Triple Delights in the City of Light

Marco Arturo Marelli’s Rubik-cube of a set design for Arabella
engaged the eye and the imagination as it constantly re-invented itself. At
first glance a sumptuous, white curving drawing room (with a Magritte-like
cloud-dotted blue sky painted on one wall), the structure consisted of
swiveling panels, some of them backed with variegated mirrors, all of them
trimmed with extravagant molding. With admirably precise coordination,
furniture and props glided in clockwise on a turntable as panels yawned open to
allow the set pieces through, and then closed again. Or not. The effect
paralleled the shifting emotional and financial fortunes of the principal
characters, and while the visuals were somewhat unsettling, they also looked
reassuringly serene. Transitions to the party and back home again were
seamless, with characters appearing almost prankish, leaning around various
openings and/or effecting bold entrances at will. A series of highly detailed
backdrops added color and depth.

Friedrich Eggert has lit the show with soothing washes, mellow cyc lights,
well-timed area cross-fades, and occasional bursts of color, all of which took
full advantage of the reflective properties of the white walls. Dagmar Hiefind
has created luxurious period costumes, with especially glamorous results for
the leading lady.

Within this fluid structural space, augmented by its well-chosen attire and
atmospheric lighting, Mr. Marelli also donned his director’s hat and created
some telling stage pictures, enabling distinctive character relationships of
immense depth. He not only used every inch of the expansive playing area(s)
with consummate skill, but also added immeasurably to the impact of this rather
slight plot with cunning inventions. Witness the ball scene, where Mandryka’s
over-stimulated imagination sees every woman as a ringer for Araballa, every
man a handsome rival like Matteo. As the duplicate couples whirl and glide
around the dance floor, Mandryka’s wrongheaded suspicions are multiplied
ten-fold. When the lads later shed their shirts, bared their torsos, and
sexually pursued their various ‘Arabella’s’ the poor man’s negative
fantasies went into overdrive, as the corps cavorted in Twyla Tharp-inspired

It is easy to understand Mandryka’s obsession with the heroine. Who could
fail to be bewitched and bedazzled by RenÈe Fleming’s definitive Arabella?
For Ms. Fleming is here performing at the height of her powers. The creamy
richness of her tone is generous and undiminished, her solid technique trumps
every Straussian challenge, she mines every subtlety to be found in the role,
and her acclaimed musicality is unflagging. Moreover, she is a stunning woman
whose physique and demeanor partner with her artistry to completely persuade us
that at the moment, RenÈe simply has no equal in the part.

The diva went from strength to strength, offering perfectly accentuated
conversational ‘dialogue’ one minute and regaling us with thrilling,
soaring passages the next. The extended ‘scena’ in which she pardons
Mandryka and offers him the conciliatory glass of water, was heart-breaking in
its simplicity, and found her celebrated soprano shimmering, pulsing, and
vibrant. As my tears rained down, it was not just for the perfection of the
moment, but that I just might not ever hear anything this ravishing again.
“The Beautiful Voice,” indeed.

She was well partnered by Michael Volle as Mandryka, who reacts with such
deep disbelief and gratitude to Arabella’s pardon, that he certainly
heightened the soprano’s effect in this crucial scene. Mr. Volle has a voice
with ample thrust and ringing presence but the extreme tessitura of the part on
both ends finds it thinning out a bit. Don’t get me wrong, he is completely
secure in everything he vocalizes, but the top doesn’t quite turn over. There
maybe be a baritone out there that could sing this a bit more comfortably, with
a bit more ‘ping’ upstairs, but surely no one could perform it more
memorably. Like his winning Beckmesser (‘the’ glory of the most recent
Bayreuth Meistersinger) Michael crafts a well-rounded and sympathetic
character out of a man who spends much of the piece as a hectoring prat. The
depths of his shame and remorse are so profoundly communicated that he has us
in the palm of his hand. Together, he and his Arabella transmitted a real
chemistry that fairly crackled in the house.

