Opéra de Monte-Carlo, 25th February 2017
Guest post by John Johnston
As a pèlerin visiting the opera houses, large and small, it has been an ambition since seeing Pressburger and Powell’s film The Red Shoes as a child to attend a performance at the fabled Opéra de Monte-Carlo. When a production of Tannhäuser in its 1861 Paris version en français was announced this was unmissable.
The film, whose ballet sequences with Moira Shearer and Massine are staged in the Salle Garnier, tells the story of a dancer who abandons love in her obsessive dedication to her art. Obsession and the duality of sacred and profane are central to Tannhäuser and entering this opulent opera house, where the foyer leads you through one door to the Casino and through another to auditorium, certainly emphasises the struggle between the worldly and spiritual.
Tannhäuser, sung by José Cura, barefoot in the loose fitting linen and a flowing shirt of a 19th-century poète maudit would probably not have gained entrance due to the strict dress code, tenue correcte exigée.
The opulent Garnier theatre with its Belle Époque decor felt like a character in the narrative, and when Elisabeth addressed the “Cher Édifice” of the Hall of Song at the start of Act 2, the lights were raised in the auditorium.
Reverting to the original Paris version meant, of course, that it was sung in French as were all operas at the then Imperial Opera, and this of course placed the work firmly in the tradition of Grand Opéra. The potent mix of sex and sanctity that runs through so many works from Robert le diable, through Faust to Thaïs is central to the plot, and in translation the polarities of La Reine d’amour and Le Rédempteur had the whiff of incense and excess.
Jean-Louis Grinda’s mise-en-scène did not allow for grand scenic effect on the fairly small stage, but imaginatively used projections and video on a front scrim and all enveloping cyclorama, were reflected on a raked semi-circular acting area. The opening Bacchanale was most effective, staged as an opium-fuelled trip with Tannhäuser lolling on a pile of cushions amidst psychedelic video in eye-dazzling acid colours.
Disappointingly there was little in the way of ballet, which would surely have outraged the Jockey Club, just four Venus clones in slit-skirts striking attitudes. The transformation to the Thuringian landscape was well handled by a switch to a verdant Maytime woodland. Again in Act 2, projections made the stage appear to be a Neuschwanstein interior. Costumes were 19th-century and there was an impressive array of millinery for the noble ladies. The final act took place amid winter snow.
The narrative was clearly delineated in a classic manner though with some insight. Wolfram gave Elisabeth his hunting knife to slit her wrists.Rather than being appalled by Tannhäuser’s desire to return to the Venusberg, he sees what he has been missing and he is quite happy to be led away by Venus. The Papal staff is borne in by the pilgrims, but Tannhäuser is facing the Minnesingers with their hunting guns as the opera ends.
Conducted by a noted singer, Nathalie Stutzmann, great care was given to diction, and the forward placing of the voices and crisp enunciation were a long way from guttural German barking. Jean-François Lapointe’s Wolfram was exemplary, delivering a rapt “Douce étoile, feu du soir”. Aude Extrémo, as opulent, glamorous Venus, makes one want to hear her as Dalila or Eboli though she needs to beware pushing her voice and losing pitch. Annemarie Kramer was a keen-voiced Elisabeth, easily riding the great Act 2 finale. In the title role, José Cura maintained resilient voice throughout, despite the vocal demands rising to the Rome Narration, without any of the musical distortions of which he can be guilty.
The opera was cast in depth. With full orchestra and chorus of 55 in a 550 seat house, the great ensembles made an overwhelming effect, well paced and balanced under Stutzmann’s baton.
Given the French Wagner tradition, one thinks of Georges Thill and Germaine Lubin, and now that Roberto Alagna is planning Lohengrin I hope there will be more opportunities to hear further performances in French. For now, much praise to Monte-Carlo for presenting so cogently this original Paris version