Paris: Mostly Verdi Good Indeed

But let’s start with the “good luck” portion of the
evening, shall, we? Make that “very good luck,” for musically there
was not only a great deal to admire, but specifically, Violeta Urmana served
notice that she is now to be numbered among the great vocal interpreters of the
cruelly difficult role of Mrs. Macbeth. Announced as indisposed, she
nevertheless sang up a storm, displaying her usual rich, creamy tone; searing
high notes; thundering chest tones; and a well-judged sleepwalking scene in
which she admittedly took a sightly lower (but no less effective) option in the
final rising arpeggiated phrase. This was splendid singing with “La luce
langue” as gorgeously presented as you are ever going to hear it, a perfect
marriage of artist and aria.

We were almost as fortunate with our Macbeth, for Dimitri Tiliakos’s
warm and sympathetic baritone was enormously engaging in mezzo forte passages,
of which there are thankfully many. When Mr. Tiliakos pushed the volume in
upper stretches, however, his rapid vibrato caused the unfortunate effect of
not always being on any one specific pitch, but rather in the general vicinity
of the vocal line, a minor shortcoming that disappeared when the voice turned
over into those forte pitches above, say, “f.” To be fair, our
baritone’s technique was eerily similar to the renowned Leo Nucci, who
also has a tendency to get riled up and bully the upper middle a bit, not a bad
role model since Leo seems to have managed a “decent” career!

Dmitry Ulyanov’s commanding Banquo was richly voiced with rolling
orotund delivery. The Parisians seemed to get more excited about Oleg
Videman’s Macduff than did I, his stentorian presentation of the
heartbreaking aria seeming more appropriate to an audition for the Forging
Scene, albeit one with exceptionally pleasing steely tone.

The Malcolm of Alfredo Nigro was so nicely sung that I half wished he had
been the one given a go at “A la paterno mano”. As Lady Macbeth’s
Attendant, Letitia Singleton offered more vocal presence than usual, and Yuri
Kissin was the wholly competent physician.

The best musical news of the night is that conductor Teodor Currentzis seems
to have redeemed himself after last season’s disastrously slipshod Don
(which I still consider one of the worst led performances I ever hope
to hear). Perhaps less mature Verdi suits the young Maestro’s flash-bang,
flailing, hair-flying, semaphoric gyrations, but whatever the reason, this was
a highly individual, nuanced reading from an orchestra and chorus in top form
(Allessandro Di Stefano was the effective chorus master).

To be sure, there were some Sinopoli-esque curiosities with occasional tempi
slower or faster than are traditional. The great chorus “Patria oppressa”
seemed comprised of attractive bits and pieces, instead of an unbroken arc. And
the final scene became too deliberate, when a steadier tumble to the denouement
was to be desired. But it cannot be denied that Teodor’s take on
Macbeth was controlled, vibrant, and fiercely theatrical, a feat that was
rewarded with a tumultuous ovation at final call.

macbeth_Paris01.gifScene from Macbeth [Photo courtesy of Paris OpÈra]

In light of the rich musical splendors, it seems a pity to have to report at
all on the turgid and uninspired physical production. No doubt where the blame
lies, for Dmitri Tcherniakov was in charge of stage direction, sets, and
costumes. True, Gleb Filshtinsky did the competent lighting but at crucial
moments, Tcherniakov managed to keep the characters’ faces out of it

The act curtain consisted of a swirling computer driven video projection of
an aerial view of small modern town. The cursor at times scrolled over and
selected a house or square for closer view and the video took us on a
bird’s eye trip to the new locale. It was sort of a mix of that annoying
projected scenery from Webber’s Woman in White and an Architectural
Digest HBO Special.

The opening scene featured not witches nor a mysterious locale (Plot? What
plot?) but an open courtyard lined with houses that inexplicably looked like
seaside homes. The entire chorus, presumably residents of this square, simply
milled about haphazardly, and there was no dramatic focus at all to the
important predictions (we don’ need no stinkin’ plot).

