X-Ray Spex Vol. 5…Bel Canto Battle!

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Wherein the Blogger indulges his penchant for obsessive examinations of a single songwriter’s body of work, sometimes focusing on a single song out of that body of work…because geekery.

Most of us tend to assume Opera is totally doctrinaire and rigid when it’s actually flexible and open to individual creativity and interpretation – more flexible than some more popular forms.  To see how this works, we can X-ray a single aria and discover how many colors it can appear in and how many factors can affect those colors, most important among them the talent and creativity of the vocalist.

“Les oiseaux dans la charmille” (“The Doll’s Song”), comes from “Les Contes d’ Hoffmann [“Tales of Hoffmann,”] written by Jacques Offenbach in 1880.  “Hoffman” is essentially the story of a guy waiting for a woman and getting drunk in a bar while telling everyone about his previous lovers.  The first of these is Olympia, actually an animated doll devised by a pair of inventors/con men who trick Hoffmann into buying a pair of “magic” glasses enabling him to see her as a real woman.  While Hoffman stares, fooled and smitten, Olympia sings a song of romance and love that convinces him she loves him as he does her…Despite Olympia’s repeated malfunctions during the song, requiring her inventor to “wind her up” so she can continue.

Just in case this sound ridiculous, check out a movie in theatres right now called “Ex Machina” or an episode of “Star Trek: TOS” – not so silly now, is it?  Moving on.

When done well, “Les Oiseaux” is a showstopper:  A soaring, athletic waltz demanding high coloratura powers from a soprano, along with considerable acting/comedic ability. The ¾ time gives the singer room to breathe and adds to the “mechanical” nature of the character, with a hint of “oom-pa-pa” that singers often imitates for comedic effect. In the past it was sung much faster; often under four minutes and with a minimum of vocal effects. Now it can take up to six and a half minutes, an evolution that likely happened to give vocalists a bit more room to breathe and get their effects and coloratura in. While it’s possible to do it with minimal staging or none at all, it takes a talented singer to bring it to life in that context, even though it’s melodic enough to please most audiences.  We, of course, are not most audiences, so we focus our X-ray Spex on several different incarnations to see how it’s done [and how it shouldn’t be done].

Luciana Serra [Royal Opera House 1981]

This version shows how differently the Olympia Role and the “Hoffmann” opera in general were presented back in the day; as victorian costume spectacle we thought was “classy” then.  The staging definitely has points in its favor – the “electric chair” the inventors use to “recharge” Olympia is a cool idea presented in a steampunk-y style, and the actor playing Coppelius is particularly good with the bit.  Serra isn’t much of a comedienne [her specialty is mad queens of the Mozart variety], but she works hard and her coloratura is solid with a high “C” that gets the crowd up on it’s feet.  Spalazani’s prompts for Olympia to rise, courtesy and sit at the end are a clever touch that’s apropos for the period depicted here.  This is quite nice in fact, but played way too close to the vest to hold up to anything coming after it.

Natalie Dessay #1 [Opera de Lyon 1993]

There comes a point where a piece like this becomes more a Rorschach test than anything. We’ve already seen how the piece began as a victorian fantasy, but bit by bit has allowed it’s own darkness to encroach and envelop it.  Think for a moment: our titular “hero” is a “romantic” who doesn’t seem to value anything about women below the surface.  He’s a guy who can’t tell a real woman from a fake one.  He’s a guy we first meet in a bar as he’s bragging about his past affairs…we’re rooting for this guy?  Seriously?.

But what if none of that is actually true?  What if nothing he tells us is real?  What if he’s not even real?  This production doesn’t come out and say as much, but it seems to hint at it in ways we least expect..  Set in what looks and feels like a 19th century mental hospital, Dessay’s latest Olympia comes wrapped in blue and grey, her song slowed to a lament wilting under the clouds of an impaired mind.  She’s wheeled in on a gurney by a sickly smiling matron and her audience seems even more afflicted than she.  Dessay plays the role like that girl in your class that stopped coming to school in the winter and nobody ever learned why.  As she labours through her song, this Olympia constantly casts her eyes skyward, as if a single ray of sun would heal her soul, order her mind.  Some of her coterie hide their faces, unable to watch, like they’ve seen this play out before and already know how it will end.  Hoffmann fares no better, reduced to a pudgy caterpillar grounded by her mad charm as he lies prostrate on the floor, scribbling meaningless phrases on a dirty scrap.  She briefly lowers herself to his level and he almost becomes a man in her gaze.  Almost.  Is he the figment of her imagination here?  Of all the Olympias I’ve seen, this may be the best…and the hardest to watch.

