Cher Public

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  • armerjacquino: For Runyan’s birthday- the most beautiful version of ‘I’ll Know’ I’ve ever heard (at 8:36)... 8:11 AM
  • thenoctambulist: Yeah that was why I was so confused about that statement. Thank god I was right. 5:56 AM

A Faustian bargain

What we have here is the grandest opera never heard—in spite of the fact that Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable made, arguably, the most sensational debut of any in the history of the Paris Opéra. The massive work was hailed by nearly every composer of its day as a masterpiece, save a few bitter pill takers—Herrs Wagner and Mendelssohn I’m looking at you—and then transcribed into concert pieces by many of them.

Staging innovations for that first production included the first use in Paris of the English theatrical trap door. It even started trends in dance that live on to this day with the invention of the ur-tutu and the introduction of the “ballet blanc” genre with the ladies of the corps all in white. Being immortalized by Degas twice in paint and having the singular distinction of being the only 19th Century opera to have a rose named after it hardly even scratches the veneer of how wildly popular Robert was in its heyday.  

Meyerbeer was as skilled an orchestrator as he was a cultivator of acquaintance and he made certain that le tout Paris were there to witness his triumph which also cemented the reputation of his co-author Eugène Scribe whose librettos would become synonymous with the “Grand Opera” genre. His success was so assured that Berlioz was quoted as saying that Meyerbeer “has not only the luck to be talented, but the talent to be lucky.” But after his death his works, and Robert in particular, fell into disfavor among the musical intelligentsia with Herr Wagner beating the loudest drum in print. (The megawealthy Meyerbeer had declined a loan request from the perennially empty-pursed German composer in 1846 which led to his turning against the mentor who had facilitated the first stagings of Rienzi and Der Fliegender Höllander.)

The Met hasn’t performed Robert since its opening season in 1883 and it has been away from the Royal Opera at least that long. So our debt of gratitude should be enormous to Opus Arte for giving us a taste of this work which has never even enjoyed a commercial recording until now.

The backstory of the casting of this production was an opus in itself and was well recounted in these pages at the time. It included the withdrawal of Diana Damrau due to impending motherhood and the very public disinvitation of her replacement from making her Covent Garden debut following the dress rehearsal. An announcement of indisposition due to ill health was even issued a month prior to the prima for Marina Poplavskaya only to have her sing anyway.

The conducting duties here fall to Daniel Oren and although he doesn’t prove a medieval alchemist with his baton he does underline the more gorgeous aspects of Meyerbeer’s score.  He starts with the brief prelude which is practically a master class in counterpoint and theme introduction. Although there were actually a few moments when I thought he could have taken a stronger hand, he and the Covent Garden Orchestra do a fine job of supporting the singers in an unfamiliar work. Particularly tricky for all in the complicated ensembles—of which there are many in the performance’s three hours and forty minutes of music. (I also understand that there are substantial cuts to trim it down to just that but being so unfamiliar with the score I’m afraid I can’t speak to the performance edition.)

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Royal Opera should hand the directing and costume designing duties to Laurent Pelly and his collaborateur and set designer Chantal Thomas since they’ve nearly monopolized the French wing of late. What probably did surprise them was how light a tone their production team chose to take. Where as many of their past productions have managed to pulled off a charming whimsy Robert lands most decidedly in the camp of camp.

The monochromatic costumes fashioned out of rough-hewn fabrics we’ve come to expect. But must the choristers’ faces be painted the same hue as their frocks? The Act II tournament especially resembles the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry rendered in Crayola. It tries to work but really just makes me feel sorry for the chorus. The set for Act III on a craggy mountainside etched to magnificent detail à la Gustave Doré does work and how. Stunning projection effects showing the yawning mouth of hell and teeny shadows of the damned writhing in agony. On the other hand, Princess Isabelle of Sicily’s toy palace could have used some of the same detailing as could the framework of the church in the last act. You have to work your imagination pretty hard to understand how some of these tableau reached the level of splendor and magnificence that enraptured the Parisians at the premiere.

The whole thing runs mostly like a child’s big wind-up toy and I’m talking about the staging now. Because, sadly, the singers rarely move with any dramatic motivation since they’re really just making pretty pictures on the stage all evening for Msr. Pelly. The Dead Nuns’ Ballet with choreography by Lionel Hoche, turns out to be the night’s high point, a cross between Matthew Bourne and The Walking Dead.