Genia K¸hmeier was a winning, diminutive Zdenka, believably boyish for
(nearly) the first two acts, then girlishly tormented for the rest. Ms.
K¸hmeier has a voice of individualized personality, meaty enough to blaze
through the frequent orchestral outbursts but youthful and pliable enough to
spin out Straussian phrases of great sensitivity. The tone has laser-like focus
and a pleasing, slight vibrato. Although Joseph Kaiser was announced as
indisposed, the strapping young tenor threw himself into the swinging emotions
of Matteo, and his rich mid-voice promised that this is an instrument of
considerable quality. He did have to somewhat ‘mark’ the uppermost reaches
but never once conveyed any peril. Truth to tell, I have heard many a tenor in
perfect health sing not half as well as Mr. Kaiser on this evening, and I will
look forward to hearing him again soon at full throttle.

Kurt Rydl brought a lifetime of experience and a maturity of utterance to
the willful, gambling-addicted Count Waldner. Doris Soffel, another treasurable
seasoned artist, used her powerful, dark-hued mezzo to etch a three dimensional
Adelaide, the self-pitying mother. I am not sure there is a less grateful role
in all Coloraturadom than Fiakermilli, for she either prances on at full tilt
and nails all the over-written, exposed, fiendish pyrotechnics or…not.
Luckily, Iride Martinez, petite of stature but big of voice, warbled freely and
accurately, and managed to make a decent case for a perky role that is really
not very well integrated into the story. As the suitors, Eric Huchet brought an
over-sized presence and pleasant tenor to Count Elemer; Edwin Crossley-Mercer
used his refined baritone to good purpose as Count Dominik; and best of all,
Thomas Dear cut a fine figure and sang a very solid, coltish, preening Count

Conductor Philippe Jordan impresses me even more with each outing, and he
elicited a luminous performance from the excellent resident orchestra. The
Maestro drew forth rich coloration, resonant banks of sound, and stellar solo
work, and imbued the whole with an urgent forward motion that was cohesive and
pliable. Jordan not only has poster boy good looks but is also racking up a
growing resume of top level musical results. If he does not achieve
superstardom in the very near future I will eat my beret. He is surely among
the top conductors of our day, and a local ‘rock star’ who generates cheers
simply by entering the pit. (Mr. Gelb, are you paying attention?)

here for a video presentation of Arabella.

Director Gilbert Deflo appears to have looked to Cirque de Soleil as
inspiration for his Cecil B. DeMille staging of The Love of Three
. Set designer William Orlandi has given him a circus ring of a
set; tracks full of curtains of various colors; a flown, white, bi-parting
architectural show drop that suggests the OpÈra Bastille facade; a circular
balcony that encompasses the playing space; platforms and ramps that morph to
various useful configurations; and assorted colorful chairs and stools for the
players as well as the observers. Oh, and of course, three pretty darn’
terrific oranges!

Mr. Orlandi did double design duty, also creating a wide array of magical
costumes, many “commedia”-based (the Prince in white pants and smock
recalled Watteau’s “Gilles”). Others were pure fantasy, witness Princess
Clarice’s slinky slit green vamp gown (with matching wig), Tchelio’s
buttercup yellow morning suit and hat; the lovely, delicate white dresses for
the three princesses that looked like stray Wilis wandered in from
“Giselle;” and the colossal drag creation for the cook, constructed atop a
‘skirt’ concealing a rolling wagon, that enabled the actor atop it to
appear twelve feet tall. The huge masks, the rat head, the oversized props,
every fanciful item was carefully wrought. Only the black-faced Pickaninny
concept for Smeraldino mis-fired. I appreciate the intent, but the blunt
minstrel look stopped one step short of “I speks I’se de wickedest
crea-chuh in de worl’.”

