This production of Donizetti's opera comique is as uninspired as Pelly's previous outings at the Royal Opera recently: a mishmash of World War II costumes with dark brown and tan maps that occasionally swing across the stage and date from (one assumes) the 1840s. The closest we get to realism is a cleverly tilted set that acts as la maison de Berkenfeld. The only advantage to this approach is that the lack of any significant context acts as a drab backdrop of nothingness against which the performers can really shine. Yet that shine is diaphanous at best because the action seems trivialized; Marie's stock gestures and the chorus's tired clichés imply that the movement is removed from reality in the sense that the audience's only rational (or perhaps irrational) choice would be to interpret the characters' energetic prancing as a battle model vivified or, if they were feeling generous, a doll's house come to life.
That being said, although she was suffering from a virus, Patrizia Ciofi still sang an outstanding Marie. She was dazzling in Robert le diable and although there was less shine in her voice and a few near misses in her intonation this time round, every time she opened her mouth she sang with conviction and an ever-so-slightly version of her hallmark clarion tone. Although she sang the standard "Chacun le sait" with a clear top and healthy coloratura, her best moment was the heartfelt "Par le rang et l'opulence" in Act II, with its soaring pianissimos and tender phrasing.
Interestingly, we find a similar story with Juan Diego Floréz who brought his usual pep and comedic timing to the role of Tonio. His zestful interpretation of the role really deflates Pelly's nonsense whilst at the same time giving the only truly entertaining scene real life: when Tonio rides in on a tank to stop Marie's wedding to the sour Duchess de Crackentorp's son. The brilliance and agility of Floréz's voice is still potent, and his "Pour mon ame"--with its nine high Cs--was as breathtaking as the first time I heard it. Although he is still really one of the only tenors alive today that does that aria justice, his "Pour me rapprocher de Marie" was a breathtaking exercise in ethereal phrasing; Florez sings the aria with stunningly beautiful legato and a sense of style rarely heard.
To cap off these incredibly strong performances was the veteran contralto Ewa Podles as La Marquise de Berkenfeld. Podles's voice is like a fine wine: it seems only to get better with age. Her robust tone is sultry and warm even when her acting is cold and distant. That, of course, is a compliment when one appreciates the total lack of original direction in this production. As Sulpice, Pietro Spagnoli had affectionate chemistry with Ciofi and with Podles.
Yves Abel conducted with subdued flair: there were times when the orchestra seemed tired, even lacking in brilliance. Still, there was much to appreciate stylistically and Abel's bold approach to Donizetti's music would be well heeded by other, less talented conductors. The chorus was in excellent form; a stark contrast to when I heard them last.
Of course, it was a treat to hear Kiri te Kanawa sing--La Duchesse de Crackentorp is usually a non-singing role--something other than the national anthem (I heard her at Buckingham Palace this last summer), even if it was a bit of light and rarely heard Puccini.
It was an outstanding night for singing at the Royal Opera and another tired outing for a drab production--definitely worth the visit.
Photos: Royal Opera House