From Development server
In Review > International


Opéra National de Montpellier

MASSENET'S CHÉRUBIN HAD ITS PREMIERE in Monte Carlo in 1905, with a starry cast led by the remarkable soprano Mary Garden in the title role. Montpellier’s resourceful new general director Valérie Chevalier chose this hedonistic work for her first new production of the season, conducted by Jean-Marie Zeitouni (seen Oct. 9). Stage director Juliette Deschamps (daughter of Jérôme Deschamps, former director of the Opéra Comique) picked up on the sunny decadence and set the opera in 1930s California, where cocktails were mixed in the shade of palm trees and social liberties were pushed to new limits. 

The evening was dominated, and in some ways saved, by the exceptional performance of Marie-Adeline Henry in the title role of the handsome young sexual delinquent. This promising French soprano has taken time to discover her full vocal potential. On this occasion, the voice revealed a new found fullness and thrilling projection, which never hardened, coupled with a dynamic stage presence that galvanized the performance from her spectacular first entry. Deschamps saw Chérubin as a sexually androgynous figure in trousers, but with feminine high heels, who was able to fascinate both men and women. 

In the final moments of the opera, Massenet quotes a fragment of Mozart's Don Giovanni that sidesteps any happy ending. The innocent lovesick Nina, sung here by the fresh-voiced soprano Norma Nahoun, becomes a Donna Elvira figure, destined for a marriage with Chérubin that will be peppered with the young man’s reckless infidelity. Chérubin's philosopher cum mentor had his sexuality treated by the stage director with cheeky, but clichéd ambiguity: he was dressed in formal male evening wear, but from the waist down clad in a ballerina’s tutu. Baritone Igor Gnidii phrased well and brought off his disguise with charm, warning Chérubin of the dangers of his amorous adventure with the Spanish dancer L'Ensoleillad, sung by the glamorous soprano Çiğdem Soyarslan, who looked every inch the balletic diva but whose voice was uneven.
Deschamps understood the message of the opera, but the staging lacked essential period charm. There was too much campy choreography, and the cast resorted to an excess of meaningless swirling gestures. The costumes of the principals were an amusing collection set against Macha Makeïeff's mobile cocktail bar, but the ladies of the chorus were hardly flattered by their shapeless spotted dresses. Despite excellent performances of the secondary roles, including veteran soprano Michèle Lagrange as a haughty and naughty countess, the show never found a convincing dramatic rhythm. The would-be comic primed over moments where genuine sentiment was required: the “bitter” was lacking from the composer's bittersweet creation. 

The Montpellier orchestra has been through turmoil over the past couple of seasons and the playing revealed more enthusiasm than polish on opening night, to which Zeitouni brought brutal enthusiasm. Obviously the Canadian maestro was aiming to bring a bright clarity and power to the composer's writing, but the suave sophistication of the light score got lost.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.

Follow OPERA NEWS on FacebookTwitter Button