Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hérodiade - part deux

Hérodiade, Vlaamse Opera in Ghent, February 13 2011

conductor ..... Dmitri Jurowski
director ..... Joachim Schlömer

Salomé ..... Carmen Giannattasio
Jean ..... Zoran Todorovich
Hérode ..... Philippe Rouillon
Hérodiade ..... Julia Gertseva
Phanuel ..... Petri Lindroos
Vitellius ..... Igor Bakan
Jeune Babylonienne ..... Julianne Gearhart
Le grand Prêtre ..... Thierry Vallier
Le grand PrêtreGuido Verbelen
Animaux/Dancers ..... Anna Tenta and Slawek Bendrat

Chorus and Orchestra of the Flanders Opera

This production is the first big project by the new musical director of the Flanders Opera, Dmitri Jurowski. Instead of playing it safe and offering his new public something Russian or German (he artistically evolved in Russia and in Germany), he opted for a risky, tricky and today rarely performed French opera, Hérodiade. To me, his rendition sounded fantastic, and his debut as the house's director is not only a success, but promises many good things in the years to come.

He [Jurowski] slightly reshuffled the score to make it more theatrically engaging, cut out a few chorus arias and kicked out the ballet part. More importantly, he evidently closely collaborated with the production's director, Joachim Schlömer, a common goal being an attempt to make the show dramatically appealing. The result, at least to me, was fascinating on several levels and it should be held as an example of how the 19th century French operas should be produced today. Bravo!

Joachim Schlömer was a dancer who later became choreographer (his main job today), and then started with occasional incursions into operatic repertoire where he's asserting himself with authority. A glance over his resumé is enough to surprise you that he condoned cutting the ballet part from Hérodiade. But once you see the show, you realize that it was a very reasonable decision to make in order to keep the dramatic line clean and clear, and not to dilute the climax. Despite that fact, he did not abandon ballet from this show. Au contraire, almost during the entire show, two fantastic dancers danced along, providing a sensual part to the basic story -- underlying, for example, the ambiguity of Salomé's love for Jean [John the Baptist].

Basic story is, of course, modernized and Salomé is portrayed as a soul-searching adolescent girl, who grew up without her real parents, and who finds in Jean a man with principles, firmness (fatherly figure),  someone who gives her spiritual support and  help to overcome disappointments and confusions -- that trouble a life of any young adolescent girl, and especially the one who grew up without her parents. She [red-haired girl in pics below] is devoted to Jean in every way. Jean, on the other hand, is dressed and looks like a leader of some Oriental (Indian) sect in Europe. [I found that idea spot on!]

Hérode and Hérodiade, instead, are high-ranked bourgois family, involved in politics, and fighting to get to a power. They fight against their political opponents -- Vitellius and the Romans. Political enemies will become allies once they recognize in Jean a threat. Jean actually offered the people a hope, something they'd lost while following their political leaders. Jean lives a simple life as an ordinary man, while the politicians are rich men leading the population of poor. 

And so, as you can guess from this short description, the story is happening on several levels, with Salomé --a young groupie following her spiritual leader, Jean-- as a central figure. This is not a novelty. This was always a weird detail about this opera, i.e. that Salomé, rather than Hérodiade, is a central character. Being adolescent, Salomé is confused and cannot separate her admiration for Jean from her sexual desire for the man she loves [don't many young adolescent girls today who admire famous actors, singers... have similar confusions?!] -- the kind  of love that Jean rejects at first, and later on he gives in, even though he never goes as far as to take it to the sex-level. In fact that point remains suspended as the circumstances did not let them reach that point. That gives the story an extra sensual line -- it's sexual without anything explicit.

The opera starts with Phanuel and Hérodiade on the stage: Phanuel is an astrologist who prepares a horoscope for Hérodiade, a rich and famous, strong headed mature woman. He lets her know that her daughter [Salomé], whom she thought was dead, is still alive and is looking for her mother. Hérodiade refuses to believe it, as she is convinced the baby she abandoned could not survive there where she'd left her. [Note that the scenes are reshuffled, and instead much later on, this scene practically opens the opera. That, I thought, radically improved the clarity of the storyline and of the given production.]

In the next scene, we see the crowd of poor people being manipulated by their leaders who're offering them various appliances, gadgets, stereos... to keep them calm, and by giving them away small but different gadgets, they give them reasons to fight among themselves, and shift their attention from the reasons for their overall poverty. Right after that a large platform descends from above the stage. This turns out to be the kitchen of a big loft in which live Hérodiade and her husband, Hérode -- busy preparing dinner for his wife. That same Hérode will later prove to be a cruel military ruler, who has an extra-weakness: he is attracted to (very) young girls and indulges in all kinds of sexual fantasies with them. The one who he wants the most is Salomé, but she's totally in love with Jean.

The end is of course tragic. In the synopsis you find that Salomé is devastated when she learns that Jean was killed and turns her despair into hatred towards Hérodias, whom she thought was jealous of her and for that reason plotted to make Jean killed. But when she learns Hérodias is her mother, her whole life is in shambles and she dies too. The ending in this production is tragic as well, but slightly modified and politically incorrect... [but I won't tell you how it ends -- you might wish to go and see the show yourselves ;) ]

During the opera it is clear that Hérodiade wants to get rid of Salomé: on one hand she's aware of her husband's weakness and she knows he has his eyes set on Salomé, and on the other hand being famous she does not want her past to come and bite her -- she buried her past and suppressed the memory of her abandoned daughter. The presence of Salomé is tormenting her memories, her emotions, and her social status too.
It all clicks right, no?!

Music-wise, first of all, a big revelation for me was Carmen Giannattasio, whose name I only know from the cast for La Clemenza di Tito scheduled for the festival in Aix-en-Provence 2011. That girl can sing big. The role is VERY tough to sing --like it usually is in Massenet's opera-- but boy did this girl take the challenge head on and sang the whole role with disconcerting ease in upper register while keeping the low notes fully audible and richly timbred. Un gioello lirico italiano!
Zoran Todorovich was fantastic too. I remember to have read many great reviews about him, and then was unfortunate to listen to his live singing a few years ago in Brussels in la Forza del destino. There he was barking big time and honestly I was disappointed. In Ghent, instead, he sang beautifully: with authority and firmness required by the role, and touchy in the lyric moments, without leaning towards a cheap mannerism. Excellent! I also (moderately) liked Julia Gertseva, whose Hérodias looked and sounded impeccable. The other singers were good or very good, but not really matching the level of the three I singled out above. Language-wise, French is always tough to pronounce well to be comprehensible enough on the receiver's end [especially to soprano voices], but all-in-all I thought the whole cast did a fine job in that department.

I obviously liked the way Jurowski conducted his very solid orchestra, and I am definitely looking forward to coming back to Vlaamse Opera for some more of their apparently excellent productions.

Sadly the French press did not feel this production was worthy of more substantial coverage, and  this was a very example of how the French repertoire of 19th century operas can survive the test of time.

Big, big BRAVO to Joachim Schlömer and Dmitri Jurowski!

Production pics are all ©VlaamseOpera:

Very well prepared trailer,

and several CC pics taken by Yours Truly:

Two dancers (and chorus members)

Igor Bakan and Philippe Rouillon

Zoran Todorovich and Petri Lindroos

Carmen Giannattasio

Maestro Jurowski - the cast & chorus members in the background

Dmitry Jurowski between Carmen Giannattasio and Julia Gertseva

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