Joel Hourbeigt’s clever assortment of lighting specials provided constant
delight with a design to be counted among the finest he has accomplished at the
house. In addition to excellent inclusion of spotlights (including five used
for atmospheric back-lighting from the onstage balcony), Mr. Hourbeigt devised
any number of tricks that greatly enhanced our enjoyment: star lights flying in
during the love duet; silhouettes on the upstage curtain as the baddies are
chased around the set; side lights that accentuated the treachery of the
plotting; and subtle changes of color and intensity in the general wash. The
production also incorporated dazzling pyrotechnical duels, surprising flash
pots, and clever solutions to the all-important sliced-orange moments. The
complex scenic components were transported, placed and removed with utmost
precision by the exemplary running crew.

Mr. Deflo generally used the space exceedingly well, allowing the
“commentators” to reside on the stage apron far left and right, keeping the
chorus (outfitted in evening wear) seated on semi-circles of chairs under the
onstage balcony left and right, maintaining much of the action in the central
ring. However, he also made clever use of the entire stage, reserving use of
the balcony for the most effective moments like the extended chase, where the
pursued as well as the pursuers clambered up and down ladders and traversed
every inch of the balcony. Fata Morgana and Tchelio also squared off
imperiously in their “card game” atop opposite perches on the upper level.
Flying the Prince and Truffaldino as they left on their quests (not once but
twice) over the upper level high into the wings, was a real audience pleaser.
Even with the bare bones script and dialogue of the piece, Deflo has worked
with the performers to create individualized movement and character-specific
gestures that informed the audience of their personalities.

No one embraced this concept more effectively than Charles Workman as an
endearing Prince. Mr. Workman was all flowing limbs and mock-balletic poses,
and his physical work was matched by a flexible, warmly pleasing tenor. A
little adjustment of technique might be in order to tame a couple of sudden
jumps to (very) high notes that almost came to grief, but still his was a
memorable, touching portrayal that earned an appreciative ovation. I find the
real star potential of “Oranges” to be Truffaldino, and Eric Huchet did not
disappoint. At times Mr. Huchet’s enjoyable tenor seems deployed with
comprimario sensibilities, only to jar us a moment later with radiant, secure
tone as he luxuriates on the odd lyrical phrase. While his dramatic performance
had all the animation required, he might consider just a bit more physical
abandon. That said, his climbing up on the Cook’s skirt and riding along on
the rolling wagon was an inspired goof. Eric proved to be the audience
favorite, earning a cascade of approving shouts at curtain call.

Arguably the vocal honors of the night belonged to Lucia Cirillo in the
unsympathetic role of Smeraldine. Hers is a wonderfully even, throbbing, fiery
mezzo, and she dispatched the extremes of the writing with plucky aplomb and
reserves of power. Amel Brahim-Djelloul was a sweet-voiced, bell-like Ninette,
and her well-founded technique and placement allowed her slender soprano to
enchant even the top balcony. Marie-Ange Todorovitch was an imperious Fata
Morgana. Her searing top notes and robust chest tones served all the needs of
the enchantress, although her middle voice got a mite cloudy at times with a
bit too much cover. Patricia Hernandez struck a lovely figure as Clarice, but
she occasionally pushed her pleasant medium-sized mezzo one size past its
comfort level, resulting in a bit of a wobble and the occasional splayed
release on longer sustained tones.

As the King of Clubs, old hand Alain Vernhes brought all of his considerable
experience to the befuddled character. Mr. Vernhe’s resolute baritone serves
the role well, and if a bit of dryness has crept into the tone over the years,
his was still a commanding presence. Igor Gnidh sang with ringing, refined tone
as a pleasing Pantalone. I found Nicolas Cavallier’s Leandro a bit a bit
barky and blustery, but his sizable, pointed singing was a decided hit with the
public. Vincent Le Texier relished each of Tchelio’s pronouncements and
treated us to a rolling bass that was all suave menace. It’s hard for a
singer worth their fee to miss with the silliness of the (Man-as-Lady-)Cook,
and Hans-Peter Scheidegger put his burly bass and comic sensibilities to
maximum use in an infectiously giddy portrayal. Antoine Garci made such a solid
impression in the brief role of Farfarello, it was a shame he didn’t have
more to sing. As the expiring princesses, Alix Le Saux showed off a gleaming
soprano in her brief turn as Lisette, and Alisa Kolosva followed up with a
warmly tinged, glowing cameo as Nicolette.

