Nice opera house, shame about the opera

When it comes to opera, Paris should be stealing London's thunder. But apart from a superlative 'Jenufa', it isn't.
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The Independent Culture
While London faces a temporary closure of its two opera houses, Paris is bouncing along with five. That's the good news. The bad news is that what is put on there is of variable quality.

As any regular operagoer soon learns in Paris, each house has very much its own style. The Bastille - big, brash, attracting a well-off international audience - offered this month the typical fare of stylish sets, star-studded cast and rather perfunctory directing style in a rare outing for Bellini's Norma. Norma is bad drama: static, lacking in action, momentum and in- depth characterisation, redeemed only by some good musical moments. Callas resurrected it in her heyday, and a great coloratura soprano with larger than life stage presence should be the sine qua non for any further revival. Carol Vaness in the title role just does not cut the mustard. She should not be singing this kind of role, the tessitura of the higher reaches was clearly beyond her, and she certainly lacks dramatic punch.

The set (by Yannis Kokkos, who also directed and designed the costumes) - of huge, leaning oak trees, the occasional plain wall introduced for interiors - used the vast Bastille stage to stunning effect, but the relative lack of action and the almost constant darkness led to visual boredom. Susanne Mentzer sang well as Adalgisa, Franco Farina sang badly as Pollione. Carlo Rizzi conjured up perfect miracles from the pit, with a reading of the score that was faithful and evocative without being naive or - worse - patronising.

The enchanting Opera Comique, which is concentrating mainly on the French 19th-century repertoire, premiered a new production last week of Bizet's Carmen, first performed in the same house 120 years ago. Louis Erlo, until recently intendant of Lyon Opera, directed the most wilfully perverse production of the opera I have ever seen, aided and abetted by Bernard Michel's geometric sets, that left the singers with only about one third of the stage to sing on with any degree of safety. The rest was at steep angles, so that at times the cast had to resort to sliding down on their behinds to reach an even plane. But they spent most of the time either standing stock still or sitting - to music that cries out for vitality and action. This was the Ruth Berghaus school of directing: deconstruct to the point that the audience gets no hint of the composer's original intentions. The Swiss playwright Max Frisch wrote a seminal play called Don Juan or the Love of Geometry; I can only think Erlo and Michel trawled that work for the odd idea but failed to pick up on its irony.

The only bright spot was the excellent young Katarina Karneus as Carmen, her vitality and sparkling stage presence bursting out of the directorial straitjacket. As Erlo and Michel took their curtain-call, the booing was loud and prolonged.

A day later, at the Chatelet, Paris finally struck gold with Stephane Braunschweig's staging of Janacek's Jenufa, with Simon Rattle and the CBSO in the pit. This was opera for the grown-ups, as is so often the case at the Chatelet. Nancy Gustafson was a touching and convincing Jenufa, singing to her usual high standard. Philip Langridge as Laca and Graham Clark as Steva were further members of a dream cast headed by Anja Silja's riveting Kostelnicka.

From the first notes of the orchestra, when we saw the spare stage suddenly bisected by blood-red windmill sails turning through the floor, we could sit back in the full confidence that all would be well. With artists of such calibre working together, Braunschweig could bring out the complex interplay of character and destiny. At the end, there was a long and unanimous standing ovation from Paris's most discerning opera audience.

n 'Norma' and 'Carmen' are in rep to 9 July, 'Jenufa' runs to 1 July