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Theatre des Champs Elysees.

The French saying 'jamais deux sans trois' ('never two if not three') is an understatement when it comes to Robert Carsen productions in Paris. In 2012, within a period of two weeks he had presented four major works in the capital. Two were revivals of his celebrated productions of Les d'Hoffmann at Opera Bastille and Cappricio at Palais Garnier. While restaging these operatic works, he was putting the varnish on two new scenographies for vast museum shows: Impressionism and Fashion, at the Musee d'Orsay and Bohemes at the Grand Palais. These opened within 24 hours of each other.

More recently, in Jan. 2018, he staged his first theatre play: Shake: speare's ultimate work, The Tempest, at La Comedie-Francaise. Within weeks he began rehearsing John Gay's The Beggars Opera at Theatre des Bouffes du Nord under the musical direction of William Christie. That show opened in April.

Hardly a month later, his Orfeo ed Euridice at Theatre des Champs Elysees (seen Jun. 2) proffered an extremely concise and intense interpretation of Gluck's reform opera in the original 1762 Vienna version. Tobias Hoheisel's stage design is quite barren, making the production's exacting details all the more palpable. It is true that this staging premiered in Chicago in 2006 and was revived in Toronto in 2011 but nevertheless, there was a new cast to be reintegrated for each reprise.

It was clear Carsen took considerable care to work with each protagonist for the Parisian premiere--in particular, with his Orfeo, countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. In Carsen's words Gluck's opera is very much "a one-man show in three-acts." Indeed, in the opening scene, Eurydice is already dead; a procession of mourners carries her body to a tomb before the eyes of the desperate Orfeo, and he then remains at the centre of the action for the next hour until Act III when Eurydice is revived.

The solemn chorus (the excellent Radio France choir) is dressed in plain dark suits. They join Orfeo around the tomb--a mound of earth at centre stage--and sing "Ah, se intorno" while Orfeo is only able to utter Eurydice's name. Jaroussky s performance is already gripping. Amore, sung by the outstanding Hungarian soprano Emoke Barath, appears and tells Orfeo he should go to the Underworld and return with his wife, but only on the condition that he not look at her until they are back on earth.

Each of Jaroussky's arias is magnificently phrased down to the smallest nuance. When he sings: "Deh placatevi con me," we are already at the point of tears. When at last freed from Hades, Eurydice--the sublime Patricia Petibon--joins Jaroussky in the duet "Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte" bringing together two of today's finest Baroque vocalists. Diego Fasolis conducts his I Barocchisti orchestra expressively and with close attention to the singers.

The serious, dark tone continues throughout and there are no dance sequences to brighten the atmosphere. During the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, the Furies, who had been prostrate on the stage, simply rise up and slowly fold their long white shrouds, silhouetted by the subtle lighting designed by Carsen and Peter van Praet.

Carsen's experience with Gluck's Orfeo led him to honour the composer's patron Marie-Antoinette in a major exhibition at the Grand Palais in 2008. Perhaps one of the secrets to his being able to accomplish so much is that everything he does is intimately related and inseparable: music, art and life.

Alex Olle's II trovatore at Opera National de Paris (seen Jun. 23) dates back to Jan. 2016. Situated during WWI, it emphasises the trauma of war: trenches, exodus of refugees, summary executions, cadavers and mass graves. Olle brings in harrowing references to the commonplace repression and ill-treatment of 'gypsies', particularly disturbing in light of recent statements by Italy's new interior minister Matteo Salvini who has sworn to take a census of the Roma in his country, regretting he cannot expel them altogether.

The stage decor by Alfons Flores is extremely barren but effective and endlessly mutable thanks to the play of light and reflections, which carry the signature of master lighting engineer Urs Schonebaum. However, Olle's approach ignores any meaningful dramatic direction--the singers are left to their own resources, often having to deal with trivial, disnacting details. For example, why do the ladies-in-waiting have to hem Leonora's gown just as she's singing her sublime opening aria?

For this 2018 revival the staging is unchanged but two new singers take on lead roles--Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora and Anita Rachvelishvili as Alzucena--and though they are replacing undisputed stars, Anna Netrebko and Ekaterina Semenchuk, they leave their own distinctive marks.

Radvanovsky s mastery of the role has constantly progressed: the opening aria "Tacea la notte placida" is stunning even in its difficult coloratura passages, and perfectly audible despite insipid staging where she is placed far upstage. Pianissimi in "D'amor sull'ali rosee" are faultless and she conveys an ardent sense of phrasing in "Tu vedrai che amore in terra." Radvanovsky offers all of this and more: Olympian high notes--open, thrilling and fearless--that to my ear, make her unique on today's opera stage.

Another Olympian, Anita Rachvelishvili, is incandescent as Azucena. She begins the nightmare scene mezza voce, gradually amplifying her tone to a rich torrent, and the effect is dizzying. Verdi recognized the importance of Azucena, even wanting to name the opera after her--he surely would have approved of Rachvelishvili as one of the role's great exponents.

The men however, have difficulty measuring up to these full-blooded Valkyries. Marcelo Alvarez's Manrico appears pale and rigid and throughout Act I, his high notes seem to be extracted with forceps. More assured in Act II, his "Ah! si, ben mio" was most affecting. Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic sings his part well but with little sense of character and Olle's non-direction certainly didn't help. "II balen del suo sorriso" was much too slow under Maurizio Benini's methodical baton--both voice and dramatic tension suffered.

Benini, leading the Orchestre de l'Opera National de Paris as he has done regularly since 1993, has a clear and refined conducting style. He capitalized on the extreme contrasts between the ultra-slow arias and frantic finales, thereby guaranteeing a rousing public response.--Paris reviews by Denise Wendel-Poray

Caption: Philippe Jaroussky (Orfeo) in Theatre des Champs Elysees's Orfeo ed Euridice

Caption: Zeljko Lucic (Conte di Luna) & Sondra Radvanovsky (Leonora) in Opera National de Paris's II trovatore
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Author:Wendel-Poray, Denise
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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