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Letter From Paris: The Opéra National de Paris Celebrates 350 Years in Style

October 16, 2018

The Opéra national de Paris, founded by Louis XIV, turns 350 in June and has a sumptuous 2018–2019 season on offer to honor this milestone. I saw three of the company’s productions during a recent trip to Paris.

Tristan und Isolde

When the Tristan Project, the video artist Bill Viola and director Peter Sellars’s multimedia production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, was first presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2004, it was semi-staged and performed over three evenings, with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading complementary works at each concert. This is the production’s fourth bring-up in Paris, where it has always been fully staged and performed in one evening.

The production has an outsized reputation, with most of the positive reaction going to Viola’s videos, and I’m sure that many have found it revelatory. The videos go beyond scene-setting to try to capture a story-beneath-the-story. Fourteen years after its premiere, I found the video aspects far less interesting than Sellars’s subtle and intense direction, and also sometimes distracting.

While beautifully produced, the videos aren’t tied to the music itself in a way that enhances the stage action. There’s a great deal of water and fire imagery, both of which are fairly obvious choices, given the several sea-crossings, the location of Act I on a ship, and the deep passion of Tristan and Isolde. There’s a couple going through a ritual of some kind, which comes across as forced. There are a few magnificent sequences, including Isolde posed in front of an enormous fire, then falling backward into what first looks like a pool of fire, and the final image of Tristan’s ascent into the heavens, rising up from a deep pool of water. In the end, though, the best place to look for the libretto’s subtext is in Wagner’s score, whose motivic development tells you everything you need to know about the doomed lovers.

Sellars’s side of the production works miracles with almost no physical props and despite the gigantic screen and videos looming behind the singers. The stage is dimly lit and nearly bare throughout the opera, with a couple of platforms the only properties. The singers are dressed almost entirely in shades of black, save for a cream or white outfit worn by Tristan in Act II.

Only Tristan, Isolde, Kurwenal, Brangäne, Melot, and King Marke appear on the stage; you never see the Young Seaman, Steersman, Shepherd, or the chorus, who sing from the boxes or the back of the house. The dark stage and general spareness has the effect of intensifying the action and focusing the audience’s attention, although it’s also true that the skirmish near the end of Act III comes across as a bit ludicrous with Kurwenal and Melot as the only participants.

Sellars’s greatest achievement in the staging comes at the end of Act II, after the lovers are discovered by King Marke and his hunting party. The director sets this up with a couple of extra-libretto interventions in the action. Melot, allegedly Tristan’s best friend, has seen the couple’s confusion and distress at the end of Act I, and Melot and Marke observe Tristan and Isolde together twice during the long Act II love duet, with Marke apparently trying to brush off Melot.

Following the end-of-act discovery, King Marke sings a long aria that’s full of anger and sorrow at his betrayal by his nephew Tristan. In most productions, this comes across as a harangue, with a static staging. Sellars takes a different tack, with much physical interaction between Marke and Tristan, emphasizing their intimacy and the depths of Marke’s despair and disappointment. The director’s synopsis of the opera states outright that Marke was Tristan’s first lover, a viewpoint that can be disputed because there’s nothing in the libretto to support this. Nonetheless, the staging itself is emotionally on point for their close relationship and Tristan’s role as a surrogate son and vassal to Marke.

It helps, of course, that King Marke was played by the great German bass Rene Pape, a veteran of many productions of Tristan. He gave a flawless dramatic and vocal performance as the betrayed King. Tenor Andreas Schager and soprano Martina Serafin gave dramatically committed performances as the title characters, without quite being in Pape’s class vocally. Schager is tireless, and he can sing with delicacy or power, as necessary, but his reedy and penetrating voice becomes wearing to listen to. Serafin was at her best in her middle register, where much of the role lies. Above the staff, especially at the second of the two performances I saw, she could be both squally and inaccurate in pitch. It is true that the performance schedule was punishing, with nine performances in 28 days, and very likely they were in fresher voice earlier in the run.

Rounding out the major roles were mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova as a sensitive and vocally sumptuous Brangäne and baritone Matthias Goerne as an unusually intense and memorable Kurwenal. Tenor Neal Cooper gave a superb performance as Melot, creating a wholly human and believable character despite having very little music. Nicky Spence (Shepherd, Young Seaman) and Tomasz Kumiega (Steersman) filled their roles ably.

Philippe Jordan, who will leave Paris for Vienna in 2020, conducted, and was variable. His pacing of that last scene in Act II was masterly; elsewhere, he could be wayward. Neither of the performances I saw caught musical fire in the way this opera can blaze; the orchestral sound was on the muddy side, though without more experience of the opera house, I can’t determine whether the acoustics of the Opéra Bastille, my seats, or his conducting had the greatest responsibility for this. His pacing was sometimes bizarre: for example, Isolde’s Transfiguration reached its greatest climax far too early, so that the final climax was anticlimactic. The orchestra is quite good: I would like to credit the English horn player, who was magnificent in the long Act III solo, but the player is not named separately from the oboes. The chorus, directed by José Luis Basso, made a powerful contribution in Act II.

