In Quest of Operas from Jules Barbier’s Paris

I suspect that most opera goers spend rather little time thinking about the contributions that librettists make to the world of opera. Most will know that Wagner wrote all the words to his operas. Probably, most opera aficionados will associate the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte with Mozart, and Arrigo Boito with Verdi, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal with Richard Strauss, (and likely also Ira with his brother George Gershwin) and many will be able to name other combinations of composers and librettists.

However, a librettist who particularly interests me is nowhere near as well known as da Ponte, or Boito, or Hofmannsthal, but in his own way is worth getting to know better. He is Jules Barbier, whose name nowadays is seen most often in the context of being Gounod’s co-librettist for “Faust”, but who was a major figure in mid-19th century Parisian opera. (In France of that century, what went on in Paris really mattered to French opera.) Sometimes Barbier teamed with his colleague Michel Carre, or sometimes he worked with an opera composer alone, but he was always a brilliant presence in any collaboration.

Several operas to whom Barbier is important are being mounted in the United States over the next several months. It is my plan to get to at least one production of all five of these operas.

[Below: Dramatist, librettist and bon vivant Jules Barbier.]

Damnation of Faust (Berlioz), Lyric Opera of Chicago, February 20, 24, March 2, 5, 8, 13(m) and 17, 2010

Even though Barbier did not personally have a hand in the creation of Berlioz’ “La Damnation de Faust”, this uncompromisingly melodic masterpiece profoundly influenced Barbier and Gounod in their development of the most successful adaptation of Goethe’s “Faust” in any medium.

The careers of Berlioz, Gounod and Barbier are entwined with Paris’ Theatre Lyrique where Berlioz’ great opera “Les Troyens” (or at least half of it) received its only performances during Berlioz’ lifetime.

Many of the episodes in “La Damnation” have parallels in Gounod’s “Faust”, but its greatest influence on Gounod was Berlioz’ seductive use of melody, that led Gounod in “Faust”  to perfect the erotic “sweet melody” sound that influenced French opera for the next half century.

[Below: Faust (Paul Groves) unexpectedly appears in the room of Marguerite (Susan Graham); edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

British stage director Stephen Langridge creates a new production for Lyric Opera, with sets by George Souglides and lighting by Wolfgang Goebbel, all Lyric Opera debuts.

The lovers Faust and Marguerite are played respectively by Paul Groves and Susan Graham. The Mephistopheles will be John Relyea, who is accumulating an impressive repertory of diabolical roles. Christian Van Horn is Brander. Sir Andrew Davis conducts.

[For my performance review, see: Berlioz’ Faust Fantastique: Lyric Opera Does “Damnation” – Chicago, March 8, 2010.]

Romeo et Juliette (Gounod), San Diego Opera, March 13, 16, 19 and 21(m), 2010

The success of  Gounod’s “Faust”, particularly the Garden Scene and nuit d’amour of Faust and Marguerite, caused “Faust” to move past Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” as the most popular opera in the world (until Bizet’s “Carmen” and then Puccini’s “La Boheme” established their own adoring fan bases). The management of the Theatre Lyrique put considerable pressure on Gounod and Barbier to turn their attentions back to opportunities for sweet, erotic melody. Thus, nearly a decade later, as a lustrous addition to the latest Paris world exposition, the Bard’s “Romeo and Juliet” became a new vehicle for the Gounod-Barbier magic.

[Below: Romeo (Stephen Costello) has taken  poison in the final scene of San Diego Opera’s “Romeo et Juliette”,  resulting in a decision by Juliet (Allyn Perez) to take her own life also; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Curiously, Gounod’s is the first major opera on this subject, French or Italian, to write the part of Romeo for a male voice, rather than having it sung by a mezzo-soprano in men’s clothing. With tenor testosterone in the mix, Gounod lavished the score with multiple, melodious love duets. (Much more happens in the opera than these high risk lovers’ sentiments about their mutual attraction, but Gounod pulls out all the melodic stops whenever the lead tenor and soprano are within a few feet of each other.)

San Diego Opera, who in 2008 brought together a soprano and tenor married in real life to sing Leila and Nadir in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”, has mounted “Romeo and Juliet” for Stephen Costello and Allyn Perez, another soprano-tenor married couple. They are joined by David Adam Moore as Mercutio, Joel Sorensen as Tybalt and Kevin Langan as Tybalt, with a luminous supporting cast that includes Malcolm MacKenzie, Susanna Guzman, Phillip Skinner, Joseph Hu and Scott Sikon. Cynthia Stokes directs and Karen Keltner conducts.

[For my performance review, see: Costello, Perez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010.]

Hamlet (Thomas), Metropolitan Opera, New York City, March 16, 20, 24, 27(m), 30, April 2, 5 and 9, 2010

Many opera goers (and opera managements) have a prejudice against this gloriously melodic work, even when they’ve never seen or heard it. Perhaps they have taken to heart the famous epigram by a sour 19th century British critic that only a Barbarian or a Frenchman could have made such an opera out of the Bard’s greatest work.

