Thank goodness for Florestan. Despite many positive features, Leonore, Beethoven's first stab (in 1805) at what was nine years later to yield the sublime Fidelio, has its longueurs early on – at least in WNO's co-production which opened this week in Cardiff. Not till the chained Florestan – the noble Swedish tenor Par Linskog, prominent in Berlin and soon to be ENO's Siegmund – launches Act III (a deuced long time to wait) does light, paradoxically, begin to seep in.
True, the massive cutting edge to Robert Hayward's Don Pizarro as well as an involving, conscientious, troubled Rocco from New Zealander Donald Mcintyre, raised the musical stakes considerably. Natalie Christie's Marzelline fared well, too, in her spirited yet poignant opening aria. In Leonore this precedes Marzelline's tiff with Jaquino, and builds logically (as Anthony Negus's invaluable notes explain) by way of trio towards the (here ponderous) "Mir ist so wunderbar" quartet.
Conductor Yves Abel's purportedly ominous pacings and pregnant pauses seemed leadenly irrelevant, even in the Leonore 2 overture. Luckily, he comes good by Act III.
Directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser work regularly with design team Christian Fenouillat, Christophe Forey and Agostino Cavalca – the same quintet is soon to stage Thomas's Hamlet at Covent Garden. Fenouillat's blotting-paper front curtain is abysmal, but his bare flats, alternating blues and greens, plus grainy yellow flooring and three angular chairs, looks like a Kersting interior, lit in long, fingering shadows. The main character plotting is ingenious; even the bunched soldiery resembles a Goya.
Background is clarified by the leisureliness, of Leonore which promises a Sophoclean build-up, but is rather plodding, more like the Schubert of Fierrabras. Rocco's "gold" aria – strikingly managed by Mcintyre, who makes a gentle old subversive of the jailor – is a marked plus: one of several passages where Leonore points ahead to the Verdi of Luisa Miller.
Franzita Whelan's Leonore was, admittedly, problematic. She moves terribly, directorially unchecked, and adopts bizarre stances (leaning against a flat she seems to be straining to give birth). Her hand gestures are dotty. Yet her tragedy is palpable, and shows in the voice, which inclines to rasp and lacks tone, but is nonetheless charged with emotion. Her duet with the gentler Marzelline is so well-matched it's like listening to double-tracking. The moment when Leonore is left with Florestan, believing they both are doomed, is profoundly touching.
A mixed offering, too, from WNO's chorus, which launches weakly but later delivers magnificently, and the orchestra, whose strings graduate from initial approximation, a fine cello and a dire violin solo to a galvanising Act III. Top marks to the double basses and to the oboe principal, Murray Johnston.
Further performances in Cardiff tonight and 4 October (029-2087 8889), then touring to Sadler's Wells, London (9 to 12 October; 020-7863 8000), Belfast (26 October; 028-9024 1919) and Bristol (8 November; 0870 607 7500)
To 6 October, 020-7722 9301
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Linbury Studio/ Royal Opera House, London
"Ah, La belle chose de savoir quelque chose," sighs M.Jourdain, the bungling nouveau riche who aspires to nobility. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Molière's play with music has just been revived at Chambord, and now at the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, in a collaboration between the versatile Compagnie Alain Germain and Lina Lalandi's forever-pioneering Oxford Bach Festival. It's a hoot, although Lully's contribution is limited to a few interludes that enabled the actors to change roles – plus an ensemble and a couple of songs.
The last time I heard the Prelude used here was 20 years ago at Chambord, where it enlivened a stunning son et lumière. Then, it dazzled with its thrown beats, rhythmic energy and regal pomp. I did not sense that here: Nicholas Cleobury's ambling beat may cloak a rigorous timing, but his small band of musicians clad in 18th-century courtly dress delivered it with the aplomb of a squashed tomato. One detected more punch in a mobile phone that went off unsolicited.
Contrast "Dépêchons-nous", Lully's second drinking song, which has the wit of a saucy Purcell catch, and which – egged on by spirited, if not exactly top-notch, singers – they played with gusto. Thanks to Strauss, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is probably Lully's best-known music, though it pales beside affecting operas such as Atys, Bellerophon and Armide.
Alain Germain is something of an original and his comically lavish costumes for the show delight. The opening tableau, with the rouged, perruqed ensemble sprawled in a stage stupor while the baritone Jeremy Huw-Williams (heard to best effect in the comedy's Turkish denouement), introduced them in English. The audience clocked a lot of Molière's wit, but without surtitles much subtlety slipped by unnoticed.
The second half was snappier. Paradoxically, the drawback earlier was arguably the Jonsonian central character, MJourdain (Yves Gourvil, a hilarious actor of Punch-like rubbery expression and aptly awkward gait) unwitting victim of his ludicrous aspirations to become an "homme de mode", courted by "des personnes de qualité". Molière's comedy lies in the dramatic irony of several vignettes – music class, sword instruction, elocution lesson, tailor's fitting, Trimalchian feast – in which the earthy Jourdain displays his uneducated helplessness. Gourvil gives a marvellous performance, which does, however, wax repetitive. Things picked up once Mme Jourdain (Marianne Borgo) takes over and an oriental ruse dupes him into letting his daughter marry her desired man.
A canny divertissement, with amusing performances from Nicholas Mead as the swordmaster and beau, Yves Aubert as the sharp-witted Plautian servant, and five able dancers choreographed by Stephen Preston (their laying of the table and mirror dance were classics), with Irish-trained Colm Seery easily the lightest-toed.Reuse content