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.