In the pit, Alain Altinoglu conducted with verve and utmost authority,
keeping the massed forces in perfect sync and eliciting handsome playing from
his musicians. The score’s brief moments of introspection seemed a tad
‘cool’ but the overall piece bubbled with admirable drive. Needless to say,
the world-famous March sparkled on its every appearance.

here for a video presentation of The Love of Three

These days, when an opera production takes your breath away it is usually
because it is so unutterably dreadful. What a joy then to be ennobled by the
impeccable period design for Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais
Garnier. Antoine Fontaine’s remarkable forced perspective scenery was an
eye-popping Masters Class in theatrical tradition. Mr. Fontaine’s
inventiveness knew no bounds as each succeeding setting tracked in from the
wings, descended from the flies, or arose from the depths. Just when you
thought one lovingly rendered environment could not be bettered, another
surpassed it. Surprises were constantly forthcoming. To name one: a crossbar
bearing three bodies suspended by their feet gets lowered to hover near the
ground, and somehow the ‘live’ faces of the Three Fates rose from the rocks
to superimpose over the heads of the strung up victims.

The other-worldly ambience of this and many another chilling visual was
owing to HervÈ Gary’s superb approximation of lighting from Rameau’s time.
His footlights’ shadowy wash was artfully and subtly augmented by modern day
pin spots, such as those that illumined the heads of the three Fates.
Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz has given us virtually a non-stop parade of luxuriant
costumes, one rivaling the other for accuracy, color, and opulence. The
physical production revealed that artistic marvels created in a simpler time
could still thrill us when so expertly executed and so lovingly recreated. Even
the sound effects were ‘true’ with a thunder sheet, and
muslin-and-turning-drum wind machine. But all this magnificence would been for
naught had the music been lacking.

With her own ‘orchestre et choeur du Concert d’AstrÈe’ peopling the
pit and the stage, conductor Emmanuelle HaÔm led the most exciting ‘period
ensemble’ performance I could ever have imagined. While this is a tightly
knit ensemble, Maestra HaÔm has also coaxed vivid dramatic playing from her
solo instrumentalists. The fierce, brilliant trilling from the horns, the
droning of the bagpipe/musette, the acrobatic arpeggios from the winds, the
urging of the drum, all of these memorable moments were accumulated into one,
colossal musical achievement.

Ms. HaÔm accomplishes this highly theatrical reading with great economy of
gesture, no baton, a pumped fist here, a toss of the head there, a bump of the
hip thrown in for good measure. Her responsive players and singers (chorus
master, Xavier Ribes), schooled to a fare-thee-well, delivered a totally
mesmerizing account of the score.

Director Ivan Alexandre devised a non-fussy staging approach for his
singers, allowing choreographer Natalie van Parys to fill the stage with
pleasant suggestions of court and folk dances. Mr. Alexandre keeps mostly with
the tradition of moving the principals around economically and then allowing
them to stand-and-deliver, and his exciting roster singers needed little
further embellishment.

If StÈphane Degout’s brilliantly sung Theseus is not a career best, it
certainly must be numbered among his many highpoints. His robust lyric voice,
resonant and emotion-laden, boasted great range of expression. And Mr. Degout
evoked great sympathy as he imbued the character’s challenging journey with
eloquently plangent phrasing. Star mezzo Sarah Connolly also scored a success
with her assured Phaedre. Ms. Connolly contributes an intense, tightly-wired
characterization, and unleashes a torrent of glowing bravura singing that
fairly zings off the crystal of the famed chandelier.

here for a video presentation of Hippolyte et Aricie.

