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Cat-calls can be good for your career. Last December Roberto Alagna caused a sensation in Milan by walking off the stage at La Scala on the second night of Aida when part of the audience booed his first aria.
Previously, such unprofessional behaviour from a singer would have meant curtains but, in the age of spin and slick media management, Alagna turned the whole event to his advantage. In France, he has since appeared on every chat show, becoming a household name and boosting his CD sales in the process.
Alagna’s involvement in Vladimir Cosma’s first opera is typical of his new vocation as media figure. His wife, the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, has come along for the ride too. Inevitably, it’s more Roberto and Angela than Marius and Fanny.
Cosma, a Romanian who arrived in France in his twenties, has spent a prolific career churning out film scores for French film hits including that most striking of all French titles, Le père Noël est une ordure (“Father Christmas is a Bastard”).
His easy-on-the-ear, music-while-you-work style has already been used for screen adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s plays and novels and in 2000 he wrote the music for a mediocre, over-glamorous television version of the Marseilles trilogy (Marius, Fanny and César). Some of this material resurfaces in his new opera, which takes the first two plays and attempts unsuccessfully to whittle them down to two acts.
No fewer than six people are credited with a libretto that commits the cardinal fault of paying too much respect to the original, revered source.
Admittedly, in Marseilles where everyone knows their Pagnol off by heart, the audience was on the look-out for cuts but the story of Marius, who goes to sea leaving his sweetheart Fanny to marry Panisse, the rich sailmaker, when she discovers she is pregnant, needed much more radical filleting to make it viable as an opera.
Instead, the work chokes on too many scene changes, a handicap that not even Jean-Louis Grinda’s professional, poetic staging can put right.
Spurred by the urge of the composer of popular music to win kudos from the elite with an opera, Cosma has simply spawned a musical with vain operatic pretensions and a rickety structure.
He mangles French prosody in tedious ariosos and favours curiously bumpy vocal lines with arbitrary top notes. And the grand syrupy themes that we put up with in the cinema are revealed in all their cheap sentimentality on the opera stage.
The best bits are, significantly, the brazen lifts from operatic lollipops – several from La Bohème, at least two from Madama Butterfly – but Puccini knew how to finish an act: Cosma leaves the music rambling on grandly as if the credits were rolling.
Alagna, typecast as the cocky, macho Marius, is sounding frayed at the top but the middle is still glorious and the diction as exemplary as ever. Gheorghiu floats gorgeous, velvety sounds but never looks like the fishwife’s daughter, wheeling on her miniature shellfish stall like a drinks trolley.
They get their popular ovation, though an equal, if not superior, avalanche of applause justifiably rewards Marc Barrard’s emotional portrayal of Panisse. Jean-Philippe Lafont is perfect as César, the gruff, rough-edged father, and Jacques Lacombe’s meticulous conducting treats the score with more respect than it really deserves.
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