Oh, and there’s a plot!  Suffice to say that Robert is thinking of signing his immortal soul over to Bertram, who’s a devil (and also his father, shhh!), so he can marry Princess Isabelle. But! His step sister Alice has been up the hillside and smelled the brimstone and she knows something’s up and intends to put a stop to it. She’s got a letter from Mom that, if Robert would have only let her read it when she offered to in Act I, could’ve spared us all the ensuing three hours.

Jean-François Borras plays the secondary tenor role of Raimbaut who’s so non-integral to the plot I didn’t even mention him in the synopsis above. He’s an attendant to Robert and Alice’s affianced and he has a nice lyric voice of some distinction which serves him well especially in the Act I ballad he’s given that sets up the plot.

Patrizia Ciofi is Princess Isabelle who was raised, as are all good Disney Princesses, to be a coloratura soprano. It’s a fiendish role and luckily Ms. Ciofi has already had some experience in the part so she dashes off most of the formidable hurdles easily and takes no prisoners in her opening aria. She’s an extremely lithe performer onstage but also guilty of moving seemingly without motivation and, it’s uncharitable to say but, close ups betray her as superannuated compared to the rest of the cast.

The great Cornélie Falcon made her debut at the Opéra as Alice and was lauded for her appropriately ‘tragic demeanor’ in the role which, I’m certain, made the casting of Marina Poplavskaya a no brainer. She wrestles with her voice for most of the evening; however her contribution to the grand trio finale in Act V and is mostly glorious.

The role of Bertram makes an enormous number of demands on the performer who accepts it, not the least of which is its length, and John Relyea meets most of these with his warm lyric sound and straightforward mien. He pays a good deal of attention to the text which is laudable but if he seems at times to do a bit too much “mustache-twirling,” I blame Pelly. It’s still a lyric instrument though and not a dramatic one and his big showpiece on the Act III mountainside finds his voice hoarse and sadly pushed to the limit at the climactic phrase.  He does rise musically to the occasion for the final trio and it is the highlight of the evening for some of the wrong reasons.

Here’s Bertram finally confessing to Robert that he’s not only his father but a devil who is moments away from closing the deal on his immortal soul. They stand outside the church in which Princess Isabelle is about to be married when lo, behind him rolls on an enormous cross-hatched demon vehicle with glowing lava mouth and wings a-flappin’. Then just as that heats up a similarly rendered cloud bank glides on stage left carrying sister Alice replete with heavenly glow. It’s like you’ve accidentally changed channels and found yourself on Monster Trucks: Opera Edition. I could barely believe my eyes.

The soul in question belongs to Bryan Hymel who’s singing Robert and there’s no use arguing that he’s not the raison d’etre that we’ve all found ourselves here. His claret tenor exhibits not only a beautifully focused tone at its best but stunning, old school, breath control right from the top of the evening. High C’s and D’s pop out of him all night long even though a few tend to an overly bright placement. It’s an astonishing performance driven in equal parts by youthful vigor as much as it is technical skill. He has a very authentic stage presence and seems to have cornered the market on disheveled/sudoriferous ardor.

My Blu-ray copy offered absolutely stunning DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio sound and very sharp picture, with subtitles in every language you don’t speak and even a petite  documentary. Oddly, there’s no track listing in the enclosed booklet with cue points at all even though they are listed on the disc menu itself.

In spite of a slightly uneven performance, and a production that makes Disney’s Sleeping Beauty look like a masterwork hanging at the Louvre, this is an important glimpse at a forgotten masterpiece that deserves more than an accidental rehearing.


  • grimoaldo says:

    Basso do you think Domingo sold his soul to the devil? I saw a lot of additional comments on this thread and was looking forward to a lively discussion of Robert le Diable, or Meyerbeer or French grand opera or the Paris opera house in the 19th century, instead here is another discussion about Domingo, why is that on this thread?

    • Baltsamic Vinaigrette says:

      I sympathise, grimoaldo. It seems to be a little-known work and all I have to go on are a few on-line extracts. Maybe the discussion will perk up from here.

      I wonder if it is feasible for the IT bods to keep the off-topic thread at the top of the home page as the week progresses? This might help.

  • MontyNostry says:

    You are right, grimoaldo -- and apologies for participating in the hijack! And, let’s face it, even in his early days, PD could never have managed Robert, let alone with Hymel’s aplomb.

