Falling in Love Again: Die Lustige Witwe at the Opéra national de Paris

Lehár – Die lustige Witwe.

Baron Mirko Zeta – Franck Leguérinel
Valencienne – Valentina Naforniţa
Graf Danilo Danilowitsch – Thomas Hampson
Hanna Glawari – Véronique Gens
Camille de Rosillon – Stephen Costello
Vicomte Cascada – Alexandre Duhamel
Raoul de Saint-Brioche – Karl-Michael Ebner
Bogdanowitsch – Peter Bording
Sylviane – Anja Schlosser
Kromow – Michael Kranebitter
Olga – Edna Prochnik
Pritschitsch – Julian Arsenault
Praškowia – Yvonne Wiedstruck
Njegus – Siegfried Jerusalem
Lolo – Esthel Durand
Dodo – Isabelle Escalier
Jou-Jou – Sylvie Delaunay
Frou-Frou – Virginia Leva-Poncet
Clo-Clo – Ghislaine Roux
Margot – Marie-Cécile Chevassus

Chœurs de l’Opéra national de Paris, Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Marius Stieghorst.
Stage director – Jorge Lavelli.

Opéra de Paris-Bastille, Paris, France.  Saturday, September 16th, 2017.

Given the setting of the work in the expat community of a Balkan country in Paris, it was fitting to be seeing this Lustige Witwe in the Ville Lumière.  Rather than performing at the more intimate Palais Garnier, the Opéra chose to mount this production at the hanger-proportioned Opéra Bastille.  The house gathered a strong international cast to perform the work in the original German.  I must admit to having been initially skeptical at the prospect of seeing this piece in this particular theatre.  Other than an occasional sense of a loss of intimacy, with singers having to sing out at moments where in another theatre they might have pulled back, it actually worked very well.  This was an extrovert Witwe, with an active corps of dancers really going for it, whether as grisettes or as waiters or suitors.

Photo: © Guergana Damianova / OnP

Jorge Lavelli’s staging was perfectly serviceable.  A single set provided the visual environment, occasionally varied with drapes – it certainly looked attractive enough.  What it managed to do was allow the cast to illustrate the longing and wonder of rediscovering first love later in life, proving perhaps there is such a thing as a second chance.  The way that the spotlight gradually closed in, almost imperceptibly on Hanna and Danilo as they rekindled their feelings for each other, was absolutely magical and really brought home the fact that for them, in that moment, nobody else in the world existed.  It didn’t especially give us much in the way of new insights but with central performances as good as these able to fill this oversized space with sheer charisma, it didn’t perhaps need to.

Photo: © Guergana Damianova / OnP

Véronique Gens gave us a glorious Hanna Glawari.  Hers was a wannabe Parisienne, frequently switching into French during the dialogue.  She was a glamorous presence, easily able to summon up the suitors who followed her.  Yet she also found a genuine pathos and heartache to the role as she realized just what was at stake.  The way she shaded the words ‘du hast mich lieb’ in ‘Lippen schweigen’ was unbearably moving.  Her ‘Vilja’ was simply unforgettable.  She turned a very familiar number into something that felt that we were hearing it for the first time, making it full of longing, both melancholic and hopeful, using the voice to shade the text in the most remarkable way.  She got to its core and made us feel it with her.  Her soprano, as always, had that warmth and beauty of tone that is her trademark.  This was the kind of performance that one would travel a very long way to hear.

Photo: © Guergana Damianova / OnP

It would be wrong to say that one can’t hear the passage of time in Thomas Hampson’s singing as Danilo.  His opening number showed that the role now sits somewhat high for him, occasionally not quite making it and the tone sounding dry.  That said, he still has charisma to spare and lit up the stage with sheer personality.  His lieder singer’s attention to text also gave much pleasure.  Certainly, the fact that his baritone is no longer in the first flush of youth gave his Danilo added emotional impact.

Photo: © Guergana Damianova / OnP

In the remainder of the cast, Stephen Costello’s tenor had good sheen in the middle but the very top sounded slightly tight and pushed in his Act 2 duet with Valencienne.  His diction was very clear, however.  Valentina Naforniţa offered us a creamy middle and camped it up splendidly as a grisette.  Franck Leguérinel blustered efficiently as the Baron.  There was operatic history on stage with Siegfried Jerusalem as Njegus – his laconic delivery of this spoken role showed that he still has stage presence to spare.

Photo: © Guergana Damianova / OnP

The chorus moved around efficiently, but the ladies in particular suffered from lack of blend, with some very prominent vibratos resulting in pitch becoming quite variable.  The strings had a few moments of sour tuning but otherwise played respectably for Marius Stieghorst.  He led a reading with undeniable swing, bringing out the foot-tapping danciness of the score.  He also gave us some ravishing textures in the ‘Vilja-Lied’ which luxuriated in swooning sepia tints, silky strings and throbbing mandolins ideally complimenting Gens’ glorious vocalism.  The folksy colouring of the score was brought out in some characterful wind playing and some delightfully raucous brass.

Photo: © Guergana Damianova / OnP

This was a life-enhancing evening in the theatre, anchored by a performance of the title role that captivated, lived and made even the most familiar passages sound as if being heard for the very first time.  Supported by a strong cast, with sensitive conducting and an effective staging, it was a splendid evening and proof that sometimes, love can give those second chances.

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