Prokofiev festival seizes attention in Paris concert halls

It often appears to outsiders that Paris has no real musical identity apart from its world-renowned opera. And yet a major Prokofiev festival was launched here recently, involving several of this city's most prestigious performing ensembles and a rich roster of international performers. For better or worse, Paris's musical life is an made up of a variety of smaller institutions, all vying for attention with the monolithic Th'e^atre National de l'Op'era. Because of the diversity, the focal point of the six-week-long Prokofiev cycle could be regarded as maestro Mstislav Rostropovich rather than any particular institution.

Some of the most prominent orchestras involved are the Orchestre de Paris, the Orchestre National de France, and the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris. In the concluding gala concert (Dec. 21) at the Op'era, the Orchestre de Paris and the Op'era orchestra will join forces to present Prokofiev's Third Symphony and his cantata ``Seven, They Are Seven.''

The 16-program ``Cycle Prokofiev'' is ambitious and eclectic. The big works include concert performances of the operas ``The Flaming Angel'' (reviewed below) and ``War and Peace'' (being performed Dec. 14 at Salle Pleyel), and several of the prominent concertos, including the the Symphony-Concerto as well as the Third Symphony (Dec. 20).

Rostropovich will conduct the Orchestre National de France at Pleyel in a performance of the symphony and then play cello in the elaborate Symphony-Concerto, with Hugh Wolff on the podium.

Six programs of chamber music will involve Rostropovich, his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and some exceptionally talented players.

Several of these programs will be heard at the Pompidou Center, home of IRCAM, Pierre Boulez's contemporary music factory, as well as IRCAM's performance wing, the Ensemble-InterContemporain, which will also offer a program.

Originally the Opera had programmed a new production of ``The Flaming Angel,'' along with a new staging of the ballet ``Cinderella'' for this ambitious cycle.

The latter went on as scheduled. The former was transformed into two concert performances, which was the way the world premi`ere of this work was given here in 1954, 20 months after the composer's passing.

``The Flaming Angel'' cost Prokofiev eight years of creative energy (1919-27) and a lifetime of frustration. When he finally realized that getting this forward-looking work staged would be difficult if not altogether impossible, he transformed major chunks of the work into a Third Symphony, in the hopes of arousing the public's curiosity.

The Third remains something of a novelty in the concert hall and, apart from a staging in Venice in 1955, ``The Flaming Angel'' is an essentially unknown work.

Hearing it in concert makes one marvel that some gifted stage director has not leaped at the opportunity to put it on.

It is a vivid piece, set in 16th-century Germany. The plot revolves around ill-fated Renata, possessed by a devil known as the Flaming Angel, and Ruprecht, the man who loves her. The piece is developed in a series of seven tableaux dispersed over five acts.

The music - now haunting, now savage - conveys the inner state of Renata at every point, and gives us a clear sense of the moods and tensions of each scene.

So imaginative and unusual is the work that one cannot help but wonder if Prokofiev would have evolved into so conservative a composer, had the opera been successfully staged in 1927 or '28.

The opera concert was in the very capable hands of Myung-Whun Chung, who at all times stressed balance and textural clarity - even when the music cried out for sheer impact and a sense of abandon.

Mezzo-soprano Livia Budai underplayed Renata, a role that demands a thrillingly emotive performance style.

Happily, her voice is strong in all registers, though a bit lacking in vibrato in the top notes. Her French could have been better enunciated.

One got a clear sense of Ruprecht from Franz Grundheber - an accomplished baritone with clear ringing top notes, an engaging timbre throughout the voice, and a splendid command of the French language.

Among the supporting singers, Philippe Rouillon's dark bass made for a Faust of particular impact.

Thor Eckert Jr. is the Monitor's music critic.

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