OPERA NEWS - Don Quichotte Chez la Duchesse (7/17/15), Fantasio (7/18/15), La Jacquerie (7/24/15)
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Don Quichotte Chez la Duchesse (7/17/15), Fantasio (7/18/15), La Jacquerie (7/24/15)

Festival de Radio France et Montpellier

THE RADIO FRANCE FESTIVAL in Montpellier this year celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its founding by the composer René Koering, who was an honored guest at this year's festivities, among which was the world premiere of his piano concerto. For opera fans, the festival’s specificity has always been the discovery of rarely heard repertoire, performed to near capacity local audiences and broadcast live on France Musique, showing that popularity is not necessarily courted by repeating performances of the twenty most popular operas. 

The first offering was Joseph Bodin de Boismortier's opéra-ballet Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse in a welcome staged performance at the Opéra Comédie. Back in 2008, the French comic duo Dino and Shirley were Montpellier’s surprise choice of directors for Purcell's King Arthur (see Opera News, November 2008). That event was a huge success and the team returned to the festival for this show. Like the semi-opera King Arthur, this was a hybrid evening: much of this 1743 courtly entertainment is lost, including all of the spoken dialogue. Less than an hour of music was transformed into a show of nearly two hours. The comic complicity which the duo have with conductor Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel is amusing and unforced: the undermining of the high seriousness of Early Music performance is joyous. The production, which began life in Metz, near the composer's home town of Thionville, has also been seen at Versailles. The mix of cheap variety gags and Baroque music can be seen as either an artistic abomination or harmless fun. An objective eye suggests that whatever the comic qualities of the evening, it outstayed its welcome by about thirty minutes. 

Niquet arrived in full Don Quichotte costume, and witty banter with Dino Benizio's Duke ensued. Cervantes inspired Shirley (alias Corinne Benizio) to perform a hideously out of tune flamenco number, accompanied by castanets played by Niquet. With a flower between her teeth, Shirley's duende could reduce a po-faced purist to giggles of pleasure. When asked for some incidental music the conductor came up with the Twentieth Century Fox theme. The show had an end of term celebratory atmosphere with flouncy costumes and simple sets, charting Don Quichotte's adventures in the home of the duchess, ending with a delightful “oriental” skit where the progressive opening of fans had some visual charm. Needless to stay the nobler side of the knight's quixotic nature was not present in this broad comedy. 

Vaudeville fun aside, conductor Niquet is an expert on Boismortier (1689–1755) and his acerbic band of authentic instruments is ideally suited to this repertoire. Don Quichotte Chez la Duchesse was the first work the group performed twenty-seven years ago. Clean and precise orchestral textures accompanied the dances, which were lively, even if choreographer Philippe Lafeuille did not avoid the overused Baroque jive. The cast was led by the Don Quichotte of tenor Emiliano Gonzales Toro, who was not in his best voice on July 17, but had the ideal weight of voice for the role. More successful vocally was baritone Marc Labonnette's excellently sung Sacho Pança and soprano Chantal Santon Jeffery who brought a moment of vocal excitement to the evening in her virtuosic last act aria.

Despite the popularity of a relatively small number of his works, Offenbach's canon extends to some six hundred creations. The reason for the paucity of performances is in part due to the lack of critical editions of many of his stage works. Too often in the past, Offenbach’s music has suffered from hack re-orchestration and serious musicological interest has concentrated only on Les Contes d'Hoffmann. This is is a situation that looks set to change, thanks to the efforts of Jean-Christophe Keck and the OEK (Offenbach Edition Keck), who have published a critical edition ofFantasio, a grand work that forms a bridge between the composer's Die Rheinnixen (performed here in 2002) and Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Fantasio is an opéra comique of sophisticated orchestration, thrilling ensembles and touching solo contributions. 

The failure of the work at its premiere in 1872 at the Salle Favart was in part due to the unpopularity of the German-born composer after the defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian war. Offenbach reused a couple of snippets of the Fantasio score for Les Contes d'Hoffmann, which had its premiere in 1881. Fantasio has been recorded recently for Opera Rara, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, with Sarah Connolly in the title role. (Connolly was back at this year's Montpellier festival for a sumptuously voiced performance of Zemlinsky's settings of Maeterlinck's poems under the baton of Paul Daniel.)  A staged performance of Fantasio should now be a priority, but in the meantime the Montpellier performance on July 18 gave a taste of the quality of the work, performed by a largely French cast, with the Montpellier orchestra under the baton of its former principal conductor Friedemann Layer. 

