Paris Opera’s ‘Dudamel era’ begins and time will tell how his relationship with the ‘City of Love’ will develop

FranceFrance Gustavo Dudamel’s Concert Inaugural: Soloists, Chorus (chorusmaster: Ching-Lien Wu) and Maîtrise des Hauts de Seine (Children’s Choir of the Opéra national de Paris, director: Gaël Darchen), Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris / Gustavo Dudamel (conductor). Filmed (directed by François-René Martin) at the Palais Garnier, Paris, 22.9.2021. (JPr)

Gustavo Dudamel conducts Clémentine Margaine (mezzo-soprano) and the Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris

Bizet – Prelude; ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’ (Clémentine Margaine); ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ (Matthew Polenzani); ‘Les voici, voici la quadrille…’ (Carmen)
Osvaldo Golijov – ‘Mariana, tus ojos’ from Ainadamar (Ekaterina Gubanova and Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur)
De Falla – Dance from the second scene from La vida breve
Britten – ‘Storm’ Interlude No.4 from Peter Grimes
Adams – ‘Batter my heart’ from Doctor Atomic (Gerald Finley)
Wagner – Prelude (Act I) from Lohengrin
R.Strauss – ‘Marie Theres’!… Hab’ mir’s gelobt’ from Der Rosenkavalier (Marschallin: Jacquelyn Wagner, Octavian: Ekaterina Gubanova and Sophie: Sabine Devieilhe, Faninal: Gerald Finley)
Verdi – ‘Alto là! Chi va là’ from Falstaff (Falstaff: Gerald Finley, Alice: Jacquelyn Wagner, Nannetta: Sabine Devieilhe, Meg: Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur, Quickly: Clémentine Margaine, Fenton: Matthew Polenzani, Bardolfo: Tobias Westman, Dr Caius: Kiup Lee, Ford: Timothée Varon, Pistola: Aaron Pendleton)

How wonderful to get an opportunity to see the Concert Inaugural to celebrate Gustavo Dudamel beginning his tenure as music director of the Opéra national de Paris and also possibly to the way things were before the pandemic. However, while the chorus and orchestra were not socially distanced – and in full numbers it appeared – they were still masked (though some sung holding it away from their face and others were seen playing their string instruments with it below their nose or chin).

Dudamel’s contract in Paris is initially for six seasons whilst he remains music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic until at least the end of 2026. That is going to be a lot of air miles and it will be interesting to see how he juggles these two prestigious positions in coming years. Of these, eyes will be mostly on Paris where Dudamel made his debut with La bohème in 2017 and, to be truthfully, he is not (yet) really known for opera. Watching him closely in this transmission his enthusiasm on the podium was clear for all to see while he is now a calmer, more impassive version of the curly-haired wunderkind who burst onto the classical music scene in the early 2000s. As heard through loudspeakers his orchestra seemed to respond to his apparent geniality, encouragement and sweeping arm gestures with some virtuosic playing.

We were in the Napoleon III’s nineteenth-century Neo-Baroque glories of Palais Garnier for a concert described as ‘an anthology of operatic extracts and invites you to rediscover great arias, duets, ensembles, musical interludes from a rich and eclectic repertoire’. (Oddly there was no standard ballet music in a theatre that has witnessed so many wonderful performances in the past.) There was no discernible theme to what we (saw and) heard and there was only some typical gala fare and I suspect there was other music that had never been heard at the Garnier or at the Bastille Opera House.

The opening was an undoubted crowd-pleaser beginning with a fiery and exuberant prelude, followed by Clémentine Margaine’s suitably sensual and provocative Habanera, Matthew Polenzani’s ‘Flower Song’ was more reflective, nuanced and lyrical – perfumed even – than ardent. Finally, the chorus (bolstered by young girls and boys in separate side boxes) just about kept it together for a somewhat muted (masks?) arrival of the bullfighters from the start of the final act. Something new to me – and to nearly all the audience I suspect – was Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov’s ‘Mariana, tus ojos’, a duet sung by Ekaterina Gubanova and Marie-Andrée Bouchard-Lesieur. It is apparently a short opera about the life of actress Margarita Xirgu (Gubanova) and death of Spanish Republican poet Federico Garcia Lorca. There were no subtitles I could find but the music featured conga drum-driven Latin dance rhythms and Gubanova brought an agonised, haunted quality to some engrossing long-breathed singing. Spain was represented again in a dance from De Falla’s La viva breve, with lots of aahhing from the chorus – that Dudamel was doing his best to energise – with clapping hands sounding like castanets. It built to a rousing climax which I was beginning to appreciate was a feature of most of the extracts we heard.

Then there were two oddities if compared to what had gone before, beginning with Benjamin Britten’s ‘Storm’ interlude from Peter Grimes which was very stormy indeed with a tempestuous ending. This was followed by ‘Batter my heart’ from John Adams’s Doctor Atomic (about Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bomb) which research shows is John Donne’s plea in Holy Sonnet XIV that grace will undo the ties that bind him. Gerald Finley created the role of Oppenheimer and sang with his customary eloquence, though Adams’s accompaniment is jagged in parts and at odds with the text. (Kudos to Finley’s agent – and the singer’s talent – as the baritone has been kept fairly busy during the pandemic.)

After a short interval there was Wagner’s Act I Prelude to Lohengrin where the orchestra’s shimmering strings gloriously evoked the ethereal realm from which the Swan Knight journeys. Dudamel has little Wagner pedigree so far (there was to be a Bayreuth Tannhäuser which never happened) but this was enough evidence to suggest any future forays into that composer’s oeuvre should be interesting. If Dudamel’s Wagner was impressive, so to was the final trio (‘Marie Theres’! … Hab’ mir’s gelobt’) from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Here the Marschallin (the statuesque Jacquelyn Wagner) introduces herself to Sophie (an engaging Sabine Devieilhe), recognising that the day she feared has come, and releases Octavian (a very credible Ekaterina Gubanova) to be with the woman he truly loves. It was poignant and bittersweet and Dudamel and his musicians really did reveal how Strauss was at his most sublime here and the ending where the Marschallin’s page rushes out saw Dudamel enthusiastically jumping up and down on the podium.

Falstaff: Finale of Act III

At the end of Verdi’s Falstaff, the fat and self-important knight, has been duped and taken a beating. There are also two mystery brides and when veils are removed it is revealed how the wealthy Ford has married (to their delight) Fenton to his daughter Nannetta, but also the elderly Dr Caius (who Ford wanted to marry Nannetta) to Bardolfo, one of Falstaff’s hangers-on! Everyone laughs at Ford who has little choice but to bless Fenton and Nannetta’s marriage and before the wedding supper with a repentant Falstaff, the entire company (in a remarkable ten-voice fugue) agree that ‘Everything in the world is a jest … but he laughs well who laughs the final laugh’. Much fun was had by all with outstanding contributions from Timothée Varon’s implacable, though ultimately forgiving Ford and Finley’s flawed, charismatic and oh-so expressively sung Falstaff.

A standing ovation led to a stirring – and obviously patriotic – rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’ to close this suitably celebratory launch of the ‘Dudamel era’ in Paris. Time will tell how the relationship between conductor and the ‘City of Love’ will develop.

Jim Pritchard

This concert is available free of charge for three months on the Paris Opera website (click here).

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