Colombe, Opéra de Marseille, France

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You go expecting sentimental frippery and leave trying to untangle the idiosyncratic blend of bitter-sweet comedy that runs through Jean-Michel Damase’s opera (1961). Based on Anouilh’s play, the tone is actually more bitter than sweet despite a brilliantly funny 18th-century pastoral which is entertainingly blighted by grotesque ham acting and a crushing parody of Donizetti.

Is the monstrous actress Madame Alexandra, the Sarah Bernhardt from hell who first appears looking like a cross between Miss Havisham and the Countess from Pique Dame, really as vile as all that? Is embittered Julien, her estranged son, to be pitied when Colombe his wife takes to the stage and adultery while he does his military service? Anouilh muddies the waters and plays an ambiguous game.

The quality of Damase’s sub-Poulenc score could not be less ambiguous: its repetition, banal melodic line and subservience to the text make it forgettable incidental music, no match for his L’Héritière based on Henry James’s Washington Square that Marseilles resurrected in 2004. Colombe the opera is a more effective lobby for a revival of unfashionable Anouilh than a defence of its composer.

The enterprise earns its stars because Renée Auphan, boss in Marseilles, has once again cherry-picked the best in French singing today. Replacing Felicity Lott, who may well have found this role beyond her, Marie-Ange Todorovitch intones Madame Alexandra’s lines with the booming penetration of an operatic Edith Evans, Anne-Catherine Gillet’s bell-like soprano is perfect for Colombe, and young Phillip Addis (Julien) is a real find with a stalwart baritone. As Armand, Sébastien Droy’s musical tenor and assured acting make him another name to watch.

Robert Fortune moves his cast around cut-out fragments of 1900s decor with natural ease, Jacques Lacombe’s fluid conducting does its best for the score and Christine Rabot-Pinson’s colourful, detailed costumes restore her profession’s honour.

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