Natalie Dessay #2 [Wiener Staatsoper 1996]

Next stop for Dessay is a lab straight out of Mad Science Quarterly.  Of course this is a German production.  Here Natalie plays Olympia as a trembling,  fragile FrankenGeisha in an electric cage.  Her voice is delicate and fluttering as the conductor allows it to be the brightest light in the room.  Dessay’s ballet is charming here as opposed to the physical comedy of her 1993 performance.  When she spins into Hoffmann’s arms, he suddenly become a bit less one-dimensional, as if this robot doll has her own power to bring life to the lifeless.  Maybe that’s Hoffmann’s real fantasy in the first place.  This isn’t anywhere near Dessay’s best performance, but that’s only because she’s so consistently awesome.

Natalie Dessay #3 [Orange 2000]

An obviously big-ticket production threatens to swallow her in this version.  This Olympia  an awkward, unsettling child-woman in a pink party dress, bobbie socks and Mary Jane Shoes.  We can only assume that the director and costume designer deliberately went for a Lolita/Humbert angle instead of the Svengali/Trilbyi concept that’s more typical.  The huge, grotesque dolls that make up the “chorus” only add more creep to the piece.  When Hoffman and Olympia share the stage, it’s apparent he’s much older than she is, which, granted, was convention of the time, but doesn’t stop us from seeing Hoffman as a bit of a skeez.  For all of that, Dessay’s performance is impressive:  She cavorts back and forth across the stage like a girl with too much sugar in her system, playing at ballet moves, leavening the prurient tone with much-needed slapstick and a mid song pratfall that breaks the tension the audience has to be feeling.  Her line dancing with the giant dolls feel almost improvised – as if the director and choreographer left an open space for her to create – especially the running leap into Hoffman’s arms at the end of the piece that seems to surprise even him.  The rest of the huge cast does little more than watch, which means it’s between Dessay and the audience, odds she doesn’t seem to mind at all. Her voice is razor sharp, navigating the twists of the melody smoothly while making the most of the tune’s comedy.  She never sounds forced or cliched, which is what makes her fun to watch, even though this production raises some uncomfortable questions.

Natalie Dessay #4 [Paris 2006]

Directors and producers have ignored sex-farce aspect of “Hoffmann’s” first act until recently, but boy have they been making up for lost time since the turn of the century!   This seems to be a pet staging of the Bastille Opera in Paris, as I’ve seen both Desiree Rancatore and Jane Archibald performing it as well.  Forget them –  Natalie Dessay owns this from start to finish, taking director’s cues and turning them up to eleventy.  The Olympia we initially expect to be a lock-stepping, boxy toygirl suddenly turns into a swiveling, sassy and temperamental diva that runs a lot hotter than her inventors and potential suitor expected.  Dessay does it all here: top drawer slapstick, a hilarious bit of pop-culture humor with her prop fan [almost always present in this piece but usually underused], and when her creator first “winds her up” it sets off a dirty joke that lasts for the entire second half of the aria and never stops being funny.  Did I mention that Dessay has her usual bag of high Gs that she tosses about like confetti?  If the first performance I listed wasn’t reason enough why Natalie Dessay is world famous for this role, then here’s another.

Patricia Petibon #1 [Paris 1997]

Didn’t I say this aria couldn’t be done without a big production?  File that under “Rules that Don’t Apply to anyone as gifted as Patricia Petibon.”  Crammed onto a tv-studio stage along with an orchestra, 27 year old Petibon totally makes it work, armed with a small prop and a huge talent.  Petibon takes the “living doll” idea and wraps it in her own ebullient personality, making her Olympia into a sweet, slightly off-kilter cuckoo clock.  Unable to move in the close quarters, Petibon does almost all her acting with her eyes and expressions, her painted on grin falling askew each time her circuitry glitches up [her triple-take at 3:28 is a delight].  She takes the arm moves that make lesser actors look silly and stilted,  filling them with her quirky grace, even mocking the conductor at times.  The fan is a common Olympia prop nobody does much with, but in Petibon’s hands it’s practically alive, dancing along to the waltz.  Her vocal effects sound like Maria Callas possessed by Lucille Ball as played by R2 D2, and after each one she slips back into key so effortlessly that even she has to smile at just how good she is.  The studio audience roars to it’s feet as she nails the finish, and you can’t blame them.  No singer should be allowed to perform “Les Oiseaux” without watching this first.

