Monday 28 August 2006

Review of Herodiade

The plot of Massenet’s Herodiade makes the Strauss/Wilde Salome seem a model of common sense and compression. It was Massenet’s 2nd full length opera, coming after Le Roi de Lahore. The subject matter, combining as it does overheated eroticism, sex and biblical characters, meant that the Paris Opera rejected it. It was premiered at the Monnaie in Brussels in 1881. Massenet revised it as there were complaints about the incoherence of the plot. The revised version was performed in Paris at the Theatre des Italiens in 1884. The Paris Opera did not perform it until 1921.

The plot concerns the familiar pseudo-Biblical characters, but not as we know them. To make the piece work it must be performed with the utmost commitment. The slightest hint of send-up would be fatal. Dorset Opera, performing at the Coade Hall at Bryanston School on Saturday August 20th, gave the piece wholeheartedly without the slightest trace of a knowing smile. Much to their credit.

Salome (Christine Arand, soprano) is virginal and naïve (emphasised by her 1950’s sub-Dior costume, complete with white gloves and hat). She has been abandoned as a child and was taken under the wing of Jean (Ian Storey, tenor) and his followers. For some reason that is unclear, Salome has come to Jerusalem looking for her mother. She spends the whole opera in love with Jean, in a simple pure way. They have a love scene, when Jean admits he loves her, just before Jean’s death.

Both Jean and Salome seem to be able to wander in and out of the royal palace at will. Jean’s principal function seems to be to make pronouncements which either annoy Herodiade or inflame the populace.

Herodiade (Rosalind Plowright, mezzo-soprano, in superb disdainful mode) abandoned child Salome and first husband so she could marry Herod (Franco Pomponi, baritone). Apart from one brief moment when she considers what she has lost by denying herself as a mother, Herodiade is a full on bitch.

Herod is weak. He’s infatuated with Salome despite the fact he’s only glimpsed her. When not salivating about her, he’s agitating against the Roman occupiers. This he does very incompetently and has to be rescued by Herodiade, who seems a better political operator and the dominant figure in the partnership.

The extra characters are Vitellius (Jeffrey Carl), the Roman commander, and Phanuel (Bernard Deletre, bass) a sage and philosopher whose role seems to be to fill in gaps and further the plot. He is the only person in whom Herodiade has confided the truth of Salome’s birth.

The production, by William Relton, designed by Cordelia Chisholm used a basic neoclassical set which could be dressed in various ways helped by Paul Need’s atmospheric lighting. Into this set, the production was firmly set in the 1950’s. The results were remarkably convincing, allowing for the faults of Massenet’s dramaturgy.

Herodiade is not the largest of roles in the opera, but Plowright dominated whenever she was on stage. She is a singer with the gift of being able to project a character even when not singing. The role sounds like one of those high mezzo/low soprano French roles, as such it was perhaps a tad her for her. But she sang superbly and was wonderfully dramatic, oozing disdain at every pore.

As Herod, Franco Pomponi gave a fine, musical performance with a lovely account of Visions Fugitive, the opera’s best known number. He could probably have made more of the more overheated sections; at one point he even dreams of Salome in a drug induced stupor.

Arand’s Salome was successfully virginal and suitably passionate in her love scenes with Jean. All in all it was an attractive account of the role, but without ever sending a tingle down your spine.

Jean was Ian Storey, an English tenor of whom I am woefully lacking in knowledge. He proved to have a fine, heroic tone. Like Salome, Jean is a character who barely develops, spending most of the opera thundering his message. Storey had his foot in plaster but managed to make his use of a crutch seem a part of his character. Neither he nor Salome quite let go enough in their love scene, but perhaps Massenet’s music is not quite dramatic enough either.

Bernard Deletre made much of a character who was essentially superfluous. The production fudged his role as sage and astrologer and simply had him wandering around in white linen suite with a stick.Jeffrey Carl was excellent as Vitellius and Jan Garritsen made his mark as the high priest. It was this latter who led the remarkable, unaccompanied Jewish prayer.

Massenet’s music for the opera was remarkably varied, encompassing not only this prayer but a drinking song for the Roman soldiery.

William Relton’s production was remarkably effective in the way it used the 1950’s setting to effect. Relton proved adept at manipulating the chorus in the big scenes, though some of the staging of the principals seemed a little stiff.

The chorus were remarkably convincing and enthusiastic. Only occasionally did weakness reveal that they were a purely amateur group who had first come together 2 weeks previously. It is one of Dorset Opera’s wonders, the way they mix amateur and professional to such creditable effect.

The orchestra, a professional group, coped very well with the unfamiliar music but did not quite do justice to the loveliness of Massenet’s orchestration. The strings, particularly, lacked the requisite sheen.

This year Dorset Opera lost their Arts Council grant. So, despite giving fine performances in which amateur singers and back stage crew are given the chance to perform in professional standard opera, they must now go it alone.

Next year its Turandot

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:24 pm

    You are aware that Arand & Ponponi are married, aren't you?


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