BY DAVID SHENGOLD | Trips to Paris always put matters operatic in perspective. Opera’s capital in the 19th century, the city drew international composers and singers to much inspired –– and doubtless also much banal — creativity. Largely in eclipse after World War II save for a few masterpieces, opera’s “French school” periodically re-examines its heritage, occasionally turning up works of merit among those properly discarded.
Lately, the historic Opéra-Comique — which premièred many of those still honored masterworks, such as “Carmen” and “Manon” — has mounted several once-famous works whose titles alone have remained familiar. Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833) has lingered on through his Overtures and occasional arias remastered from 78s. His “Le Pré aux Clercs” (1832) followed the mode for amorous adventure in historical settings. It proved very salutary to encounter its charms (March 31) and hear how Hérold — especially in his ensembles, the work has several dynamic, non-formulaic trios and a hushed, lovely quartet –– transformed the universally known comic Rossini style into something that would nourish Bizet, Offenbach, and Massenet, and even Berlioz and Meyerbeer, whose grand opera “Les Huguenots” shares more than the historical character of Marguerite de Navarre with “Le Pré aux Clercs”.
Often in Europe, when half-forgotten works win revival, one gets out-there Regie stagings by directors proudly proclaiming ignorance of opera. Such productions can work wonders for repertory staples that “everyone knows,” like “Bohème,” but seem counterproductive in reintroducing pieces virtually no one knows. Éric Ruf’s largely traditional but fluid staging served “Pré aux Clercs” and its audience well. In Emiliano Gonzalez Toro’s energized, almost self-ironic performance as the piece’s bloodthirsty villain, it was not without a television-infused post-modern sensibility. Paul McCreesh conducted expertly — after offering an Overture longer on energy than charm.
Dramatically, the stage was dominated by the “Reine Margot” of Marie Lenormand, a veteran of many American stages who’s now receiving her due at home. Though her voice is fine rather than exceptional, turning a bit hard at top forte, Lenormand projected genuine star quality. Looking like a ‘30s movie queen, she was riveting in everything she did, turning every syllable, gesture, and look to the advantage of her flamboyant character. Marguerite’s savvy and daring protect and unite a noble Huguenot couple, Isabelle and Mergy.
As Isabelle, Canada’s Marie-Eve Munger looked pretty and sang with attractive timbre and style. In Mergy’s wide-ranging part, American tenor Michael Spyres — familiar from Bard and Caramoor outings –– offered spectacular ease at both range extremes and beautifully projected tone; his polished sung and spoken French impressed my French nephew.
As the court’s revels-master Cantarelli, Eric Huchet recaptured a French character tenor tradition of near-camp but amiable world-weariness. As for the peasant couple on the move up, Jael Azzaretti (Nicette) sang her soubrette material delightfully opposite barihunk Christian Helmer’s well-voiced Girot. Curtain calls evoked sustained rhythmic applause — for the high quality of the performance and the honor afforded France’s neglected musical patrimony.
Verdi’s great — some days I’d say greatest — opera also premiered in Paris, in 1867. It remains an artistic scandal that the Met has never presented “Don Carlos” in its original —superior –– full French version. But April 15 at Lincoln Center, largely the “cover” performance, proved very satisfying, thanks to Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s insightful, energized conducting. Lianna Haroutounian, a handsome, diminutive, and vulnerable figure as Elisabetta, made a genuinely excellent debut: a fine spinto growing in quality and volume as it rises. More, please!
Nadia Krasteva’s confident Eboli evoked Rudolf Bing’s stable of sultry-looking “B list” Slavic mezzos; she had personality to burn and sang with flair and a nice, sensuous lower range if a chancy top. Luca Salsi had always struck me as dull, but — though not a noble, romantic figure onstage — his first-ever Posa earned admiration, for native Italian but also for suave legato phrasing. Salsi had clearly worked hard preparing for this big chance, and it paid off very well.
The run’s cover Carlo (Ricardo Tamura) having crashed and burned at the previous performance, the still-ailing Yonghoon Lee essayed the role, a good fit for his bright, ardent sound and handsome stage presence. One sensed Lee running out of steam in Act Three. Sure enough, a spokesman announced that Tamura would complete the performance. His buzzy tenor pleased less than Lee’s but he did a perfectly creditable job, earning audience gratitude.
The onstage rocks on which this fine revival was built were the lead basses, Ferruccio Furlanetto (Met debut 1979) as Philip and James Morris (Met debut 1971) as the Grand Inquisitor. The Italian bass has pondered all the angles dramatically and vocally and is simply magnificent as the unhappy king. His American colleague, if less incisive theatrically, was more than satisfactory, sounding vocally renewed and steady. However, we needed a better Monk — a Philip in training –– than the gravelly, bottom-shy Robert Pomakov. Good Flemish deputies, though!
Carnegie Hall had a little festival around the great, luminous-voiced German soprano Dorothea Roeschmann. On April 12, she offered a moving, commandingly sung Dido (Purcell, not Berlioz) with the fine Canadian early music ensembles Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Quebec, dancingly led from the keyboard by Richard Egarr.
The concert opened with somewhat iffily chosen and performed selections from Purcell’s “semi-operas”; Roeschmann offered “Let me weep” –– a lament not dissimilar to Dido’s more famous one, which she went on to ace. As Aeneas, Hank Neven — a tall Dutch baritone who photographs well –– proved not worth importing. He had some style but little presence; the voice is only decent, with unresonant, wooden-sounding high notes. Where were Russell Braun and Philippe Sly, to stay just with Canadians? Helene Guilmette sang a bright-voiced, delightful Belinda. Among the well-trained ensemble — who sang better English as a group than individually — pure soprano Stefanie True and rangy bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus stood out; Vicki St. Pierre had the vocal goods for the Sorceress but Egarr had her slam disturbingly parlando into key words. The afternoon’s success depended heavily on the excellent concertmistress and archlute and guitar players.
Roeschmann next (April 22) joined awesome pianist Mitsuko Uchida for a kind of summit conference Liederabend: two Robert Schumann cycles, “Liederkreis” and “Frauenliebe und –leben,” with Berg’s youthful Late Romantic “Seven Early Songs” in between. A few sliding attacks aside, the soprano was in excellent form and gave the potentially mawkish second Schumann cycle heartbreaking simplicity of feeling. Uchida’s pianism proved spellbinding. The two great artists seemed in total artistic synch and gave great pleasure, ending with two contrasting settings of Goethe’s “Mignon songs” –– by Schubert and Wolf –– as sublime encores.
David Shengold (email@example.com) writes about opera for many venues.