Friday, July 31, 2009
FRENCH OPERETTA IN AIX-EN-PROVENCE AND FRENCH FARCE IN PARIS
Reviewed by James Karas
France produced at least two comic geniuses in the 19th century and each of them perfected his genre to a degree that it has become synonymous with his name. I speak of Jacques Offenbach whose name is synonymous with operetta and Georges Feydeau who perfected the French farce. Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld) is one of the offerings of the Aix-en-Provence Festival and Feydeau’s farce La Dame de chez Maxim (The Lady from Maxim’s) can be seen at the Odeon Theatre in Paris.
Orpheus and Eurydice have inspired over one hundred operas in the last four centuries and some of them are still in the repertoire. What was missing in the long lineup of serious treatments of the subject from Monteverdi to Gluck was an unholy burlesque of the whole pack of them and Offenbach was just the man to do it.
What about the passionate but tragic love of Orpheus for his Eurydice? Nonsense, says Offenbach. She is having an affair with a neighbour called Aristee (Pluto in disguise) and can’t stand her husband or his music. He is a violin teacher and is having it off with one of his students. When she dies, he is elated. Unfortunately, Public Opinion, the keeper of moral standards on earth and on Mount Olympus, intervenes and forces the very reluctant Orpheus to go looking for his wife.
He goes to Mount Olympus where things are even worse than on earth. The gods are as immoral as people and Jupiter, their chief, is the worst offender. But the gods are bored (ambrosia and nectar are not doing it for them) and they rebel. They all go to the Underworld to see how Pluto is living and for Jupiter to see that delectable piece called Eurydice that he heard about.
You get the idea. There is broad humour, the best being provided by Jérôme Billy as John Styx, the drunken former King of Boeotia. Pauline Courtin is a bundle of energy as Eurydice and Julien Behr is the unhappy Orpheus. Francis Bouyer is the horny Jupiter and Emmanuelle de Negri is the wiry Cupid.
It’s all rollicking fun with some sexual stuff thrown in but not overdone. The sex in the Fly Duet is not as raunchy as it can be. Eurydice is chased by Jupiter and when he catches her she places a towel between herself and the audience as he gets down to work. She hits a high note at the climactic point of the duet.
La Dame de chez Maxim is a classic farce. The straight-laced Dr. Lucien Petypon (Nicolas Bouchaud) wakes up under the couch. A strange woman is in his bed and he has no idea how she got there. He recalls going to Maxim’s for a wedding party the night before but ending up with a voluptuous woman in your bed?
His wife (Gabrielle Vonderheyden) walks in and she mistakes la Môme (Norah Krief), the lady from Maxim’s that is, for an angel. The “angel” tells her that if she walks around the Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde she will give birth to a child who will save France. Madame Petypon goes out to do just that.
A farce moves from one crisis to the next with frenetic speed and La Dame is no exception. Petypon’s uncle, General Petypon (Gilles Privat) arrives in from Africa and he mistakes la Môme for Madame Petypon and invites her to the wedding of his adopted daughter at his chateau. La Môme, a rather loose girl of course, knows the prospective groom. Madame Petypon returns from her walk and confusion is piled upon confusion.
The setting is supposed to be a beautiful apartment in Paris and a chateau in the country but director Jean-Francois Sivadier and his designers prefer a largely empty stage with a few props. There are ropes hanging prominently from the ceiling. There is a couch and a bed and a few chairs but not much else. There are no fixed doors but a door is raised and lowered by the ropes now and then. A farce without doors is like a sundae without ice cream.
Sivadier has some difficulty in getting his actors to move around. On several occasions he lines them up in front of the audience and has them deliver their lines directly to us. This is farce and not Brecht for God’s sake.
Overacting is de rigueur in farce; you expect the double-takes, exaggerated facial expressions and the whole frantic running about. When they are not standing facing the audience Sivadier does get them to move but he does not quite know that there can be such a thing as overdoing the overdone.
