Hardly April, But Opera Displays Its Revitalizing Blooms In City Of Light 

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Beatrice (Tamara Wilson) defies her husband Filippo (Quinn Kelsey, at left) and his seven-person ‘KGB squad’ in the Paris Opera production of Bellini’s ‘Beatrice di Tenda.’ (Photo by Franck Ferville)

PARIS — In an era when so many opera companies are struggling to fill seats and dialing back adventuresome programming, it was salutary to see three very fine, starry, and basically sold-out Paris Opera productions within one week. Alexander Neef, general director since 2021, has faced critics — inevitable in this post — and crises (like Gustavo Dudamel’s resignation as music director last year) but is surely doing something right.

The revelation came with the new production (seen at its opening Feb. 9) of Bellini’s often overlooked Beatrice di Tenda, an 1833 historically based opera seria. With commendable results, Neef entrusted the work to conductor Mark Wigglesworth — new to the score — and Peter Sellars, a director more revered and seen in France than in his native United States these last three decades. Beatrice, with its dark story of injustice along both class and gender lines and subtly unconventional musical structure, had long intrigued Sellars. He tends in public statements to attribute his own ideological impulses to the creators of works he directs — finding Mozart consciously opposing slavery in Zaïde, for example — but one didn’t have to sign on to all his claims (“Bellini’s million-dollar tunes are not only addictive earworms but are now the sound of popular resistance movements, creating a collective solidarity”) or interpretive choices to appreciate the detail and power he brought to Beatrice.

George Tsypin’s Visconti ducal palace set evoked a Trumpish compound, open to constant electronic and human specularity. No one is safe from the ambitious Duke Filippo (Quinn Kelsey), least of all his older wife Beatrice (Tamara Wilson) and the protesting subjects she supports, including Orombello (Pene Pati), who loves her but is loved by Filippo’s mistress, Agnese (Theresa Kronthaler). A soured marriage, romantic rivalry, and politics inflame the plot, as in Anna Bolena, and ultimately Orombello and Beatrice are tortured and (wrongly) executed.

Wigglesworth had his very strong and dramatically committed cast eschew unwritten high notes and deliberate pauses for applause; the continuity enhanced a dream/nightmare quality that flattered Bellini’s outstanding elegiac passages. The versatile Wilson — after a reportedly thrilling debut with the company as Turandot — sang Beatrice’s complex roulades with ease and beautiful sound. Pani brought fine legato to Orombello’s long lines, and Kelsey articulated both sides of Filippo’s dangerously conflicted nature. His cavatina, “Qui mi accolse oppresso, errante,” was flawless Bellinian singing.

In concert, Beatrice is not unknown in New York: Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne made their local debuts in a 1961 showing with Richard Cassilly, and the Collegiate Chorale presented Angela Meade, Jamie Barton, and Michael Spyres in 2012. But staging it confirmed the work’s dramatic originality and viability. The Metropolitan Opera would do well to import Sellars’ insightful production along with Wilson, Kelsey, and Pati (or Spyres). But, please, pare down the gun squad of seven that raced around the stage at the slightest provocation — “fake realism” at its most risible, a detriment to an otherwise convincing directorial vision.

Alfredo (René Barbera) intercepts the texts of the fleeing Violetta (Nadine Sierra) in the Paris Opera production of Verdi’s ‘La traviata.’ (Photo by Vahid Amanpour)

The following night, the broad Bastille stage channeled a very different look and ethos: Simon Stone’s 2019 La traviata, steeped in social-media imagery and technology. Violetta Valéry here is not a courtesan but a contemporary influencer, trailing tabloid “homewrecker” headlines that put Alfredo’s sister’s marriage in jeopardy. The design team (Bob Cousins, sets; Alice Babidge, costumes; James Farncombe, lights; Zakk Hein, video) went for bright, blinking, circulating, and gigantic — and got there. Digital text was everywhere. In general, I confess to skepticism about this kind of one-phrase concept (“The Weimar Rigoletto,” anyone?) but here, hurrah, Stone’s gambit worked.

Unlike his “rust belt” Lucia at the Met, which betrayed a director and design team who understood the reality they portrayed only through filmed and televised versions of American life, here the evocation of Parisian demimonde life seemed pretty authentic and first-hand. (I’d except the outrageous dress-up party at Flora’s, a scene I have never seen staged convincingly in many decades of Traviata-going.) The action drifted from realistic (Alfredo’s gardening in Act 2) to symbolic and repetitive (Violetta traversing identical cityscapes on either end of her arc with her final — perhaps one should say her only — romance). But it presented a unified vision that clearly held the audience — much of it young — captivated and attentive to the music.

Giacomo Sagripanti conducted a fine performance, allowing second verses of cabalettas and opening most cuts, though some written cadenzas were simplified. He had three very satisfying principals to work with. Nadine Sierra was an utterly compelling Violetta — the best work I’ve seen in a career I’ve followed since 2011. She has an excellently trained and appealing-sounding voice, though not one whose timbre I instantly recognize. But complete technical security and unflappable charisma onstage allowed her to draw a complex and moving portrait and do full justice to Verdi’s music. She scored a deserved triumph.

As Alfredo, René Barbera may look less the jeune premier than the original staging’s Benjamin Bernheim, but a certain teddy-bear charm prevailed, and he and Sierra worked very well together in duets. His well-knit lyric tenor could soar when needed, and he even pulled off the dangerous unwritten high C capping “O mio rimorso.” Ludovic Tézier, as Germont, had opened the production, and he remains one of the great Verdi baritones active (although not the only one, as many of my French colleagues assert). Sometimes diffident onstage, Tézier here could have been acting in a movie, and his warm sound projected with ease and impact.

