The Paris Opera Scene

With a budget many times smaller that the Paris Opera, it squeezed the Orchestre de Paris into the pit and ambitiously set off to do the entire Ring under the baton of their music director, Christoph Eschenbach. The Robert Wilson co-production has been seen in Zurich but is a welcome large-vision effort in a time when the second season of Gerard Mortier at the Paris Opera seems to be floundering.
This is the final season of Jean-Pierre Brossmann as the theaterís director, and this Ring makes a nice bookend to his first season where Robert Wilson did an impressive diptych of the operas of Gluck, Alceste and OrphÈe conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Gardiner, a regular at Ch‚telet, also conducted Les Troyens of Berlioz, hogging most of the critical praise last season.
American audience are missing out with Robert Wilson making his career mostly in Europe. His familiar stagings ó the kabuki-like stage movement, solid blue background, foreground figures in severe black, a follow-spot illuminating the head – at their best have a haunting beauty. The severe costumes by Frida Parmeggiani were striking and, despite the ìabstractî stage pictures, all the Ring symbols were present: sword in tree, gold, giants, etc.
After seeing the first two operas of the Covent Garden Ring, I recently passed on an opportunity to see the third. The stage is decorated with odd metal bits, flea market furniture, garish lights and costumes looking like they were pulled from a trunk at random. The real false notes, however, came from attempts flesh out the characters. Brunnhilde as a rebellious adolescent and the over-long father-daughter kiss at Wotanís farewell added a gratuitous Jerry Springer moment to a story already full of them. Robert Wilson views the Ring as more ritual than drama and his slow pace meshes well with Wagnerís extended, grandiloquent statements.
With a notable exception the cast was solid. The first act signaled the arrival of a first class Wagnerian soprano, Petra-Maria Schnitzer, whose high-voltage voice, a touch edgy, was also able to project the tender yearnings of her character. As Seigmund, Peter Seiffert already has his fans due to his Tannh‰user at Ch‚telet last season and he did not disappoint them with warm, unforced singing. A stunning performance from Mihiko Fujimura as Fricka was the most polished of the night and Stephen Milling was also outstanding as Hunding. Linda Watson, as Br¸nnhilde, was proceeded by so much buzz that she might have been first night nerves. Her grand entrance was unsteady but her later work suggested a fine Helden-soprano in training. In Rheingold, the Alberich was taken on by the noted baritone Sergei Leiferkus who made a substantial impact in this important role. Baritone Jukka Rasilainen was a pale Wotan and the weakest link in the cast.
Christoph Eschenbach disproves the old story that the Wagnerian orchestra must always overwhelm the singers and his restrained volume, leisurely pacing, and clear textures were a pleasure to hear The Orchestre de Paris, an often unruly bunch, was clearly aware that this was something special and played with uncommon skill. Eschenbachís forward momentum was, however, not always felt, keeping both operas slightly off-balance.
At the Paris Opera-Bastille, a revival of Paul Hindemithís 1926 opera, Cardillac, seen September 24, was the offering to show off Mortierís Year Two artistic vision. Picking an opera about a serial killer has a certain attraction and the music of young Hindemith is some of his best. What it did show was a search for a ìhitî more than a vision and also proved a fundamental weakness in his leadership.
Mortier made an early decision not to appoint a musical director for the opera and this task was divided between seven conductors, most of whom conduct only one opera a year and are not likely consulted about musical matters. Any full-time musical director might early on had a different opinion about where to present Cardillac. It is scored for a half-size orchestra and yet was staged, by Andre Engel, for the large stage at Bastille and not the smaller Palais Garnier. The chamber-sized music (one of the delicious interludes is for two flutes) is out of place there.
The first scene, for example, was a magnificent spectacle on stage but saw sub-par playing by the orchestra. It would be hard to fault conductor Kent Nagano ó one of the seven ó for the failures of the orchestra and the poor coordination of chorus and pit. Few, if any, conductors in the world have his Twentieth Century opera credentials.
The orchestra has tricky, syncopated rhythms for the entire first act and the chorus is tightly interwoven into this thorny fabric. But the staging has the chorus ó full size ó in such constant flowing motion, back and forth, that there are two choreographers listed in the program. As a consequence, the contributions of the chorus were consistently off-cue and the orchestra, under-rehearsed, simply glided over the syncopation.
The stage pictures were designed to please. The first act was in a handsome grand art-deco hotel but subsequent images, including one on the roofs of Paris, veered close to clichÈ. The story of a goldsmith who kills his clients, the opera does not have a plum central role but the ensemble of singers gathered were first rate. Baritone Alan Held was a convincing in the title role and the splendid soprano Angela Denoke sang the pallid role of the Daughter.
It was a laudable effort to return this little-heard opera to the stage and it is a grand production with epic sweep, designed to make the best case for the drama. The only area not effectively presented was the music but that, unfortunately, should be the central reason for hearing this work.
Frank Cadenhead

image_description=Cardillac (Photo: Eric Mahoudeau)
product_title=Scene from Cardillac (Photo: Eric Mahoudeau)