Clari - Opernhaus Zürich, 29 May 2008
(Go here for loads more photos, including curtain call.)
Fromental Halévy's Clari was in its day little more than a showcase for legendary 19th century diva Maria Malibran. The resuscitation of this almost beyond-obscure opera - its first since its 1828 debut - is down to Cecilia Bartoli's ongoing interest in Malibran's repertoire.
Produced for the Théâtre Italien, the home of Italian opera in Paris, and unlike Halévy's better-known La Juive, it respects the prevailing house style with a massive stylistic debt to Rossini.
Of course, as ever, we must bow down to la Ceci for locating this morsel and cranking the mighty wheels that have transformed it from score to show. But make no mistake, this is no lost masterpiece. The style may be Rossini's, but Clari displays little of the maestro's inventiveness, or his melodic gifts. The plot is slim, the libretto borderline cringemaking. It's amenable enough, but even so, it's no surprise that this is its first revival. It requires a mezzo of superhuman abilities and three good octaves to display its one redeeming virtue, a number of spectacular arias. Step forward Cecilia Bartoli.
This Clari's other saving grace is a flamboyant production, effervescent with wit, courtesy of producers Leiser and Caurier, and the talented cast and technical crew. The intelligence, artistry and craftsmanship behind this show flatter Halévy's modest offering almost beyond belief. Technically it's an opera semi seria, but most of the seria is wisely sacrificed in favour of comic momentum, the libretto's bald spots creatively combed over with sumptuous sets and arresting stage business.
The story in brief - Clari is the tale of an innocent peasant girl. Seduced and promised marriage by a louche Duke, she finds herself his kept woman instead. A play staged at her birthday party seems to her to echo her predicament, and makes her realise the shame and distress her father must be suffering. She leaves the Duke and returns to her parents in the country. The Duke meanwhile realises he truly loves her. He follows her and reaffirms his promise of marriage, and everyone lives happily ever after.
And here's how Leiser and Caurier attack it, with Zurich Opera's own photos. Act I begins with the Duke, a moustached and suspiciously camp playboy in tennis whites and glitter hairgel, preparing for Clari's birthday. This guy has cash, and he's spent it on a couple of supersized lime Florence Knoll settees and a corridor full of Matisses and Picassos.
Uniformed in bumblebee stripes, the servants Germano and Bettina rehearse the play they plan to present at the party, and the Duke shows everyone the whopping great scarf-sized diamond necklace he plans to give to Clari.
Off they troll, leaving the stage to Clari. How many divas could pull off a sparkly blue knitted suit with matching shoes and pillbox? Bartoli, in a surprisingly flattering blonde wig, just about manages it, a mere micron away from tranny airhostess. She reminisces about her old life in the country. A tragic aria, beautifully sung of course, but dramatically ohso dull, is subverted by the preposterous slide illustrations that appear framed behind her like thought bubbles.
The Duke re-enters, now in a hideous gold lame suit and white robe. He tries to interest Clari in some romantic action, but she's starting to have doubts.
The wall behind them rises to reveal a room full of party guests. Some truly fabulous fifties and sixties style costumery here - sourced from vintage suppliers, or faithfully recreated? Who knows. Lucky chorus, anyway.
Clari has changed into a pink prom dress, an iconic complement to la Ceci's figure and personality. And matching shoes - Rene Caovilla? - I couldn't quite catch the sole logo, even with opera glasses. The room's main decoration is a gigantic incongruous King Kong head, studiously ignored by all present.
The servants' play begins. A poor country girl is whisked away to a Duke's castle, while back home, her father laments. It's the 19th c equivalent of reality TV, and even Clari can see the Lesson to be learnt here. She throws herself weeping on the servant acting the father's part, to everyone's surprise. Then she scales the King Kong, which, mysteriously, slides slowly forward. So it's not just a useless piece of ugly furniture after all! Act I ends with her standing on King Kong's shoulder.
