Opening Nights at The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
First Night: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro," February 25, 2009
by Frank Cadenhead
Getting there is half the fun. Coming up the escalator at the l'Etoile metro station, the Arc de Triomphe fills the entire field of vision. I turn and walk down the Avenue Champs-Élysées, appearing in the background of uncounted tourist photos. Turning right at Fouquet's restaurant, I continue past the Hotel Georges V (the crowd was trying to catch a glimpse of the band AC/DC.) After a left turn at the American Church it is only two blocks to the theater, where, standing in front, you have an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower across the Seine.
The theater is legendary. Opened in 1913, it is classic Art Deco style with crystal ornaments by Lalique himself. Only months after opening its doors, young Stravinsky was crawling out the back window to escape the angry crowd after Nijinsky danced his Sacre du Printemps. Historic names has been on stage there: Josephine Baker, Balanchine, Maria Callas. Elton John, Maurice Chevalier, Wilhelm Furtwaengler to sample a few. A recent makeover - taking up the auditorium carpets and installing more wood - has warmed the normally dry acoustics but it is still a ideal theater for the voice (even though the Orchestre National de France has been calling it home since its founding in 1934.) While mainly a venue for visiting soloists, orchestras and ballets, it does stage a four or five operas each season which, by their quality, are usually high on "must see" lists.
Last night it was the fourth revival of a production of Nozze di Figaro by veteran director Jean-Louis Martinoty which has been around for the past decade. Normally with Rene Jacobs and the Concerto Koln, this run features Marc Minkowski and his early music band, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble. With a particularly young cast this night, it compared well with others in the series with more established names.
One "regular" in this production is baritone Pietro Spagnoli. His Almaviva is polished to perfection after multiple appearances and his expressive gifts make him a critical part of the mix. Others returning include the solid bass Antonio Abete as Bartolo and the radiant mezzo Anna Vonitatibus as Cherubino. But it was the Susanna of Olga Peretyatko (Operalia laureate 2007) and the Contessa, Maija Kovalevska, (Operalia 2006), making her French debut, which most interested me this night. While the TCE usually features Mozart, baroque opera and bel-canto, the exceptions include Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The 2007 performances featured Peretyatko as Anna Truelove and won her critical laurels. Her Susanna was a delight, with an ease of musical delivery belying her age and a self-confidence on stage that suggests a important career in the making. Kovalevska, from Lithuania, has all the vocal gifts necessary for her role and her "Dove sono" was enchantingly sung. But, with a lingering lack of definition in the role itself, her Contessa is still a work in progress.
An appearance by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, as Don Basilio, is always an occasion; this veteran is one of the last remaining trained in traditional French vocal style and his light tenor always glistens. A "haute-contre," he has made a career of Monsieur Triquet from Onegin plus roles like Rameau's Platée, the wonders of which the French have only recently rediscovered. New Yorker Amanda Forsythe made a strong impression as Barbarina and mezzo Sophie Pondjiclis was obviously having fun as Marcellina. Vito Priante, as Figaro, has a clear, flexible baritone but did not seem comfortable in the role and had a tendency to bark.
The director, Martinoty, was present for hands-on direction of this revival and all the characters had clear theatrical definition. The stage was filled with a variety of outsized reproductions of museum art (the long list of works is in the program) which served to accentuate the themes of the acts and the players moved behind and around them during the action. The costumes were richly attractive and traditional. What was apparent, more that usual, was the complex interaction between classes, portraying this with such gusto that would have made Mozart's upscale audiences squirm. Marc Minkowski and his orchestra have been together for a few decades now and are a well-oiled machine. He conducts with brisk tempos - like most 'historically informed" groups - but with an infectious passion about the music that always raises the temperature in the hall. The happy opening night audience threw bravos all around. More important for the artists, it happens that the theater's current director, Dominique Meyer, is taking over the Vienna State Opera in 2010 and a success here might be important for their future.