La Bohème (7/7/12), Turandot (7/28/12)
La Bohème in Orange, with Mula and Grigolo
© Philippe Gromelle 2012
Alagna and Lindstrom, Calàf and Turandot in Orange
© Bruno Abadie–Cyril Reveret 2012
The Chorégies d'Orange opened with a new production of Puccini's La Bohème by Nadine Duffaut, with Vittorio Grigolo and Inva Mula as Rodolfo and Mimì and Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.
Duffaut made the mistake of filling the stage of the open-air Roman theater with hordes of extras and incessant activity, which took away the intimate focus of the opera. Spectacle is deemed to be an essential crowd-pleasing feature for the near-capacity audience of nine thousand on the Roman steps. The Café Momus scene included a school classroom and any amount of extraneous business, making it difficult to identify the soloists in the crowd. Duffaut is also prone to eccentric moments of would-be originality. When the famous introductory note for "Che gelida manina" sounds, generations of tenors have seized Mimì's chilly little hand — but not here. Duffaut saw in the note a look of sexual chemistry and not the simple gesture that Puccini's score so clearly indicates. The director saved her most wrong-headed moment for the death of Mimì, who disappeared mechanically under the stage while reclining on her chair. The result was nine thousand people in the arena drying their welling tears and asking just where the heroine had gone. The device — which was evidently meant to show the post-relationship isolation of Rodolfo — simply did not work.
Following his success here in Verdi's Traviata andRigoletto, Grigolo has become a favorite at the Chorégies; he has the big, generous personality so important for this audience. His Rodolfo was a gangling, innocent student, and his performance had irresistible energy and a sappy tenor lyricism. He was at his best when in duet with baritone Ludovic Tézier's exceptionally well sung Marcello, opposite the glamorous, scene-stealing Musetta of Nicola Beller-Carbone. The Mimì of Inva Mula seemed strangely subdued on July 10, and her soprano sounded under-projected. If this was an attempt to suggest Mimì's fragility, it was carried too far for an arena performance. There was good support from the lively students, including Marco Spotti as Colline and Lionel Lhote as Schaunard, and exemplary character work from veteran baritone Jean-Marie Frémeau as Alcindoro.
Conducting from memory, Chung drew wonderful playing from his orchestra and accompanied the singers with total dedication. It was his exemplary pacing and vision that made this an exceptional evening under the cloudless Provençal sky.
After La Bohème, the Chorégies d'Orange turned to their favorite tenor son, Roberto Alagna, to draw the crowds for Puccini'sTurandot in a production by Charles Roubaud, with Michel Plasson conducting the Orchestre National de France. The best-laid operatic plans can be undermined by the indisposition of a star, and this was sadly the case on July 28.
This was particularly unfortunate, as this Turandot was a fine piece of directorial work by Roubaud, an experienced hand at the Chorégies. The set sat handsomely against the great wall, with an oriental gong covering the Roman statue of Emperor Augustus. Katia Duflot's costumes were elegant, with a science-fiction take on legendary Chinese traditions and an exemplary bookish portrayal of the potentially tiresome Ping, Pang and Pong.
Alagna started confidently enough, although it was noticeable that he was tightening his naturally gentle voice to achieve a heroic edge. Somewhere in "Non piangere, Liù," it became obvious that not all was well with the tenor, and when he abandoned the final pages of the duet with Lise Lindstrom's Turandot after "In questa reggia," there was no doubt that the problem was serious. An announcement was made during the interval. The tenor had been ill during the rehearsals and was suffering from a poor reaction to some antibiotics. At this stage, it was to Alagna's credit that he continued the performance, as the audience would not have been reimbursed had the show been canceled. The second half of the opera found the tenor virtually voiceless after making a disastrous stab at the final B in "Nessun dorma" and relying on the unfailing love of his local fans to support him in his evident anguish. It is doubtful that Calàf would ever be an ideal role for Alagna's lyric tenor; in good health, he could make a decent job of the more lyrical passages in the role, but the stentorian declamation required by Calàf should be left to heftier instruments.