Farce should involve the audience to such an extent that they scream with laughter at some of the more outrageous scenes. The production did evoke laughter but not the raucous belly laughs that I would have expected from the French at their own game, so to speak.
(Photo: scene from Orphee aux enfers)
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
KING OF THRACE MAKES PARIS DEBUT
DEMOFOONTE AT PALAIS GARNIER
by James Karas
For $64, who was Demophon? And for double the prize who was Niccolo Jommelli and what do the two have to do with each other?
You are probably stumped, but Demophon was a legendary King of Thrace perhaps at the time of the Trojan War. His story is told by an obscure Roman writer of the first century A.D. named Gaius Julius Hyginus. In order to stop a plague, the king had to sacrifice a young noble woman every year drawn by lot. The king did not include his daughters in the draw. In protest, a noble named Mastusius refused to have his own daughter included in the draw and the king killed her. Years later, Mastusis took revenge by killing the king’s daughters and offering a bowl of drink to the king that contained his daughters’ blood.
The story fascinated the great poet and librettist Metastasio and in the early 1730’s he wrote a libretto based on a substantially changed version of that legend. The libretto was a hit and according to one source it became the basis of some eighty operas by 1800. The Neapolitan Jommelli (1714-1774) composed his first version of an opera based on Demophon in 1743 and revised it three times. He called the opera Demofoonte and it is fair to say that it has been largely ignored.
In the Jommelli/Metastasio version, it is that time of the year when King Demofoonte must choose a virgin to be sacrificed to Apollo. Dircea, daughter of the nobleman Matusio seems like an excellent choice. But there are a couple of insurmountable problems. First, Dircea is secretly married to Timante, the heir to the throne and has a child by him. Secondly, as a result of the latter act, she is decidedly not a virgin.
To make things worse, the King has arranged to marry his son Timante to Creusa a Phrygian princess in order to secure good relations with that country. His second son Cherinto is just bringing her over for the wedding to take place.
Princess Creusa arrives but Timante will have nothing to do with her while his brother Cherinto has fallen in love with her. The king is looking for a virgin to sacrifice; Matusio tells his daughter to make herself scarce and there is no end to complications. Dircea and Timante confess that they are married and are on the verge of being put to death when a letter appears indicating that Timante is Matusio’s son. He is married to his sister! We are about a century too early for Sigmund and Sieglinde in the hands of Wagner to do just that, therefore another letter is produced and all the complications are resolved.
The Opera National de Paris assembled a stellar cast and gave the opera a sumptuous production at the magnificent Palais Garnier. Conductor Riccardo Muti chose Jommelli’s fourth and final version (1770) for the work’s premiere by the Paris Opera.
Demofoonte is an opera seria but it straddles the classical period. It looks to Gluck and Mozart but its roots are still in the past. Jommelli provides some wonderful music and even if the plot creaks very badly at times you are carried by the arias and duets to the end without a hitch. King Demofoonte is sung by Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak. He has a light voice that is responsive to the baroque colorations required by the music. Interestingly, this light tenor is the deepest voice in the opera.
Jommelli provides wonderful arias or duets for everybody and Maria Grazia Schiavo sings a splendid Dircea with mezzo soprano Jose Maria Lo Monaco as her husband Timante. Countertenor Antonio Giovannini is Matusio, Dircea’s father and he gives a superb accounting of himself in the role. The excellent cast is completed by soprano Eleonora Buratto as Creusa and soprano Valentina Coladonato as Cherinto.
The Paris Opera production has an alternate cast that sang on June 20. The role of Cherinto was sung by Athenian-born Irini Kyriakidou. The up-and-coming singer has won several vocal competitions and has sung a number of roles in smaller opera houses. In November she is scheduled to sing the role of Diana in Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers at the Thessaloniki Concert Hall.
