Les Grands Voix: Joseph Calleja and Patrizia Ciofi (Théatre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, Orchestre National d’Ile-de-France, conductor Alain Altinoglu, Monday Jan
Happening to find myself in Paris at this time, I jumped at the chance to hear one of the hot new young tenors on the opera
scene. Joseph Calleja, the twenty-nine year old sensation from Malta, made his Met debut this fall in Rigoletto. (See
Dilettante’s Diary, Dec 11/06.) He sang his first Rudolfo in Toronto and Dresden. According to the program, France has
not had much opportunity to hear him before now. That could be why the hall was packed with well-heeled Parisians who appeared
to be connoisseurs of good singing.
This program of bel canto favourites (let’s not call them "chestnuts") opened with the overture from Donizetti’s
Don Pasquale. The Orchestre National d’Ile-de-France must have been playing very well throughout the night because
I was noticing things for the first time – like the poignant contributions of the bassoon and the French horns in the
waltz from Goudnod’s Faust.
I’d never heard of Ms. Ciofi but that is no measure of her status. She has sung Lucia at La Scala, which is
not exactly shabby. I find that coloratura sopranos tend towards the bright and sparkling or towards the richer, more mellow
sound. Hers was the latter. She has a lovely, floating Sutherland-like quality. But her high notes are not as ringing and
focused as one might wish. Also, she does not have a real trill, which is disappointing in this repretoire. Which is not to
say that she isn’t a very good singer. In fact, her performance of "Regnava nel silenzio" from Lucia didn’t
compare at all unfavourably with the echoes of Sutherland in this role. However, Ms. Ciofi is one of those sopranos who feels
that, even in concert, she has to act out the arias. I can understand how a performer may feel these contortions are
necessary in order to give her all but it’s not attractive to watch. Try as we might, we cannot pretend we are
watching an actual staged scene in an opera.
For me, the real draw of the evening was Signor Calleja. He’s a tall, somewhat stocky guy, losing his air, but with
a boyish exuberance somewhat like the young Pavarotti’s. He has a ringing, supple voice with a ping that carries it
right to the back of the hall and just the slightest quiver (Boërling, anyone?) that makes
it deliciously exciting. To see him standing there and to hear his voice soaring above the orchestra is to know what opera
is all about; this is the way it should be. In fact, you can’t helping thinking: this is the way life should be! For
the most part, he sang rather short arias: "A la paterna mano" (Verdi’s Macbeth), "Una furtiva lagrima" (Donizetti’s
L’Elisir d’amore) and "Pourquoi me réveiller" (Massenet’s Werther).
Maybe he is at his best in short, ecstatic bursts. In one show of astounding technique, he ended an aria – I forget
which one – on a fortissimo and let it fade gradually to the softest pianissimo. My favourite of his arias was "Ah!
Lève-toi, soleil" (Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette).
Phrases of it were running through my mind all night and the next day.
The second and final duet of the evening was "O soave fanciulla" (Puccini’s La Bohème).
While singing the last phrases, the singers walked off stage as if in a staged opera. To me, it looked a little silly for
them to be picking their way through the orchestra members’ music stands but I suppose it was worth it for the haunting
effect of those last notes heard in the distance. As sometimes happens in European opera houses, there was a lot of rhythmic
clapping in unision – very loud and very insistent. So we got an encore from each of the singers and – to my great
delight – they finished with "Libiamo ne’ lieti calici" (the drinking song) from Verdi’s La Traviata.
Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Biography) by Antonia Fraser, 2001
I’ve been hearing so much about the works of Antonia Fraser that it seemed about time to treat myself to one
of them. To give you some measure of the popularity of her books – the Toronto public libraries have 40 number of copies
of this one in circulation and I was on the waiting list about two months before getting it. Coincidentally, the book arrived
just before I was scheduled to leave for France, so I had to rush through the 458 pages.
