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Seen and Heard Festival Review


2004 Montpellier Festival: Operas by Richard Strauss, Mariotte and Melani reviewed by Frank Cadenhead


At the July Festival Radio France/Montpellier, the feeling of disarray hung in the air like fog. Last year the festival was cancelled in a wave of strikes by performing arts technicians and backstage personnel. It was back in business this year thanks to concessions to the unions. But ultimately, there was only a feeling of being at loose ends. The much-anticipated performance of the 1852 work, Giuseppe of Pietro Raimondi (which, remarkably, featured three different oratorios performed at the same time!) was rescheduled for the following year for vague reasons. The final theater work of the pen of Richard Strauss, Des Esels Schatten, proved to be of little consequence and a "banned" opera of Antoine Mariotte, another treatment of Wilde’s play, Salomé, exhibited a painful lack of inspiration.


The event has many fans who look forward to the festival, now in its 24th year. The daring, often offbeat programming often helped revive unjustly forgotten works. An example: the opera Macbeth of the Swiss composer Ernest Bloch. Now mostly known for his eloquent work for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, the concert performance of his opera at the festival’s 1997 edition, and the subsequent recording, caused many to reassess Bloch’s skill in composing for the theater. This fine work is on the list at the Frankfurt Opera this season.


The festival’s creator and director since the beginning has been René Koering. His long association with Radio France has given this festival a high profile and most of its major concerts are broadcast on Radio France’s classical music station, France Musiques. Strauss has always been central to the planning in recent years and includes a notable Daphné (1993), Guntram (1997) and an Elektra from 1995, featuring Behrens and Varnay that is still talked about with gushy reverence. Available on CD is a wondrous discovery, the 1998 revival of Le Livre de la jungle (Jungle Book) of Charles Koechelin. The list of works so far performed, including Ernest Reyer’s Wagnerian-style opera Sigurd and Oscar Strauss’ cheeky Ces sacrés Nibelungen, is impressive by any measure.


Des Esels Schatten (The Donkey’s Shadow) is a work Strauss composed as a present for the school his grandson attended, the Abbey of Ettal in Bavaria, in 1948. Taken from a 1774 satire which takes place in 400 BC Greece, it is thin on humor and lacking any significant satirical bite. Yet the drama, with Strauss’ incidental music which accompanies it (about 25 minutes or so), was fully translated into French, the music re-orchestrated and given two staged performances at the Charles Garnier-designed Opéra Comédie. Koering saw fit to add his own contemporary touches like an introduction of a Batman theme from the movie and the appropriation of a well-known advertising jingle from French TV. But even Strauss borrowed music from his Ariadne auf Naxos to fill up the time. Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha and the Orchestre National de Montpellier played what little music there was with gusto and tenor Jean-Luc Viala was the high spirited donkey-driver, Antrax. Fanciful décor and costumes were by Makhi Xenakis but all the effort expended produced but few laughs and ultimately, as the evening drew on, only tedium.


The connection with Strauss and the Mariotte opera Salomé was that Strauss’ legal team sent a letter to the French composer warning of legal action if the opera was performed as Strauss claimed exclusive right to the Wilde play. He finally relented and the opera, composed almost simultaneously as the better-known version by Strauss, was finally produced in Lyon in 1908. Mariotte was a naval officer who abandoned his career for composition. From the experience of the concert version of his opera on July 21 at Montpellier‘s modern Salle Berlioz, he should have stuck with his original calling. His drama is also in one act, running about 90 minutes and, not including the fuss over religion, well focused on the four lead characters. The story was effectively framed and the orchestration was thick but one waited in vain for even a hint of creative inspiration or engaging melody. The program indicated the music was closer to Debussy than to Strauss but this listener detected little to stamp this as from the Impressionist School. It seemed to be generic, formula music-making that stormed and swooned to no effect. This opera makes minor French composers from the period, like Vincent d’Indy (one of the composer’s teachers) seem, in comparison, like Mozart.


It was not for lack of effort that this fell flat. French mezzo Nora Gubisch in the title role gave a passionate, engaged performance which reinforced again her credentials as a major interpretive artist. Baritone Laurent Naouri sang strongly his Iokanaan and Swiss mezzo Julia Juon was a Hérodiade to be reckoned with. Friedmann Layer, Music Director of the Orchestre National de Montpellier, played the notes as well as could be expected. Many of the same cast will return next year when both the Strauss and Mariotte operas will be back to back in the regular season in Montpellier.


As if to show that not every unknown composer deserves his fate, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, gave a concert performance of Alessandro Melani’s early (1669) treatment of the Don Giovanni story, L’Empio punito. Performed at the Opera on July 23, it proved to be a frequently engaging retelling. Melani was at his most moving when voices had a chance to blend in duets and trios. Staunchly supported by Rousset and his eight member band of historically informed performers, Anna-Lise Sollied sang the role of Atamira with a voice that seemed to be more appropriate for Wagner and Strauss. Young French soprano Gaële Le Roi continues to impress in the rich Don role, Acrimante.


The awesome presence of Russian piano virtuoso Evgeny Kissin provided the only fireworks of the week of festival performances I saw. Here playing duets with the young cellist Alexander Kniazev, every inch his equal in virtuosity, it was a program (Brahms, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov) to remember. Other concert series, in addition to orchestras and soloists, were a significant series of emerging artists. The young Cuban pianist I caught, Mauricio Vallina, might be advised to go back and listen to recordings of his earlier compatriot Jorge Bolet. He will hear a pianist whose virtuosity served the music, not the other way around.


Next summer is the 25th anniversary of the festival. One can only hope that the works to be featured have more musical meat on their bones than those of this year. A Strauss work of no more than academic interest and an opera that would be been better left unheard are not worthy standard bearers of a major French music festival.


Frank Cadenhead




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