French Favorites

How about you spend your Tuesday lunchbreak with a French (surtitles in German available) documentary on the history of the Parisian Opéra Comique?

Sounds drab? Think again.

Think Petibon, Devieilhe and Antonacci.

Do I have your attention now?

Since I am on a bit of a Petibon bender these days (perhaps I should call that a ‘Petibender’, for short), YouTube persuaded me to click play. Come for the soprano, stay for even more sopranos (no, this is still a mezzo blog. Also: Antonacci!).

As an aside: Michel Fau might be among my favorite Carmens now (who else can pull off that costime of Galli-Marie? Okay, Antonacci, but when Antonacci walks in wearing that costume eventually, you don’t see a Carmen in a  starched white skirt. You see a torero in a jacket, and you sign up with the bulls). His Mélisande impersonation is also memorable.

What this actually is: a 90 minutes staged concert tribute to the Opéra Comique and its history. It has got digs at the Palais Garnier, it has got digs at the management, and and it has reassuringly few dicks (sorry, couldn’t help myself there). In fact, after 45 minutes, the first male singer appears. And you find yourself thinking “Hm… I guess you’re right. There weren’t any so far. I didn’t notice.”

That is largely because the evening has fabulous sopranos (well – with Antonacci, designations are flexible, although she sticks with mezzo repertory here).

Sabine Devieilhe, whose Wikipedia page I should not have looked at because she is nearly a decade my junior and now I feel like a cradle robber in writing about her, back then not even 30 yet (the concert was taped in 2014), contributes two coloratura staples, the Olympia aria from Offenbach’s “Les contes d’Hoffmann” and the Bell Aria from Delibes’ “Lakmé” (a tale of cultural appropriation that did not become any less problematic in this half-staging), and both are fantastic. And stratospheric. Also, how does she even move those eyelashes?

Of course, with those coloratura standards going to Devieilhe, you are wondering what Petibon  – who, thankfully, is not my junior, and this will matter in a minute – is going to do, but you will be sidetracked by Anna Caterina Antonacci walking onto stage and so what if it is a concert stage, Antonacci will play her own scenery and then chew it down, too, so, ha!

Antonacci sings “D’amour l’ardente flame” from Berlioz’s “Damnation du Faust” and she is fiercely committed (when isn’t she?).
You thought this was some concert tribute? Think again. She actually makes you stop and think about those lyrics that you have heard a hundred times before. Antonacci also breathes life into the very, very worn “Habanera” from Bizet’s “Carmen”, which brings me back to those torero vibes. Antonacci is never just singing something, and neither is Petibon, who is present here with two excerpts from Massenet’s “Manon” (Air du Cours-la-Reine and the Saint Sulpice duet), which is something I never cared for very much, neither in plot nor in music, but, well, Petibon.

You can place that woman on an empty stage and she will act up a storm, which is pretty much what happens. Three bars into the duet, you feel sorry for the tenor (Frédéric Antoun, who is good, but that is not the point) because she owns that number, too. The duet is largely about Lescaut, whom Manon left and whom she wants back now. He pulled a Thorn Birds and became a priest to get over her; she manages to win him back between church pews.

“Manon” is precisely the kind of thing that turns me of 19th century mainstream at large: The poor, pero hero has to suffer at the hands of a (naturally!) mindless and and cruel woman, which is kind of redundant, because woman are all emotion and no rationality and of course she ruins him. The end (and well, at least she dies because you bet she had it coming).
GOD, am I tired of being mansplained ‘love’ (it sounds oddly like ‘entitlement’, too).

But I did like this duet scene. Not just because Petibon turns that concert stage into a hard-core diegesis frame within two minutes (which is, admittedly, fascinating to witness), but because she made me interested in the power dynamics at play, and in the negotioation of affection within. (In Manon, of all places! I didn’t think I’d ever hear myself say this) Much as the scene was written and composed to be salacious (In a church! How dare she!), it is about something more layered here.

