Last year the Bayerische Staatsoper opened a new production of Donizetti’s beloved French work “La Favorite.” It was specifically created for Elīna Garanča, who was making her staged role debut after having impressed in the work in a concert performance at the Salzburg Festival alongside Juan Diego Flórez.
This time around the company brought along two of her frequent collaborators, Mariusz Kwiecien and Matthew Polenzani, and the results were outstanding if not perfect thanks to a production that had really no fresh or interesting point of view.
Let’s start off with the positive. Elina Garanča has developed into a dramatic tour de force. Not only is she technically proficient in this performance but she delivers an emotional performance that is among her best to date and which shows promise for her upcoming excursions into Verdi.
When Garanča arrives on the scene, her Leonor is flirtatious and playful, running about with excitement. Her singing is filled with precision and brightness but once Polenzani’s Fernand declares his love to her, Garanča’s singing takes on a darker color, which couples with hesitant movements. As Polenzani’s singing ups the expressive ante, her sound slowly aligns with his, the voice opening up and releasing its full power, a climactic High C expressing her internal desperation. From this opening act, we get a wide range of colors and emotions that will continue developing throughout the remainder of the show.
In the Act two encounter with Alphonse, as Leonor confesses her new found love, the mezzo delivers an even greater sense of emotional instability. Her descriptions of her newfound emotion are matched with flowing lyricism and tender sound. And yet, through it all, one can sense the character’s pain in Garanča’s voice.
And at the end of Act Two when she is discovered as Alphonse’s mistress, Garanča’s singing is detached and even breathy in quality, expressing the terror she feels.
The Act three showcase, “O Mon Fernand,” is an expressive tour de force for the Latvian mezzo. In the cavatina, her tone starts off in the lowest parts of her mezzo, a slow bloom forming as she heads for her vocal stratosphere. Garanča sings with a nuanced and subtle timbre, her voice little more than mezzo piano, giving the scene a sense of introspection. But in the cabaletta, she turns it all around, the externalization of the previous inner pain allowed to reveal itself. During this portion, the mezzo shows off her agility and vigor as well as her potent voice. Here Garanča displays all the feelings Leonor has been hiding throughout the opera, mainly her anguish of being labeled a tainted woman.
The finale of Act three, where Leonor is humiliated, enhanced the drama further. In the best-directed scene of this production, Leonor is thrown about the stage like a puppet. And while she is dressed at first in a black dress, Garanča is forced out of it and into a slip. This costume change showcases how Leonor is viewed by society and, together with the mezzo’s vocal expressivity, it foreshadows her fate.
After the dramatic finale, Act four sees Garanča losing composure as she reveals that she is dying. While her mezzo rings at first with power in a final outcry, her movements weaken, followed promptly by her voice. By the final moments, we hear this great vocal artist with a piano sound until she lets out a last gasp. It brings this tragic tale to an emotionally cathartic end.
If Garanča’s Leonor is a tour de force, Polenzani’s Fernand is a revelation.
From the beginning, the tenor’s Fernand has a clear arc – that of an innocent man corrupted by society.
Upon his first entrance “Un ange, une femme inconnue,” there is an innocent air to him as he moves about with restraint, his face radiating with smiles. Polenzani’s first phrases are sung with tenderness and a sweet piano sound continuously increases with passion as he describes the newfound feeling that is erupting within him.
We continue feeling that innocence as Ines prepares him for his secret meeting with Leonor. He is pulled from one woman to the next in a blindfold, looking increasingly confused and uncomfortable. We can almost sense that this might be his first encounter with a woman.
As noted in the subsequent duet with Leonor, Polenzani’s Fernand is driven by his emotions, his singing ramping up the intensity with each line, climaxing in a high C.
As this Fernand grows even more transfixed by Leonor, the character starts to become more unhinged. His “Qui, ta voix m’inspire” is clearly inspired by angst and ardor with the voice beaming in its high range. Meanwhile, the middle range caresses with a gorgeous mezza voce.
In the ensuing trio in Act three, Polenzani’s innocence once again comes through as he sings with long lines connected closely with those of Mariusz Kwiecien. Their voices ring with lyrical phrases while Garanča has more jagged interpretation. But as Kwiecien’s line increases in dynamics, Polenzani face looks startled and overpowered.
In the Act three finale, when Fernand discovers Leonor’s relationship to Alphonse, Polenzani’s elegant performance and innocent traits turn unhinged. His refined singing takes on a rough quality that one might not expect of the tenor. Whereas his movement in the first two acts is steady and refined, here Polenzani moves about unpredictably bumping into chorus members and throwing Garanča’s Leonor to the floor. And yet, his technical precision and control remain.
