Tuesday 5 August 2008

Faust with Pape and Alagna at the spectacular Orange Festival (Choregies d´Orange)

The staging of Faust in daylight - the last pictures of my visibly dying camera.
Faust. Chorégies d´Orange, August 2nd 2008. Director: Nicolas Joël. Cast: Roberto Alagna (Faust), René Pape (Méphistophéles), Inva Mula (Marguerite), Xavier Mas (Siebel), Jean-Francois Lapointe (Valentin). Conductor: Michel Plasson. Further information here.

At exactly 9 pm, the sun disappeared behind the last upper rows of the 2000-year old Roman Amphitheatre in Orange thus making the 9.30 pm performance start of this premiere of Faust at this years Orange Festival (Chorégies d´Orange) quite reasonable. Which again, considering the entire Faust (including Marguerite´s scene with Siebel and the Walpurgis Night) is played here, means the performance ended around 1.35 am.
Do French television viewers really stay up this late (the performance of Tuesday will be broadcast live on French television)? And why was French Television filming this performance as well with at least 8 cameras? Perhaps due to the shaky weather forecast for Tuesday? Or to save potential television viewers a 35 minutes intermission around midnight?

Needless to say, the location is absolutely spectacular. The panorama view over the packed Amphitheater at dusk with the city of Orange in the background is beautiful beyond description and genuinely downstages whatever may be going on at stage.
The Orange Roman Amphitheater is one of only three in the world (the others being in Syria and Turkey) with a complete stone back wall, which accounts for the superb acoustics here. I never thought opera could sound like this outdoors, the sound seemingly reflected by the massive wall before it hits the audience. An effect not unlike that of the covered orchestra pit in Bayreuth and a genuine acoustic wonder. Rather embarassing to experience better acoustics in a 2000-year old outdoor Roman building than in most modern opera houses.

Already at 8 pm an announcement was made via loudspeakers audible in half of the city requesting the audience to take their seats, unnecessarily early it seemed, until I witnessed large parts of the audience barely able to climb up to their seats (approximately 60 rows to the top) - not helped by the stilettos worn by quite a few of the ladies that predictably did not go well with the creeky stones, or the virtually illegible numbers on the stone seats. The surrounding roads were closed for traffic and the only noise heard in the exceptionally well-behaved audience was the occasional distant train passing by as well as the increasingly strong wind.

The myriad of production photographs on display all over the city gave quite a good impression of the staging already before the premiere and in some ways actually seeing it did not add vastly to these impressions...

Director Nicolas Joël had a few good and a few bad ideas, but unfortunately most of the time he didn´t really seem to have any ideas at all. The sets, also designed by Joël, were very spartan, virtually only consisting of a massive two storey organ taking up the entire back of the stage.

In the beginning we see the old Faust turning the pages of a open book placed in front of the organ. Enter Méphistophéles and follows the story told relatively straight-forward with the characters in period costumes. I much like the idea of Siebel being played by a man (here a war invalid on crutches - one of Joël´s few ideas) and the fact that Méphistophéles kills Valentin with his fan just underscores who is really pulling the strings. This Faust seems genuinely in love with Marguerite, which however does not prevent him from playing around with the semi-naked girls of the Walpurgis Night.
A strong point also that Nicolas Joël does not make Méphistophéles the ridiculous figure seen in some productions, though he treads a fine line with the glitzy red suit he wears for most of the opera (the naked muscular body suit they made René Pape wear at the MET in 2003 made him look so ridiculous that I am glad the performances, though musically superb, were not recorded for DVD as it would have been unbearable to watch).

Making Méphistophéles semi-play the organ while Marguerite languishes below in the Church scene is one of the bad ideas as is the fluffy white dress she is wearing. Apart from the chorus entering with burning torches in Act 4 the unique Amphitheatre location was not incorporated much into the staging, which, honestly, for most parts was rather unspectacular. Though the ending, where Marguerite is not saved and the old Faust reappears to be claimed by Méphistophéles seems entirely appropriate.