Also, 1:27:00 and following: no, Petibon is not my junior. Thank God.

In the end, there’s the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s “Les contes d’Hoffmann”, and that also ties in with age. The (very impressive) young stars, Julie Fuchs and Sabine Devieilhe, start out. And if you look at Devieilhe, and I really have her on my radar after the Paris “Mitridate”, she is fantastic, musically. Oh, the smooth glory of youth where you could run a marathon or two, and it shows in every effortlessly supple note. (those ad-libs in her Olympia aria are incredible.)

And then you’ve got the second verse of the Barcarolle with Antonacci and Petibon, and it is, for those precious few lines, out of this world.
Because these are seasoned, experienced singers who have been doing this for decades (they’re also insanely dedicated actresses, which plays a part in this, but it is more than just that). And, suddenly, there are dozen additional layers at play: the score seems to open up. It shimmers. It breathes. Yout thought you could see color before? Now you see color.
This is what being at the top of one’s game is, I thought in that moment of very grateful listening: to have the experience, in life and on stage, to add nunance and weight to every word in a way that someone younger simply cannot command yet.

And what a gift it is to us, the listeners.

14 thoughts on “French Favorites”

  1. this has delayed the start of my day significantly… (and i’m not complaining! you got me by the 3rd sentence! just got past “D’amour l’ardent flamme”.. wow.. and yes, on the subject of “Petibender”, i guess you’ve come across the (on paper) interview she gave right on the day of Charlie Hebdo event? which i really love, how she talks about taking risk.. and then i also saw her master class, very passionately explaining even what she learnt! and yes, my fav Carmen!!! i was hoping to hear the entire thing 🙂 . on that line, i thought i would sit through Opera Comique’s “Camen” one of these days with Antonacci b/c i love her “quand je vous aimerais” phrasing! it was for the first time i actually really thought what it meant! The comedy is so great in this Carmen here, oh wow! hahahaha, La Antonacci just walked in.. excuse me..)

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    1. ok, just recovered from La Antonacci.. a bit clarification: fav Carmen = Michel Fau , and yes, where do i sign up with the bulls! that’s an impressive walk-in! The digs on management is fantastic. ok, i think i’ll try to log in to the computers and continue trying to get the plot with this on the left monitor.. here comes Devieilhe.. omg the eye lashes, I think i might follow you to wikipedia to read about her after this..

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      1. I would listen to an entire Carmen wit Michel Fau. I would listen to an entire Carmen with Antonacci. Win-win. 😉
        If you can pull off THAT outfit, you can pull off anything. The management will receive, too.
        What’s just as enjoyable as watching this: rehashing it with the like-minded.

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    2. done 4th round watching.. and interview about the show! (no interview with Petibon though.. but more extensive with Antonacci..) i really wish that last duet is longer… such pleasure.. and i love that pairing too, the seasoned ones entering later so you almost hear very well the contrast! Also lovely that it’s an almost all-french affair with Antonacci being interpreted as one.. ok i done being obsessed..

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      1. I’m far from done…
        Thank you for the interview! (re: other interviews and risk-taking: does that cover Gaultier-campaign level Baroque couture?)

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      2. just dropping a note that i’ve been rewatching this for quite a few more times the last couple of days.. and realized there are some differences between the interview video vs the 90min ARTE version.. and now have gotten my hands on the real version (2hr long) because i wanted to see ACA in “La voix humaine” which was cut in the 90min one! i can extract and drop if you’re interested when done with the paper 😉 (she’s delaying my section 3 at the moment… i remember reading an interview last year when she said it was a very difficult role to learn partly because she could not identify with this woman, and perhaps it’s because she’s passed the point where she cared about a lover leaving (she said it better than my paraphrasing..))

        but back to the 90min version for a minute, you know the contrast between Devieilhe and Petibon (they come one right after the other so I hear immediately), to my ears, were huge in term of color! might have been the music too.. but as you say, how PP produces colors (and her very nice phrasing). And after we spent so much time the past 1.5 months (!!) talking about acting, i really enjoyed watching the acting here (body movements, facial expressions, tones, arms, hands), and even vocal expressions (in the non-singers). Also Michel Fau has very warm falsetto tone! I quite enjoyed his Mélisande.