Les Huguenots

Simultaneously with Tristan, the company performed something old, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, and something new, the world premiere of Michael Jarrell’s Bérénice, based on a play by Racine.

Giacomo Meyerbeer was the most popular opera composer of the 19th century, and yet by the early 20th century his works had fallen out of favor. The Metropolitan Opera revived Le Prophète twice in the 1970s, after a decades-long gap in Meyerbeer performances, and hasn't had any Meyerbeer since. San Francisco Opera’s two runs of L’Africaine in 1972-73 and 1988-89, both times with Plácido Domingo and Shirley Verrett, make the company very much an outlier.

Les Huguenots is closely associated with the Paris Opera and the development of French grand opera. The work had its premiere there in 1836, and by the early 20th century it had received a thousand performances. Seeing the opera now, more than 80 years after its last Paris performance, it’s not hard to understand why Meyerbeer’s operas went out of fashion. Les Huguenots has a sprawling and not entirely coherent libretto; it calls for an enormous cast of virtuoso singers able to sing in the composer’s highly ornamented vocal style; its five-hour length and the cast size make it a very expensive opera to produce. At the end of the 19th century, verismo became the dominant operatic style. As the older generation of singers raised in the bel canto tradition retired, the pool of singers able to cope with Meyerbeer’s vocal demands shrank greatly.

And yet, despite the performance difficulties, despite the expense, despite the comparative lack of singers who can make the musical style their own, seeing Les Huguenots also makes it clear why the opera was so popular for so long, and why Meyerbeer’s operas deserve to be seen and heard again.

There’s the sheer human drama of the libretto, featuring the historical conflict between French Roman Catholics and the Protestant (Huguenot) minority, as embodied in the lovers Valentine, a Catholic, and Raoul of Nangis, a Protestant. They meet and fall in love before the curtain goes up, unaware of each other’s identities. Queen Marguerite de Valois, seeking to make peace between the Catholics and the Protestants, tries to arrange a marriage between them, but Raoul turns down the offer, mistakenly believing that Valentine is the mistress of the Comte de Nevers, while she is actually his fiancée. This fundamental error is not resolved until several acts later, and the consequences of Raoul’s mistake drive the plot forward.

Meyerbeer’s gifts for drama on a large scale, for creating beautiful, long-breathed melodies, and for novel and effective orchestration are front and center in Les Huguenots. He sometimes seems closest in style to Donizetti, but on a Wagnerian scale and with a far more interesting musical imagination. What other opera contains a chorus for seven unaccompanied male voices, an aria for soprano, horn, and bassoon, and a soldiers’ “Rataplan” chorus alternating with a hymn? Hector Berlioz himself wrote an approving review of the 1836 premiere, and the younger composer must have learned a thing or two from Meyerbeer.

It is true that, at least in this opera, the composer lacked a broad musical vocabulary for expressing conflict and tragic events. The opera features some jolly-sounding choruses for very serious situations, reminiscent of the assassins’ chorus in Verdi’s Macbeth (1847/1865).

For this revival, Paris Opera has done well by Les Huguenots, both musically and dramatically. Projected text during the overture sets the opera in 2063 rather than its historically-correct 1572, in the days leading up to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Director Andreas Kriegenburg’s production is lightly Regietheater, with pared-down women’s costumes suggesting, but not soaking in, 16th-century style and the men in outfits lifted from the Later Trenchcoat Era. The Catholics, who have all the fun, get colorful outfits, where the rigidly righteous Protestants are dressed soberly in black and gray costumes by Tanja Hofmann. Harald B. Thor has designed a series of spare, abstract sets for countryside, church, street, and other locations. Thor takes advantage of the Opéra Bastille’s size and stage machinery with sets that slide from side to side to expose different locations. The production is beautifully lit by Andreas Grüter, with portions of the set dramatically changing color to indicate changing moods or changing time of day.

Kriegenburg’s direction per se was straightforward and efficient rather than subtle or daring. There are a few bare-breasted women visible in Queen Marguerite’s garden, which hardly seems shocking in 2016, and might be the norm in 2063. The director went badly wrong only in Act V, where his muddled use of a three-level set meant that the audience couldn’t possibly tell, without having read the scenario, that the Huguenots are being suffocated by a fire while trapped in a Protestant church. The Catholic men’s preparation for the battle and massacre was ludicrous and embarrassing, because they held their swords at groin level and sharpened those swords in such a way that you know you’re not looking at swords. And what self-respecting fight director would have Valentine, one of the heroines, grab a sword by the blade itself?

