Champagne Genevois!

SwitzerlandSwitzerland J. Strauss: La Chauve-Souris, Soloists, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Chorus of Geneva Grand Théâtre, Theodor Guschlbauer (conductor), Grand Théatre , Geneva, 13.12.2013  (AL)


La Chauves-Souris Credit IsabelleMeister
La Chauves-Souris Credit IsabelleMeister

Gabriel: Nicola Rivenq
Rosalinde: Mireille Delunsch
Adele : Teodora Gheorghiu
Frank: René Schirrer
Prince Orlofsky: Marie-Claude Chappuis
Alfred: Marc Laho
Dr Falke: Dominique Coté
Dr Blind: Fabrice Farina
Ida: Marion Jacquemet
Frsoch: Dimitri

Director: Stephen Lawless
Sets: Benoit Dugardyn
Lighting: Simon Trottet
Choregraphy: Nicola Bowie

As is the tradition in Geneva, and in the rest of the world, Wagnerian grandiose works, Italian drama and Mozartian subtleties are replaced by lighter works at the end of the year. In 2012 the Grand Théâtre unearthed a rarity from Arthur Honegger, Les Aventures du Roi Pausale, a half-play/half-musical full of “polissonades” which did not take itself too seriously.

This year’s work is Johann Strauss’s La Chauve-Souris − not Die Fledermaus, not the The Bat, but a French translation. While this may seem a surprising choice in our modern times, one should remember that this was the way works were performed in the past. More importantly, it reminds us that good operetta tradition involves a lot of dialogue, often improvised.

The spoken role of Frosch is the one in which the performer usually does what he or she wants. The Theâtre brought in the much-loved Swiss clown Dimitri, who at age 80 delivered a Chaplinesque performance with nice physical theatrics and a few private jokes about Italian opera houses. His performance was in its way coherent with Stephen Lawless’s overly careful staging imported from Glyndebourne. There were no radical Felseinstein-like histrionics in his readings (although the presence of female nudity surprised a few). There were some private jokes that worked well (and the Geneva audience now understands why lawyers have long robes…). The producer also found the right touch with clocks moving around the stage to express how partygoers were losing track of the time during  Prince Orlofsky’s party. The “Du und Du” chorus scene, always a highlight of this work, was well treated with partygoers from all social classes suddenly mixing with one another. But in the end, despite these touches, the production failed to generate any real sympathy for the characters: a bitchy Rosalinde pouring champagne over Gabriel’s head; Orlofsky even more obnoxious than usual; all the men self-centered; and Adele’s simplicity too obvious.

To pull off this work in French, the Theâtre had to rely on singers who could manage the dialogue. Some did particularly well, like Marc Laho’s Alfred, finding a good balance between care for words and tenorial phrasing. But this was not the case for the Gabriel of Nicolas Rivenq or the Falke of Dominique Coté, whose projections were often weak in a hall this size.

Mireille Delunsch was a last minute replacement for an indisposed Noemie Nadelmann. One has to recognize the challenge of stepping into such a difficult role at the last minute: it seems she had just four days to learn the part in French and rehearse. While she left many things to be desired, she is a great talent and can only improve in the performances to come. By her side, Marie-Claude Chappuis was a strong Orlofsky and Teodora Gheorghiu the clear winner of the evening. Her Adele had the notes, the look and a nice Viennese pulse.

I could not find which translation had been used but one thing is sure, this was not one that helped the singers. Strauss’s ¾ waltzes work well with the German language but are often at odds with the rhythm of French. For example, the “Meinen Hut, meinen Hut – ‘S ist die höchste Zeit” was translated as “Mon chapeau, Mon chapeau. Vite, il me le faut,” which just does not work with the music. There were many such examples, and the singers were often fighting against the words.

In this very pit, a young Austrian conductor was asked to conduct Die Fledermaus  in 1965 and 1966; he later rose in Munich as the leading (and for many the definitive) conductor of it. This performance was conducted by another Austrian, Theodor Guschlbauer. Things started in a shaky way with the usually reliable brass of the Swiss Romande Orchestra sounding very heavy while the strings delivered a confident sound. The conductor, probably conscious of the concerns of his singers, favored cautious tempis at the expense of ebullience and sparkle. As usual in this hall, the chorus was very strong.

As the evening went on, orchestra and stage gained confidence. Musicians speak often of the challenge of the first performance. Many signs of it were clearly displayed there and one has to recognize the fact that this “light” work is in fact a very difficult one. It will be repeated until December 31st which should enable singers and musicians to settle into their parts.

 Antoine Leboyer

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