Handel’s Giulio Cesare, in the historic Palais Garnier — gaudily stunning, more intimate if not possessed of comfortable seats — played Feb. 12 in Laurent Pelly’s droll if sometimes overegged 2011 staging, created around Natalie Dessay’s Cleopatra. At this point, productions involving museum cases and statues of the historical characters singing onstage seem less than novel, as does “shocking,” unscripted oral sex simulation, a trope dating back at least to John Dexter’s 1979 Met Mahagonny. But Pelly keeps things lively, sometimes at the expense of more private moments in Handel’s score.

Lisette Oropesa shone as Cleopatra in the Paris Opera production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare.’ (Photo by Vincent Ponte)

The score was in the experienced, proficient hands of Harry Bicket, who here was allowed a fuller text and fewer trimmed da capo structures than in his yearly touring Handelian events. It was musically very strong, though Bicket does seem to advocate or tolerate a particular stylistic tic — overambitiously high cadenzas near the end of repeated ‘A’ sections — that brought nearly every member of his fine, stylistically tuned cast some trouble. Only Lisette Oropesa’s Cleopatra — like Dessay’s an amusingly self-delighted flirt who matures emotionally through suffering — escaped unscathed. Once past an uneven “Non disperar,” the American soprano could do pretty much everything Handel (and Pelly) asked of her, with great élan and beautiful tone. Why the top-of-form Oropesa isn’t at the Met yearly — or slotted for its upcoming Semele — remains a mystery.

In the title role, mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez made an impressive showing both as actor and musician; the ecstatic “Se fiorito” proved a highlight. Everyone shone, though the much-hyped Emily D’Angelo continues to be a work in progress. Completely credible as the frustrated teenage hero Sesto, she tended to monochrome sound, though the quiet opening of “Cara speme” pleased, as did her bravura traversal of the usually cut final “La giustizia.” Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s cool contralto suited Cornelia. Unbecomingly saddled with Elizabeth Taylor wig and eye makeup but mercifully unhooty, countertenor Iestyn Davies showed his accustomed style and command of line as Tolomeo. The lone native Italian speaker, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni (Achilla), sounded tonally fresher but also technically rougher than in recent years.

The venerable Art Deco Théâtre des Champs-Elysées provides something all North America cities lack: frequent high-quality concert opera of all types. Feb. 8 welcomed a bracing touring attraction, with Maxim Emelyanychev leading his energetic, excellent ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro with their regular collaborator Joyce DiDonato, clearly beloved in Paris. The American mezzo-soprano’s first-ever Dido and Aeneas proved absolutely spellbinding, with ravishing timbre binding Purcell’s unparalleled prosody to commanding, affecting ends. Outstanding support came from liquid-voiced Fatma Saïd (Belinda), characterful and musical contralto Beth Taylor (a Sorceress loaded for bear dramatically, black-clad and venomous), and fluid, warm countertenor Hugh Cutting (Spirit).

Aeneas’ baritenor music lay low for Andrew Staples, but this frankly secondary character rarely makes much impact. Happily, the tour will end in a recording session. Staples’ skill impressed considerably more in the title role of the curtain raiser, 1648’s influential Jephté by Giacomo Carissimi (1605-74), who codified the genre of Latin oratorio. A moving work, well served by Emelyanychev, it nevertheless paled before Purcell’s Shakespearean range and sheer danceability.

Another great advantage of Parisian opera travel: Several significant theaters lie within easy day-trip reach, especially for matinées, in Versailles, Rouen, Lille, and Brussels. At the last city’s historic La Monnaie, music director Alain Altinoglu has manifestly upped the orchestra standard since I last visited in 2015. In Feb. 11’s Die Walküre, his tempi and dynamic levels were often restrained, suiting both the intriguing but dreamlike, at times almost ritualistic Regie of Romeo Castellucci and the capacities of an able but not traditionally heroic cast. The playing was consistently admirable, with expertly blended string tone and (rare enough in Wagner) beautifully controlled horns. The oboes and bassoons also shone.

Bass-baritone Gábor Bretz made an impressive role debut as Wotan in the Brussels production of ‘Die Walküre’ at La Monnaie. (Photo by Monika Rittershaus)

Castellucci is an auteur, handling direction, sets, costumes, and lights. His symbolism, here not always fully perceptible under largely dim lighting, produced some stunning imagery, with an accent on the story’s sanguinary, savage aspect. For all the blood, the Sieglinde/Siegmund romance took on a credible sexiness achieved but rarely in this piece. A roaming black dog embodied Hunding’s posse (and also got the first curtain call). Actual doves dominated the Fricka scene (live-wire but strident contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux might fare better as Erda), and horses paraded around in Act 3, with the Valkyries dragging on completely naked male “hero” corpses, among the few objects Castellucci thought to light brightly.

Vocally, everyone was at least adequate. Ingela Brimberg, if not special of timbre, was a practiced and moving Brünnhilde. But the big takeaway was Gábor Bretz in his impressive role debut run as Wotan. He wielded a striking, resonant bass-baritone still retaining considerable dynamic pliability, used with style (though even more verbal point will surely come in the towering Act 3 farewell). Let’s hope Bretz continues to perform lighter repertoire, but this performance marked a very promising development. To be in a city where a Ring is being forged has a special excitement. The Brussels audience feted Altinoglu and his forces warmly.