It cannot have been an easy evening for Lindstrom, who had to sing Turandot without any vocal weight to play against. Dame Eva Turner said that to sing the title role you had to enjoy the imperious attacks in the upper register, and Lindstrom has a top fifth that is untiring, exciting and projected with relish. The rest of her voice is slightly metallic and lacks the luster of her upper register, but her transformation to a loving princess was managed by slipping off her black dress to reveal a flowing robe of virginal white — a costume change that worked to considerable effect. Spotti was a decent but slightly anonymous Timur, accompanying the touching Liù of Maria Luigia Borsi, whose soprano took on a heavy vibrato when under any pressure. It was good to see Chris Merritt onstage, but he could not efface memories of the late Hugues Cuénod in the role of the aged Altoum.
Even more worrying than Alagna's indisposition was the orchestral performance under Plasson. Though some of the big climaxes were well paced, orchestral ensemble was poor, and tempos flagged. The offstage band, the chorus and the excellent Ping, Pang and Pong of Marc Barrard, Jean-François Borras and Florian Laconi were involved in a provincial musical cacophony, rather than the virtuoso kaleidoscope of precise rhythm the score requires. It was a tired, flaccid musical performance, ending with an encore of the final chorus, in which ensemble was even faultier than it had been in the context of the opera. For the record, Alagna was sufficiently recovered to make a decent stab at the role for the televised performance on July 31.
The final concert of the Chorégies, on July 30, united the voices of German soprano Diana Damrau and French mezzo Béatrice Uria-Monzon, with Plasson conducting the Orchestre National de France. It was an odd piece of programming, as the two ladies share very little repertoire: Damrau concentrates largely on bel canto roles demanding some agility, while Uria-Monzon's dark mezzo explores more dramatic territory. The two artists sang only two duets — the barcarolle from Les Contes d'Hoffmannand the flower duet from Lakmé. The projected duet from I Capuleti e i Montecchi,which would have been an interesting challenge for both artists, was abandoned somewhere between planning and performance. Although the port-and-lime combination of the two voices was perfect in the two surefire hits, the musical beef of the evening came in the solos.
A heavily pregnant Damrau asserted herself once again as the leading bel canto soprano of the moment. A flawless vocal technique coupled with a charming stage presence allowed her to lose her way in a heart-stopping, impetuous "Caro nome" from Verdi's Rigoletto and start the aria again to maximum audience pleasure. Whether in the music of Bellini's crazed Elvira from I Puritani or Donizetti's psychotic Lucia di Lammermoor, the soprano's voice soared and trilled into the arena with total confidence and style, with stunning virtuoso singing in "Ah, non giunge," from Bellini's Sonnambula. The secure extreme top lacks a little power compared with the rest of her voice, which seems to grow richer at each hearing, but a thrillingly breathless "Je veux vivre,"from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, sung as an encore on July 30, showed that Damrau understands the French style and brought the audience to its feet. Her diction is rather clearer than Uria-Monzon's plummy emission allows, but the mezzo was nonetheless at her finest in the French repertoire, offering authoritative singing of "Il est doux, il est bon," from Massenet's Hérodiade,and a moving version of Berlioz's "Ah, je vais mourir," from Les Troyens. Elsewhere, the mezzo's new adventure into Puccini soprano territory showed that Tosca's "Vissi d'arte" is just about within her reach, despite a rather stressful descent from the climactic high B-flat. But in more dramatic mezzo repertoire, her voice lacks power in the central register, which diminished the impact of "O don fatale," from Verdi's Don Carlo, and "O mio Fernando," from Donizetti's La Favorita. The maestro accompanied the singers efficiently after the trials and tribulations ofTurandot the previous evening but could not disguise a certain lack of sparkle in the pit. Playing was only moderately precise. A sad lack of excitement spoiled the overture of Verdi's La Forza del Destino, but a classic reading of the overture to Berlioz's Corsaire was a reminder of how fine a conductor Plasson can be.
STEPHEN J. MUDGE
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