In the end, these issues were minor annoyances, not barriers to enjoying Les Huguenots. There’s the grandeur of Meyerbeer’s music, and the splendor of the musical performances. Michele Mariotti conducted with a sure hand for the pacing and scale of the opera, and for this revival, the Paris Opera engaged the best singers available. While the production lost soprano Diana Damrau (Marguerite) early, and tenor Brian Hymel (Raoul) only 10 days before opening night, no one should feel disappointed by their replacements.

American soprano Lisette Oropesa sang the benevolent Queen spectacularly, with regal confidence, a diamond-bright voice, and pinpoint accuracy in the most difficult coloratura passages. Korean tenor Yosep Kang was a commanding Raoul, with a plangent, well-controlled tenor and the range and ping for the role. He sang with tonal beauty and a good line, and the ability to recover easily from the few difficulties he encountered. Ermonela Jaho was a deeply sympathetic and lovely Valentine, her strikingly dark-toned voice making a fine contrast with Oropesa’s.

French mezzo Karine Deshayes made a spritely and amusing Urbain, the Queen’s page, matching Oropesa and Jaho’s skill in fioritura and completely charming the audience. The sonorous baritone Nicolas Testé sang magnificently as the dour Marcel, Raoul’s servant and Protestant conscience, spouting the Lutheran hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” at every opportunity. (I grumble, but the motivic use of the tune, which also appears in the opera’s prelude, is among Meyerbeer’s masterstrokes.) Paul Gay matched Testé as the Comte de Saint-Bris, Valentine’s father. Florian Sempey was an able and threatening Comte de Nevers. The smaller roles were all beautifully sung. As in Tristan, the chorus sang with force, tonal beauty, and great style.

Bérénice

Michael Jarrell, a Swiss composer born in 1958, isn’t much performed in the United States. I found New York Times reviews of his works in approximately alternate years going back a decade or so, and just a few Bay Area reviews going back to 1996. Cassandre, his spoken opera about the Trojan oracle, was performed at the Ojai Festival in 2006. Bérénice, which was performed at the smaller Palais Garnier, is an operatic masterpiece, a powerful argument for programming his music on a regular basis.

The Racine play that Jarrell drew on for the opera’s libretto isn’t characteristic of the great French playwright: while there’s plenty of misery to go around, nobody dies. Titus, the new Roman emperor, openly loves Bérénice, the queen of Judea, and she loves him in return. Titus’s friend and comrade in arms, Antiochus, King of Commagène, secretly loves Bérénice. But the Senate and people of Rome do not want a foreign queen, and Titus reluctantly decides that he cannot marry Bérénice. The heartbroken Bérénice contemplates suicide, then returns quietly to Judea. The three separate, never to meet again.

Jarrell’s opera takes only 90 minutes to tell this tale. All aspects of the production combine to make this a nearly unbearably intense 90 minutes. For Bérénice, Jarrell has created a delicately austere score in which the orchestra nonetheless rumbles seismically, volcanically, under the voices, creating a disturbing atmosphere of dread. The orchestral pulse is slow, despite the sometimes-frenetic activity among the instruments and voices.

The composer’s vocal lines are nearly ritualistic in design; he’ll place a long phrase on a just a few, chantlike, pitches. Occasionally, he’ll give the singers a flurry of coloratura to sing, which has the impact of a brief mad scene set against the slow, roiling orchestral writing.

Bérénice brought together three great singers in the leads: the brilliant soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan (Bérénice), baritone Bo Skovhus (Titus), and baritone Ivan Ludlow (Antiochus). The smaller roles are sung by bass Alastair Miles as Titus’s confidant Paulin, tenor Julien Behr as Antiochus’s confidant Arsace, and Rina Schenfeld as Bérénice’s confidant Phénice, cast as a speaking role. All were superb, beyond criticism as singers and actors.

The action takes place within a unit set of three rooms in a neo-classical 17th or 18th-century style, designed by Christian Schmidt. The left room is Bérénice’s realm, the right is Titus’s. Antiochus occupies the middle, where Bérénice and Titus meet and most interaction among the characters takes place.

Claus Guth’s intensely physical direction is a major reason for the production’s impact. Characters collide, fall to the floor, drape themselves across furniture or each other, throw objects, roll on the ground, pin each other to the walls. Their movements, which are almost painful to watch, embody their emotional anguish in a very real way. Fabrice Kebour’s beautiful lighting adds to the intensity of the opera. I loved the background videos by rocafilm, which blended seamlessly into the set and the very mood of the staging, particularly the sequence in which the stage appeared to submerge under water. Philippe Jordan’s meticulous conducting balanced a big orchestra beautifully with the voices and brought out every last fascinating color of the orchestration.

Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer. She studied music at Brandeis and Stony Brook, and blogs about classical music and opera at Iron Tongue of Midnight.