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Ionarts in Paris: Capriccio at the Garnier (Part 1 of 2)

This French professor friend of mine (see yesterday's post) also taught courses on the literary sources of opera, and opera is one of his life’s passions, perhaps even greater than Diderot and Enlightenment literature, which was his academic specialization. So in his retirement he takes great delight in recounting to me all of the operas and other performances he sees during his time in Paris, which makes me green with jealousy. This year, what he praised the most was a production, by Canadian Robert Carsen, of Richard Strauss's Capriccio (the composer's last opera, with librettist Clemens Krauss), which had its last performance on July 8 at the Palais Garnier. (This is just the latest successful production since Hugues Gall took over the direction of the Opéra de Paris, nine years ago. You can read Bertrand Dermoncourt's glowing report on the the Hugues Gall era, L'art des comptes, in L'Express on April 5, 2004. It will also be his last, since he is leaving the post this month, as reported by Alan Riding for the New York Times in June.) According to my friend, the allure of this Capriccio is due to a combination of inventive staging and what he called une distribution d'enfer, or "a helluva casting." I can now say that I agree with him, because I managed to claw and tear my way in to hear that last performance.

It can be difficult to get good tickets to operas in Paris, unless you subscribe well in advance. However, at the Garnier and at the newer Opéra de Paris Bastille, you can wait in line for unsold tickets starting 45 minutes before curtain. They also sell, just before curtain, a number of the least desirable seats, that is, with limited visibility. I was in that line, which was very long, considering that this was the last performance of a critically acclaimed production. The stars aligned and a woman who had an extra ticket walked up to my part of the line, right next to me, and asked quietly, "Qui a besoin d’une seule place?" (Who needs a single ticket?). Probably because of the extra time it takes for a question in French to be processed and an appropriate response to be formulated in a foreigner’s brain, I was not the first to respond.

I thought I may have missed my chance, but I was able to buy a seat. The woman at the ticket window had warned me that the seat was sans visibilité (without sightline), so I was prepared to find myself sitting outside on the Rue Auber somewhere, but it turned out that I was in the second tier of loges, in the second row of a box, house left, and since I was very close to the stage, I could see only about 40% of it if I didn't lean forward at all. I may not have seen everything, but I heard every blessed note, and it was heavenly. Now, keep in mind that this experience set me back the prize sum of 7€, which is less than it would cost me here or in Washington to see an epic piece of cinematic garbage like this.

The Garnier is one of the most glorious places to see an opera. Built only in the 19th century, it's not all that old by French standards, and it is one outlandish, fluffy piece of academic architecture. What I love about the Garnier, though, is that that very sense of exaggeration makes evident how wonderful what you go there to hear is. (The Metropolitan Opera has this quality—in a pedestrian and, sorry to say, American way, while the Kennedy Center is about as boring and soulless a building as was ever designed by humankind.) The auditorium in the Garnier is grand and decorated in a decadent 19th-century neoclassical style, with crystal chandeliers, gilded putti, and imaginative columns of which even Bernini (who built this, for heaven’s sake) could be proud. I spent some time before and after the opera looking at the amazing Marc Chagall painting in the dome, which I really love. It shows the mythological, musical apotheosis of the city of Paris, represented by recognizable 19th-century monuments like the Tour Eiffel, the Arc de Triomphe, the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, and the Église de la Madeleine, accomplished by the brightly colored angels of music, many of them carrying orchestral instruments, who ascend to its central point.

Oh yeah, there was music, too. Heading up the kickass cast was Renée Fleming as Die Gräfin (the Countess), who was stellar. This role is so perfect for her, and she brought an incredible poise and elegance to the character. Franz Hawlata, as the theater director, La Roche, brought to the stage one of the most powerful and rich bass voices of our time, not to mention great comic sense. Swedish soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter had the role of the actress Clairon. Von Otter has a remarkable vocal instrument, both clear and strong, not necessarily qualities that always go together in opera singers. This is probably why she sings Bach so well. Also singing admirably were tenor Rainer Trost as Flamand, the composer, and Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as Olivier, the poet. It really was a superlative cast.

Go to Part 2.

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