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César Franck: Stradella
Marc Laho (Stradella), Isabelle Kabatu (Léonor), Werner Van Mechelen (Spadoni), Philippe Rouillon (The Duke), Xavier Rouillon (Pietro), Giovanni Iovino (Michael), Patrick Mignon (Beppo), Roger Joakim (An Officer), Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Marcel Seminara (Chorus Master), Paolo Arrivabeni (Conductor), Jaco Van Dormael (Stage Director), Vincent Lemaire (Set Designer), Olivier Beriot (Costumer Designer), Nicolas Olivier (Lighting Designer), Frédéric Caillierez (Video Director)
Recording: L’Opéra de Liège, Belgium (September 2012) – 115’
Dynamic # 37692 – Booklet in Italian and English – Subtitles in French, English, Italian, German, Dutch and Korean

Stradella was César Franck’s first opera, but it was never fully legitimatized for the Belgian only completed it as a piano score. Enter Luc van Hove who chose to respectfully rewrite Franck’s work with full orchestration that had its premiere in Liège in 2012. Award-winning Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael led the vision to stage Stradella using water as the preponderant backdrop. Unfortunately, several drawbacks exist in this format that make this presentation counterproductive.

Anyone who has seen Robert Carsen’s 2008 production of Janácek’s Kátia Kabanová will certainly identify with Van Dormael’s mapping. But the latter’s scope conservatively expands upon Carsen’s footprint by incorporating Vincent Lemaire’s sets to minimize virtual austerity.

Loosely based on the life of 17th century composer Alessandro Stradella, Franck’s musical structure resembles that of Giuseppe Verdi’s works found in his early and middle years. There is a richly understated charm of Romanticism running the entire stretch of Stradella.

Both Kabatu (Léonor) and Laho (Stradella) translate their characters thoughtfully and cleanly on stage. Kabatu delivers an extremely powerful performance in her closing aria (in Act III) yet at times her acting and gesticulations come across as being too plastic and instructional. Laho, on the other hand, is more convincing and connected, but doesn’t manage full iridescence either. Both Philippe Rouillon (the Duke) and Werner Van Mechelen (Spadoni) position themselves fittingly inside their characters, their voices lyrically pleasing, though the acting is a bit peu flatteur. The chorus features a cadre of youthful women in the opening act which is mellifluous. The closing chorus, with their angelic proclaims, is sloppy with unpolished runs.

Costuming, provided by Olivier Beriot, reigns monochromatic tastefulness. The cast’s overall wardrobe, a bit unimaginative (with exception of Les marchandes who wear interesting black headdresses and gowns), helps draw more attention (and distraction) to the two protagonists. Unnerving it is, for the challenges abound (let alone singing) by simply being able to move about in the water which becomes a cumbersome task: thus, more attention is placed on these obstacles within the confines of the proscenium arch than focusing on the music.

Sadly, Franck’s beautiful music gets lost inside the entire spectacle: falling rain, gurgling water, swishing hemlines. Even Arrivabeni’s orchestra “fights” with the pummeling of raindrops hitting umbrellas: it’s clever, but is it practical and coherent? The true essence of Stradella is swallowed up by H2O. Granted, the stage effects (including wonderful lighting by Nicolas Olivier) are stimulating and thought provoking, but in summary, it hinders the music which should importantly be based on its own merits.

Franck’s Stradella will never be categorized as a “heavy hitter” even though the intrinsic musical values are unquestionably there. For this to have qualified for a higher rating, it would have been helpful to learn more about the whys of the production, to have cleaner delineations (title headings) between acts, better outlines within each of the tracks and a short dossier on Alessandro Stradella, the composer. Dynamic has missed the boat.

Christie Grimstad




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