I cannot imagine anyone better suited to play Méphistophéles on stage than René Pape and I seriously doubt if anyone has ever been quite so haughty, diabolic and dangerously elegant on stage than he is. The hidden evil in the Serenade is simply spine-chilling.
Now, whether René Pape´s very noble and roundedly beautiful voice is ideal as Méphistophéles may be a matter of taste, as some may prefer a more edgy voice type in this music. However the competition in this respect seems well buried in the past with Samuel Ramey and Ezio Pinza the most notable ones, in my opinion, and may thus be of less relevance to general audiences.
Quite predictably some of the French reviewers comment that René Pape´s French is not very good. Not entirely untrue, but in fact it has improved vastly compared to his 2003 MET performances - the problem is actually much the same as with Plácido Domingo´s German - with René Pape every word of his accented French is understood, compared to very little of Roberto Alagna´s presumably perfect French and so little of Inva Mula´s (she is from Albania) that I cannot even tell if she has any accent at all...

In fact, this is only René Pape´s second run as Méphistophéles after his 2003 MET debut and his first one as the complete Méphistophéles (with the Walpurgis Night), which may explain why he seemed to sing at only 80% for the first 2/3 of the opera. Initially I thought he was partly indisposed as he had a, for him, rather unusual attack on the top notes (and even skipped them in Méphistophéles´ entrance cadenza (!)), but after his pianissimo topnotes and a killer version of Veau d´Or, it seemed he was rather deliberately saving his voice.

Not that he was at any risk of being overpowered by either Roberto Alagna or Inva Mula, both of whom he downstaged, dramatically as well. Though he sounded rather small-voiced, I actually found Roberto Alagna in very good voice (that is, after the first Act, which he seemed to use to warm up his voice). Based on this performance, I quite understand why some consider him among the best Faust interpreters in the world. There is something incredibly French about his singing, and dramatically the part seems to suit him as well. However nothing in his singing indicated why exactly he finds parts such as Radamés suitable for his voice..

Inva Mula on the other hand, was relatively unspectacular. Not offensive in any way, just anonymous, vocally as well as dramatically. Jean-Francois Lapointe did rather well as Valentin and the idea of having Siebel sung by a tenor is a good one, I am just not sure Xavier Mas is the right tenor for the job. Among the others, Nicolas Testé was superb in the very small part of Wagner and seems a man of the future.

Conductor Michel Plasson had two assistants holding the score, preventing the pages from being flipped by the increasingly blowing evening wind. The most spectacular about him was his absolutely unspectacular reading. If Faust has to work as a music drama, there has to be drama and fire in the orchestra, otherwise it tends to drag. A point Michel Plasson didn´t seem to agree with.

The audience was very enthusiastic throughout and clearly thought the opera ended a couple of bars before it really did with massive applause after the final trio that only stopped when Méphistophéles waved significantly with his ever-present fan.

However, it turned out not all were equally relaxed as a gentleman a couple of seats from me refused to move when another gentleman wanted to leave the performance during the applause starting an argument, which ended with the first gentleman slamming the second up against the wall (both French). The Germans take opera very seriously, but a genuine fight I have never seen before. As they say: The French....


Anonymous said...

The Convent Garden production of a couple of years back with Roberto Alagna and Bryn Terfel would make interesting comparison with Pape, particularly as Tyrfel was pretty good in this role, imo.

Happily the complete telecast is available here:

Would be interested in how you think they compare.

mostly opera... said...

DB - excellent timing of your comment. I just finished watching the entire London Faust 5 minutes ago as I was wondering that myself.

The reason I didn´t mention Bryn Terfel is, that he, in my opinion, is an immensely talented singer, who just seems to go for the wrong repertoire and that it would be rather unfair to him (and boring for the readers) to constantly compare him to René Pape in this repertoire, where he honestly looses out and by quite a margin as well.

Understandably, a young singer like Bryn Terfel wants to move on to other parts than drunken old men such as Falstaff and the likes, but this repertoire (including Wotan, The Dutchman etc.) is simply not showing his true strenghts as a performer.

Obviously, Bryn Terfel´s musicality and voice quality is such, that he will never drop below a certain level, which goes for this Mephistopheles as well.

But he is not even approaching the level of René Pape here. For two main reasons:

1. Vocally: Quite surprisingly Terfel is shaky on virtually all the top notes, which are consistently flat (not much, but enough not to notice) and he has to push for considerably more of the notes whereas René Pape hits the notes straight on, seemingly effortless. And as expected, the lower register as well goes to René Pape, who simply, imo, has a more beautiful voice than Bryn Terfel. And entirely even in the entire range, which seems at least as wide as Bryn Terfel´s.

