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Lalo’s Roi d’Ys is a perfect example of France’s persistent inferiority complex over its own rich repertoire. Largely forgotten, the work enjoys the very occasional outing in cash-strapped regional houses, but Paris, which has the funds and the theatres, still turns up its nose at such unfashionable fare.
That may change when Nicolas Joel takes over the Paris Opera in 2009. His new production for Toulouse, the house he has been running since 1990, displays some curious aesthetic choices – and a colossal set that frustratingly inhibits crowd movements – but is lavish enough for any major house and cast from strength. This is nothing new for the Capitole, which is now used to running Paris a close second, but it is essential for a work whose singular beauties are often undermined by a structure that seems to have been sellotaped together.
The main quartet is directly inspired by Lohengrin, with the sweet princess Rozenn and her knightly lover Mylio pitched against the hysterically jealous Margared, who teams up with the villain Karnac to open the sluice gates and flood Ys when she realises Mylio loves her sister. But, curiously for a composer influenced by Wagner, Lalo proved too concise in his writing. The opera often feels like an abridged version, as when the magically reunited lovers quickly agree to postpone their rejoicing and we fast- forward to a new scene; any normal composer would have seized on the opportunity for a duet.
Joel and his high-class usual suspects Ezio Frigerio (sets) and Franca Squarciapino (costumes) go into overdrive to gloss over drawbacks, filling the stage with damsels sporting hennins and coifs, three bishops and numerous friars. Some of this is no doubt opportunistic recycling of the Capitole’s costume wardrobe but the sewing machines have been hard at work running up extravagant outfits for the principals. One might query the liturgical confusion of a procession with a huge wooden cross when the multitude are joyously carolling about Christmas, and Frigerio’s marmoreal mausoleum of a palace – more Otto Wagner in its gold detailing than representative of Brittany’s granite castles – is hardly local colour. But the epic D.W. Griffith mood, complete with silent- screen acting and grand gestures, climaxes in water cascading furiously down the monumental staircase: no punter can reasonably resist that sort of effect.
Joel’s exceptional voice radar has always been his trump card and he proves it once again, particularly with Sophie Koch’s Margared and Inva Mula’s Rozenn, who blend magnificently in a duet blueprinted on that of Dido and Anna in Les Troyens. Mula floats ethereal top notes but also adds dramatic force to a potentially insipid character. Koch’s entire performance is spellbinding: tall and regal, she exudes tentacular viciousness, melodramatically collapsing on the staircase and storming through the rolling desperation of the great signature tune Lorsque je t’ai vu soudain reparaître.
The women overshadow the men in the story yet Charles Castronovo’s Mylio still makes his mark by spinning exquisite line and sharp diction in the famous Aubade, and Franck Ferrari is a robust Karnac.
The excellent Capitole chorus rattles the rafters but Yves Abel’s conducting, more noise than bite, underplays texture in favour of tub-thumping. We nevertheless leave the theatre convinced that the spiritual heart of French opera, like its rugby, is still south of the Loire.