L’Opéra Royal de Versailles Weds 19th 03/14
Max Emanuel Cencic, Mandane
Franco Fagioli, Arbace
Vince Yi, Artaserse
Juan Sancho, Artabano
Valer Sabadus, Semira
Yuriy Mynenko, Megabise
Silviu Purcarete, director
Rares Zaharia, reprise director
Diego Fasolis, conductor
There can now be no doubt that we are in the middle of something of a counter-tenor renaissance. I would wager that not since the heyday of the castrati have so many men sung so high so often and to such acclaim. And yes, that includes the entire output of the BeeGees to date. At the Royal Opera, Versailles were gathered six outstanding singers, there to perform Leonardo Vinci’s semi-forgotten Artaserse (1730). The plot is rococo, but rests upon the consequences of regicide in 5th Century Persia, a court-drama set to glorious music. Lovers berate lovers, fathers disown sons, friends weep with friends as a coup unfolds, a poisoned chalice gets passed around but everyone lives happily ever after.
The New York Times dismissed Silviu Purcarete’s direction as disappointing, but it was in no way that for me. I thought the concept of having the backstage action in view refreshing (“technicians” decked in black appeared throughout) and I would have even been happy to have their contribution kept truly backstage too, and have had the piece played straight as an evening of “period” opera, but no matter: Purcarete’s direction was assured throughout, and everything flowed just fine. That’s not to say it is not without small flaws. The beginning of the second act sees most of the leads in the same white wig, white shoes, white frock coat and trous, singing much the same, which got a little confusing at times for me.
Helmut Stürmer’s extravagant costumes seemed to fit neatly into the aesthetic of the production, but my god, Cencic and Baler-Sabadus shed enough feathers between them to stuff a duvet or ten. Credit must be given to them for wearing such crazy creations so confidently. No wonder a bloke with a vacuum cleaner rushed on stage at interval to suck up all the dander and fluff. Pity the poor ducks, but I was suitably ravished by the outfits on display as I was by the singing. Crinolines, massive hairpieces, exquisite frock coats and rococo tailoring, intimations of loopy Gautier-esque haute couture, a Persian aesthetic respun to be both knowingly modern and yet semi-historically correct, the costumes should have been a confusing melange of referents, a clash of styles, but were instead always perfectly suited to the stage show. Yes, the lighting erred towards restraint, green washes for the poison chalice scene, red for when Mandane appears in a red dress and the like, but how often does simple craftsmanship pass un-credited?
The set was curious, three of four large flats on pneumatic rail or motorised pulleys, showing at times an etching of what I assume to be the destruction of Susa.(I would be interested to know where these were from, they seemed mid 18th Century etchings.) Again, these, and the revolving stagepiece never obtruded in to the opera’s action. At one point, the gaze of suspicion and the suffocation of politicks was suggested, a wall being made from mirrors wheeled onstage. As above, modernity was close at hand, the same black clad assistants suggested a deluge by hand pumping water sprayers at the close of act 2, yet even this didn’t feel out of place. Credit to Purcarete and co for imbuing the production with a logic that one never questioned.
On to the singing. I must firstly say: my revelation of the night was Vince Yi, taking over from the first run where Jaroussky was Artaserse, a singer who one felt on first hearing the role, had made it much his own. Not so. Yi sung Artaserse fantastically. Grief, betrayal and love: Yi’s voice was mellifluous throughout, and the top of his range is very pure in timbre, as is his tessitura. It is a voice without the tint of previous generations of countertenors that belies their sex. If a kind of feminine verisimilitude is a mark of distinction for countertenors (which I am not sure is, or should be the case) then Yi would win the award from our ensemble that night. As the lady next to me agreed, when he reached his sweetest notes, there were times when I truly thought a woman was singing his Artaserse. As such his was one of the most impressive vocal instruments of the night for me. Having said that, I did feel his lower register needed slightly more projection or clarity at times. He was more than capable of filling the house in moments of drama and when arias demanded, but apart from those he was a little weaker than Monsieur J. (Let’s give Yi more time here to grow and develop. Too, my perception may have also been due to where I was sitting, a box, elevated stage right.) Definitely a voice to keep an eye on!
