An opera sparks a revolution? Nah.
Yet that’s what happened on Aug. 25, 1830, in Brussels. After a performance of “La Muette de Portici” (The Mute Girl of Portici), the excited audience stormed out of the Theatre de la Monnaie and put up barricades.
Six weeks later, Belgium gained independence from Holland.
Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber’s opera seems to have lost nothing of its incendiary potential. For the present revival, the La Monnaie/De Munt preferred to mount a coproduction with the Opera Comique in Paris, where it has just opened.
A staging in Brussels, said Director Peter de Caluwe last August -- amid lengthy negotiations to form a national government -- might raise the question “as to whether Belgium should remain a united country or not. I want to keep the opera out of the political debate.”
De Caluwe recently indicated that he saw no reason why the production shouldn’t travel to Brussels, though he stopped short of inviting it to his theater.
That a revolt by Neapolitan fishermen in 1647, the opera’s subject, can still inflame nowadays is remarkable. Even more surprising was Auber’s decision to entrust Fenella, the title role, to a dancer, not a singer. In the 19th century, the most celebrated ballerinas battled to get the part.
Elena Borgogni is an actress and jazz singer, not a dancer. Her frantic movements probably would have surprised the composer. Yet they aren’t out of place for a desperate girl who has been seduced by the Spanish viceroy’s son and, in the finale, hurls herself from the balcony of the castle while Vesuvius erupts.
Masaniello, her brother and the leader of the rebellion, is sung by the young U.S. tenor Michael Spyres. He has an appealing voice, and his French diction is impeccable. For his top notes, however, he too often resorts to falsetto.
The rest of the cast varies between decent and amateurish. The worst element is the La Monnaie/De Munt orchestra. Conducted by Patrick Davin, it sounds rough and misses the graceful charm of Auber’s music.
The production, directed by Emma Dante, falls short of what you would expect of a “Grand Opera,” a genre renowned for sensational stage effects. The skimpy sets and cheap costumes are a pale reflection of the splendor Auber’s neglected masterpiece merits.
It just so happens that another opera with a political theme is on offer in Paris.
The Theatre du Chatelet has revived John Adams’s “Nixon in China,” one of the few contemporary stage works that made it into the repertory. Last year, it was given the ultimate accolade with a production at the Metropolitan Opera.
After the 1987 premiere in Houston, the New York Times critic joked: “Mr. Adams has done for the arpeggio what McDonald’s did for the hamburger.” He was referring to the repetitive, unashamedly tonal sewing-machine rhythms, the trademark of the minimalist school.
What Donal Henahan didn’t say was that the score also has lyrical outbursts of almost Straussian voluptuousness.
The Chatelet’s revival features a Chinese director and an Indian set designer.
Chen Shi-Zheng was eight years old in February 1972 when President Nixon visited China, ending decades of mutual hostility. Chen’s mother perished in the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” and his father spent several years in a re-education camp.
For many Chinese intellectuals, Chen says in the program, the benevolent portrayal of Mao Zedong as a wise old man is revolting.
Despite such misgivings, he doesn’t treat Mao as a monster. Only when “counterrevolutionary elements” are pilloried by the proletariat, at the end of Act II, do you get a glimpse of the misery Mao and his fanatical wife inflicted on their people.
Chen’s staging is too bland, though. It resembles an oratorio rather than an opera.
Shilpa Gupta, the set designer, is a sculptor and a video artist; this is her first work on an opera stage. She, too, prefers a minimalist approach, probably dictated by the short run of the production.
In the first scene, Nixon and his wife step out of a big wall -- symbolizing the divide between the two societies -- not Air Force One. The state banquet at the end of Act I has been reduced to a cocktail party. The only piece of furniture is a chandelier composed of TV screens, emblem of the media circus surrounding the event.
The singers are fine. Mr. and Mrs. Mao are played by Koreans, the stentorian Alfred Kim and Sumi Jo, who easily manages her role’s high tessitura. Franco Pomponi is a solid President, June Anderson is an endearingly confused First Lady.
Alexander Briger conducts the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, an ensemble of about 40 musicians.
“Nixon in China” is in repertory through April 18 at the Theatre du Chatelet.
What the Stars Mean: **** Outstanding *** Good ** Average * Poor (No star) Worthless
(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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