Monday 9 April 2012

Auber's La Muette de Portici at the Opera Comique

Auber's La Muette de Portici  belongs to a genre of opera, French grand opera from the period 1820 - 1860 which is still under represented on opera stages. The archetypes of the genre, the operas by Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots, Le Prophete and L'Africaine) are rarely recorded or performed and those of his contemporaries, such as Halevy's La Juive, equally so.

In 5 acts, with substantial chorus and balles, grand opera plots tended to concern the conflict between public duty and private relations set against an historical period. The genre developed as the burgeoning French middle classes looked for an alternative to the plots based on classical mythology beloved of the aristocratic ancien regime.

La Muette de Portici was important for the way it set many of the ground rules. It was notable for the way the role of the chorus and the ballet were incorporated into the plot. La Monnaie in Brussels has successfully revived Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots and now the Opera Comique in Paris in collaboration with La Monnaie has presented Auber's La Muette de Portici. The production debuted on 5th April 2012 and we saw it on 7th April 2012 performed at the Opera Comique by the Chorus and Orchestra of La Monnaie conducted by Patrick Davin in a production directed by the Sicilian director Emma Dante.

Set in Naples in the 17th century, the plot concerns Alphonse (Maxim Mironov), son of the viceroy of Naples (the city is ruled by the Spanish). He has seduced and abandoned Fenella (Elena Borgogni) the sister of a a fisherman. Fenella is a mute (who can hear but not speak) and communicates by mime. In the 19th century she was often played by a ballet dancer and would communicate via the sort of mime familiar from traditional versions of Tchaikovsky ballets. Here she was played by an actress with contemporary mime training.

Fenella has disappeared and Alphonse worries more about her than his forthcoming nuptials to the Spanish princess Elvire (Eglise Gutierrez). Fenella appears at the nuptials (having escaped prison) and Elivre takes Fenella under her protection, but act 1 concludes with the revelation that Fenella's seducer was Alphonse.

Fenella's brother, Masaniello (Michael Spyres) uses his people's disaffection with their Spanish rulers to encourage a revolt, though in fact his main concern is vengeance for his sister's fate.

Elvire and Alphonse are reconciled.
But in the market, Fenella is recognised by Spanish soldiers and the ensuing fracas triggers the revolution.

Act 4 opens with a long solo from Masaniello who is saddened and troubled by all the killing. When Alphonse and Elvire appear, fleeing retribution from the revolutionaries, Masaniello is persuaded by Fenella to aid them rather than killing them. This goes against the wishes of Pietro (Laurent Alvaro) and the other revolutionaries.

They poison Masaniello and he appears in Act 5 abstracted and troubled. He manages to rouse himself to  lead a final charge against the Spanish. The opera ends with the revolutionaries regretting their acts and being deluged by the erupting Vesuvius.

It might seem strange to perform a work written for the Paris Opera at the Opera Comique but at the time of La Muette de Portici's premiere the stage of the Opera was not significantly bigger than that of the present day Opera Comique.

Carmine Maringola's sets were simple. A set of doors in mobile frames formed the basic set, with additions of Hapsburg portraits, fishermen's nets etc. as needed. The result was flexible and effective, perhaps occasionally lacking in grandeur for some of the scenes at the viceroy's court. Costumes were slightly more problematical. The Spanish ones were loosely based on history, but skewed and stylised so that men looked effete with giant ruffs and the women's dresses were cut away to reveal the dress cages and legs in coloured tights.

Auber and his librettist Scribe do not give much time for establishing character, the historical background was supposed to do that. So I imagine the costumes were meant to look effete (men) and confined (women). But Maxim Mironov as Alphonse looked so effete it was difficult to imagine him having a relationship with 1 woman never mind 2!

Elivre's entrance scene requires the singer to express joy and anticipation in a series of elaborate roulades. Despite being advertised as unwell, Gutierrez did this stunningly, capturing the character's joy with admirable technical ease. Her four Spanish attendants were simply dolls on wheels, a rather curious touch. In lieu of a dance troupe the ensemble used 10 male actors with a variety of backgrounds (dance, acting, martial arts, circus) and Sandro Maria Campagno's inventive choreography had them dancing with the dolls. At the key dramatic moment in act 1 when Alphonse is revealed as Fenella's seducer, Auber gives us a very effective ensemble, a device he uses 2 or 3 times in the opera.

