Late in 2004 I wrote for the Herald reviews of two operas I had seen in Paris: "Debussy´s "Pelléas et Mélisande" at La Bastille and Rossini´s "L´Italiana in Algeri" at the Palais Garnier. In late September last year I was back in Paris and I saw Tchaikovsky´s "Eugen Onegin" at La Bastille. Later in this article I will give my views on it, but my aim is ampler: to give a general conspectus of opera in France. In fact my trip was basically cultural tourism in the South of France: cathedrals, monasteries, museums and scenery. But I had hoped to catch some opera performances in provincial houses; alas, I had no luck: either the seasons hadn´t started yet, or their schedule didn´t coincide with mine. However, I did get to to see the opera houses from the outside.
The Paris Opera is divided in two houses: the modern La Bastille built by the Uruguayan Carlos Ott is mainly dedicated to opera, whilst the old and splendid Garnier is the house of the Paris Ballet but it does offer opera occasionally. Opera in Paris is also seen sometimes at the Châtelet (generally a musical comedy or operetta venue), or at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The Opéra-Comique, where decades ago I saw lovely performances, has fallen in bad times and is scarcely used at all ; I feel it should.
As is logical enough, the other big French cities have good opera theatres. Those considered to be the best are the modern Lyon Opera by the famous architect Jean Nouvel and the Toulouse Capitole, integrated to the massive municipal seat of Government. As a building, maybe the most impressive is the old Bordeaux Grand Théâtre (1780). There is a very new Berlioz Opera at Montpellier within the Corum Center, and both Marseilles and Nice have nice houses. And if I may stretch a point (it´s not politically French) the Monaco Princedom has a wonderful Garnier Opera House. In the North, l´Opéra du Rhin is based in Strasbourg and Lille also has a good reputation.
Many other cities offer opera : Dijon, Tours, Rouen, etc. And there are Summer Festivals of well-earned repute in the South: the open-air Chorégies d´Orange in the Roman Theatre, or the Aix-en-Provence festival, during many years a sort of French Mozartian Salzburg. All these houses adhere to the Italian season concept: a limited number of operas are prepared for the season and in principle will be substituted by another group next year.
The Paris National Opera is of course the most important. In 2010-11 they are presenting nineteen operas, including the final two of Wagner´s "Ring", the revival of Hindemith´s important "Mathis the Painter", the premiere of Mantovani´s "Akhmatova", Smetana´s "The Bartered Bride", Janácek´s "Kátia Kabanová", Haendel´s "Giulio Cesare", Zandonai´s "Francesca da Rimini" and the "lyric scenes" that comprise Tchaikovsky´s "Eugen Onegin". Most operas are offered as many as eight or nine times, so the final number for the season is really big, about 170 performances.
La Bastille´s acoustics are clear but rather dry. The theatre is big and the architecture very impressive. The sightlines are good, the technical equipment quite remarkable, and the whole huge machine functions smoothly. The occupancy rate is very high, with most performances sold out, and you will do well to reserve several months ahead.
Tchaikovsky´s opera, based on Pushkin, is Romantic, sincere and intensely Russian. There are gorgeous melodies, rich orchestrations and a mosaic-like structure. If sympathetically sung and staged, it is very rewarding. I liked the total effect better than in the Vienna occasion I reviewed in late 2009, but I do have some reservations about the staging.
Curiously enough, I heard the same Tatyana as in Vienna, Olga Guryakova, and I found her in steadier, firmer voice; she acts the part well. French baritone Ludovic Tézier has a warm timbre and he limned his character with talent: this blasé Onegin who provokes tragedy (killing his friend Lenski in a duel) and sermonizes the loving Tatyana becomes in the last act a man desperately in love. Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser sang Lenski with fine professionalism, but his voice is rather short on beauty; the poet´s voice should be softer and more plangent. Veteran Russian bass Gleb Nikolsky gave us a noble Prince Gremin, the mature husband of Tatyana. Two admirable French artists gave their full due to their parts: mezzo Nadine Denize after a long and splendid career still offers vocal charm and much point to her Mme. Larina (Tatyana´s mother) and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt did a fine cameo in Monsieur Triquet´s rococo song. Alisa Kolosova was convincing as the coquettish Olga (Tatyana´s sister) and Nona Javakhidze was appropriately folkish as Filipieva (Tatyana´s wetnurse). Fine voices in small parts: Ugo Rabec (Zaretski) and Yves Cochois (The Lieutenant). Young conductor Vasili Petrenko was enthusiastic but also rather hectic; the orchestra sounds really well, and the Chorus under Patrick Marie Aubert was satisfactory.
Willy Decker´s production finds dramatic truth at many points, but I quite disagree with such things as Tatyana´s presence at the duel, or the fusion of that tableau with the following one which occurs years later. The wonderful Polonaise and Waltz were very poor in the hands of choregrapher Athol Farmer. The unit set imagined by Wolfgang Gussmann has some beauty but can´t adapt to the very different tableaux; his costumes were much better.