Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cesare in the heart of Champagne: Yoncheva and Dumaux like a glass of the finest Taittinger

Giulio Cesare, Opéra de Reims, May 8 2011

Christian Schiaretti ..... director
Jean Claude Malgoire ..... conductor

Sonya Yoncheva ..... Cleopatra
Christophe Dumaux ..... Giulio Cesare
Lina Markeby ..... Sesto
Alessandra Visentin ..... Cornelia
Dominique Visse ..... Tolomeo
Ugo Guagliardo ..... Achilla
Valérie Yang Seng ..... Nireno
David Witczak ..... Curio

As you probably know Reims is one of the most emblematic cities of the history of Christianity, and its impressive cathedral Notre Dame is one of the must-see sites when in France. Reims is only 45 min by TGV ("very fast train") from Paris and it's a good change to spend a day away from the overpopulated, busy, hectic Parisian atmosphere. Don't get me wrong: I LOVE big cities but a weekend spent in the countryside or smaller town every now and then is a blessing...

So... Reims is a medium sized, very clean, neat and well organized city. With all that and being in the heart of Champagne, Reims is very bourgeois and touristy. Among many attractions, the cathedral of Notre Dame is really extremely impressive and you cannot help but feeling little in front of this huge structure built 800 years ago: you can only imagine the amount of work and coordination required to build this huge church with technology of 800 years ago. The way it is organized and decorated inside is simply mind-blowing: very many vitrails (stained glass) decorating countless windows, many are still being added, small chapels were added, to make the church ever more inclusive -- but all these added details are so carefully chosen not to damage the style defined by the architecture itself. The central vitrail has been inserted only in the 1980's and was created by Marc Chagal. Many French kings used to be crowned in this magnificent cathedral so it obviously bears a special historical significance to France [will post some photos in my next blog-entry]

Opéra de Reims -- outside shot

Good thing is that they also have an opera house that does not look particularly appealing from the outside -- but inside it is like a red plushy music box. This well organized theater boasts a high standard, comfortable albeit smallish auditorium, perfectly suitable for the baroque repertoire. When you say baroque -- Giulio Cesare is most probably the first opera that comes to your mind. You do not expect to see a clever work stage-wise as we were given at Opéra Garnier in Paris recently (yes, I'm talking about the Laurent Pelly's production), but at least musically it was very promising on the paper.

Opéra de Reims -- auditorium

Sonya Yoncheva must be one of the top-10 lyric sopranos today (and I'm not exaggerating!) [You remember that she was the winner of Operalia 2010, right?] Her voice is rich, she's still very young and the agility and flexibility of her voice is impressive.  Her gravi are perfectly audible and her high register remains as chromatic as is her medium (which is rare for this kind of voice). If you add to that a fact that she's very goodlooking, but in a way that makes her scenic presence remarkable, you understood it well: she has it all. Christophe Dumaux was recently very impressive as Tolomeo in Paris, and here he was expected to make his debut in the title role of this beautiful opera.

And so... after all is said and done, after I made a trip to Reims and attended the show, I think it all went wonderfully well as far as the music is concerned: the orchestra was very good and the conductor, Jean Claude Malgoire --whose recent Mozart renditions at Théâtre des Champs Elysées (discussed in this blog too) I thought were downright bad-- was the most positive surprise. He was particularly careful to keep the texture of the score beautifully discernible and well tuned for the size of the auditorium. His timings were  occasionally unorthodox, he would sometimes speed up where you would expect him to take his time, and would slow down when you's expect him to sustain the fast tempi. Ultimately, however, all these surprises actually felt good -- their effect was to keep the auditor alert and I make the rendition peculiar... memorable, if you wish.  I think that's what actually made me extra-like this interpretation of Giulio Cesare...

Sonya Yoncheva and Christophe Dumaux were fantastic. Both sang their role debuts with almost a visible desire to do well, to give their best: fully engaged and focused on every aspect of theor presence on stage, with a great deal of attention to pronounce everything correctly while keeping the vocal line intact. Another impressive performance was the one by Lina Markeby who channeled  Sesto unbelievably well: irreproachable vocally and without a single parasitic gesture to her impeccable incarnation of that young troubled man.  Ugo Guagliardo is not a bass you would expect in the role of Achille, but his peculiar voice definitely impresses you. I hope we'll see more of him sooner rather than later.

As for the show director, I must say I was very surprised to learn after the show that Christian Schiaretti is a well known French theater producer who occasionally directs operas. Without rushing to any conclusion, I can only say that his Giulio Cesare is a sloppy piece of work that anyone who spent more than a dozen evenings at theater would be able to do. Everything happens in the center of the stage, with two rows of chairs placed on two sides of the stage used to have singers practically all the time present on the stage -- sitting on these chairs. The action is not transposed (which would be fine if any side of the score was a tad deeper elaborated), the historic costumes were good, but in terms of theatrical action, nothing really happens that goes beyond a superficial narration of the story from the libretto. Very disappointing, lazy, and uninspiring -- if you ask me.

Nevertheless, since I did not expect a particularly well staged show anyway, I preferred to focus on the positive aspect which is a very high musical quality of the show produced in fantastic conditions of this enjoyable theater (for the price 3-4 times less than what you would have to pay to see a similar show in Paris). The same show in fact then traveled to even closer spot to Paris (to Opéra Royal of the Chateau de Versailles).

A notable phenomenon you can often encounter in a small city's Opera is a lack of connoisseurship. Peops in the crowd wouldn't wait until the end of an aria to start applauding. Sometimes they wouldn't applaud when you'd expect them to, and so on...

Several curtain call pics:

Ovations for Sonya Yoncheva and Christophe Dumaux

Christophe Dumaux, maestro Malgoire, and Lina Markeby

Ugo Guagliardo - a valiant bass, vocally larger than the usual Achille

Sonya Yoncheva and her last Act hairdo

Here is a short video about this production from Euronews (focused on Sonya Yoncheva)

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