Three daring nights in Lyons

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After Janácek, Offenbach and Kurt Weill, this year’s mini-marathon at the annual festival in Lyons is six one-act operas. Opera North in Leeds used the same theme in 2004 with their Eight Little Greats season but Serge Dorny, the director in Lyons, daringly programmed his six over three nights. It reinforced the concise characteristics of the genre while showing off the house orchestra’s ability to switch styles.

Four of the productions are new; two are guests from Leeds, Djamileh and Il Tabarro. The theme is amour soupçon (love and suspicion), but the director’s take on each opera suggests “Woman as Victim” might have been just as appropriate. Christopher Alden’s staging of Djamileh is a particularly grim massacre, with Haroun the sultan as a TV-addicted drug baron who lounges around his grunge 1970s pad before strangling Djamileh with a necklace fished out of a brimming ashtray.

As a caricature of trash theatre they don’t come better, but Bizet had in mind a lightweight oriental tale with a happy ending and the audience was understandably mystified. The singing by the French principals, Jean-Pierre Furlan and Laurent Naouri, was equally uncouth, but both made partial amends in David Pountney’s taut reading of Il Tabarro, and Eivind Gullberg Jensen’s vigorous conducting got the old Puccini juices flowing.

The new productions make the festival stand out. Laurent Pelly is justif­iably preferred for his comic touch but his staging of La voix humaine still has compelling nostalgic poetry. A vast black-and-white photo of Lyons at night provides the metaphor of urban loneliness. Pelly avoids the huis clos of a bedroom; instead Chantal Thomas’s sets, truncated parts of a bourgeois apartment, glide silently into place. Felicity Lott, in superb voice, stops the enterprise from being suffocated by good taste. She is too revered a performer to embody the victime médiocre that Cocteau and Poulenc wanted (is any good singer?) but her posh French is crystal clear.

Pelly is a little too polite with Bluebeard’s Castle. It’s an achievement to make the castle the central character – moving, padded walls recalling a Moroccan adobe structure separate into three shapes and finally imprison the hapless Judith – but
we expect rather more visual splendour than splashes of coloured lighting. Fortunately, Hedwig Fassbender’s commanding Judith gets all our attention and young Juraj Valcuha shows maturity by conducting with breadth and authority, saving his ammunition for the grand climaxes.

The best evening was the brilliant coupling of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Luci mie traditrici (1998) and Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie, two stories of jealousy leading to murder. Sciarrino’s patented vocal writing initially grates. It’s a birdsong template that invariably starts with a long-held note giving way to chirrupy coloratura. But the intensity of expression and finely wrought miniature orchestration – harmonics in the strings and eerie glissandi – gradually draw you into a special sound world. Georges Lavaudant’s staging is a model of illumination and intelligence, cleverly picking up cues from the music with fluttering birds on the walls of the elegant, claustrophobic set (Jean-Pierre Vergier).

The Zemlinsky uses the same sets but Lavaudant is wise enough to play it straight; the feverish orchestration precludes extra details. Jonathan Stockhammer’s conducting brings out the lush decadence of the score and Johann Werner Prein’s Simone strikes the right note of wily innuendo. Maria Riccarda Wesseling is just as good as his sex kitten wife as she was in the rarefied role of Duchessa in the Sciarrino.

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