Patricia Petibon #2 [Geneva Switzerland 2008]

This production is featured in a web article titled “How Modern Is Tolerable in Opera?” – which of course means it’s awesome.  Director Philippe Beziat and production designer Pierre-Andre Weitz have dispensed with any thought of Olympia being “childlike” and instead invent what can only be described as Erte’s fever dream of Josephine Baker and Louise Brooks making a porcelain baby on the dark side of the moon.  Clad in a merkined bodysuit festooned with wrist tassels and painted nipples, Petibon is nothing less than the ultimate sex toy, pink and proud as she dances alone in a starry void.  Petibon doesn’t even make a token effort at “winding down,” instead using the vocal effects to draw more attention to the sex appeal she’s only too confident in.  Once again, Hoffmann is nowhere to be found, which is just as well, because we want this Olympia all to ourselves.  We’ve already seen Petibon play this role straight and still bring her own spark to the role.  Here, she’s totally unleashed and soaring to the occasion.  I have no doubt that purists railed at this production, which is fine by me.  Opera [like most things] can always use a little more punk rock in it.  Natalie Dessay has tried a similar approach to the role, but Petbon owns this.


Patricia Petibon #3 [2008]

With a performer less charming and gregarious, this would feel like showboating.  With all the examples of vocalists doing this piece sans production and failing, it’s like Petibon wanted to teach a second lesson in how to do it right.  This looks like something done off the cuff for European television and Petibon is totally into it, channeling that peculiar blend of sweetness and silliness that makes her stand out.  She and her accompanist play with time, play with tone and then Petibon just stops to play.  And her hair is fabuleaux.

Maki Mori [Tokyo 2006]

This performance wants to be what Patricia Petibon’s is, but doesn’t quite know how.  Mori’s voice is pretty enough, but she just doesn’t have much acting chops [let alone comic timing], so she goes for the cute end of the “Mechanical Doll” trope, complete with a lot of stiff-legged clomping about and that arm-waving that most audiences are fine with.  Unfortunately, we’re all snobs around here and this doesn’t amount to much more than a pretty voice and a bit of marching and waving.  And what’s with the clock tolling at the opening?  Did they confuse “Hoffmann” with “The Nutcracker” or something?  I suspect that this was for some sort of “command performance” thing and there wasn’t a ton of time to think about what Mori was going to do with the piece. She doesn’t seem to have sung the aria before or since, so perhaps it was just another gig to her. Pity, that.

Carla Maffioletti [2006]

And this, students, is how you do it wrong!  Leave it to a hack like Andre Rieu to totally deracinate an aria with so much to it.  The “Bratty Raggedy-Ann” idea here is not only cliched but comes with extra ugly makeup.  Maffioletti is a decent soprano, but her singing is all gingerbread and fringe [the sort of thing fakers like Rieu think rubes go for].  The orchestra takes the piece practically double time, which keeps her from ever digging into the tune or getting any sort of flow going.  She does have some nice comic bits, but the slapdash approach to the music means that all the weight of the piece leans on them. Besides, the whole thing falls apart if you have any idea what the actual story behind this aria is.  It’s hard to imagine glasses magical enough to make anyone love this misfit toy.

Rachel Gilmore [NYC 2009]

This is a much-lauded performance, partly because Gilmore was Kathleen Kim’s understudy and went on with three hours’ notice when Kim fell ill.  GIlmore’s voice is great and she certainly hits the notes, but it all seems a bit by the book.  The “mechanical ballerina doll” motif is a fairly traditional approach that is more cute than funny, and thereby guaranteed not to offend, but it’s also not very interesting. GIlmore is stuck in a tiny space and doesn’t get to do more than pirouette and fake-slap the fawning Hoffmann, who [for once] seems more involved in things than Olympia.  This production seems to be a default setting for the Met, one they can do year in and year out, without changing much.  You’d think that with a Hi-IQ NYC opera crowd, they’d take some risks, but they may be thinking more about the tourist dollar, much the same way small town operas do [the ones that do Madame Butterfly every single Spring].  I wonder if a stronger soprano with more acting ability would make this work a bit better.

Sabine Devieilhe #1 [2012 Kolner Philarmonie]

Heading back to Deutschland, we find a 26-year-old rising star showing how to do it without staging or props or anything.  Of course what is required is an amazing voice, which Devieilhe has.  Since she’s not worrying about acting the role, Sabine can luxuriate in the way her voice hugs the curves of the high-flown melody.  At spots she seems to relish this performance as much as the audience has to be dong.  Her first take on the vocal effect feels a bit perfunctory, but we don’t really care…And then she nails it on the second verse at 4:22 and from then on she knows she owns the whole gig.  This version is slightly faster than people tend to do it these days, which harkens back to the old days.  Is this Devieilhe’s way of letting us know she’ll be running with the big dogs soon?