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        1. “You’re pulling on my hair! Don’t pull on my hair!” That should be a line in the libretto. Next to “I was the mistress of Maeterlinck, so I should have gotten this role!” (Fau works really well with his vocal limits – what he plays for laughs, where he can get a phrasing in… good sense of timing)

          That’s actually the one big diadvantage about Arte concert coverage: if it airs in their regular slots, they have to cut it down to either 90 or (worse) 45 minutes. After that Antonacci take on Voix humaine, of course I am interested in hearing it (although, truly: when are we not itnerested in listening to Antonacci?)

          Color – and consciously choosing and modeling color – may be one of the biggest differences when it comes to sheer experience in singing: I always remember Cecilia Bartoli saying that “At age 20, I had exactly one color”, and that she had learned so much since then (I think it was related to her castrati album).

          Good luck with section 3 today! (does that mean 1 and 2 are done?) – I’m on pg. 5 of my current paper and need 15 in total. The first thing I’ll do now is pull an Agnès Aubé and set up the office Napoletana for a good start. Then I will adjust my shirt, and may or may not put on the “Mitridate” as I write. 🙂

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          1. shockingly i only played “Al destin che la minaccia” 5x, duet 4x and _the_ shirt aria 2x tonight… and one way or another, they have contributed to section 3 DONE! at least the first official version that is, completed with all refs (1,2,3), sent to colleague. probably significant mods will be needed in term of writing style but it’s in good shape! that means i’ll skip it for the next 2 days to work on paper #1..
            Ah that’s nice to hear C.Bartoli saying that, yes, definitely an experience thing! I take it you’ve seen her Baroque concert with the Venice baaroque orchestra then? I really love her Morgana potrayal (even to the guy.. should have chosen a Bradamante!) I didn’t quite enjoy her Alcina’s “Ah mio cor” in that concert, but realize you know what, sometimes we don’t quite get some of the artist’s take in certain time, but at least they’re doing it with thoughts and concepts so that we can ponder, that’s true art as we (I) say.
            time to zz “early”. good luck making to page 10 on your side! I’ll extract ACA when up…

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          2. ps- you know you have been listening to “Mitridate” for too long when you wake up with the Governor’s tune in your head (along with the image of Sifare’s leg up the hand-bar, must be one of your memorable captures…)

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            1. too long? … whatever could you mean?! *does not compute* And good morning to you! 🙂

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            2. PS. noticed for the first time today (and I made it to pg. 8, cursing and sweating) the hilarious faces Dumaux pulls when he is running lines in the background of the Impeccable Grasp of PP. (It’ll probabyl be a while until I notice it again)

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            3. oh? let me go investigate..
              yes, “long” = enough for it to seep into bloodstream..
              (congrats on getting to page 8! i like sweat, shows brain working. the grasp can definifitely make that happen too.. cursing bit–i take it as distraction from the grasp 😉 . so i was looking for music to start the “morning” and saw PP sang live yesterday 1 aria of Giunria from Lucio Silla! but after fiddling around with my broken french i think the ré-écute button is *not* working yet.. perhaps we wait 1 more day.. the link is here.) Inspired by your page-8, i determined to attack the 2-yr-overdue paper today, after a nice work-out (dangling) from the pull-up bar that arrived and got put together 2 nights ago.

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            4. thank you for the link! I had heard about the concert in the, eh, grapevine? 😉 Though if I check out her Giunia now, I may be ruined for the TADW take.

              Have fun with the pull-up bar! (I dangled from min after page 8, but now I’ll be busy with class prep for a few days, so the paper will have to wait again. But I won’t get a two-year-extension, it’ll have to be done next week. Probably after yours?)

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