The Macbeth’s live in a 19th Century mansion, and the sitting room
(with working fireplace, Morris chair, and later, dining table) had sets of
front drapes (one scrim, the other damask) that got pulled open and closed by
our principals at various unmotivated junctures, rendering the room a stage
within a stage. The fact that the picture frame around this playing space cut
the actors off mid-calf was a constant, and avoidable visual annoyance.

And that sums up the entire set concept. We kept coming back to the quad for
the outdoor scenes, and to the mansion for all the indoor scenes. Oh, except
that the final battlefield scene was actually in the sitting room with Macbeth
standing atop the table holding a hard copy of the city map in front of him. As
he began “Pieta, rispetto, amore” he cast the map aside to reveal that, save
his black DKNY boxer briefs, he was naked from the waist down. Thus he sat and
lounged and stretched out and finally assumed a fetal position on the table,
writhing in what remained of his formal wear.

The chorus burst in, and Macbeth ran off through the door, to be drug back
on in a bloodied shirt for the not-oft-used death scene (very affectingly
sung). But as he died, everyone left, and the great final chorus (including the
Malcolm-Macduff solos) was sung offstage, slightly amplified, while salvos
crashed through the Styrofoam walls destroying the house in a noisy assault
that mercifully subsided for the final soaring choral statement.

Such directorial misjudgments were many and depressingly frequent. Lady
M’s somnambulism was not allowed to be the usual solo act, oh no. Here
she had to interact with the doctor and her servant, fighting, threatening,
struggling, and even strangling her servant all the while; and at scene’s
end, the focus was directed to the Lady in Waiting who was given the final word
by sobbing hysterically. Can I tell you something Dmitri, just between us
directors? This aria is not about the doctor nor the servant!! Not at all!! Not
a bit!!!! It is about a great diva moving us with a great scena!!!!! (Whew. .
.I feel better now).

The list could go on. Macduff came in to announce Duncan’s murder with
his hand held to his forehead throughout in a way that suggested he was trying
to stem a nosebleed. Then our poor tenor later had to sing his lament seated in
a toy-cluttered child’s playpen. As if singing the “Brindisi”
is not challenge enough, The Divine Lady M was asked to perform party magic
tricks all during the aria, knotting silks and pulling them out of a top hat
that she was made to carry with her later as a sleep walker. All of the
apparitions simply failed to “appear” on stage at all(!), including
Banquo’s ghost, asking way too much of Macbeth as an actor, and indeed
way too much of the audience to know what the hell was going on.

The worst offense by Tcherniakov The Designer was arguably the pedestrian
contemporary costuming, which reached criminal proportions (word carefully
chosen) in the unflattering attire for Ms. Urmana, who sadly looked more like
the leading man’s Wal-Mart shopper mom than his political and sexual
equal. Are the days gone forever when gifted costumers and make-up artists and
wig makers could fabulously glamorize full-figured artists like Joan, Leontyne,
Marilyn, Montserrat? A pretty woman, and a major star soprano, Violeta deserves
far far better.

At the end of the day, though, the utter nonsense of the staging was
triumphantly swept aside by the conviction of as well-judged a musical reading
of Macbeth as is likely possible today. A heads up in case you are
Russia-bound: this is a co-production with the Opera of Novosibirsk where
Teodor Currentzis is in charge, but where the available musical assets may not
be of the same high quality. Just didn’t want you to wander in

At next night’s marvelous Un ballo in maschera, conductor Renato
Palumbo’s style could not have been more different. With economy of
gesture and a complete, under-stated understanding of how the piece works, the
Maestro led a sensitive and sensible account that provided ample support for
the first rate soloists and chorus.

ballo_Paris.gifScene from Un ballo in maschera [Photo courtesy of Paris OpÈra]

Visually, too, there was much to admire in William Orlandi’s handsome
period costumes and monumental sets seemingly inspired by Mussolini’s
architectural visions. At rise, Riccardo is discovered seated on a pretentious
white marble throne, in the center of an amphitheater peopled by the male
chorus, and surmounted by a huge marble eagle.

Such iconic images served the work very well indeed, with the gibbet
consisting of two large square pillars, topped by menacing ravens, wings spread
about to take flight; a mausoleum of a sitting room for Rentao and Amelia; and
a perspective of a ballroom defined by a profusion of black marble pillars
capped with large, softly lit, Lalique-look glass lamps. Ulrica’s lair
seemed more uniquely “American” with its profusion of open flames
and bayou voodoo-inspired milieu. JoÎl Hourbeigt’s evocative and
atmospheric lighting could hardly have been bettered.