I mention that Yi had one of the most impressive instruments, but really with a cast like this, it was a case of primus inter pares. The night became an exercise more in who was one’s favourite in tone, or manner or styling. Yuri Myneko sounded a little underpowered in “Per quell’affetto che l’incatena” but pulled out his stops for the ending of the same and acquitted himself well throughout. Juan Sancho was a fine Artabano, slimy in all but voice. I particularly enjoyed his acting and pantomime-y creeping, and I will be honest, the presence of a tenor lent crucial counterweight to an evening crammed full of mezzo and soprano notes. His “Così stupisce e cade” was dispatched with aplomb, but a little tight on the top notes. And, what a gorgeous Semira we had from Valer Barner-Sabadus. His (I nearly wrote “her”) “Torna innocente e poi” was sweet and moving. Max-Emmanuel Cencic has a different instrument from Jaroussky and Yi, it sounds more classically “alto” to me, and he gave us a very touching Mandane. I very much enjoyed his “Se d’un amor tiranno” which he delivered with real feeling.
On then to Franco Fagioli, who is ostensible star of the show, a role he inhabited with ease and conviction. The showpiece Aria “Vo solcando” was what drew me to Artaserse at first, and it is full of “wobble:” lots of florid runs and, happily, freedom for a little cadenza near the end for the singer to make it their own, which Mr Fagioli has truly done each time I have seen or heard him sing this aria. Fagioli’s is a rich voice, I hesitate to use the words creamy, luxurious etc, but it definitely thrills – and if Vinci threw down a gauntlet when he wrote it for Carestini, Fagioli proved more than capable of stooping to pick it up. (One might say he waved it around with flair). He impressed throughout. His cry of innocence on being accused was hair raising, his pain when with his father palpable. He is very fine singer, and an intelligent actor too, keenly aware of the baroque mode of delivery as this interview shows.
After the same “Vo solcando” aria, the first part of the evening closed, to an empty stage (Arbace having eluded his bodyguards/minders to hotfoot it out the door at stage rear.) The audience did not stop clapping and stamping their feet until Fasolis and then Fagioli came out on stage to thank them. I sensed Fagioli was a little embarrassed to receive the applause (I could be wrong here!) – indeed, he seemed to gesture for us to peter out our clamour- rotating forefinger over forefinger whilst withdrawing, and understandably so: after all, Artaserse is not just this one successful show-stopping aria, wonderful though it may be, and I hope his colleagues didn’t take the audience reaction personally. Were it up to me, each singer would have had the same response: for example, Cencic/Mandane’s urgent “Va’ tra le selve ircane” was every bit as polished as Arbace’s storm tossed sea, but with less fireworks it got less applause. It is perhaps because most of us had been conditioned by the wild cries one hears on the live recording from the Nancy production of this same piece that we felt it was expected of us to respond similarly. As ever, sometimes simple beauty is dominated by – admittedly staggering melismatic – virtuosity, and we respond in the manner Vinci knew we would: with something approaching awe. Regardless, Fagioli deserved our applause, that much is true. I gather that he is to sing in Idomeneo at Covent Garden in December 2014. I shall definitely seek out a ticket for that.
I am also pleased to report that all cast members are good actors, which in a plot as tightly wound and contrived as Metastasio’s, matters. Thus Yi looked genuinely terrified when menaced by a sword, one felt Arbace’s grief as he was parted from his father, and I have already mentioned Sancho’s odious Artabano. Attention to detail wasn’t just in costumes and staging. Those same swords even looked real, as opposed to the ENO’s most recent Rodelinda’s where, as OperaCreep says , Handel met Tom and Jerry – opera buffa from opera seria. The less said about that, particular aspect, the better.
France has been quick to champion the Baroque and early classical. They love Lully, Rameau, Haendel (natürlich) and the like, whereas the UK seems to find the same akin to a curate’s egg: a little tough to stomach, and not a first choice if there’s different fare. Understandable then, that this piece premiered with great reviews at Opéra national de Lorraine, with a full DVD and CD release too. Lucky us to have Fasolis and Concerto Köln performing the work as there. Fasolis is an electric personality on the platform – at the close of the second third of our evening he ended by leaping off the podium almost in a fit of possession – hitting the pitfloor perfectly timed to the last note. As we applauded, he held aloft the score and waved it with both hands, as if to say “it is the music which deserves your praise, not I.” In part he is right, but when it is played with such effortless verve and joy as here, we applauded both music and music makers.
The DVD is well worth finding to experience a taste of the proper alchemy, when text, staging, music and acting combine to dazzle and thrill. In all ways, this a glorious evening which I will treasure.