Saturday, May 17, 2008


I’m almost embarrassed to say I only recently have gotten to really know this dazzling comedy by Rossini (having heard it once years ago in a performance with a young Jose Carerras) . But having watched this remarkable DVD, cannot possibly shout loudly enough from the mountaintops “Get this DVD!”
Truly, this is – hands down - the most innovative and imaginative staging of anything in my opera experience, to the point of it being positively revelatory. The production was designed and directed by Pierrick Sorin – a remarkable visual artist who fairly found his own medium combining film, optical illusion, and (according to the accompanying book) “optical theatres, a blend of ingenious self-invented contraptions and new technologies which enable him to appear in space, as if by magic, in the form of a little hologram among real objects.”
Sorin has done major work/exhibits for a number of galleries and some of the leading fashion houses. Still, having read all of that in no way prepared prepare me for what I was about to see. For this Chatelet production, Sorin created a television studio with a series of paneled screens above the actors heads. The “studio” is mostly bare and employs blue screen technology with the “sets” for the production on either side of the stage. The sets, such as they are, are dollhouse sized models, which onstage cameras project the images of onto the screens above. The singers move about the mostly bare stage interacting as they normally would, but their images are superimposed onto the screens above, placing them in amazing visually resplendent scenery and impossible situations.
As an example, the Count, appears singing on the burner of a stove – surrounded by flames only to – during the same aria – appear on a shelf in his refrigerator complete with icicle stalagmites. Others scenes involve several of the cast who actually appear to be swimming, diving, floating on rafts in a "real" pool. All of this is aided by a team of women clad in blue spandex bodysuits, including their heads and faces who, while visible on the stage are rendered completely invisible in the images on screen. This device is employed to create absolutely mind boggling and hilarious effects, such as the slow motion flipping of a pancake which later even appears to travel on its own through space to land on an upheld plate of its ravenous recipient clear across the kitchen.
The butler/chef later mixes cocktails with moves that rival those of the finest mixologists. A tennis tournament played with relish and slow motion during one of Rossini’s most delightful ensembles – all of this and much, much more to delight and dazzle the eye.
The entire proceedings were then filmed live at the Chatelet by film director Philippe Beziat, who judiciously moves HIS cameras up and down, dividing the action in what is at first a dizzying and slightly confusing experiment, but which – if you give it a few minutes – settles down and only serves to increase the champagne-like high you’ll derive from this exciting production.
None of this, of course, would matter a whit if not in the service a brilliantly constructed work – which, as it turns out, happened also to be the 20 year old Rossini’s first commission from La Scala. It’s inconceivable to me that this remarkable work has hardly been seen or heard in the last century, the recording in 1972 with Carreras, and in the 60’s an abridged version showed up at Glyndebourne – sung in German, and a few other places revived it, but not much more than that. Now, there is this vibrant, zany DVD – and another one about to be released next week of a separate production from Pesaro. (I'm anxiously awaiting its arrival!)
The opera itself is a masterpiece. It does not possess the depth of story as his most popular comedies, e.g., Cenerentola and Barbiere – and is, in fact more of an ensemble piece – more so even than Viaggio. It is absolutely jammed with delightful, inventive and masterful ensembles putting its cast of 9 into a variety of configurations. All of it is sung here by a young, good looking cast that would be difficult to improve upon. The plot – such as it is – involves a visit to the estate of a young, handsome Count desirous of marriage, but who is pursued by a trio of lovelies, who seem more interested in his fortune than him. Also visiting are several men friends, a poet, a newspaper arts critic, etc. and a houseful of servants. The melancholy Count devises a series of “tests” and we’re treated to the usual buffa traditions e.g., masked identities, including the count’s dressing up as a Turk and his main object of affection pretending to be a soldier, and his darling’s long lost twin.
It’s all laughable – which is precisely why it works! Bumping the action up to the 1950’s works splendidly and lays to rest any argument that every work must be first seen in its historical context to be appreciated. An Italian villa (and environs) in the 1950’s helps makes Rossini’s score sound as modern and fresh as if it had been composed last week. This is made all the more exciting by the absolutely thrilling playing of the Ensemble Matheus with Jean-Christophe Spinosi putting everyone through their paces – often at breakneck speeds that the talented cast has no trouble keeping up with, relishing even, the alacrity with which Spinosi leads them. Indeed, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a conductor ever having a better time at his job than young Maestro Spinosi whose excitement practically leaps from the podium. Hearing this score played by this original instrument ensemble only increases my desire to hear them in the entire Rossini oeuvre. The music tangibly crackles (and yes that’s what I mean!)
There are at least several numbers that should increase the concert repertoire and the fugue-like opening of Act II is one of the most creative things I think Rossini ever penned. Leading the cast is the handsome, smooth voiced basso Francois Lis (who looks like a singing Adrian Brody) and the diminutive contralto Sonia Prima. Adorable is the only way to describe Ms. Prima. A cross between the young Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett, she is a naturally hammy comedienne with a face of pure rubber, contorting her face from hilarious mugging to seductively cute in the blink of an eye, all the while hurling out Rossini’s nearly impossible cascades of notes in a variety of coloratura styles; sometimes with smoothness and élan, and other times more muscularly and aspirated – varying to suit the needs of the music. It is nothing less than a perfect performance. Mr. Lis is new to me and, save a small hurdle there and here, he is a delight. All are attired in stunning 50’s haute couture, including some really creative bathing suit ensembles for the poolside scene. The balance of the outstanding cast is: Jennifer Holloway, Laura Giordano, Jose Manuel Zapata, Joan Martin–Royo, Christian Senn and Filippo Polinelli – and what an delightful ensemble they make!
Rossini’s opera is an undiscovered delight and the Chatelet audience went – quite rightfully – mad with applause several times, the laughter from the visuals serving the master’s sparkling, infinitely inventive score. I only hope this charmer finds itself being produced stateside – and soon! Everything about this is first class, including the housing of the DVD(s). The opera is on a single disc (running a little over 2:40) with a separate disc including interviews. The discs are housed in a hardcover bound 116 page book loaded with production photos, plot synopsis, articles about the opera and Rossini, interviews with conductor, designer, and biographies of everyone involved (it weighs over a pound!).
The product is put out by naϊve label and is perhaps the most fun I never expected to have from a DVD! I cannot recommend this highly enough! Bravo, Bravissimo to all of the forces involved in recreating this "lost" masterpiece at the Chatelet!

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