"Oh to be young and going to Paris for the first time," exclaimed an elderly gentleman who donned his best sweatervest for a concert at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival this past August. Indeed, it is wonderful to be young and in Paris for the first time -- in no small part thanks to the generous student discount schemes that make the performing arts so accessible to juvenile enthusiasts. Over the past three evenings, I have experienced no less than three extraordinary evenings of vocal music of the highest caliber, and it is my pleasure to share those experiences with you.
La Traviata at the Paris Opera (Opera Bastille) - September 17
Show up three-and-a-half hours before curtain time to snatch un billet debout (standing room) for Verdi's La Traviata? I was surprised by how easy it was to convince my classmate from Venezuela to join me for this legit schlep -- and for what was her first experience at the opera! I had been greatly anticipating the opportunity to see (and hear) Dmitri Hvorostovsky live for many years, and thus his Parisian outing as Giorgio Germont was unmissable.
Like most Paris Opera productions, the modern Opera Bastille (the drab barn built in 1989 to offer 'opera for the people') is used instead of the legendary Palais Garnier (1875), which of course served as the setting for that obscure piece known as The Phantom of the Opera. Once one steps inside the two theatres, the rationale for using Bastille becomes apparent. Garnier is gloriously opulent, adorned with a ceiling painted by Marc Chagall. The venue itself served as the perfect foil for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, whose brilliant performance of Two Cigarettes in the Dark marked the company's first performances on that stage usually reserved for ballet and Baroque or Mozart operas. With over 3,300 seats and excellent sight-lines, Opera Bastille is an entirely different animal -- but with surprisingly stellar acoustics.
Standing room at Opera Bastille is an experience in itself. Precisely 32 tickets at five euros apiece are sold 90 minutes before the performance from two machines. Each person may purchase two tickets. One must be sure to arrive early enough so as to be no further than 16 places from the end of the line. Otherwise, if the first 16 people take two tickets, you're out of luck. But as a friend later put it, of course the French cannot resist implementing some mechanism to 'facilitate' waiting in line. By the people, for the people. So naturally, a retiree sitting on a stack of magazines greeted us suspiciously once we arrived (two hours before the sale) and then gave me a post-it note on which he inscribed a number -- 15, phew. We were safe. And best of all, we met a Franco-Italian student soprano aptly named Tosca who guided us through this process while sharing insights on the music conservatory system in France.
Unlike the Metropolitan Opera, where most of the standing places are located behind the orchestra section and tucked under the overhang (the sound, therefore, quite muffled), we were directed to ascend to the top of the opera house and occupy a place on either side of the hall. This turns out to be an acoustical sweet spot. The pianissimo singing soared straight up and blended perfectly with the orchestra. But let's face it, standing sucks and fortunately we found and grabbed two empty seats in the second balcony and enjoyed the second and third acts significantly more comfortably.
As for La Traviata, I will spare the details and history of this enduring classic but I want to note that this was merely my second live performance of the piece, the first being Willy Decker's spartan production at the MET, with Diana Damrau, Placido Domingo (as Papa Germont), and the meteoric Yannick Nezet-Seguin in the pit. Damrau's Violetta came across as frenetic and often perhaps desperate for attention, though she sang the heck out of the role. This time Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho took on Violetta and offered, both vocally and dramatically, a more steely and introverted portrayal. Rather than chart the intractable trajectory from ditzy to desolate (to dead), from the moment Jaho unleashes "Sempre Libera," she seems fully conscious of potential limits on her ability to live and love freely, as the aria says. Jaho's soprano is warm, focused, and controlled, qualities showcased most effectively in the second and third acts.
As Alfredo, Francesco Meli -- who recently entered heroic tenor territory as Manrico in ll Trovatore with Domingo and Anna Netrebko at the Salzburg Festival (quite a gig!) -- lends more vocal presence (volume!) to Alfredo than other tenors I have heard. The voice lacks colour and distinction, however. As the elder Germont -- Alfredo's father -- Mr. Hvorostovsky expertly projected his customary broodiness and awesome breath control, but he offered little in the way of emotional investment. Israeli-born conductor Dan Ettinger shaped the orchestra, chorus, and soloists with considerable skill, though his tempi during the second act had a tendency to drag. The production, by Benoît Jacquot, is elegant and unfussy. The intense second act is especially impressive, as the entire concertato finale is choreographed along a giant staircase, focusing the action while maximizing cohesion among the singers.
Five euros for a Verdi masterpiece -- and a production that works? I'll be going back on Sunday...!
Berlioz Roméo et Juliette -- Opening Night of Orchestre National de France - September 18
The Orchestre National de France has a few months left in its ambitious 80th birthday celebration. To open this season, the orchestra and its busy musical director, Maestro Daniele Gatti, took over the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées for a rare performance of Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette. While Berlioz inspired a young Wagner to write his expansive operas, Wagner in turn has inspired Maestro Gatti to some of his best performances, including the recent production of Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera, which he conducted from memory. It was probably wise then that Gatti treated this Berlioz piece with the same intensity as he has Wagner, resulting in a performance crackling with passion and grandeur mixed with the freshness we expect from the composer of Symphonie Fantastique
Yet Roméo et Juliette also offers some deeply reflective moments, especially the aria, "Premiers transports," sung with warmth and steadiness by mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa. (Jessye Norman also recorded a beautiful rendition of the aria). She, along with tenor Paolo Fanale and bass Alex Esposito, brought youthful ardour to their solo contributions and cooperated well with the superb Choeur de Radio France (such diction!). On the whole, Berlioz's much-debated "symphonie dramatique" -- which clocks in at a continuous 100 minutes -- can come across as unwieldy in the hands of a laissez-faire conductor. Gatti knows how to control his band -- which takes on the roles of the two star-crossed lovers -- and his leadership kept everything neatly packaged but also, like Berlioz at his best, intoxicating and opulent.
Christian Gerhaher - Goethe poems set by Schubert and Rihm - Opera Bastille (Amphitheatre) - September 19
I was fortunate to witness the Paris Opera debut of Christian Gerhaher, the gifted lieder specialist, who presented a rapturous and engaging recital dedicated to settings of Goethe poems by Schubert as well as Wolfgang Rihm, whose works were written especially for the baritone. I first became acquainted with Gerhaher through a recording of songs composed and performed at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. This sensitive baritone, working in close partnership with pianist Gerold Huber, has sung with everyone from Pierre Boulez to the Berlin Philharmonic, where he was an Artist in Residence last year. Yet he was unfortunately resigned to perform in the horrifically cold and impersonal Amphitheatre in the dungeons of Opera Bastille.
Nevertheless, Gerhaher and Huber transported the audience to the far more refined universe created by Schubert and Goethe. The intriguing yet -- even for Gerhaher -- vocally taxing pieces by Rihm included "Harzreise im Winter," a complex poem partially set to music by Brahms in his Alto Rhapsody (which I had the pleasure to sing as a chorister with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa featuring the mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung). Highlights of the Schubert selections included the gorgeous "Gesänge des Harfners," which Einstein called the composer's first great song cycle.
Despite the uninviting space, the packed audience gave Gerhaher and Huber a consistently enthusiastic ovation. Upstairs in the opera house, a new production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia was having its premiere performance. But evidently the hardcore music fans were downstairs for this remarkable liederabend.