Friday, April 13, 2012

We Will Barock You: La Didone in Paris

La Didone, Théâtre des Champs Élysées (TCE), April 12 2012

Director ..... Clément Hervieu-Léger
Conductor ..... William Christie

Didone ..... Anna Bonitatibus
Enea ..... Krešimir Špicer 
Iarba ..... Xavier Sabata
Ecuba ..... Maria Streijffert
Cassandra, Damigella I, Dama III ..... Katherine Watson
Creusa, Giunone, Damigella II, Dama II ..... Tehila Nini Goldstein
Fortuna, Anna, Dama I ..... Mariana Rewerski
Venere, Iride, Damigella III ..... Claire Debono
Ascanio, Amore, Cacciatore ..... Damien Guillon/Terry Wey 
Anchise, Un Vecchio ..... Nicolas Rivenq
Ilioneo, Mercurio ..... Mathias Vidal
Corebo, Eolo, Cacciatore ..... Valerio Contaldo
Acate, Sicheo, Pirro ..... Joseph Cornwell
Greco, Giove, Nettuno, Cacciatore ..... Francisco Javier Borda 

Les Arts Florissants

Francesco Cavalli is not as well known as Monteverdi, even though his operas assured the posterity to Monteverdi and to establish opera as an art form. Staged productions of his operas used to be rarities but in recent years we witness the change happening in Europe in that respect and a growing number of new productions of La Calisto [which should be the sauciest libretto in opera], L'Egisto and even  Ercole AmanteLa Didone remains a rarity though -- most probably because of the need for a large and homogeneous cast in which a weak link cannot be afforded (every role is exposed).

This opera must be one of the earliest "Regie" venture in terms of intelligently modifying the famous tragedy from Virgil's Aeneid. A genius librettist (G.F. Busenello) twisted the ending of Aeneid and instead of letting Dido commit suicide in the end, he decided she was strong enough to overcome the shock of being abandoned by Aeneas, to let Iarbas comfort and seduce her, and in the end she marries him (Don't you love it!)
The whole tragedy changes completely in the last 10 minutes, and becomes more of a story about Didone's frailty. Before Aeneas appeared in Carthage she was not responding to Iarbas' seduction [she was still a fresh widow], but after the Aeneas stormed through her life, her position totally changed and her final acceptance of Iorbas to be her husband can be interpreted in more than a few ways...

Busenello not only modified the ending of the Dido's tragedy, but also inserted a few comedy moments in the story with the purpose of attenuating the tragic pathos and bringing drama closer to human life -- a mixture of 'tragedy' and 'comedy'. Note that the same genius also wrote the libretto for L'incoronazione di Poppea.

And so this was a rare opportunity to see the staged production of this opera, premiered in Caen last October, that via Luxembourg arrived to TCE, the third co-producer. One of the shows was webcast on Medici TV last October, and you can still find it  on this link. The show will also be run on Mezzo-TV, and a DVD release is in preparation as well.

As I mentioned above, La Didone is difficult for several reasons: the plot is tough to handle stagewise (it is equivalent to Les Troyens), the cast is large and each role requires very subtle interpretative skills. Finally, one needs a delicate orchestra. Interestingly, this was the first time for Les Arts Florissants to perform an opera by Cavalli, and we did not have any doubt they would be fantastic -- like they always are.  William Christie and his amazing orchestra always have an analytic approach to the score that helps them build the basic precision, but it is then always shaped in a delicate way that give the audience that extra artistic value that very few other orchestra can offer today.
The story is well known. If you account for the last twist to the story, the rest of it is pretty much what you can find in Les Troyens: Aeneas, encouraged by his mother Venus flees the fallen city of Troy and leads the surviving Trojans to the destined land (Nach Rom!). On the way to Rome they land to Carthage where Aeneas meets the Queen Dido who will soon falls in love with him. Their passionate love is short-lived because Jupiter reminds Aeneas of his greater duty -- to lead the Trojan people in the promised land (to Rome). The overly pious Aeneas is torn but eventually decides to follow his duty/faith rather than his heart and left the inconsolable Dido alone... who in this opera does not die but gets back on her feet and marries Iorbas. Of course, there is a whole lot of episodic characters --both humans and Gods-- making the story multidimensional and passionate to follow. The score & libretto (in French) can be found here.

