...might ease the bite of it, but if you're here for opera instead of jazz-inflected moping, then Paris doesn't ease up at all. If you're the sort of dedicated maven (or flat-out addict) who can happily spend twenty-eight evenings in a row in the theatre, fair play to you, but the last seven days – in which I saw four operas and a concert – were plenty for me. I still need at least a couple of nights per week devoted to DVDs and cryptic crosswords. And blogging, if I ever get around to it.
A week ago today, it was Joyce DiDonato's Drama Queens, the concert she's been taking about Europe and the U.S. in conjunction with her latest album. She even wears the frock from the cover – Vivienne Westwood, who else? – and the boys in the band (that's Il Complesso Barocco by the way) sweetly wear red socks to match. No red stockings for the women, though, which as an owner of red stockings myself, and a fan of the Wife of Bath, I was slightly disappointed by. But who needs flamboyant hosiery when there's flamboyant baroque brilliance to be had instead? Misery, rage, jealousy, desperation and even a flash or two of fast and florid joy. Not to mention fast and florid Joyce, who had the capacity crowd at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées utterly in the palm of her hand, from the muted agony of her opening number – Cesti's "Intorno all'idol mio" in all its long, acheing lines – to the rapid fire "Brilla nell'alma", so nice we heard it twice: once in the program proper and then just its da capo, with new ornaments, as one of five encores. She was practically taking requests by the end – "lent ou rapide?" – and I began to wonder if the Parisians, and their trademark rhythmic applause, would ever let her go.
The next outing was to the Opéra Garnier for a nifty double bill: Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg and Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges. All I knew of the latter was one aria, of the former, just its heartbreaking plot. Both were revelations, but especially Der Zwerg: Zemlinsky is just the sort of music I know I love, yet never think to listen to at home, so it was both a luxury and a welcome reminder to hear this dark one-acter, with its kaleidoscope score, in person – and in such an opulent setting. I've visited the Garnier several times but never for a performance and it was completely worth it, fiendishly uncomfortable seats and all.
Actually, discomfort is probably not inappropriate for Der Zwerg, which is not what you'd call a comfortable opera. The production by Richard Jones and Antony McDonald enhanced its heartbreak – and just plain heart – with a deft, sensitive staging. The Dwarf was doubled: Charles Workman in white tie and tails, all silent film handsomeness, controlled a three foot tall puppet. So at every moment we saw him both as the heartless Infanta and her giggling friends saw him – deformed and deluded – and as the dignified, dashing aristocrat he imagined himself to be. In an already excellent production, this was a stroke of genius, and Workman – singing one of the most taxing tenor roles I've ever heard – infused as much touching humanity in the puppet as in his own performance. Special mention also to Nicola Beller Carbone, who captured the Infanta's callous vacuity perfectly while also singing up a storm, and to Béatrice Uria-Monzon, a magnificent Ghita.
As you can imagine, the fantastical silliness of L'enfant was a nice relief for the second half. I was enchanted by the dreamlike production, full of bright colours and surreal images looming suddenly out of the pitch black. I was enchanted, too, by the score, so charming and inventive; the nymphs and shepherds baroque pastiche assigned to the wallpaper particularly appealed to me. There wasn't a name in the cast I recognised, but all were impressive. Among my particular favourites were Amel Brahim-Djelloul, a wonderful silvery prima donna of a Princess, and François Piolet who, among other roles, was hilarious as the Petit Vieillard: in this case a frightening female arithmetic teacher in green leather and spike heels. Gaëlle Méchaly was also a very cute Enfant: imagine Brigitte Fassbaender's Oktavian as a hyperactive eight year old.
I can't claim to have been as bowled over by the next night's opera, Donizetti's La favorite at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Then again, I didn't expect to be. I was there to hear Alice Coote as Léonor, not as a diehard Donizetti groupie. Hear her I did, and I thought she was pretty marvellous. No, rare bel canto isn't exactly core repertoire for her, and there's no doubt music which shows her off even better, but that's one seriously beautiful – and remarkably powerful – voice she's got, and one always worth seeking out. Ludovic Tézier, although announced as "souffrant" and craving our indulgence, was still a sonorous Alphonse – I doubt I'd have picked him as sick without the announcement – and Marc Laho an admirable Fernand. But the opera, let's face it, is fairly stuffed with clichés, and I fear the production (and inexplicably industrial sets) did little to mitigate this; in fact, dare I say it, it added a few of its own: I don't think anyone delivered a significant line without a bit of purposeful striding and a Dramatic Gesture. Again, though, I was there for Alice, and her final scene – madness, pleading and eventually death – was so blisteringly sung and acted, nothing else really mattered.
A night off, and then something completely different: so different, in fact, that you'd scarcely believe only thirty years separates the two. Yes, as the photo way up there may have hinted, the final dress rehearsal of Die Walküre at the Bastille, the first time I'd seen any of this production. I'd forgotten there were naked people, so that was an interesting surprise, and I was taken aback again by how big the audiences for dress rehearsals here are: this one could almost have passed for a patchily-sold performance. The noise they made at the end of each act could have passed for a sold-out performance: whistles, cheering, that rhythmic applause again – it's one of my favourite things about the French, that applause – and even some stomping of feet. Little wonder. It was a pretty sensational show, with nothing much rehearsal-y about it, and if it's anything to go by – which of course it is – then the season itself is going to be a big one. Watch this space.
That brings me up to date, just in time before it all begins again on Sunday. So if you'll excuse me, there's a box set of The Mentalist calling my name.