The Opéra Comique marked its tricentenary with a gala spectacular on Thursday, now available on arte.tv Highly recommended: it's brilliant! The house is seen in all its glory - but wait - the boxes have been invaded. Pierrot chases Columbine among the modern patrons. It's a reference to the origins of the Opéra Comique, in fairs and numerous small theatres some 300 years ago. Riotous good fun - subversive humour. French opera wasn't timid! A figure resembling Louis XIV appears, holding a banner marked "1680", a reference to Molière and the Comédie Française. A quartet of figures in 18th century costume perform an extract from Antoine Dauvergne's Les Troquers, premiered by the Opéra Comique in 1753. In contrast, a selection from La Fille du régiment (another Opéra Comique premiere) including 'Salut à la France', where Julie Fuchs sings, draped in the tricolour and wearing black boots. François-Xavier Roth leads the orchestra into the march from Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Pierrot reads a letter from the Opéra Comique to Berlioz, not very conplimentary. Anna Caterina Antonacci appears and sings 'D'amour l'ardente flamme'. A stunningly beautiful moment. Then Bizet walks on, nervously, defended by a splendid Big man (Michel Fau) dressed as Carmen as seen in the Opéra Comique premiere, which was a scandalous flop. Yet now it's the world's favourite opera. So much for dismissing things first time round. Antonacci sings the Habanera, underlining the point. The figure of Offenbach appears, dozing, teased by Fau's spicy Carmen. Sabine Devieilhe twitters 'Les oiseaux dans la charmille' and Vincent Le Texier sings 'Scintille, Diamant'.
The stage turns pink, yellow and purple for Delibes' Lakmé : lurid colours for the luridly exotic coloratura. "Où va la jeune hindoue", sings Devieilhe. More ultra-high notes to come - Patricia Petibon scales the heights with 'Air du Cour-la-Reine' from Massenet Manon. A print from the original production is projected onto the plain backdrop while Petibon and Frédéric Antoun sing the scene in Saint-Sulpice. A wonderful juxtaposition of past and present, showing how intelligent video and lighting can achieve marvellous effects. In an instant, the visuals change, flames pouring from the backcloth, filling the stage - what directors of the past would have given for that!
Pierrot reappears, talking about new technology like electricity. Another total change of scene: we're in a naturalistic grotto of green and blue. The orchestra plays Debussy, but who's singing ? Michel Fau now dressed as Mélisande with a blonde wig. while Jérôme Deschamps, another actor, does Pelléas. It's hilarious, but also connects spoken theatre with what for many (like me) is the epitome of musical theatre. Now the scene doesn't change. Instead Vincent Le Texier and Stéphane Degout sing the scene in the caves: after the comic interlude, the menace seems even more oppressive. Harps and flutes introduce the next "scene" change: instantly Pelléas is outside, in the "open air" Another striking scene change, the backcloth first showing an orchestra (reminding us of the music), then a nightscape outside an "Eastern" castle with palm trees. Degout sings "A travers le désert" from Henri Rabaud Mârouf, savetier du Caire. No need for camels. They're in the music.
Truly, video and lighting are the way ahead in modern stagecraft, opening up infinite possibilities and throwing emphasis back on the magic that is music. The point is further made with an extract from Poulenc La voix humaine, where Antonacci sings with a cellphone. She moves more fluidly, but her singing expresses the sense of being "tied", trapped by her emotional dependence on the unseen lover. For the grand finale, cast and chorus assemble, in their different costumes, singing the gentle Barcarolle from Les Contes de Hoffmann while the titles of operas associated with the Opéra Comique float across a darkened "sky" like stars in the firmament.
With Antonacci. Le Texier, Degout, Petibon, Fuchs, Devieilhe, Antoun, François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles for an orchestra and Accentus, the specialist choir for the chorus, the Opéra Comique brings together the finest, liveliest performers in the genre. But this is far more than a semi-staging with skits. Fau and Deschamps connect the musical pieces to their history, and to the history of the Opéra Comique, and transform the stage so we feel the power of creative imagination.