It was, of course, the work of the very non-Barbarian, but very French, Jules Barbier, working with the composer Ambroise Thomas, who like Berlioz, Gounod and Bizet (and later Massenet and Debussy), was a Grand Prix de Rome laureate.

[Below: Simon Keenlyside is Hamlet; edited image, based on a Simon Fowler photograph.]

Even though it was banished from the Metropolitan Opera’s repertory for the entire 20th century, one should not go to this opera to seek insights into the Bard’s play (whose plot it quite significantly changes), but instead one should surrender to the opera’s beauties. After all, the British play’s reputation remains intact, totally unscathed by this Parisian operatic “adaptation”.

The Met welcomes Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet and Marlis Pedersen as Ophelie, joined by Jennifer Larmore (Gertrude), Toby Spence (Laertes) and James Morris (Claudius). Louis Langree conducts. The Royal Opera House Covent Garden’s production, directed by the team of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, will be used to re-introduce Thomas’ work to the Met, after its 113 year break.

For those unable to get to New York City during the run, there is the option of attending the March 27, 2010 “Live in HD” performance in theaters that carry that Met’s telecasts. (Some theaters will repeat the showing on April 14, 2010.)

[For my performance review of Marlis Pedersen in a quite different opera, see: “Lulu” at the Lyric – November 19, 2008.]

Hamlet (Thomas), Washington National Opera, May 19, 22, 24, 27, 30(m), June 1 and 4, 2010

Hamlet the Opera, that will be 150 years old later this decade, is having a new lease on life. It regales audiences in luscious music, romance and drama. Not insignificantly, it provides a tour de force and title role for superstar dramatic baritones, and also contains the stellar coloratura part of Ophelie (complete with mad scene).

Washington National Opera enlisted baritone Carlos Alvarez as Hamlet and Diana Damrau as Ophelie, with Samuel Ramey as Claudius and Elizabeth Bishop as Gertrude.

[Below: the final scene from the Thaddeus Strassberger production of “Hamlet” at Washington National Opera with Michael Chioldi as Hamlet; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

The production, from the imagination of Thaddeus Strassberger, was seen previously at Kansas City Lyric Opera. The work’s conductor, Placido Domingo, contributes his knowledge of and rapport with Second Empire French Opera and his celebrity status to the enterprise.

[For my performance review, see: Michael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010 .]

Faust (Gounod), San Francisco Opera, June 5, 8, 11, 16, 20(m), 26(m) and July 1, 2010

There is only one French opera that is more popular than Gounod’s “Faust” and that one, on a Spanish theme by a French novelist, was composed by Gounod’s younger Theatre Lyrique colleague and fellow Grand Prix winner, Georges Bizet.

[Below: the Kermesse scene in the Robert Perdziola sets and costumes for Gounod’s “Faust”, promotional photograph, from the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Robert Perdziola’s striking, often beauteous sets were seen last Fall in Chicago at Lyric Opera. They will be revived at San Francisco Opera this June, with former Adler fellow Jose Maria Condemi, as stage director, promising a different take on the opera from Chicago’s Frank Corsaro (See my review of the Corsaro-Perdziola production at Lyric Opera Revives Inventive Corsaro-Perdziola “Faust”: Chicago November 3, 2009 and my interview with Condemi at Rising Stars: An Interview with Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi, Part One.)

Stefano Secco makes his San Francisco Opera stage debut. Patricia Racette is Marguerite and John Relyea the devil-may-care Mephistopheles. Catherine Cook is Marthe, Daniela Mack is Siebel and Brian Mulligan will be the Valentin.

[For my performance review, see: Racette Ravishing, Relyea Riveting in San Francisco “Faust” – June 5, 2010. For my review of a later performance in the run, see: A Second Look: A Visually, Aurally Praiseworthy “Faust” at San Francisco Opera – June 20, 2010.]

Tales of Hoffman (Offenbach), Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 21, 30, August 3, 7, 11, 24 and 28, 2010

Offenbach’s regrettably unfinished grand opera “Les Contes d’Hoffman” was based on a play by Barbier and Carre. Barbier, the go-to librettist for the French operatic elite, also wrote the opera’s lyrics.

This will be the opera’s debut season at the Santa Fe Opera. Paul Groves will be Hoffman;  Erin Wall will perform the four roles of Antonia, Giulietta, Olympia and Stella; and Wayne Tigges will play all four villains.  Kate Lindsey will be Nicklausse and Jill Grove, the voice of Antonia’s mother. Character tenors David Cangelosi is also in the cast.

[Below:  Hoffman (Paul Groves), Coppelius (Wayne Tigges) and Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey) examine the rose-colored glasses; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

A new production is being developed by Christopher Alden, with sets by Allen Moyer. Stephen Lord will conduct.

[For my performance review, see: Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010.]