Paris: Tenors Trump Befuddled Productions

Remember Max, the hapless impresario in Mel Brooks’ The
? His auditor opines that no one investigates where the money
goes after a show flops, so if he over sold the shares to investors, he could
pocket the money with virtual impunity. Max puts on the worst possible,
sure-fire flop, Springtime for Hitler. Except somehow, it becomes a
hit. Based on the SRO status of the current egregiously misrepresented
Manon maybe an accountant should be called to investigate where our
ticket money was spent. ‘Cause it sure ain’t in the service of Massenet.

It can only be owing to Natalie Dessay’s star power that ‘the
producers’ felt this Manon could possibly merit approval/interest.
For those who remember the near flawless, Fragonard-inspired version late of
New York City Opera, which was all of a (period) piece, this mixed bag of a
design was as alienating and angering as it was confusing.

Elsa Pavanel’s eclectic costumes were perhaps the worst visual polluters.
For no good reason, Lescaut was Almighty Goth, a leather-wrapped,
chain-weighted, spiky-haired thug. Bretigny’s evening was spent in the
burgundy palette, first in a satin disco suit, then Goth-icized in Act II, and
later Goth-damn-it-all, in a swishy frock coat. Des Grieux first swam upstream
in a tailored salmon-hued 40’s suit. Trixie, Dixie and Nixie (um, I mean
Pousette, Javotte, Rosette) were each adorned in completely different period
garb. In real time it was Mardi Gras, so maybe Ms. Pavanel was suggesting that
this grab bag of motley variety just — ‘oopsie’ — spilled from the
streets onto the Bastille stage. What else could explain first attiring the
Chorus in (the correct) period court dress, then having them appear to have
wandered in straight out of Meistersinger, then having the ladies got
up in early 20th century day dresses? It may have still been Carnival in the
real world but in the theatre we were already mired in Lent, the production
awaiting redemption in vain.

There was nothing so awfully wrong about the massive set design created by
Jean-Marc StehlÈ and Antoine Fontaine. It just never added anything
atmospherically to the effort. The huge staircase and upper landing of Act I
seemed more indoor castle hall than outdoor courtyard, this in spite of the
entrance of a 1950’s tour bus announcing its destination as Amiens.

Act Two’s simple garret has a seriously confused sense of architecture,
with the one door up center used only by Des Grieux and a Concierge (who, no
kidding, delivers pizza in a box just before the hero leaves to post his
letter). Others entered from the wings, seemingly walking through the
‘walls.’ Nor was any of this helped by HervÈ Gary’s sputtering, bluntly
cued lighting effects, which many times left actors unlit. In what had to have
been a miscue, all illumination abruptly went out on Manon at the end of Act II
and she was left to make a long, arching exit off stage in the dim reflected
glow of the pit’s music stand lights.

The Cours la Reine scene was arguably the least offensive with its pillars
of flora and fauna set in a conservatory. If only the costumes had not evoked
‘Alt-N¸rnberg.’ Having the foliage fold up and the pillars turn to become
the interior of St. Sulpice was a decent enough effect, until the chorus ladies
appeared on contemporary roller skates in the afore-mentioned 1920’s day
dresses, like some demented, cut-from-the-final-print, what-were-we-thinking
production number from “Xanadu.” (There’s a “Filles on Wheels” joke
here somewhere but I can’t quite figure it out…). By the time we got to the
Oh-My-Goth Casino all bets were off, as Manon flounced in looking like
“Tommy’s” Acid Queen in her jeweled, distressed dress and a shock of a
red fright wig.

As if it could get any worse, key moments were “captioned for the
clinically bewildered.” Manon sings of jewelry, and a spot lit portrait of a
beauty queen wearing a ‘Miss Arras’ banner and tiara flies in. As Des
Grieux intones his reverie, he is upstaged by a framed paint-by-numbers front
yard landscape, then (as if distracting us once was not enough) adding a mom
with a frying pan, with dad and the kids in a Thunderbird straight out of a
1950’s magazine ad. When Daddy Des Grieux sings, his wedding photo descends,
and on and on ad nauseam. Willfully provocative.

Director Coline Serreau must bear the brunt of the blame for these avoidable
mis-steps, and more. Her placement of singers was most usually in total
disregard of both the high caliber of her starry cast and the script’s
requirements. All applause after set pieces is discouraged/eliminated (example:
the priest speaks added comments and squelches the end of “Ah, fuyez…”).
Seldom does anyone look at another character, but rather sings straight front.
As Manon intones “N’est-ce plus ma main que cette main presse?” she is as
far away from her intended press-ee as the space allowed (short of actually
being off stage).

Mme. Serreau also injects coordinated moves into certain sections that are
more “Folies BergËre” than Massenet, witness the girls’ trio, hopping,
bopping, and moving their heads from side to side as they gestured wildly like
demented Supremes. Indeed, there is so much extra-musical “invention” that
it seems like Coline was hell-bent to throw so many ideas at us that she hoped
one might stick. Having the Love Couple escape to Paris on a motorcycle at the
end of One was a decent idea, but it was utter nonsense when Lescaut drove the
cycle into St. Sulpice and plucked up the couple after their impassioned duet.

