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Massenet,  Ariane: Orchestre Symphonique et Choeurs Lyriques de Saint Etienne. Conductor. Laurent Campellone, Grand Théâtre Massenet de Saint Etienne 9.11.2007 (JMI)


New Production

Director: Jean-Louis Pichon
Sets: Alexandre Heyraud
Costumes: Fréderic Pineau
Lighting: Michel Theuil

Ariane: Cecile Perrin
Phedre: Barbara Ducret
Thesée: Luca Lombardo.
Perséphone: Anne Pareuil
Pirithoüs: Ciril Rovery.

In 1990 Saint Etienne decided to organize a Festival dedicated to Jules Massenet, considered to be  the most illustrious son of the city, although he was born in Montaud, a small village close to the capital. The Festival takes place every two years and has been presenting forgotten operas by Massenet, among them Esclarmonde, Le Cid,  Sapho, Roma, Griselidis and Le Roi de Lahore. This year's choice  was Ariane, an almost unknown opera, since its last performance took place in 1937.

Ariane is one of the last operas composed by Massenet, premiered in 1906, and is the result of the composer's  collaboration with the librettist Catulle Mendès, one of the great Wagnerians of his time. Ariane’s music is very surprising, having very little in common with the more popular Massenet operas such as Manon, Werther or Thaïs.  It is a much more Wagnerian work, even in its vocal demands. Ariane is a very pleasant discovery, containing pages of great musical beauty and a very vivid orchestration, while at the same time offers opportunities for vocal brilliance, providing that it has a suitable cast. Some particula highlights are the arioso for Thesée in the first act, the beautiful duet between Thesée and Ariane in Act II, an outstanding duet for Ariane and Phedre and Ariane's big  scena which closes Act III. Act IV is of a lesser interest, with ballet music in the grand opera tradition. Finally,  Ariane's closing scene is a moment of great intensity and musical quality. The opera is very demanding for singers, particularly for the three principals: Ariane, Phedre and Thesée. This is an opera unjustly forgotten, offering  more  interest than others from Massenet, and it could easily become much more popular, if a couple of important sopranos decided  to take it on.

The opera's subject is no  other than the myth of Ariane, abandoned by Thesée in Naxos, after his victory over the Cretan Minotaur. Ariane discovers that Thesée and Phedre are in love, which moves Phedre to commit suicide, full of remorse having betrayed her sister. Ariane, like Orfeo, descends into Hell and convinces Persephone to give back her sister, delivering her to Thesée, while Ariane remains in Naxos, deciding to end her life there.

The production is by  Jean-Louis Pichon, who is also General Director of the theater. The stage presents a reproduction of a natural amphitheater, with the choir moving about on the tiers. All of it is beautifully directed and the costume designs,  all based on Greek tunics in contrasting colours,  are  particularly interesting . This is one of those productions in simplicity comes together with carefully judged aesthetics and stage direction. The final scene is one of spectacular beauty.

Laurent Campellone seems to me an outstanding conductor, particularly in Massenet whose work has become very important, always  presented with great intensity. If four years ago he seemed  to me an excellent promise in Massenet’s Sapho, on this occasion I found his conducting remarkable and formed a very good impression too of  the Orchestre Symphonique de Saint-Etienne.

Ariane was sung by Cécile Perrin, whose performance was absolutely convincing. She is a very interesting singer, expressive and moving. Her use of mezza voce was stunning and she was the clear leader among a  generally strong cast. The character requires a full lyric soprano with strong personality and important acting skills:  it would be difficult to improve on her interpretation of the opera's  final scene.

Phédre, Ariane's  sister, is a character of a great dramatic strength, requiring a powerful  dramatic soprano or a mezzo with a strong upper register. The young French soprano Barbara Ducret does not have quite the voice needed for the role as yet, turning out somewhat immature for  the role's demand. Micaela or Blanche de la Force, both roles she has performed successfully, have not much in common with Phedre.

Thésée is also demanding. The role needs a lyric tenor in the first two acts, changing into a more dramatic part from then on. This would be  perfect role for a younger Domingo or today’s Alagna, although it is difficult to see any tenor star in  this opera, as  the real prominence goes to  the women. Luca Lombardo was very  suitable however,  even though fulfilling his task with more dignity than brilliance.

Pirithoüs, Thésée’s friend, was baritone Cyril Rovery, an adequate enough singer, but with a  voice of lower quality than the other principals.  Anne Pareuil gave a fine interpretation of Perséphone with an attractive voice and decent singing, although I believe that the character really demands a contralto to deal with its lower  compass.

Jean-Louis Pichon also includes  a narrative actor (Patrice Kahlhoven) in this production,  who explained the action with great personality and effectiveness. TV cameras were present in a packed house and it seems likely  that there will be a DVD of the opera. It is certainly worth a wider audience.

Jose M. Irurzun



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