In the fourth act, Polenzani’s Fernand is clearly a distressed and broken character. And yet, he sings better than ever. His “Ange si Pur” showcases the tenor’s polish and finesse, mixed with passionate phrases, singing with abandon. At one moment Polezani makes a beautiful diminuendo from a forte to a piano, expressing not only a gorgeous Bel Canto phrase but also the expressivity of his voice. And the climactic C sharp is delivered forte, showcasing the suffering of this Fernand. In the final scene with Leonor that rage and desperation return with Polenzani reverting to expressive and emotional singing and unhinged movements. But as he realizes Leonor is dying, Polenzani’s singing weakens and takes on a weeping quality that makes the tragedy all the more palpable.
In the role Alphonse, Maurisz Kwiecien shows a sympathetic side to this sometimes cruel character. While he first shows off Leonor as a prize, his singing showcases something different. His first aria, “Leonor, Viens,” Kwiecien displays a pure lyric voice filled with a sweet timbre. The voice moves throughout the registers with ease and flexibility. But in the cabaletta portion, the brusque character comes to the fore as Kwiecien’s baritone takes on a more vigorous sound and his movements increase their sexual insinuation. He subjects Leonor to whatever he wants from sitting on her to throwing her down.
As noted in his duet with Leonor, Kwiecien sings with a gorgeous tone and softens his movements toward Garanča. He continues that in the trio with Leonor as his passion for her continuously rings through. His singing turns uncontrollable, but always with the Bel canto style. And that makes his character so much more compassionate. Alphonse also suffers about leaving Leonor and it is obvious in the finale of Act three as he comforts her while she is being humiliated.
The Supporting Cast
As Balthazar, Mika Kares adds a booming bass with energetic and imposing stage presence. Every moment he appears on stage he is a dominating figure who always looks threatening. Meanwhile, Elsa Benoit is a flirtatious Ines with a crisp and bird-like voice. During her various solo lines, one can hear the extensions of her impressive high coloratura soprano.
In the pit, Karel Mark Chichon leads the orchestra with exact rhythms and virtuosic tempi. Never does one feel that the orchestra drags. As a matter of fact, the orchestra always feels present from an emphasis on the simple metric rhythms and the stretta passages.
The production by Amelie Niermeyer is rather plain and simply drab. If you want to see another black set, look no further. It can be a bit nauseating to look at as it really has no visual elements other than the superb cast. But the problem is that it says nothing about “La Favorite,” other than presenting it in modern dress. We’re constantly thrown religious figures as if Christ is looming over the action. And while that enhances many of the opera’s themes, it’s as if Niermeyer is trying to shove symbolism in our face.
The most distracting element of this production is that the chorus and performers are constantly moving wooden chairs. These chairs only make the production look cheap and unfinished and for those with memories of Luc Bondy’s maligned “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera, this production feels rather similar.
Most will argue that with less set decoration, the work will be rawer, but in that case, a semi-staged or concert production works even better.
It seems opera companies are accustomed to nauseating camera cuts with absolutely no intention. In one of the most intimate moments in the opera, Fernand’s final aria, Tiziano Mancini, director of the video recording, was more content with constantly cutting to the stage as opposed to keeping on Polenzani’s expressive face and vocal gestures. Unfortunately, this misused technique took away from the performer’s incredible singing. The same could be said about Garanča’s “O Mon Fernand” as the camera continuously cut between wide and medium and close-ups. It has always baffled me that those directing opera seem to think that a viewer has such a short attention span that they think that not cutting would create boredom. It is a rather contradictory thought process when you consider what opera is and what it demands – emotions being elaborated on and explored fully for moments at a time; opera audiences are certainly the last people one would imagine have short attention spans. Most audience members might overlook this while watching, but the experience would probably be that much more intimate if a proper director actually did his or her job. Only video director Brian Large seems to have ever understood this.
Fortunately, the technique does work when the cutting needs to be rampant and chaotic, like at the end of the third act. Here, the cutting matches the fast-paced music, allowing for audiences to experience the chaos around the action on stage. This is effective and it also allows for a focus on the three central characters throughout this affair.
One hopes that the camera work will eventually improve and that video directors finally understand that sometimes cutting less is more effective. Or more importantly – what it takes to actually direct an opera on video. Can’t Brian Large direct every opera broadcast around the world?
In conclusion, regardless of the sometimes spotty camera work and the subpar production, which is passable, this is still a must-buy. And the simple reason is due to the three world-class performers who are at the top of their game in one of Donizetti’s unfairly neglected works. One hopes more productions will be created for this stellar cast.