Demofoonte is a thoroughly enjoyable opera. The characters are still some distance from being human. There is no Figaro measuring his bedroom or Leporello suffering day and night as Don Giovanni’s watchman. But despite that, it provided a great night at the opera.
Monday, July 27, 2009
BOLD PRODUCTION OF MACBETH FALLS FLAT
Reviewed by James Karas
The Scottish pipers blared and the snare drums rolled as the stretch limos pulled up in front of the theatre to let out the luminaries. It was the opening of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and the light drizzle did not stop some enthusiasts from sitting on lawn chairs under their umbrellas to watch the arriving glitterati. The Scottish band was more than usually appropriate because the opening offering of the Festival was Shakespeare’s Scottish play, Macbeth.
Macbeth is of course set in Scotland and tells the story of the overambitious thane and his murderous wife who butcher the king. Des McAnuff, the Festival’s Artistic Director, has decided to set the play in an imaginary modern-day African state in which the officers wear Canadian Forces uniforms, speak with a southern Ontario accent and call their country Scotland.
McAnuff does score some points. The play opens on a battlefield with submachine guns spraying bullets and hand grenades being lobbed. The stage is strewn with the bodies of dead soldiers and from among them rise the Weird Sisters who share the opening lines of the play.
There are some other highly effective scenes. For example at the end of the scene where Banquo (Timothy D. Stickney) is murdered and his son escapes, the lights go out in the confusion. This gives the crew a few seconds of darkness in which to bring the table and chairs and the lights go back on with a bang and we are in the banquet scene. Very effective.
The appearance of Banquo’s ghost at the banquet is effectively done with the actor being raised from a trap door and seated at the table and then lowered down.
That is the good news and I am afraid there is much more bad news in a production that treats most of Shakespeare’s lines matter-of-factly and the emotional range is extremely limited. It is as if the only thing we need is the bang-bang of guns and war without much need to pay attention to the characters or the iambic pentameters that they deliver. You would never know it from this production, but, yes, Shakespeare did write mostly in verse.
The star of the production and surely the main drawing card is Colm Feore as Macbeth. McAnuff will not allow him to display any more emotion than becomes a stiff-upper-lipped general. He strays away from that stricture a few times but it’s as if he is losing temporary control of his emotions. The rest of his lines even his great soliloquies are delivered without much emotion, without poetry and without effect. What a waste of talent.
Yanna McIntosh gets a little more leeway as Lady Macbeth and her mad-walking scene is fine except that she has her back to us much of the time. Se carries a lantern instead of a candle for no good reason. There is a connection between the candle that she carries in that scene and Macbeth’s later comment that life is snuffed out like a candle but details like that do not seem to concern McAnuff.
There is a scene in which Lady Macduff (Sophia Walker) and her children are murdered. Right after that the scene changes to England where Malcolm (Gareth Potter) and Macduff (Dion Johnstone) discuss the sad situation in Scotland. McAnuff changes the order and divides the English scene in two parts. That means that Malcolm and Macduff begin the scene in England. They stop and remain on the stage as the murder of Macduff’s family takes place in front of their eyes. This is a pathetic attempt to improve Shakespeare and the result is confusing, to put it at its highest.
The rest of the cast deliver their lines in workmanlike fashion. Special mention is deserved by Tom Rooney who shone as The Porter. He is the exception and garnered well-deserved applause.
McAnuff has directed Macbeth before. In fact he made his Stratford debut in 1983 directing Nicholas Pennell and Roberta Maxwell in the lead roles. It was a more orthodox production with the barbaric Scots dressed in sheepskins. He must have felt that he needed a bolder and more contemporary approach. Unfortunately the results are not commensurate with the ambition and we are left with a flat and unsatisfactory product that has too many gadgets and not enough Shakespeare. A very bad night at the theatre.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare opened on June 1 and will run until October 31, 2009 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. http://www.stratfordfestival.ca/
(Photo: Colm Feore as Macbeth and Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth
Photo: David Hou)