While the entire costume concept was also black and white, there were
well-chosen flashes of color such as Ulrica’s rich red tunic and turban;
and less well chosen, with Oscar plumped into a red vest that had the somewhat
unfortunate effect of making our cross-dresser look a bit like a white suited
Robin Red Breast. Especial praise should be reserved for the vibrantly detailed
commedia dell’arte garb worn by the corps de ballets, although Micha van
Hoecke’s busy choreography made their effect a little dizzying.

Stage director Gilbert Deflo knew how to tell the story, developed
meaningful blocking and visually pleasing stage groupings, maintained excellent
focus on the dramatic moments, and mostly appeared to stay out of the way of
his exceptional cast. Only the duet scene might have benefited from more
specificity of interaction, but that is a minor point in a very fine piece of

This night’s indisposed singer was Ramon Vargas (the French announce
this with some drama, with a great pause before . . .“but. . .Mr. Vargas
has indeed accepted to perform the role for you”). Although Mr. Vargas
chose his battles carefully in selecting which high notes to ring out and which
to husband and nurse, my first reaction upon hearing him live is that this is a
gorgeous heavy lyric sound. He is also a very fine musician, shaping and
coloring his phrases with a fine sense of Verdian line and a good deal of
dramatic imagination. His acting is honest and heartfelt. Perhaps his rather
short, boyish, round-cheeked appearance does not make him as marketable as
other over-hyped tenors, but as an artist this guy easily outclasses many an
operatic poster boy. A class act this Senor Vargas.

My other real interest was in hearing Angela Brown, who has emerged in
recent seasons as a Verdian of note. Her Amelia did not disappoint. The lovely
Miss Brown commands the stage with star presence, and her ripe, dark tone
communicates well in all registers and at all volumes, but most especially in
the upper reaches at full throttle when she is downright thrilling. If her
generous vibrato gets a bit in the way in lower parlando passages, and if she
cannot quite float a high note as pristine as say, Mme. Caballe (who can?),
this is nevertheless a very sound technique married to well-schooled musical
instincts. On a non-musical note, the diva did milk her (solid) ovation a bit
too much past the sell-by date. Leave them wanting more, Angela!

Anna Christy contributed a perky, spot-on, clear-voiced Oscar, although I
wish she had strutted and play-acted the “boy” a little less. Elena
Manistina was a force to be reckoned with as a fine Ulrica with a searing
baritonal chest voice that blossomed quite seamlessly into a ripe middle and a
secure top. The duo of dark-voiced Etienne Dupuis and Michail Schelomianski
were luxury casting as an exceptionally powerful Silvano and Sam, and Scott
Wilde presented a decent Tom.

But without a shred of doubt, the night (and the weekend) belonged to the
tremendous performance by Ludovic Tezier as Renato. Once every five years you
might encounter a Verdi turn with this shock-and-awe factor, and Mr. Tezier
thrilled and chilled us the entire night. Having enjoyed his
Figaro Count, and even more his Werther Albert,
nothing prepared me for the richness, the moxie, the clarity, the size of that
great instrument with its manly buzzy tone pinging off the back wall of the
Bastille and pinning us in our seats. There is nothing quite like
“discovering” a new star Verdi baritone, and wow, what a night he
had! Us, too.

James Sohre

image_description=Giuseppe Verdi
product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth
product_by=Macbeth: Dimitris Tiliakos; Banco Ferruccio Furlanetto / Dmitri Ulianov (5, 8 May); Lady Macbeth: Violeta Urmana / Larissa Gogolevskaya (29 April and 5 May); Dama di Lady Macbeth: Letitia Singleton; Macduff: Stefano Secco / Oleg Wideman (5, 8 May); Malcolm: Alfredo Nigro; Medico Yuri Kissin. OpÈra national de Paris Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: Teodor Currentzis / Piotr Belyakin (17 April). Stage director, sets and costumes: Dmitri Tcherniakov.