général-en-chef without swaying his affections for his sweetheart Wanda sung by the irrepressible and cute Sandrine Piau. The slapstick element is provided by François Le Roux, as Le Général Boum, Franck Leguérinet as Le Baron Puck and Eric Huchet as Le Prince Paul who are set on getting the Grand-Duchess to marry Paul even if it means murdering Fritz. They get lots of up tempo numbers that sound as if they are singing a Korean restaurant menu.
The 2013 recording of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites from the Théâtre des Champs Elysées has a cast that reads like a roll call of famous French singers; Petitbon, Piau, Gens and Koch are all there. Throw in Rosalind Plowright and Topi Lehtipuu and one gets some idea of the star power on display.
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.
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.
I guess Serse gets performed as often as any Handel opera but there only appears to be one DVD version in the original Italian available. It’s a 2000 production from the Dresdner Musikfestspiele. Michael Hampe directs a cast of, then, fairly young singers, few of them familiar to me. Christophe Rousset conducts Les Talens Lyriques and the Ludwigshafener Theaterchor. It’s a really good DVD. The costumes and sets, by Carlo Tommasi, are a sort of mid 19th century European with “exotic” touches. There’s a consistent palette of black, white, grey and silver with a little deep blue and cream intruding. It’s all very elegant. The direction is more than competent. The relationships between characters are explored and Sandrine Piau, as Atalanta gets to exploit her considerable comic talents. To cap it all off we get a few, very apt, pyrotechnic surprises right at the end.
The singing is uniformly excellent. Paula Rasmussen, a mezzo, is cast in the castrato title role. It’s a role where personally I’d prefer a David Daniels or a Lawrence Zazzo but she manages to look and sound masculine enough. The same is true for Ann Hallenberg as “his” brother Arsamene; a genuine mezzo role. Patricia Bardon sings Amastre, Serse’s discarded lover who spends 9/10 of the opera disguised as a man. Ms Bardon manages the difficult feat of acting a woman pretending to be a man convincingly which is obviously quite different from a woman acting a man. I won’t try and describe the singing performances individually because I would just end up using “stylish” way too much. These are all thoroughly idiomatic Handel performances with tasteful decoration, lovely legato and accurate coloratura. The two sisters Romilda and Atalanta are played by sopranos Isobel Bayrakdarian and Sandrine Piau. It was a real pleasure to be reminded of what a fine Handelian Bayrakdarian was right at the start of her career. Her singing is just gorgeous. Piau is great too. She has great comic timing in a role that really needs it and she also gets the most coloratura fireworks which she handles very well indeed. The guys who play guys are Marcello Lippi as girls’ father, Ariodate, and Matteo Peirone as the servant, Elviro. These are both essentially buffo roles and both men are well up to them. I don’t think I’ve heard M.Rousset and his Les Talens Lyriques before but they are as good a Baroque band as I have come across. The chorus doesn’t have much to do but it does fine with what it does have. All in all, it’s very satisfying musically and dramatically.
Direction for TV/DVD is by Philip Behrens and it’s OK. There aren’t too many intrusive close ups though it’s a 4:3 picture so some of that is a bit inevitable. Picture quality is pretty typical of TV to VD productions. Sound options are PCM stereo or Dolby 5.1. The surround version sounded very good. There are no extras on the disk and the documentation is pretty basic. It’s a Euroarts production.
There’s a ten minute trailer up on Youtube that gives a really pretty good idea of what to expect though it’s a bit short on comedy and there’s no Sandrine Piau. Here it is.
And here’s some Sandrine Piau.