Rare operas add spice, at the Met and in Brussels, Prague too

Most opera companies, especially in America, make ends meet doing a very few “standard repertory” of works: the bread-and-butter French and Italian well-known names, with the occasional “Salome” or “Eugene Onegin” to enliven the mix. We in New York are far luckier, but even with two major houses and several concert opera groups, there are still many highly interesting scores one could go a lifetime without hearing live. Anniversaries can help out.

Recently a European journey gave me the chance to see two centennial productions in the theaters where the works had first been performed. In cases in which the composer in fact intended the work for a specific house, the orchestration reflects his sense of that space.

A classic example of this is hearing “Parsifal” at Bayreuth—a theater built in part to house that opera. In fact, both 1903 works that I heard were part of the “Wagnerisme” movement that followed the death of the… um… “Master,” and drew on “Tristan” and “Parsifal,” especially Ernest Chausson’s lush “Le Roi Arthus” (“King Arthur”) at Brussels’ Monnaie and Eugen d’Albert’s intense “Tiefland” (“Lowland”) at Prague’s State Opera, known a century ago as the Neues Deutsches Theater.

Chausson, the only composer of note to die in a bicycle accident, fashioned his own very pre-Raphaelite libretto about Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot (Mordred is a bit part, and no one sings “If ever I would leave you”). The selfish, irresolute lovers do not emerge either sympathetic or particularly interesting until the end, when Genièvre (as she is here) strangles herself with her own hair, a gesture that sums up Wagnerisme pretty well. Their music is heavily orchestrated and demanding, and the young Belgian dramatic soprano Hélène Bernardy made a brave stab at the role, singing with power and passion. I’d like to hear her as Sieglinde. Tenor Douglas Nasrawi, strangely unwigged to play a young medieval knight, showed musicianship and style, but a fundamentally unattractive timbre.

King Arthur himself is finely portrayed, with two wonderful scenes: a midnight colloquy with the vanished Merlin, just a disembodied face in a tree—a highly impressive bass Olivier Lallouette, on video hookup—and a wonderful Wotan’s Farewell-meets-Prospero’s finale, with the elderly king abandoning his sword to the waves, bidding goodbye to power and Britain, and ascending into heaven accompanied by Gounod-like angels. This proved irresistibly moving. American baritone Andrew Schroeder (a City Opera veteran) made an impressive local debut as Arthur: solid, incisive and stylish, if probably lighter of voice than the part’s originator, Henri Albers.

Daniele Callegari’s orchestra did the music full justice, and Matthew Jocelyn’s intelligent spare Robert Wilsoneque production, with excellent sets and costumes by Alain Lagarde, furnished some unforgettable images using stuffed peacocks and suits of armor as heraldic devices. The Monnaie is a historic, gracious theater that recently has returned to a very high standard. Just ten minutes’ walk from Brussels’s glorious town square (and gay neighborhood). Vaut le voyage!

Prague’s State Opera is even more beautiful, dazzling white, gold and red like a High Baroque cathedral. Productions there vary between tourist-friendly and innovative, but “Tiefland” was very good—well prepared both musically (Hilary Griffiths) and dramatically (Heinz Lukas Kindermann). Based on an 1864 Catalan play, it packs a punch. Pedro, a naïve shepherd brought down from the mountains to marry Marta, a Lulu-like waif/dancer/powerful man’s mistress, liberates her by killing the landowner Sebastiano, who had hoped to continue his illicit affair with Marta while marrying an heiress. The new couple is free to return to the bucolic mountains.

Much of the musical interest is in the orchestra, but both Marta and her young confidante Nuri have some sympathetic music to sing, and both were excellent here. Maida Hundeling is a clear comer, a beautiful and passionate actress with a strong, clear voice. She made Marta utterly credible, which is no easy task. As Nuri, Alena Medková won all hearts with a lovely, personal timbre and genuine stage charm. Sebastiano was Richard Haan, a tall, striking baritone thoroughly at home on the stage—maybe because he seems to sing literally every night, making a fine instrument intermittently hoarse. Pedro (like Lancelot a “Lohengrin part”) was Peter Svensson, made to look silly by the costumer and stretched at the top but at least idiomatic and committed. Daniel Dvorák’s fine set placed the action in an early 20th century factory, evoking the robber baron era back to which we seem to be hurtling today.

Though not ideally cast as to vocal weight, Soile Isokoski currently shows her excellent voice and serious artistry as Rachel, the title part in the Met’s own worthy “revaluation,” Fromental Halévy’s “La Juive” (1835). Most of the audience seemed primed to wait only for “the big aria,” Eléazar’s superb “Rachel, quand du Seigneur,” but there are considerable musical rewards along the way. If no masterpiece, “La Juive” is a skilful and influential work (listen for what Wagner borrowed for “Rheingold”) and certainly well worthy of reintroduction into the house’s repertoire, even if ideal casting for the very difficult leads seems likely to prove elusive. The enterprise centered around the Eléazar of Neil Shicoff, in powerful current form—leathery tone but with strong high notes). Shicoff was certainly not afraid of showing the less likable side of this inflexible character, but conveyed his dignity and faith as well. The aria, borne down upon with pointedly cantorial inflection, was way slow and shorn of its cabaletta, but made an effect.

As Rachel’s triply unsuitable—married, Christian, and noble, at least in class terms—Léopold, one of opera’s worst cads, Eric Cutler displays a fine-timbred tenor but (understandably) shows strain in the cruelly testing upper reaches. As his royal wife, Elizabeth Futral looked great and sounded (as often, to my ears) glassy and anonymous. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Cardinal Brogni offered excellent presence and feeling and a resonant voice not quite sufficient at the bottom; the contrast between his verbal brilliance as Mozart’s Figaro the night before and his mushily approximate French here was marked. Stylistically, the best work was by Julien Robbins, as the secondary provost Ruggiero, a well-heeled sanctimonious bigot ripe for the Family Research Council.

Marcello Viotti led the (cut) score with affection. Wayne Chouinard’s lighting and Isabel Ines Glathar’s costumes were the best elements of the updated-to-the-1880s Viennese production, in which Günter Krämer managed to muff and obscure (in an unbelievable final 30 seconds) one of the great coups de theatre in all of opera. Everyone complained about this in Vienna; doesn’t the house ever seek to improve upon imported stagings?

You must travel to see “Le roi Arthus” or “Tiefland.” The Met’s flawed but highly compelling “La Juive” continues December 5, 9, 13 and 19. It should not be missed. Plus the house has yet another worthy rarity opening: Berlioz’ colorfully scored “Benvenuto Cellini” (1838) starring Marcello Giordani and Isabel Bayrakdarian, with performances between December 4 and New Year’s Day. “Madama Butterfly” can wait!


David Shengold writes for Opera News, Opera,

Playbill, Time Out New York, and other venues.

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