In a programme note for their Massenet double bill, the director-designer team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe claim that the job of opera interpreter is similar to that of a painter – “to engage the senses of the audience, sometimes by intensifying reality and sometimes by presenting it in the abstract … This involves a constant questioning of our assumptions about the nature of art and the way it represents life.” These are fine sentiments, to which Massenet himself might have subscribed, but they are also woolly. The art of the painter and the art of a production team are really quite different, and it is dangerous to draw parallels in performance, as this show demonstrates.
Most connoisseurs would lick their lips at the prospect of seeing Massenet’s two one-acters together. Like Werther they are about doomed love, and while neither is anything like as perfect as Werther, each has enough of Massenet’s perfumed skill to be worth a festival outing. Thérèse is set during the French Revolution, La Navarraise during civil strife in Spain in the 1870s. What Doucet and Barbe try to do is use historical art to provide context and meaning for a theatrical performance.
In Thérèse the three leading characters step out of paintings of the French Revolution which happen to be hanging in a modern museum restoration workshop. La Navarraise, updated to the Spanish civil war, unfolds within a three-dimensional version of “Guernica”, with Picasso wandering on and off stage when nothing else is happening. Yes, these settings “engage the senses of the audience”. But the production team’s “assumptions about the nature of art” prove false: sets and paintings are inanimate objects, and have little bearing on a stage performance unless the singers create a theatrical representation of life. What we are left with is a set of stock-in-trade acting performances against a backdrop of recognisable art.
The most animate contribution comes from the orchestra under Carlos Izcaray, underlining Massenet’s gift for mood and colour. The three principal roles in each opera are written for the same voice-types, giving Nora Sourouzian, Philippe Do and Brian Mulligan a good sing – in a production in which subtlety and style are evidently of secondary importance.