Act II is set in a hyper-real and timeless hospital waiting room, complete with institutional chairs, water fountain, and coffee machine. Pyjama-clad oldsters wander in and out. Nurses sit behind a window. Clari's behaviour at the party has embarrassed the Duke, and he leaves her here under Germano and Bettina's observation to detox or rehab or whatever.
Everyone leaves Clari except Bettina, who falls asleep. Alone, Clari despairs of her situation. This is the only truly tragic section of the production, and to be honest, it drags just a weeny bit. The only moments of light relief are a clever touch where a nurse behind the window appears to be playing the harp (which is actually being played in the pit), and Clari's suicide attempt, an attempted injection from a half-gallon syringe.
Clari seizes her opportunity and sneaks out. Germano returns, Bettina wakes. Where is Clari? Bettina was supposed to be watching her. Panic! When the Duke finds she's gone, he decides he really loves her after all, and he'll follow her and find her. Aaahhh.
Act III opens with that surefire crowd pleaser, a real car. Less risky than animals, less overdone than underpants. A good old fashioned coup de théâtre. Coated in sand, it rolls in front of the deliberately crudely-painted mountain backdrop, carrying the Duke and the faithful Germano and Bettina. The Duke is now in a floor length white fur-collared coat. Pure Gunter Sachs 1968, and utterly fabulous.
The Duke sings about how much he loves and misses Clari. This is such a tricksy JDF-test of an aria, and so brilliantly sung by John Osborn, that it almost threatens to upstage everything Clari's done so far. But not quite.
Off rolls the car, and a swift scene change reveals two grim, cell-like rooms. On the left, welly-clad peasants sing their love of the country life. On the right is a kitchen housing Clari's parents. Mother watches the cooking. Father watches TV, with a pig asleep at his side. The peasants leave and the parents bemoan Clari's fate. Clari appears in wellies and overall, and reveals herself to her surprised mother.
She hides from her father, but when she hears he's about to hang himself out of shame, she rushes out and stops him. The Duke and his retinue arrive, and the Duke seals his favourable intentions towards Clari with a suitcase of money offered to the grateful parents (not in the libretto, but a splendidly cynical touch).
A screen with a cutout heart descends. Clari steps through the heart and sings behind a cardboard cut out bride and groom. The Duke appears and embraces her. Curtain and screen draw back to reveal a stage full of happy peasants and - cutout cows! So Clari must be Swiss! For many in the Zurich audience, this is the happiest part of the happy ending.
Musically and dramatically, this was a performance of incredibly high standards, capped by Bartoli's effortless perfection in the title role and conductor Adam Fischer's empathetic response to her featherweight pianissimos and daring rubato. Warm and engaging, her comic turn never overstepped into buffoonery.
As the Duke, John Osborn's brilliant coloratura and no-stretch high notes made his difficult part sound easy. Eva Liebau's silvery bell-like soprano made for an enchanting Bettina. With stout support from Oliver Widmer as Germano, Carlos Chausson as Clari's father, and Stefania Kaluza as her mother, it was impossible to pick fault with any performance on stage, and the cast quite rightly got numerous curtain calls and (unusually for Zurich) a standing ovation.
The woodwind intonation could have been more accurate - a lot more accurate - but at least Orchestra Scintilla (Zurich Opera's specialist period ensemble) played with verve and enthusiasm, and Fischer never allowed the pace to flag.
lt was one of the best nights I've experienced all year, and a perfect demonstration of just what can be achieved when first rate talents are applied to second rate material. Despite this, I can't see Clari making its way into the repertoire - no-one less than Bartoli could at present do credit to the title role, and this has to be the definitive production. But wouldn't it be wonderful if one of the smaller houses could take this production (and Bartoli) up? It certainly deserves to be seen by more than the four housefuls who caught it in Zurich.
Thanks to the generosity and common sense of Zurich Opera House, I got loads of curtain call and other non-performance pics - find here.