The bulk of act 2 was taken up with a series of attractive fishermen's choruses and a strophic aria for Masaniello, all done to some lively choreography based around fishing nets and ropes, from the actors with 1 or 2 showing off some spectacular circus skills.

The scene in act 3 where Elivre and Alphonse are reconciled is their last big scene together. Whilst the characters remain critical to articulate the plot, their personal relations are complete. Mironov was a fine Alphonse, the high tessitura seemingly holding not terrors. Mironov sang the role lyrically and beautifully, overcoming his unfortunate costume and forming a passionate relationship with Gutierrez's stunning Elvire.

For the market scene, choreographer Sandro Maria Compagno used Auber's ballet to give the actors (as Spanish soldiers) some really threatening choreography, brilliantly responded to by Borgogni's Fenella. The final attack by the revolutionaries was entirely stylised, with the soldiers massacre represented by them stripping naked as they died.  A rather striking image as they remained in place through Auber's stunning unaccompanied chorus and the lively finale sung to the ringing of the tocsin. Of course the image was helped by the fact that the actors were very personable looking young men.

It was as act 4 opened and we had a long meditative solo for Masaniello that I began to understand how the plot structure of Rossini's Guillaume Tell could be made to relate to the earlier, influential opera. Spyres was simply stunning in this long scene. Again the tessitura of the tenor part was very high and Spyres coped manfully, mixing full voice with quieter mixed voice in a very expressive way. He developed a fine rapport with Borgogni was his mute sister.

The final act was dramatically something of a disappointment. Much of the action is done as reportage, though Spyres made a strong impression as the dying and deranged Masaniello. Of course Auber and Scribe were gearing up to the scenic denoument, when Vesuvius eropted. But here, instead, we had Fenella enthroned as the Virgin, with Masaniello's corpse and a hymn form the chorus. Effective use of resources, but hardly a match for the original stage directions.

The Opera Comique fielded a very strong cast for the opera. Gutierrez was an attractive, seductive Elivre with Mironov as her impressive tenor lover. Spyres made a strong revolutionary leader but with a vein of thoughtful melancholy. None of the principals seemed at all phased by the technical demands of their roles and all sang quite brilliantly. Borgogni had an expressive stage presence as Fenella but in the absence of traditional mime, seemed rather too hyperactive for my taste.

Laurent Alvaro and Tomizlav Lavoie were equally strong as revolutionaries Pietro and Borella, with Jean Teitgen  a suitably forbidding Selva, the captain of the Spanish guards. Martial Defontaine was woefully underused and unfortunately costumed as Lorenzo.

The actors formed and integral part of the ensemble, providing well muscled spectacle, some neat dancing, acrobatics and all sorts of other things. Despite varied backgrounds they formed a unified dramatic ensemble.

Patrick Davin drew fine performances from chorus and orchestra though there were a few moments of poor ensemble, generally caused by communication difficulties between stage and pit during lively dramatic moments.

So what did it all sound like? Now that's tricky as most of these operas have dropped off our radar. But Auber was a contemporary of Rossini (and Rossini's operas were given just down the road at the Theatre Italien). And whilst his music is more (French) classically inspired he was clearly influenced by Rossini. Though his style felt distinctive and one I felt was natural, but then it helps that I admire and have a recording of Halevy's La Juive.

Though the opera was substantial it came in at 3 hours 20 mintues including 2 intervals; not excessive when compared to Rossini's Guillaume Tell or Halevy's La Juive.

I can't end without mentioning politics. Not the interesting politics founded on Scribe's libretto; it might be set in 17th century Sicily however the plot had great resonance for 19th century Restoration France.

But the politics of 1830 when a performance of the opera was the signal for the Belgian revolution against their Dutch masters. Masaniello's failed revolt inspiring a successful one.

Auber and Scribe have a reputation for churning out well constructed by passionless work, designed specifically for 'la grande boutique'  (as Verdi described the Paris Opera). But La Muette de Portici at least is a work with heard which works well on today's stage.

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