Did we need to be ‘entertained’ by guys in laborer jumpsuits rolling on
shopping carts of groceries and tossing them to other workers up the stairs and
off stage as the Innkeeper sang of the food? And while much of the ballet was
(in this case) mercifully cut, it is hard to know what the runway fashion
parade was all about, with lithe models got up in Victoria’s Secret, three
male hunks hung with chiffon ballet skirts, a smattering of S&M
accessories, and the whole lot of them silenced with tape over their mouths.
Hmmmm. Perhaps they attempted to tell the director what they really thought of
it all? Hmmmmm.

One final unfortunate consequence of the massed milling about in group
scenes is that Patrick Marie Aubert’s usually fine chorus, was atypically
raggy and at times, downright muted. Serreau has a lot of explaining to do…

At this point in her successful career, the oft-sensational lyric-coloratura
Natalie Dessay has branched out to heavier roles with somewhat variable
results. Ms. Dessay is a supremely talented actress with few equals, however
Manon demands more than dramatic acumen. These days, Ms. Dessay affects a
slightly fuller, more pointed sound which serves her well in the upper, and
upper middle range. She still reigns supreme in forays above the staff where
her tightly-focused soprano can soar above the orchestra.

Alas, the more the phrasing dips into the lower middle, the less
‘present’ it becomes, and a (very) slight rasp can creep into lower phrases
when she infrequently presses them. Still, her upper full voiced singing was
free and clear, and possessed all the accustomed vitality and zing. Best of
all, she looked petite, lovely and utterly believable, even when got up in
improbable attire. Her golden blonde wig looked lovely, and when she stole into
Sainte Sulpice in a diaphanous, hooded black cape she suggested the ultra -glam
Witch from Into the Woods. While Manon is certainly a more comfortable
fit than her recent encounters with Violetta, I keep wishing Mme. Dessay would
go back to her former territory, in which she was always queen of the night.

Though Giuseppe Filianoti may not be a natural stage creature, he strives
(to mostly fine effect) to be theatrically engaging. But there is no denying
his was the star vocal presence of the night. Not for him the suave styling and
crooning of say, Alfredo Kraus. Signor Filianoti can spin a tender line to be
sure, but he is happiest when he can go for the jugular, and when he delivers
the impetuous top notes he lands them right between your eyes. To his credit,
his full-bodied approach complemented his leading lady quite well, and he was a
generous and deferential colleague. But when firepower was required, Giuseppe
provided salvo after salvo. He deserved a far better costume than the
unflattering slacks and clinging knit top that he got stuck into for the last
third of the opera. But never mind, by that point we were closing our eyes, and
what we were hearing from him was uniformly exciting.

Franck Ferrari’s Lescaut was so solidly sung it helped us overlook his
irritating get-up. Paul Gay contributed a sympathetic, clear-voiced Count des
Grieux. Luca Lombardo was a sassy, un-stereotypical Guillot, and AndrÈ Heyboer
contributed a wholly competent de BrÈtigny. The often forgettable ladies trio
was here made memorable by the clear-voiced, evenly matched, excitingly
delivered solos and harmonies from Olivia Doray (Pousette), Carol GarcÌa
(Javotte), and Alisa Kolosova (Rosette). An unexpected delight.

I have admired conductor Evelino PidÚ on other occasions, but on this
evening he did not exude his usual presence, personalized point of view, or
control. There was nothing wrong with the orchestra’s efforts, but the result
was lacking in the last measure of effervescence that can lift Manon
to a higher plane. I had the overall impression that the assembled artists
might be trapped in an endeavor not wholly to their liking. Indeed, Natalie
Dessay said as much, announcing her withdrawal from opera for a year owing in
part to her experience with this production. When internationally applauded
star singers are pushed to these measures, perhaps producers might look at what
really draws patrons to buy opera tickets? (Hint: It is not to see the likes of
Coline Serreau’s self-indulgent, inept direction. Just sayin’…)

Things were happily in far better order the next day with the mesmerizing
musical execution of The Queen of Spades. Once again, and perhaps not
unsurprising, the tenor took the laurels, this time owing to the muscular,
rapturous, balls-to-the-wall vocal outpouring from Vladimir Galouzine. His is
one of the biggest natural voices on display today, but that is not to imply
that Mr. Galouzine does not also have finesse. Indeed, he created a
multi-faceted Hermann, completely capable of sensitive, controlled vocalism at
moderate and soft volumes. But when the money notes are called for, he can pour
on the stentorian steam like few others. Vladimir sustained this spell over the
audience for the entire piece, no small feat since, in this concept, he never
leaves the stage.

