At the invitation of Jean-Pierre Brossmann, Director
of the Théâtre du Châtelet, the Glyndebourne Festival
shipped over (under?) the channel two of their more successful productions
for four performances each. First off the block, on January 29, was
the superb production of Handel's Rodelinda from the 1998 season followed
the next night with Deborah Warner's acclaimed production of Fidelio,
with Simon Rattle in the pit, which first appeared at the Festival in
May of last year.
The Handel opera was one of those perfect nights at
the theatre that you know only comes around a few times a year. William
Christie, the France-based early music specialist, was in top form conducting
the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the grace and worth of
the music shown in all its glory. This, along with an extraordinarily
fine stage design and direction by a long-time associate of Christie,
Jean-Marie Villégier, made one wonder if this opera has ever
been more perfectly staged. This production is, fortunately, available
on video and should be in the collection of any lover of Handel.
The restrained but glamorous stage images and the costumes,
styled after the early days of black and white Hollywood films, were
combined with taut and carefully controlled stage action. Under Villégier's
detailed direction, the performance had a dramatic tension and viability
confounding all normal expectations of Baroque opera. The singing was
of exceptional quality also. As the fair Rodelinda, Anna Caterina Antonacci
had the necessary fire and spirit for this imposing role. She was paired
with the German counter-tenor star Andreas Scholl who dominated the
stage with his quite lovely voice and commanding theatrical sense. American
tenor Kurt Streit made a strong impression in the role of Grimoaldo,
as did Jean Rigby as Eduige. The high level of singing, acting and music
making will make this a performance that will stay long in the memory
of any lucky enough to be in attendance.
High expectations were also in the air for the performances
of Beethoven's Fidelio under Sir Simon Rattle's leadership. With a dramatically
charged and compelling production by director super-star Deborah Warner,
it would have seemed another sure-fire hit. But all of the various puzzle
pieces that need to produce an acclaimed production were not in place
for the performances at Châtelet. Rattle, conducting the same
orchestra of the night before, seemed to ask too much of the "original
instrument" orchestra and the sound, so clear and elegant the night
before, was ragged and uneasy.
Although he has been conducting this orchestra for
years, his feeling for a "historical informed performance" could be
questioned by some in the audience. Rattle's megawatt musical delivery
and his push-pull of orchestral dynamics stretched this group beyond
their limits and muffed notes, always an issue with baroque-style instruments,
were higher than usual this night. His boys in Berlin can handle that
dynamic with their modern instruments but Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
seemed just harried most of the evening.
The vocal talent was also uneven. Tenor Kim Begley,
our Florestan, was solid and imposing as the imprisoned hero but German
soprano Anne Schwanewilms, the Leonora, although strong of voice, made
little impression in the way of interpretation of the role or legato
singing. Less impressive still was the Rocco of Reinhard Hagen and the
Pizzaro of baritone Steven Page who barked his role rather than sang
it. Toby Spence was the fine Jaquino and Lisa Milne was a sympathetic
With pieces of the puzzle missing, the evening gained
stature by the involving and thoughtful production of Warner. Moved
to more recent times, the First Act set does remind the audience that
this opera is set in a prison. The maze of chain-link fence suggests
a Soviet-era Gulag camp or the in-the-news prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The performers, receiving careful dramatic guidance, give new life to
the drama and the libretto takes on new and engaging importance. This
new relevance, however, sometimes has a price.
The final scene, after the governor arrives to save
the day, the prisoners and their loved ones are united in joyful celebration
with much hugging, back slapping and catching up. While this may be
good drama, it means that the chorus members are not always keeping
their eyes on the conductor with resulting imprecise attacks and general
tentative singing in the most stirring and monumental finale in all
opera. It is hard to imagine a certain predecessor of Rattle in Berlin
tolerating this musical disorder for the sake of the theatrical staging.
One could almost hear the high-pitched whine of Karajan from the grave
"Zu Spät! Zu Spät!"
Given these major quibbles, there is no doubt that
Rattle is presently one of the great conductors on the musical scene.
His intelligent performances are always uncovering new depths to the
music and this Fidelio has much new detail and electricity. Warner's
fresh examination of this often indifferently staged work should also
be welcomed by opera lovers. There was much to admire in this imperfect