Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” is a play that will continue to be performed long into the future. I’m not so sure about Philippe Fenelon’s new opera.
Still, “La Cerisaie,” which just had its world premiere at the Palais Garnier in Paris, doesn’t lack merit.
This is Fenelon’s sixth opera. Three previous works also were first staged in Paris -- “Salammbo” (based on Flaubert’s novel), “Faust” and “Judith” (based on plays by Nikolaus Lenau and Friedrich Hebbel). “Salammbo,” especially, was memorably fierce and exotic.
Fenelon, born in 1952, is a well-read man.
His dream of setting Chekhov’s last play (1904) to music came true in 2010, when the French and the Russian governments held a series of cultural events. The -- Russian -- libretto was written by music critic and translator Alexei Parin.
The work first was performed in concert, without costumes and sets, in December 2010 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.
The opera dispenses with the first two acts of the play. It starts with the Act III ball, which is interrupted by the news that Lyuba Ranyevskaya’s famous cherry orchard has been bought at auction by Lopakhin, the son of a serf on the estate who has become a successful businessman.
Instead of giving it back to the erratic lady, as he first intended, Lopakhin has it razed to make room for dachas. She returns to her lover in Paris, and her incompetent, though charming, brother Leonid resigns himself to his fate and, for the first time in his life, takes a job.
Fenelon and Parin have added a few things to Chekhov’s plot: Grisha, Lyuba’s little son, who drowned before the curtain goes up, appears in a dream scene and a nostalgic epilogue with the family playing hide-and-seek in the garden.
From time to time, a chorus of white-clad girls pops up and interrupts the action with folk songs like the peasants in “Eugene Onegin.” Firs, the old butler, is sung by a mezzo; Charlotte, the German governess, by a bass.
Despite the additions, the performance lasts less than two and a half hours (intermission included).
Fenelon is no iconoclast. He doesn’t torture the listener with extreme dissonances. He uses a regular orchestra, conducted by Tito Ceccherini, with 60 musicians in the pit and a dozen on stage.
Here and there, he alludes to Mussorgsky, Shostakovich and other Russian composers.
The dances are ironic transmogrifications of waltzes, polkas and foxtrots. Unlike other contemporary composers, Fenelon doesn’t content himself with an all-purpose parlando: He writes real arias, some quite demanding.
His music is technically impeccable, often pleasant, but on first hearing, not so memorable.
The singers, more or less identical with those at the Moscow concert, are uniformly good. Ulyana Aleksyuk and Anna Krainikova as Anya and Varya, Lyuba’s daughters, make the strongest impression.
Jean-Pierre Vergier’s set anticipates the demise of Russia’s landed aristocracy: The orchard is already gone. Instead, a jungle of bare trees dominates the scantily furnished scene.
Director Georges Lavaudant moves the characters around like pieces on a chessboard. Sometimes, the light is dimmed, and only their silhouettes are visible.
It’s a tasteful, intelligent show. The only thing that’s missing is what makes Chekhov’s art unique -- the range of psychological colors, the subtle balancing act between comedy and despair, silences between the lines.
In the end, it’s still no competition for Chekhov’s play.
“La Cerisaie” is in repertory at the Palais Garnier, Paris, through Feb. 13. Information: http://www.operadeparis.fr or +33-1-7125-2423.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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