2. Dramatically there is nothing diabolic and menacing about Bryn Terfel, who in this production most of all looks like a rather benign version of Dr. Hook.

Both René Pape and Bryn Terfel are great stage actors, but their stage appearances in general (no matter the role) are vastly different: Where Bryn Terfel has an air of warmness and kindness, René Pape always seems rather haughty and cool. I doubt that René Pape would ever sing a part like Falstaff, and even if he did, I am sure he would never reach the level of Bryn Terfel. The same goes for Bryn Terfel´s Mephistopheles.

I would genuinely fear for my life if René Pape´s Mephistopheles suddenly turned up in my home. I would not even question whether he was the Devil. With Bryn Terfel I am not even sure he could make me believe he WAS the Devil.

There are versions of their Veau d´Or available on YouTube (René Papes in concert), which, I believe, shows the vocal difference between them rather well.

Mei said...

Inva Mula is albanian, she was born in Tirana...

mostly opera... said...

Mei - you are completely right. I even looked it up 10 minutes ago since I wondered whether she was French, since she seems to appear in Orange a lot.
But I suppose I got her mixed up with Angela Gheorghiu and Nino Machaidze in the Salzburg Romeo, who IS, I believe, from Georgia. Thanks for spotting this...

Mei said...

Yes, your are right... Nino Machaidze is from Georgia...

Extatic said...

I agree overall the performance was a disappointment. You're really too kind with the horrific job Plasson did attempting to conduct this masterpiece.

Based on your review, I was indeed right to attend the August 5th performance - as Alagna clearly gave all he had for the televised evening...

Joël's treat of Méphistophélès may not be as bad as some productions before, but frankly, the way he dressed Pape was almost an insult... wouldn't you say?

mostly opera... said...

"You're really too kind with the horrific job Plasson did attempting to conduct this masterpiece."

Yes I suppose you are right. Tried to focus on the positive aspects, but again and again I just thought he was incredibly dull.

"but frankly, the way he dressed Pape was almost an insult... wouldn't you say?"

Yes, I definitely was too kind on that also, in retrospect.

Anonymous said...

As I agree with the artistic aspects of your review, I will concentrate on the sociological ones.

Contrary to the saying, I don’t think that music soothes the soul. A 20th century french writer, Leon Werth – a friend of saint-Exupery-said that music had always something to do with the military! Anyway, as I am an irascible French, I find it is extremely easy to be driven to exasperation by a neighbour’s behaviour in a concert room...

I personally experienced that with :

The guy/woman who eats candies delicately and voluptuously unwrapped from very noisy papers (every time)…

The guy/woman dutifully kneading a plastic bag on his/her knees or the wrapped-in-plastic program of the cultural events which is freely distributed in parisian concert halls in order to spoil the cultural events which are precisely supposed to be advertised in this stupid way (almost every time).

The guy affected with a nose problem in a way that the rhythm of the music is unable to compete with the rhythm of his breathing (almost every time).

The basket ball player sitting just in front of you who is inclining his enormous head right then left then right then left (and so on…)obliging you to do just the contrary at the same rhythm(frequently).

The guy who is singing Beethoven 5th concerto in a way Helene Grimaud wasn’t audible anymore…(Palalampampam pam pam pam papam…).

The guy whose mobile phone rang just at the transition between the 2nd and the 3rd movement (same concert).

The guy who sleeps… and snores… (the Copenhagen Ring).

The woman alternatively shaking frenetically her fan and taking notes (Parsifal in Munich…)

The guy giving elaborate noisy comments to his son (The magic flute in New York).

The guy giving less noisy comments but you still hear the “sss…sss…”( frequently).

The German woman turning frenetically the pages of her libretto because she doesn’t understand German. (The Ring in Erl, Austria).

The woman reading the libretto with a powerful electric torch periodically orientated just in the direction of your eyes… (Butterfly in Verona).

The guy who feels obliged to make everybody profit of deep and intelligent comments of the kind “It’s very different from Carmen” (Makropoulos in Paris) or “my favourite tenor is Paravotti”.

The enormous woman smelling rotten fish (Tristan in Paris). I know the first act takes place in a boat but as the Sellars-Viola production wasn’t at all realistic, the smell didn’t fit in.

And I could go on with coughers, latecomers and so on…

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