I remind you of the story-line to make you realize how complex this piece is to stage. Confiding a job to Clément Hervieu-Léger was tossing a hot potato to an ambitious young director who was to produce his first opera here [his theater work can be appreciated at the Comédie Française in Paris]. I personally am not familiar with his work but from what I could see he seems to be a director who could please well the très bourgois crowd, i.e. those who do not want to be surprised or challenged in theater, who want to see a 'nice show' with 'oh, lovely images'.
He basically followed the storyline without pitching in anything (except for the carcass of a reindeer), and preferred to mostly dwell on the tragic parts of the drama. The show consists of two tableaux: the first being a bleak and misty scene of Troy in ruins (which, to me, was a much better part of the show), and the second is lively colored entrance to the city of Carthage. It is the most classical direction of actors you could see, with a self-satisfying images that make an effect on you in the first part but leave you underwhelmed in the second. Even though the show was meant to entertain the bourgeois crowd, I couldn't help laughing in the end of la prima when the target-crowd actually booed Hervieu-Léger.  At the same time I felt sorry for him: taking on La Didone (or Les Troyens) to produce your first opera was too audacious and bound to be a failure.

The singers, on the other hand, are all absolutely wonderful, and if you can possibly go to listen to *all of them* singing live, please do. Every one of them was fantastic, expressive, and in good voice...  Anna Bonitatibus is a high mezzo, known as one of the best interpreters in Mozart repertoire and in baroque. She has that rare impeccable Italian pronunciation that a very few past or present singers could match. To that add her beautiful voice and a way she lives every word she sings, and you get a perfect mezzo for this repertoire. Krešimir Špicer continues to amaze us (after Orlando Paladino last month), and together with Bernard Richter, Toby Spence, JDF and Ed Lyon, he breaks my prejudice that the American lyric tenors are in general unbeatable. Spicer has a big alerting Richter-like voice who can successfully pull off the interpretative delicacy so much needed for the baroque roles. I would not be surprised if he attempts singing the helden tenor roles later in his career.
Yesterday everyone could finally hear how superb Mathias Vidal is. His Mercurio sounded big, engaging, expressive and he practically occupied the stage during his arias. Another stand out performance was the Spanish countertenor  Xavier Sabata whose recitatives were not totally beautiful but his arias and his overall scenic presence were fantastic!
I feel I would not be fair if I didn't cite the other singers, who were all truly brilliant at the prima: Katherine Watson , Nicolas Rivenq, Mariana Rewerski, Valerio Contaldo, Tehila Nini GoldsteinClaire Debono, Joseph CornwellMaria StreijffertFrancisco Javier Borda. Terry Way was unfortunately ill but was kind enough to assure the acting part of his roles, while Damien Guillon sang from the orchestra pit.

All production photos below are ©Pascal GELY [see his photo album here.] 



My two CC pics:

Nicolas Rivenq, Mathias Vidal, Terry Way, Damien Guillon, Mariana Rewerski, Kresimir Spicer, Tehila Nini Goldstein, William Christie, Anna Bonitatibus, and the production team with Clément Hevieu-Léger in the middle

Maestro Christie with Anna Bonitatibus, Xavier Sabata and Katherine Watson Tehila Nini Goldstein behind

and a short excerpt:


  1. I too thought the 1st part was more powerful, however the crowd seemed more pleased with the colorful costumes and brighter lights of the 2d part... The staging is very "Comédie Française", brilliant acting but very academic setting. But even this seemed "too modern" for the TCE audience.

    LOVED the singers. I was at the dress rehearsal, and Wey sang beautifully - such a pitu you didn't get to hear him!

    Btw, on your last picture, it is not Katherine Watson but Tehila Nini Goldstein (Katherine Watson was in a green dress).

  2. Hi Alexandra. I am not sure if it was "too modern" for the TCE crowd. I think it was more the fact that they expected to see lots of sugary scenes, and they got the single set in the second part with not much to keep the eyes busy...

    I obviously agree with you re singers. Loved them all, and I'm sorry for Wey being ill (he must be bummed too).

    Thanks for the correction, btw ;)

  3. For me at least it was awfully old-fashioned, and I would have booed Hervieu-Léger too, and the acting especially was awful, very much Nicolas Joel-like.
    The other problem was that Christie was asleep during the whole show, and his incompetent score realization and conducting made this thing very boring, unfortunately!

  4. There you go :)

    Poor Clément. He really had a tough baptism of fire. I don't believe we'll see him back directing an opera any time soon.

    No for Christie. He was at the harpsicord all the time except when needed to hold the orchestra together.

    In any case this opera is 1000 times more intelligent than any of the 19 century non-Mozart opera that I know. So the sheer beauty of the music, wonderful singing and the engaging libretto -- to me it was enough for a very enjoyable evening.