Paris Op'era gains from smallish hall, but sound isn't all

Two recent evenings at the Th'e^atre National de l'Op'era offered me a chance to sample Verdi's ``Don Carlos'' and Strauss's ``Salome'' in the ``concept'' production style favored in Europe these days. So pervasive is this style, that the more traditional ``story telling'' approach is rarely to be encountered here. I also was reminded of how an operatic evening seems to improve just by being in an old and atmospheric theater. These smaller European houses (the Palais Garnier, home of the Op'era, seats 2,158) are also kind to the human voice.

Unfortunately, I was also made aware of just how far this company had slipped in influence and reputation during this century. And, despite a decade in which Rolf Liebermann tried to make Paris once again the operatic center of Europe (and he was given financial carte blanche to do it), the company remains in turmoil and without clear artistic profile.

Its latest general adminstrator, Jean-Louis Martinoty, is a stage director and former critic. He has not been in place long enough for anyone to know whether he can bring peace to the troubled house. Unfortunately, because of a 24-hour musicians strike, I was unable to see his staging of Strauss's ``Ariadne auf Naxos'' at the Op'era-Comique (or Salle Favart).

The ``Don Carlos'' was viewed by French critics as a complete failure, and surely the cast was so inadequate as to make one's head spin. Granted, most of the first-announced principals pulled out either prior to or during rehearsals. Nevertheless, most of the singers heard at the 13th and final performance of the French version (the production returns at the end of the season in Italian) were originally scheduled for their parts during this run.

Sergei Koptchak droned relentlssly through the role of Philippe II, and Mich`ele LaGrange was hopelessly miscast as Elizabeth, though the voice is basically pretty. Two of the singers who were booed struck me as deserving of the negative accolade: Nadine Denize had neither the notes, the enunciational clarity, nor the presence for the glamorous Princess Eboli; and Richard Stillwell brought a tired, far-too-small voice to the role of Posa as well as a frenetic old-movie acting style.

Jean Dupouy, the Carlos, possesses a hard-edged tenor voice of no particular allure, but the voice never really tired, so one must be grateful for small benefits. Also his diction was impeccable.

The production, by Swiss director Marco Arturo Marelli, was one of those concept events so dear to the hearts of those European directors who mask their lack of theatrical craftsmanship with an intellectual conceit. In this instance, the Paris Op'era painted drop curtain was, quite literally, the conceit. Mr. Marelli designed, or rather, re-created it in billowing quantities of black velvet with silver trim. This black creation moved in every possible manner, and even became something like a protective awning in the ``auto-da-f'e'' scene. In short, it become a kind of protagonist in the performance, hiding this singer or that part of the set to always give the sense that something was going on behind it.

Marelli's ``Don Carlos,'' unfolding on a set that suggested the bare walls of the Op'era stage, attempted to universalize this drama of power and individuality within a church-dominated state. While his approach was not especially human, it did allow one to sense that church domination as well as the stilted life of the Spanish court.

Fortunately, Georges Pr^etre in the pit managed to bring these wildly disparate elements of production and the erratic singing together into a whole. Mr. Pr^etre kept the orchestra dominant, never let the drama lag, and always set tempos that judiciously masked the singers' weaknesses. He made one think about Verdi, about this opera, and about the extraordinary vision that went into this magnificent work.

The performing edition offered as much of the original 1866 Paris version we are ever apt to hear. It was dramatic proof that Verdi's original ideas were a magnificent achievement and ought to be the preferred version when doing the grand-opera ``Don Carlos.'' In no way is it acceptable to do the Italian version with a modified Paris first act tagged on. This hybrid does Verdi's singularly French creation tremendous damage.

The Jorge Lavelli production of ``Salome,'' new last May, is set in designer Max Bignens's post-nuclear war bunker. It is backed by stylized sand dunes in which are half-buried a Greco-Romanesque column, a life-size crucifix, the front section of a blown-up Jeep, and the wing of a downed airplane. The royal family behave like patients in a mental institution. Poor Herodias (Viorica Cortez) runs around petting her red gloves and making wild faces at inappropriate moments.

Edda Moser, the barefoot Salome, was clad in a simple black dress, and Lavelli made her prance around and try to suggest impetuous adolescence, rather than play off her own striking good looks and innate grace. It must also be said that in no way did the voice - once an impressive dramatic coloratura soprano - in any way suggest an affinity to the Straussian idiom.

John Brocheler's impressive, vibrantly acted Jochanaan and Robert Tear's insidiously neurotic Herod carried the vocal/histrionic honors. And in the pit, young Danish conductor Michael Schoenwandt gave a thrilling account of the score - at once very considerate of his singers, yet always alert to the dramatic thrust and the sheer impact of Strauss's orchestration. It was as impressive a performance of the score as I have heard in a theater.

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