But maybe I would have raced through the book in any circumstances. It’s a wonderful read. Lady Fraser does a fabulous
job of telling the story of one of the most dramatic lives history has ever known. There’s no secret about the fact
that this is a very sympathetic portrait but it appears to be a balanced, judicious one. Lady Fraser cites documentary evidence
for all her claims and she always gives reasons for her interpretations. She doesn’t try to disguise the fact that Marie
Antoinette had her faults but the one characteristic that stands out consistently from start to end is her kindness, her desire
to please people. (Those famous last words, when she trod on the foot of the executioner: "Excuse me sir, I didn’t mean
to do it.")
In hindsight, you can forgive almost any of the woman’s supposed sins. She was married off to someone she’d
never seen at the age of fifteen in order to cement a political alliance. The rigmarole surrounding her stifling life at court
makes the plight of the late Princess Diana look like a day at the beach. Yes, it’s true that Marie Antoinette seemed
frivolous and inclined to luxury in the early years. But what was a young girl supposed to do when her husband wouldn’t
enable her to fulfill the one function for which she thought she was intended – to provide an heir?
(As for the young husband’s inability/refusal to perform his sexual duties, Lady Fraser offers lots of speculation
on the causes or motivations. The obvious one – to me – is not considered. We’re dealing here with a boy
of the age of about seventeen. What’s more, a good Catholic boy. In other words, he simply couldn’t get
his mind around such a beastly business! No wonder it took a stern lecture by his brother-in-law, who happened at the time
to be the Emperor of Austria, to kick him into action.)
Much as I enjoyed the book, I wished at times that the writing were a little clearer, a little smoother. I found some of
the sentence structures very odd, with meanings elusive in places. Some of this may be due to the lack of good copy editing
that is endemic in publishing these days. It was impossible for me to untangle the complicated skeins of marital connections
that are often involved where European monarchy are concerned. Still, I suppose it was necessary to include that information.
And the background to the main events doesn’t always come clear. Lady Fraser seems to think the reader knows more than
I do about the political scene in Europe at that time. I found the details of the wars and skirmishes which impacted on the
Queen’s fate rather hard to follow.
The Queen’s sad story has an important lesson for you if you’re a fifteen-year-old in danger of being married
off to some prince: be wary of the adulation of the crowd. Don’t trust your press The mob can turn against you any time.
In spite of the rabid hatred aimed at her, Marie Antoinette retained her dignity to the end. Say what you like about
the excesses of the monarchy and their indulgent life style: it produced people – at least in the cases of Marie Antoinette
and her husband King Louis XVI – who knew how to behave with nobility when the chips were down.
During my recent quick trip to Paris, I chose to focus on contemporary culture, rather than the museum version.
Hence the following reviews:
L’Autre (Play) written and directed by Enzo Cormann, starring Catherine Matisse and Martine Vandeville
(Théatre National de la Colline, Paris, until Feb 4)
In this very dramatic encounter, the sparse set consists of four walls. For each of the three scenes, the
walls are configured differently, with stark lighting. Two women confront each other. They have learned that they were both
married to the same man – simultaneously – for fifteen years. They spit out long, poetic speeches. Their
articulation is so perfect that even I can catch almost every word. You’d think they were declaiming Racine’s
Phaedre or the like. Gestures very careful, studied. Obviously, these actors have had classical training. You
might say that it’s all a bit artificial but it seems to me that maybe the words are strong enough to carry us along.
However, things are not what they seem. What transpires is an authorial sleight of hand of a kind I've
seen before, but it works. By the third scene, consequently, the speech and gestures have become more naturalistic. Now I’m
missing much of what the women say. But the audience responds very enthusiastically.
