Switzerland Strauss: Le Baron Tzigane (Der Zigeunerbaron): Soloists, Chorus of the Grand Théâtre Geneva, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Stefan Blunier (conductor), 17.12.2017. (ALL)
Sandor Barinkay – Jean-Pierre Furlan
Saffi – Eleonore Marguerre
Kalman Zsupan – Wolfgang Bankl
Czipra – Marie-Ange Todorovitch
Ottokar – Loïc Felix
Arsena – Melody Louledjian
Comte Homonay – Marc Mazuir
Mirabella – Jeannette Fischer
Conte Carnero – Daniel Djambazian
Pali – Wolfgang Barta
Director – Christian Räth
Design and Costumes – Leslie Travers
Choreography – Philippe Giraudeau
Lighting designer – Simon Trottet
The main appeal of this production was the opportunity to hear Strauss’s ‘second best-loved’ operetta. Performances of Fledermaus abound, but The Gypsy Baron remains a rarity. The overture is well-known and there are wonderful passages later on in the work, some full of verve and energy and others offering tenderness and nostalgia. It is no surprise that Harnoncourt himself lent his credibility to the work and made a celebrated recording.
The work was presented in French, which is important in operetta, where trivial stories tend to be a good excuse for adding jokes. After the success of the Figaro trilogy at the beginning of the season, expectations were high in Geneva to rediscover a neglected masterpiece. Alas, they were not met. Some individual contributions had strength, but the core components of an opera, the direction and the conducting were not up to par.
Producer Christian Räth started with some promising ideas, with a conservatively-dressed family of pigs chased off a giant game-board during the overture (a nice touch in contrast to the razzmatazz to come). But as soon as the chorus entered, the action became bloated and clunky. There was an absence of an overall concept for the work which was not compensated for by the heavy slapstick jokes. Strauss’s works are light, but never vulgar, and this heavy-handed staging missed the point.
The singing was uneven but not without a few promising singers. Best was the Saffi of Eleonore Marguerre. Her voice has strength and musicality and she could have the potential to expand into heavier German roles. The young Melody Louledjian has secure high notes, although her clear, lovely and light voice would be a more natural fit in a baroque work.
Jean-Pierre Furlan’s part was not helped by the French translation, which reminded us that German paces words very differently. He forced his voice in a few places, words were not so clear and his tenorial line suffered. The part of Zsupan was sung … in German by the Wiener Staatsoper’s Wolfgang Bankl, replacing Christophoros Stamboglis, who was sick and had to be rushed to hospital after the premiere. The Geneva Opera had Bankl fly in from Vienna, and Zsupan’s part was divided between the singer and an actor, each of them wearing a costume marked ‘original’ and ‘French version’. This worked much better than one might have feared, but Bankl’s voice showed signs of wear and lacked projection. (Some may remember the time that Siegfried Jerusalem sang at the London Coliseum in the 1980s, stepping in as a last-minute replacement to sing, in his native German, in the ENO’s English-language production of Parsifal …) The many smaller roles were not fully adequate. As always, the Grand Théâtre Chorus was good and is clearly one of this stage’s best assets.
Sadly, the orchestra did not help. As was the case last season for Berg’s Wozzeck in the same venue, Stefan Blunier did not support the singers, as the orchestra was often too loud. Balance was better with some of the solos, but the big ensembles did not work and were not in place. Entries were not ‘clean’ – Strauss’s delicate rhythms are difficult to do justice to and suffer greatly from imprecision. While I received confirmation that the usual principals of the Swiss Romande Orchestra were in the pit, it did not sound like the ensemble that we know from the symphonic repertoire, which is making genuine progress under their new music director Jonathan Nott.
In conclusion, both the staging and conducting were heavy-handed. It is the tradition in Geneva to offer a light work during this festive season. But we were reminded that while these works may be fun, they are also difficult to perform.