More modern operatic agony

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Relentless. First impressions with new operas are always suspect – today’s critics, unlike Berlioz, cannot attend rehearsals before seeing the final product – but that’s the word that kept coming back naggingly after Philippe Fénelon’s new opera. And it applies to both the score and the staging. For his fourth opera, Fénelon has adapted Lenau’s profoundly pessimistic poem (1836) in its original German and the vocal line gags on its abstruse philosophy. The text needs radical pruning to make it opera-viable but Fénelon actually complicates matters by turning on his grand style and throwing the orchestral book at it: for much of the evening, the singers battle it out with thickly scored, hyperactive music that shows off technical virtuosity but dulls the ear with unvarying dynamics.

The second of the two acts temporarily abandons the energetic redrafting of Berg’s post-expressionism (think Lulu) for a choral passage redolent of Mussorgsky and a passion-style choral; but both influences seem like padding to help the opera pass the one hour watershed for modern music, beyond which audiences start to fret. There’s more of the same in a dramatic interlude for taped organ, one of those gloriously bright French instruments, and a curious collage of machine noises. This also serves to fill time when the sets are being changed but it still feels like an arbitrary graft. The fleeting quote from the finale of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto sticks out like a sore thumb.

Pet Halmen, in a dazzling display of multi-tasking (production, sets, costumes and lighting) must have emptied the Capitole’s well-stocked coffers. Just after Pascal Dusapin’s Faust, the Last Night based on Marlowe, we arrive unconvinced about the relevance of another historic opera – as opposed to a contemporary version of pacts with the devil like John Adams’ Doctor Atomic – on the well-furrowed Faustian myth, and Halmen clouds the issue further with a lavish, stylistic jumble: grotesquely painted peasants, Faust’s gambolling pantomime dog, and, at the other extreme, the gruesome vision of his assistant daintily dining on a cadaver in the dissecting chamber. We finish with a procession of magnificently winged angels that Liberace could have arranged for a glitzy party. The sets are impressive but this Baroque extravaganza is no more than a sweetener to help the audience swallow their dose of modern music.

A strong cast rallies round with stoic zeal, spearheaded by Robert Bork’s sturdy baritone as a show-stealing Mephistopheles. Karolina Andersson’s Annette effortlessly nails all the stratospheric notes in the high soprano role that has become a cliché of modern opera (but there’s no counter tenor for once). Arnold Bezuyen’s valiant Faust belts out his part and only falters on hoarse top notes. Alexandra Coku is excellent in two roles, first as the lascivious blacksmith’s wife and then as the Princess. The Man (a sort of Evangelist role) is sung by Gilles Ragon whose clarion tenor has found its ideal niche; modern opera suits his timbre.

The enterprise pays tribute to the Capitole as a centre of excellence – the orchestra under veteran Bernhard Kontarsky plays with exemplary precision and the chorus is beyond reproach – but this Faust left me wondering once again why modern composers so often make life so difficult for themselves and their audiences by choosing texts or subjects that are unsuited to operatic treatment. Fénelon has unwittingly written another chapter in the long, slow agony of contemporary opera.

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