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FRANCE: PARIS.

Krzysztof Warlikowski's production of Don Carlos for Opera national de Paris premiered in 2017 using Verdi's 1866 Paris version, sung in French. It starred Jonas Kaufmann at his darkest, brooding best in the title role, and left an indelible impression.

By contrast, the revival that premiered at the Bastille on Oct. 25th using the 1886 Italian version is barely a pale copy. The basic premise is the same: Warlikowski spins a sinister tale winding through the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition, focusing our eye on the tormented figure of Filippo II, his struggle to succeed his illustrious father, the Emperor Charles V, and to stand up to the Grande Inquisitore. The most powerful monarch on Earth during the mid 16th century, the figure of Charles V is omnipresent on stage, first in the form of a wax bust-reliquary statue, and later as an actor in scenes where Filippo or Carlo tremble at the thought of him.

The action is transposed from the era of the Spanish Renaissance to a slick and stylish 1950s post-war autocracy. Malgorzata Szczesniak's dazzling costumes recall the Dior dresses of 'La Callas,' with gold-studded and diamond trimmings to evoke Spain's royal court. The sedate wood-paneled stage is periodically filled with close-up projections that capture the protagonists' faces in moments of despair, such as Elisabetta's tear-streaked cheeks or Carlo holding a gun to his head. The genteel setting for Act II and Eboli's "Nel giardin del bello saracin" is a fencing salle, featuring a chorus dressed in white jackets and knickers with black fencing masks. This haughty and polished staging--where no detail is left unhemmed--was clearly tailor-made for the original cast. This revival's extraordinary roster of singers by contrast don't seem to fit into this production, which lacks the original's power or coherence.

One of the reasons for this presented itself early in Act I when star tenor Roberto Alagna, apparently in good form until his aria "Io la vidi, ai suo sorriso" where intonation problems set in, dropped out after the first interval. His replacement, Spanish tenor Sergio Escobar, was understandably under great stress and it took several scenes before he settled into the role, making the next two acts jittery for everyone. By Act IV, though he still seemed to be 'filling in' for Alagna, his voice was vibrant, high notes were secure and ringing, and we could at last appreciate the artistry of this excellent singer.

Aleksandra Kurzak has all the qualities of an outstanding Elisabetta, showcasing a wide, even, rich tessitura, including the most beautiful pianissimo notes one could imagine. However, she is a sensitive singer and was visibly supportive of Escobar, who struggled with nerves. As a result, she required time to reveal her charisma and it wasn't until the final act, where she offered one of the most riveting moments of the evening in "Tu che la vanita," that we could appreciate her full potential.

Of the same ilk, Etienne Depuis warmed into the role of Rodrigo, developing all the subtleties and profoundness of his character over the evening. His intonation is absolutely precise, his phrasing refined, and the voice full and rich. In the scene and aria "O Signor di Fiandra arrivo," where he confronts Rene Pape's Filippo about the King's brutal oppression of the Flemish people, the Canadian baritone measured up incontestably in volume and dramatic power to the famous German bass.

Anita Rachvelishvili, on the other hand, pulled out all the stops from her first scene to the last. From the highest clarion to the deepest tones, the sheer volume of her voice is comparable to that of the Grand Orgue of Saint Sulpice. She did save some mezza voce for the "O' mia regina" section of her great aria, "O don fatale," after which her one-woman Princess Eboli show brought down the house. Vitalij Kowaljow was appropriately black-hearted and in diabolically good voice as the Grande Inquisitore.

Rene Pape's presence and vocal ease were confounding, and he is the one singer in the cast who went to the very edge of Warlikowski's dark, addicted world. Only in his whiskey-fueled scenes in Acts III and IV did we see something new emerge from this production and not just the pallid poltergeist of the 2017 version. The real renewal came from the orchestra pit, as Fabio Luisi brought a fresh reading to the score, drawing richly nuanced playing from the orchestra while giving the singers a sumptuous cushion of support without ever covering their voices.

This revival Robert Wilson's subdued, minimalist production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly (seen Nov. 5th), which originated at Opera national de Paris in 1993, has lost nothing of its aura and originality. Void of any form of "fake cherry blossoms and all the traditional cliches of Japanese culture," the set adopts the quiet aesthetics of Japanese Noh theatre and Butoh, a Japanese form of dance characterized by slow, controlled gestures. The choreography of the late Suzushi Hanaragi, a long-time collaborator of Wilson's, and the elegant costumes by Frida Parmeggiani are both set in relief against Wilson's distinctive monochrome backdrops, enhanced by his masterful lighting design. The essence of the set depends on the symbolic use of colour and involves a multitude of nuances; blue, orange, and white shift from one to the other to suggest, in turn, innocence, love, betrayal, sorrow, and ultimately death. The Zen-like setting allows our attention to fully focus on the voices and on each detail of Puccini's music, particularly the extraordinary orchestral preludes. Here, Giacomo Sagripanti s conducting at the helm of the Paris Opera Orchestra is limpid, and evinces expert shaping of the opera's overarching themes and of the ebb-and-flow of Puccini's writing.

From the very first scene, Italian tenor Giorgio Berrugi is dazzling as Pinkerton: his tone is splendid, the voice pure and radiant, and he delivers his high notes with confounding ease. In terms of volume however, in "Amore o grillo" for example, he seemed underpowered when alongside Consul Sharpless, sung by the excellent French baritone Laurent Naouri, whose voice has developed over the years to Wagnerian proportions. Berrugi found more equal partners and better chemistry with the marvellous Cio-Cio San of Puerto Rican soprano Anna-Maria Martinez, and in the beautiful, sensitive singing of Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Suzuki.

The role of Butterfly is surely one of the most demanding in the dramatic soprano repertoire, due to its many psychological and vocal facets. Martinez however allies these with incomparable grace and intelligence. In the scene and duo that begins with Suzuki's prayer "Eizaghi ed Izanami," sung by Lemieux in her inimitable rich low tones, Butterfly reveals that they have almost nothing left to live on. One need only think of Kenji Mizoguchi (a Japanese film-maker whose aesthetic has clearly influenced Wilson) and his 1936 masterpiece, Sisters of Gion to understand the reality of a geisha's life. Closing the scene with her crystal tones, Martinez brings to her "Un bel di vedremo" that fragile spark of hope that makes this aria so heartrending.

Canadian bass Robert Pomakov is impressive as Butterfly's uncle, the Bonze, entering in a burst of violent orange light with commanding tone and vocal projection to excommunicate his niece for abandoning the cult of her ancestors in favour of the "God of the Americans." The smaller roles were well served: Goro by the French character actor and singer Rodolphe Briand, Prince Yamadori by Polish baritone Tomasz Kumiega (admirable as the Prime Minister in the opera Les Milles endormis at Aix-en-Provence last summer), and the elegant Kate Pinkerton of Jeanne Ireland, who, though Puccini gives her little to sing, made a strong impression with her beautiful mezzo voice. Indeed, there were no weak links in this vintage production, still modern by today's standards, and of enduring beauty.

Caption: Rene Pape (Filippo), Etienne Dupuis (Rodrigo) & Roberto Alagna in the title role of ONP's Don Carlos

Caption: Anna-Maria Martinez (Cio-Cio San) & Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Suzuki) in ONP's Madama Butterfly
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Author:Wendel-Poray, Denise
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Opera review
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Dec 22, 2019
Words:1321
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