Olga Guryakova was a secure, if a bit cautious Lisa. The hint of metal in
her full-voiced top notes served her quite well, and in the more conversational
middle passages her instrument assumed a richer, vibrant sheen. But on this
occasion, Ms. Guryakova came across as on the outside of the role looking in,
well-voiced but unengaged. Not so home boy Ludovic TÈzier whose rich baritone
ravished us with gleaming, deeply felt phrasings as a powerful Prince Yeletski.
The celebrated mezzo Larissa Diadkova confirmed her reputation with a vocally
distinctive Countess that was at once plush velvet and barbed commentary. Count
Tomski was ably taken by Evgeny Nikitin, who commanded his every scene.

Best of all, conductor Dmitry Jurowski drew stylistically informed, dynamic
ensemble playing from the orchestra; supremely responsive singing from the
soloists; and full-throated vocalism from a chorus confidently back on form
(Chorus Master, Alessandro di Stefano). There was no musical effect that
escaped Maestro Jurowski’s detailed attention, and the shaping of the entire
opera was wonderfully calibrated.

The good news is that the setting (David Borovsky) was most professionally
executed and highly realistic in detail. The bad news is that the Concept sets
the entire piece in a Soviet era asylum, where a bed-ridden Hermann is
what…dreaming? Hallucinating? Reminiscing? Small matter, since the bottom
line is we are stuck looking at a slime green, paint-peeling, bare bones loony
bin, and it is unsurpassingly ugly. Make that “Fugly.” (Figure it out…)

Still, with this as a (depressing) ‘given,’ the dramatic conceit works
after a fashion. Since Hermann is crazed (even more so than I was having spent
Ä180 to look at this dreariness), anything goes. Nothing has to make linear
sense or observe the Unities, right? ChloÈ Obolensky’s costumes can veer all
over the place, sometimes finding characters in ‘civilian’ clothes, others
playing dress-me-up, many in hospital worker uniforms. The chorus initially
comes on to a wide, shallow platform upstage about five feet off the floor. It
is not clear why, but see “nothing has to make sense,” above. Hermann
spends the first act in the bed, behind the bed, on top of the bed, left or
right of the bed, and in a bold move, he leaves the bed and very
very deliberately crosses to the other side of the empty

I can’t recall when, but the shallow platform sunk to floor level, and the
upstage walls parted to reveal a kinda wintery, ersatz sculpture garden with a
large staircase in profile up stage left. I would like to say this was the
pretty setting we had been desperately hoping for, but I would be lying. I
‘get’ that this is part of the recollection, but it does not offer any real
visual relief. The one designer to emerge unsullied was Jean Kalman, whose
well-considered lighting brought some vibrant color and definition to the
playing space. Ah well, it is short-lived as the walls eventually close back up
and we wind up where we began. (What is Russian for “Bedlam,” anyway?)

I have to say that once certain interpretive decisions were made at least
director Lev Dodin was consistent about them. But having Lisa faint to the
stage after her suicide aria instead of jumping in the river, immeasurably
lessened Tchaikovsky’s great moment. Especially after the ‘dead’ Countess
comes on to help her get back up and walk offstage. Not a ghostly apparition
she, our Countess was a nurse, coming to check on her patient. Whoa, Lev, dude,
that is so not the same thing!

There is nothing quite like the communal experience of a fully, expertly
realized musical theatre performance. And this weekend, I was elated to have
had my goose bumps raised by two top notch tenors who definitely delivered the
goods. But after having often sat with my eyes closed through two stumbling
high-profile shows which could not even seriously claim good intentions, I have
to wonder:

Might a fine CD really be preferable?

James Sohre


Manon: Natalie Dessay; Des Grieux: Giuseppe Filianoti; Lescaut: Franck
Ferrari; Count des Grieux: Paul Gay; Guillot de Morfontaine: Luca Lombardo; de
BrÈtigny: AndrÈ Heyboer; Pousette: Olivia Doray; Javotte: Carol GarcÌa;
Rosette: Alisa Kolosova; Conductor: Evelino PidÚ; Director: Coline Serreau;
Set Design: Jean-Marc StehlÈ and Antoine Fontaine; Costume Design: Elsa
Pavanel; Lighting Design: HervÈ Gary; Chorus Master Patrick Marie Aubert

The Queen of Spades (La dame de pique)

Hermann: Vladimir Galouzine; Count Tomski: Evgeny Nikitin; Prince Yeletski:
Ludovic TÈzier; Tchekalinski: Martin M¸hle; Sourine: Salint Szabo;
Tchapalitski: Fernando Velasquez; Naroumov: Yves Cochois; The Countess: Larissa
Diadkova; Lisa: Olga Guryakova; Macha: Nona Javakhidze; Master of Ceremonies:
Robert Catania; Conductor: Dmitri Jurowski; Director: Lev Dodin; Set Design:
David Borovsky; Costume Design: ChloÈ Obolensky; Lighting Design: Jean Kalman;
Choreography: Yuri Vasilkov; Chorus Master: Alessandro di Stefano.

image_description=Opera Bastille
product_title=Paris: Tenors Trump Befuddled Productions
product_by=By James Sohre
product_id=Above: OpÈra Bastille