Sabine Devieilhe #2 [Gala du tricentenaire de l’Opéra Comique 2014]

This [apparently one-off] performance was taped for a command performance gala, and you can see someone really creative was eager to try something new with a less-established soprano…And the soprano is more than up to it.  Devieilhe’s Olympia is no mere wind-up toy…Not a toy at all.  Here we find a sleek, gleaming custom device [that may or may not have a circuit board issue] which seems to be stalking Hoffmann more than charming him, with her couture gown wrapped in in a see through mac that makes her look like a high-fashion alien.  The director has thrown out the locked knees/flailing arms choreography and sets Olympia on a slow and effortless space walk across the stage, as the spotlight lovingly polishes her.  She and the choreographer have taken the stiff clockwork arms and remade them into swaying probing insect/alien sensors, [all the better to track her prey with]. After a few measures we realize that Hoffmann isn’t even around…and this is between Olympia and us, with Devieilhe’s cat eyes easily crumbling the fourth wall.  If we weren’t so gobsmacked by her siren allure, we’d be afraid [very afraid].  Devieilhe’s voice is near perfection – taking it easy at first, simmering her coloratura over a low flame before letting the high notes boil over in the last verses.  Her effects are low key [she pings and beeps before while down], but they work because of how sly and extraterrestrial this Olympia is.  Seriously, it feels like she was designed by a team of rogue German and Japanese scientists with Tim Burton, Ultron and some Stepford Wives in advisory capacity.  The expression on her face when Spallanzani winds her up is priceless. So cool and diffident is Devieilhe’s Olympia, she can’t be bothered to wait for her just applause  at the finish, simply gliding back off stage to whatever important alien opera robot business she may have elsewhere, as if anything is more interesting than our puny earthling applause.  While most in the know still [rightfully] think Dessay and Pettibon own this role, Sabine Devieilhe will have something to say about it in the next few years.

Nadine Koutcher [2015]

Back in the good old days, I’m sure [almost] nobody interpreted the story of Olympia as any sort of feminist allegory [mostly because there was no such thing].  Now it’s almost impossible to see it as anything but an allegory in roles like this.  Somehow it’s not surprising to find a Russian company where the director, choreographer and production designer are all women making Olympia into a pop-art feminist statement, with another young soprano willing to bring the vision to life.  32-year-old Belarusan Nadine Koutcher brings us Olympia as a pink, inflatable cosplay queen, poledancing in her own dayglo cage while surrounded by a chorus of gaping nerds, fawning fanboys & crushing girls who want to be her the moment they see her.  Unlike Sabine Devilhe’s slo-mo fembot of a year ago, Koutcher’s Olympia is too thrilled about being hypersexual celebrity eye-candy to be anything like subtle, going so far as to let a squealing girl to feel her up as she announces herself.  Koutcher is more of a power singer than a coloraturist, but seems to really relish the role, showing us what we get when mad science mates Brunhilde with a vibrator.   I probably shouldn’t think this is as fun as it is.  Too late.

Audrey Luna [2014]

Is it coincidence that as the Olympia character becomes more and more sexualized, she gains more agency?  Do we even know what that means? This Norwegian performance gets its humor from a much darker place than the Nadine Koutcher incarnation, though the core message of both is similar.  The production team and soprano Luna have conspired to invent Olympia as a throwback disco – era Orgasmatron, and Spalazani as a bearded, eurotrash bear of a pimp, whose crown creation runs on a cocktail of roofs, rough sex and paparazzi.  Luna’s voice is near perfect, despite a physical performance rivaling Dessay at her most active.  Hoffman is actually present for a change [contemporary productions seem to have less and less use for him].  Evan Bowers plays him as a sub-boy in a bowl cut, hanging on for dear life to an insatiable, see-me-can’t-touch-me sex machine who wants what she wants when she wants it…unless she doesn’t.  This poor sap is lucky she isn’t for real, but he’s clearly not ever wearing the pants in this relationship, if he ever wanted to in the first place.  It’s probably a good thing I didn’t see this in Jr. high – I’d have even more complexes than I already do.  I wonder what the Met crowd thought of this production when it played there last year.

NEXT: Stuck Inside of My Refrigerator Door…

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