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S & H Opera Review

Glyndebourne Visits Paris, January/February 2002 (FC)


At the invitation of Jean-Pierre Brossmann, Director of the Théâtre du Châtelet, the Glyndebourne Festival shipped over (under?) the channel two of their more successful productions for four performances each. First off the block, on January 29, was the superb production of Handel's Rodelinda from the 1998 season followed the next night with Deborah Warner's acclaimed production of Fidelio, with Simon Rattle in the pit, which first appeared at the Festival in May of last year.

The Handel opera was one of those perfect nights at the theatre that you know only comes around a few times a year. William Christie, the France-based early music specialist, was in top form conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the grace and worth of the music shown in all its glory. This, along with an extraordinarily fine stage design and direction by a long-time associate of Christie, Jean-Marie Villégier, made one wonder if this opera has ever been more perfectly staged. This production is, fortunately, available on video and should be in the collection of any lover of Handel.

The restrained but glamorous stage images and the costumes, styled after the early days of black and white Hollywood films, were combined with taut and carefully controlled stage action. Under Villégier's detailed direction, the performance had a dramatic tension and viability confounding all normal expectations of Baroque opera. The singing was of exceptional quality also. As the fair Rodelinda, Anna Caterina Antonacci had the necessary fire and spirit for this imposing role. She was paired with the German counter-tenor star Andreas Scholl who dominated the stage with his quite lovely voice and commanding theatrical sense. American tenor Kurt Streit made a strong impression in the role of Grimoaldo, as did Jean Rigby as Eduige. The high level of singing, acting and music making will make this a performance that will stay long in the memory of any lucky enough to be in attendance.

High expectations were also in the air for the performances of Beethoven's Fidelio under Sir Simon Rattle's leadership. With a dramatically charged and compelling production by director super-star Deborah Warner, it would have seemed another sure-fire hit. But all of the various puzzle pieces that need to produce an acclaimed production were not in place for the performances at Châtelet. Rattle, conducting the same orchestra of the night before, seemed to ask too much of the "original instrument" orchestra and the sound, so clear and elegant the night before, was ragged and uneasy.

Although he has been conducting this orchestra for years, his feeling for a "historical informed performance" could be questioned by some in the audience. Rattle's megawatt musical delivery and his push-pull of orchestral dynamics stretched this group beyond their limits and muffed notes, always an issue with baroque-style instruments, were higher than usual this night. His boys in Berlin can handle that dynamic with their modern instruments but Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment seemed just harried most of the evening.

The vocal talent was also uneven. Tenor Kim Begley, our Florestan, was solid and imposing as the imprisoned hero but German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, the Leonora, although strong of voice, made little impression in the way of interpretation of the role or legato singing. Less impressive still was the Rocco of Reinhard Hagen and the Pizzaro of baritone Steven Page who barked his role rather than sang it. Toby Spence was the fine Jaquino and Lisa Milne was a sympathetic Marzelline.

With pieces of the puzzle missing, the evening gained stature by the involving and thoughtful production of Warner. Moved to more recent times, the First Act set does remind the audience that this opera is set in a prison. The maze of chain-link fence suggests a Soviet-era Gulag camp or the in-the-news prison at Guantanamo Bay. The performers, receiving careful dramatic guidance, give new life to the drama and the libretto takes on new and engaging importance. This new relevance, however, sometimes has a price.

The final scene, after the governor arrives to save the day, the prisoners and their loved ones are united in joyful celebration with much hugging, back slapping and catching up. While this may be good drama, it means that the chorus members are not always keeping their eyes on the conductor with resulting imprecise attacks and general tentative singing in the most stirring and monumental finale in all opera. It is hard to imagine a certain predecessor of Rattle in Berlin tolerating this musical disorder for the sake of the theatrical staging. One could almost hear the high-pitched whine of Karajan from the grave "Zu Spät! Zu Spät!"

Given these major quibbles, there is no doubt that Rattle is presently one of the great conductors on the musical scene. His intelligent performances are always uncovering new depths to the music and this Fidelio has much new detail and electricity. Warner's fresh examination of this often indifferently staged work should also be welcomed by opera lovers. There was much to admire in this imperfect effort.

Frank Cadenhead



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