Sur Le Fil (Play) written by Sophie Forte, directed by Anne Bourgeois, starring Sophie Forte and Philippe
Sivy (Comédie Bastille, Paris, an open-ended run)
A young, single woman answers the phone. On the other end is a guy who has dialled the wrong number. A flirtation strikes
up. And so it goes, through about twenty phone calls. Here, it didn’t matter that I missed some of the kibitzing
because the charm of the two performers made the chemistry between them quite obvious. However, since I wasn’t attuned
to all the nuances of the dialogue, I wasn’t sure if this was just a barn-burner comedy or whether it had something
more to offer. It struck me that Madame Forte, the author of the piece as well as one of the actors, was indulging
herself with the physical comedy. It’s hard to imagine a Toronto actress getting away with such outlandish goofiness.
The audience loved her, though. (Don't forget that this is the nation that adores Jerry Lewis.) Monsieur Sivy, in the less
humorous role of the caller with some serious issues to work through, was incisive and powerful.
About fifteen minutes into the play, there comes a revelation that is very surprising and that changes the feel of the
proceedings immediately. You can feel an intake of breath all around you. And there’s another surprise – for me,
at any rate – at the curtain call. I’d love to talk more about these items but, since this play might very well
show up at a theatre near you some day, I’ll keep the secret.
What both these plays showed me is that theatre is thriving in Paris – either that or I just happened to pick
winners. Both houses were packed with very appreciative theatre-goers. The crowd at L’Autre was somewhat more
intellectual and prosperous looking, with some young artsy types included, whereas the audience at Sur Le Fil was
more middle of the road, including folks from many different societal sectors. You get the feeling that going to the
theatre is something ordinary Parisians do with gusto. And the format of both plays – an hour and a half of intense
theatre without an intermission – seems a Parisian speciality.
Truands (Movie) by Frédéric Schoendoerffer,
with Benoît Magimel, Philippe Caubère, Béatrice Dalle.
All about high-rollers in the cocaine business. Everybody double-crossing everybody else. A side of Paris life that I’m
glad I didn’t see any more of. But some of the guys did wear beautiful suits. And the photography is very stylish: eg.
one eery shot of an airport at night under an orange sky. This movie will probably make it to North America because it
is so slick and violent but there is one aspect of it that’s very non-American: the head honcho’s girlfriend (Béatrice Dalle) has the lived-in look of a woman in her 40s. You kind of have to admire that
one very blatantly non-Hollywood touch of realism.
Congorama (Movie) by Philippe Falardeau, with Olivier Gourmet, Paul Ahmarani, Jeano-Pierre Cassel and Claudia
A middle-aged Belgian discovers that he’s adopted, so he goes to Quebec to try to find his birth father.
It was interesting – up to a point – to see how Quebec might look to a European visitor. Apart from that, the
movie struck me as pretty boring. That could be because, as my companion pointed out, my French wasn’t up to a lot of
the plot complications. Still, I think technical stuff about the man’s career as an engineer got in the way of
the story. And the structure of the movie didn’t help. It follows one character for about half an hour, then drops back
in time and fills in the story on another character for the next half hour. To me, that’s not very effective story-telling,
not least because it takes you a hell of a long time to figure out what’s going on.
Another thing that put me off this movie – one of the main actors (Paul Ahmarani) has one of those faces that
you rarely see in movies because they’re not camera-friendly. His mask-like face reveals nothing to the camera, at least,
not in this movie. You get really tired of watching him. In fact, you begin to resent him because his hard, unyielding features
prevent you from feeling any connection with him. The other guy, though, the fat, bloated Belgian (Olivier Gourmet), has a
droll, very empathetic presence on screen.
Les Anges Exterminateurs (Movie) by Jean-Claude Brisseau, with Frédéric Van Den Driessche, Maroussia Dubreuil, Lise Bellynck, Marie Allan.
A film-maker decides that he is going to explore "le plaisir féminin". You can guess
what that leads to. I’m not sure if this is high art or of it’s soft core porn trying to pass as high art. The
latter, I think but who am I to say? Certainly, there were some artsy touches – dead women lurking in the corners and
commenting on the action. Maybe they had lots to say about the meaning of life, if only I could have understood them.