Anne-Catherine Gillet is a most appealing Aricia, singing with poise, heart,
and gleaming tone. Andrea Hill’s assured mezzo made for a commanding Diana.
Jael Azzaretti proved an ideal Cupid, delectable, sassy, and assured, with
polished, honeyed tone. Topi Lehtipuu was a thoroughly engaging Hippolytus,
gifting the role with his mellifluous, fresh tenor which he uses with
considerable skill to achieve a well-rounded portrait of the tortured hero. The
balance of the large cast is uniformly accomplished, offering good diversity of
vocal color and focused theatrical involvement.

But at the end of the night, the responsibility for reaching the highest
pinnacle of communal artistry belonged to Emmanuelle HaÔm, and her resounding
achievement was vociferously, joyously celebrated.

James Sohre


Count Waldner: Kurt Rydl; Adelaide: Doris Soffel: Arabella: RenÈe Fleming;
Zdenka: Genia K¸hmeier; Mandryka: Michael Volle; Matteo: Joseph Kaiser; Count
Elemer: Eric Huchet; Count Dominik: Edwin Crossley-Mercer; Count Lamoral:
Thomas Dear; Fiakermilli: Iride Martinez; Fortune Teller: IrËne Friedli;
Conductor: Philippe Jordan; Director and Set Design: Marco Arturo Marelli;
Costume Design: Dagmar Hiefind: Lighting Design: Friedrich Eggert; Stage
Direction Collaborator: Anrico de Feo; Chorus Master: Patrick Marie Aubert

The Love of Three Oranges

King of Clubs: Alain Vernhes; Prince: Charles Workman; Princess Clarice:
Patricia Fernandez; Leandro: Nicolas Cavallier; Truffaldino: Eric Huchet;
Pantalone: Igor Gnidh; Tchelio: Vincent Le Texier; Fata Morgana: Marie-Ange
Todorovitch; Linette: Alix Le Saux; Nicolette: Alisa Kolosova; Ninette: Amel
Brahim-Djelloul; Cook: Hans-Peter Scheidegger; Farfarello: Antoine Garcin;
Smeraldina: Lucia Cirillo; Master of Ceremonies: Vincent Morell; Herald:
Alexandre Duhamel; Conductor: Alain Altinoglu; Director: Gilbert Deflo; Set and
Costume Design: William Orlandi; Choreographer: Marta Ferri; Lighting Design:
Joel Hourbeigt; Chorus Master: Alessandro Di Stefano

Hippolyte et Aricie

Phaedre: Sarah Connolly; Aricia: Anne-Catherine Gillet; Diana: Andrea Hill;
Cupid: Jael Azzaretti; Oenone; SalomÈ Haller; Tisiphone: Marc Mauillon;
Diana’s Grand Priestess: AurÈlia Legay; Hippolytus: Topi Lehtipuu; Theseus:
StÈphane Degout; Pluto/Jupiter: FranÁois Lis; First Fate: Nicholas Mulroy;
Arcas/Second Fate: Aimery LefËvre; Mercury: Manuel MuÒez Camelino;
Neptune/Third Fate: JÈrÙme Varnier; Hunter: Sydney Fierro; Conductor:
Emmanuelle HaÔm; Director: Ivan Alexandre; Set Design: Antoine Fontaine;
Costume Design: Jean-Daniel Vuillermoz; Lighting Design: HervÈ Gary;
Choreography: Natalie van Parys: Chorus Master: Xavier Ribes

image_description=Sarah Connolly as Phedre and Topi Lehtipuu as Hippolyte [Photo by Agathe Poupeney/Opera National de Paris]
product_title=Triple Delights in the City of Light
product_by=By James Sohre
product_id=Above: Sarah Connolly as Phedre and Topi Lehtipuu as Hippolyte [Photo by Agathe Poupeney/Opera National de Paris]