The solution of having a narrator to replace the spoken dialogue was only partly successful. The case for Paul de Musset's libretto, based on his brother Alfred's eponymous play, remains to be made, but Julie Depardieu did as fine job as possible and lent her chic presence to the evening. The role of Fantasio, who disguises himself as a jester to impede the marriage of Elsbeth, was originally to have been performed by a tenor, but at the time of the work's premiere the intended singer was no longer available. The composer rewrote the role for mezzo-soprano Celestine Galli-Marié (1840–05, who a couple of years later was to be Bizet's first Carmen. 

The role is a jewel of a travesti character that perfectly suited mezzo Marianne Crebassa, whose burgeoning career started here in Montpellier. Her growing voice sounded secure and full, but the performance was spoiled by cloudy consonants – something also evident in her song recital here. As Elsbeth, French-Nigerian soprano Omo Bello showed that her young voice is growing ever more beautiful and technically secure. Both ladies would have done well to listen to baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou as the Prince of Mantua, who demonstrated the importance of clear communicative diction in this repertoire. 

Layer is a reliable and thoughtful conductor, emphasizing the symphonic beauty of the score while somewhat alien to passages of bubbling good humor. Given the size of the Corum it was sensible to have a large orchestra and a lavish chorus, coming from both the Montpellier opera and the Latvian radio chorus.

A few nights later in a week that included the French premiere of Alessandro Scarlatti's four voice serenata “Erminia, Tancredi, Polidoro e Pastore” by the Concerto de' Cavalieri, the climax of the festival for lovers of French romantic opera was the rediscovery of Édouard Lalo's La Jacquerieon July 24. The title comes from a medieval feudal revolt. The aristocrats referred to the peasants as “Jacques” after the name of the smocks they wore, and since then Jacquerie has referred to any peasant uprising. The concert performance of the work at the Corum was cast from strength, with Patrick Davin conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Radio France chorus.

Lalo’s death in 1892 prevented him from completing the opera and the composer’s family gave the task of finishing the opera for its premiere in Monte Carlo in 1895 to Arthur Coquard. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Lalo did not write sprawling five act grand operas, but as in Le Roi d'Ys, the best-known of his stage works, provided concentrated action. Here the story concerns a peasant’s revolt and a cross-class romance that ends in tragedy. Sometimes in Act I, which the composer came nearest to completing, the effect is bombastic and exciting, albeit overheated, with thrusting brass phrases and brusque orchestral punctuation. Coquard did a fine job completing the opera, and reused some of the themes of the first act while introducing his own musical style that strikes a more lyrical symphonic vein, with the figure of Wagner looming large. The elegiac opening solo to the final act owes much to Tristan, but overall the four acts of around twenty-five minutes each make for a condensed drama. Davin is a valuable champion of rare French repertoire and brought all the necessary fire and finesse to the orchestra and chorus.

The best drawn of the characters is Jeanne, the mother of the revolutionary Robert, and her maternal concern for her son and pleas for peace have a stirring magnificence. The star of the Monte Carlo world premiere was Blanche Deschamps-Jéhin (1857–1923), the great French contralto who was the first Margared in Le Roi d’Ys, and who also created roles for Massenet, Reyer and Charpentier. Montpellier’s Jeanne was Nora Gubisch, whose intense guttural singing made the most of her moving interventions. Her son Robert was sung by American tenor Charles Castronovo who was admirably secure in the taxing heroic outpourings, saving in extremis the life of the aristocratic Blanche de Sainte-Croix of Véronique Gens, only to be killed himself moments later, leaving a despair despairing Blanche to finish her days in a nunnery. Gens sounded and looked every inch the troubled patrician with silvery soprano phrases above the staff. There was great support from baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou as Blanche’s murdered father, young Russian baritone Boris Pinkhasovich as the violently bloodthirsty revolutionary Guillaume, and bass-baritone Patrick Bolleire as the unyielding Sénéchal. —Stephen J. Mudge

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