A music director's work is never done. While rehearsing the new production of Verdi's mammoth Don Carlos at the Opéra de Paris by day, Philippe Jordan was also conducting a pair of repertory revivals by night: Debussy's elusive Pelléas et Mélisande and Mozart's Così fan tutte, which is elusive, too. The Debussy was known to me from a video taped in March 2012. (I reviewed it for Opera News the following year.) The vintage Robert Wilson staging, dating back to 1997, held up exceptionally well, I thought. But to me, the most distinctive feature was Jordan's way with the score, balancing a rare fluency in the vocal lines with an analytical yet electric quality in the instrumental writing.
Though by no means naturalistic, Robert Wilson's staging of Pelléas et Mélisande makes the opaque story exceptionally transparent.
Theatrically, the Così fan tutte, held over from last season, poses problems. Frankly experimental, the show was choreographed on the vast, empty stage of the Palais Garnier by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, guiding spirit of the contemporary dance company Rosas, from Belgium. Stage direction in any recognized sense of the term went unattempted. Each singer in the cast of six is attended more or less permanently by one of the Rosas dancers who is listed in the program as the same character. Sometimes the dancer's steps mirror the singer's; sometimes they veer off on wild tangents. For the record, the singers are double cast, while the dancers are not.
Though the investment in extra rehearsal time (nine weeks!) was enormous, not much was spent on production values. There are no sets or props to speak of. Lighting cues come into play very sparingly. When love and magnetism bring a supposedly poisoned pair of spurned lovers back from the brink of the grave, the colors of the rainbow flood the stage in rapid succession—a cosmic reset that is over almost before it begins. By and large, the women's clothes are limp, nondescript, and unflattering, proceeding from basic black at the beginning to noxious pastel hues later on. For party scenes, the young officers Ferrando and Guglielmo (who also start out in black) change out of business suits into brocade cutaways. The Enlightenment cynic Don Alfonso comes in two models: the singers who share the part—Paulo Szot grave and romantic, Simone Del Savio wily and ironic—dress in period knee breeches and buckled shoes, like agents of the law courts, perhaps, with twin rows of bright brass buttons down their coats. As the Alfonso who dances, Boštan Antončič comes off as their Skid Row doppelganger in sneakers, sweats, and a military greatcoat with tails that fly like goblins with every air turn, a striking effect the first three or four times.
In short, De Keersmaeker has no light to shed on Così. There's no way forward from this dead end. And yet, at a first viewing at this point in its stage history (October 3), the De Keersmaeker Così exercised a potent fascination. As I found out at a second viewing (October 8), its idiosyncrasies wear very thin.
Me and my shadow: Paulo Szot sings Don Alfonso in the De Keersmaeker Così, constantly attended by Boštjan Antončič, his dancing double.
At the podium, Jordan once again had a highly personal reading to offer. In the overture, ribbons of melody fluttered by not note by individual note but as silken flourishes. Ideas chased ideas in exuberant profusion. Turbulence rather than harmony and measure was the keynote, yet those Mozartian hallmarks of harmony and measure were present, too.
Once into the action, pauses for thought in Ferrando's and Guglielmo's recitatives tried one's patience at times, especially when in the end the thinkers come up with pure foolishness anyway. (Dorabella: "What lovely bushes." Guglielmo: "Yes, yes, very pretty. They have more leaves than fruit.") But in arias and especially the large-scale ensembles, the pulse quickened, leaving no space for reflection, prettiness, or mooning. Rather than linger, the musical thought raced past bar lines with dizzying dispatch. The sententious last lines of the opera deal with the whirlwind of life, wherein only the man guided by reason may find serenity. How might this moral fit the story? The answer implicit in Jordan's reading is, Not at all: our names are writ in water.