Opera de Paris — La Rentree

The Before picture (c) Susan Brodie

Opéra de Paris has done some clean-up over the summer. At the Palais Garnier a restaurant has opened in the back of the building, facing the Apple Store across the street. The controversial design features walls of undulating white marble, red upholstery, and vast expanses of glass that somehow met the approval of the historic monuments people. Food and service have pleased the critics somewhat less, though it seems to be crowded whenever I walk by. More pleasingly, the Chagall gracing the ceiling of the auditorium appears to have been cleaned, with brighter colors increasing the sparkle of the grand space.

Onstage the revival of Willy Decker’s 1997 production of La Clemenza di Tito was stylish and satisfying in the hands of conductor Adam Fischer. Titus is a character who simply seems too good to be true, but Decker’s production made some sense of the man. He’s first shown as a reluctant ruler; during the course of the drama he learns to find his way as a leader, but he ends up utterly alone. Titus’s inner evolution was reflected by the large block of stone that dominated the simple set: as the ruler matured, the block progressively took shape as an outsized bust of the Emperor.

Klaus Florian Vogt is no Mozart stylist, but his clear, strong voice and innocent demeanor were perfect for the too-good-to-be-true Titus, and other than the coloratura he managed the punishing part with ease. Stephanie d’Oustrac, in her first major Paris Opera role, was boyishly ardent and vocally sumptuous as Sesto. Another non-Mozartian, Hibla Gerzmava as Vitellia was nonetheless a revelation, despite insufficient contrast between her plush timbre and that of Sesto. Amel Brahim-Djelloui was delightful as Servilia. Best of all, Fischer breathed life and eloquence into the orchestral gestures. A very good evening.

Across town at Bastille the Opéra has claimed back the grand staircase from the guitar players and winos, allowing (able-bodied) patrons already holding tickets to enter the orchestra level directly. Standees have now been banished  to the top side galleries, and the old downstairs standing-room area has been fitted with seats.

And onstage, another old production has been dug out of storage, Andre Engel’s 1997 production of Salome. Set in a Strauss-era Turkish interior, stone latticework admitted only filtered light while spotlights trained on the intimate interactions. A few western travelers are on hand to witness the depravity as guests of the Tetrarch. Careful restaging made for blocking responsive to musical details, vividly brought out by Pinchas Steinberg’s fine conducting.

I originally had intended to skip this show because Angela Denoke, wonderful as she was in last year’s Katya Kabanova, didn’t strike me as the voice for Salome, an instinct confirmed by her performance.  She managed her resources with terrific skill and never quite came to vocal grief, but the sound was far from sumptuous, even difficult to hear towards the back of the orchestra section (though that was partly Steinberg’s fault). Her alluring and pathologically spoiled teenager was quite persuasive, however, and she looked and moved marvelously, even in one of the sillier Dances I’ve ever witnessed (really, would this teenager actually waltz with her creepy stepfather?). Juha Uusitalo was a bit generic in his angry zeal, but was far more audible than when heard previously on this stage singing Wagner. Stig Andersen played Herod as a harried bureaucrat who didn’t quite understand how to deal with his unexpected lust for his wife’s alluring but monstrous daughter. Isabelle Druet as the page sounded lush if a bit too mature; s/he pulled off a coup de theatre as Salome’s self-appointed executioner, grabbing a dagger to slit her throat.

It’s a great score, and the music was played well, but this wasn’t a must-see performance.