    • armerjacquino says:

      Which would be why he never sang it. Might as well say ‘let’s face it, Lucia Popp would never have been as good a Brunnhilde as Nilsson’

      • Porgy Amor says:

        Ha. Nice one, AJ.

      • MontyNostry says:

        Whoops, AJ, my wrist has been slapped encore une fois. Neither of us ever learns, clearly.

        I was just trying to take grimoaldo’s valid concern on board and to redirect things back to Robert le diable. I should clearly leave the diplomacy to Mr Domingo.

        • armerjacquino says:

          Not a wrist slap, monty, never a wrist slap. I’m not a wristslapping kind of guy. Just an airy sort of observation.

          (something about Meyerbeer)

        • manou says:

          Why leave the diplomacy to Domingo when there are at least two posters here who could probably give Talleyrand a run for his money?

    • Cocky Kurwenal says:

      Notwithstanding my comments above about Domingo, of whom I am no fan (could you tell?), I think this direct juxtaposition of him inside 1 sentence of Monty’s with Bryan Hymel rather helps one focus the mind. Domingo’s timbre is instantly recognisable, he holds your attention, and his singing has personality to burn -- I can’t say the same for Hymel, who in my experience gets the job done perfectly well, and that’s about it -- I wouldn’t seek him out in a million years.

  • Belfagor says:

    I read an interesting review in this months Opera magazine of an opera called ‘Vasco da Gama’ -- at some smaller German opera house (I forget) -- turns out it was Meyerbeer’s original title for L’africaine -- and it seems that after Meyerbeer died and before the premiere, M. Fetis really mucked about with a finished score, cut it to bits, changed words (apparently ‘O paradis’ is something else) and changed the title. Does anyone have any knowledge, and so, is the published score therefore inauthentic?

    • phoenix says:

      I heard a performance of this ‘authenctic’ “Vasco de Gama” version from Oper Chemnitz (without audience) broadcast on Deutschlandradio Kultur in two parts (on 2 consecutive days) early March 2013. I am not a musicologist nor do I study scores anymore, but from what I read over the years (and this goes way back in my somewhat fading memory -- it is unclear {to me} whether Meyerbeer actually completed the overture and the ballet music in final form), but according to Meyerbeer’s notes he did complete the rest of the score. He died before arrangements could be made for a premiere; the Paris Opéra, which had legal rights to the score, gave Fetis permission to revise it for performance. I assume that Fetis’ revision was the first published manuscript edition. Meyerbeer, in his will, stipulated that his unpublished autograph scores and posthumous works remain unpublished after his death. The manuscripts were kept in Berlin until it became apparent that the city was going to be attacked toward the end of WWII -- some of his autograph scores (along with manuscripts of scores by Beethoven and other 19th century composers) were transported in 50 boxes to the Silesia region (southeast Poland). In 1977 there were media report that autograph manuscripts of Meyerbeer (along with those of Beethoven and other 19th century German composers) had been “discovered” in a tunnel along the eastern Polish border near Krakow where they had been buried more than 30 years before.
      - Matthias Brzoska, on the ‘Meyerbeer FanClub” site (, wrote: “Sieghart Döhring rediscovered the autograph scores of the four main operas of Meyerbeer in 1981, which were lost since the Second World War, in the Bibliotheka Jagiellonska in Cracow, Poland.”
      - The Oper Chemnitz website states that it used a “critical” edition for it’s 2013 performances of “Vasco da Gama” prepared for publisher Ricordi Berlin by Jürgen Schläder:
      based upon the autograph score from Krakow for Acts 1 through 4 and the autograph score of Act V [located in Berlin, Deutsche Staatsbibliothek] as well as material from Fetis’ published version.
      - Scribe, the original librettistMeyerbeer first begin the project with in 1837, died in 1861 and Charlotte Birch-Pfeifer completed the libretto in 1864. Opera Chemnitz states that Meyerbeer’s autograph transfers much of the action of the opera from Madagascar to India to reinforce Selika’s Asian subcontinent origins.
      - Deutschlandradio Kultur broadcast of the Chemnitz version I heard last March sounded too much like a studio recording (or a dress rehearsal in an empty auditorium), lacking the spontaneity of an actual live performance. However as a listener I liked this version, but I don’t know if I would have liked it so much if I wasn’t already familiar with the 1865 Paris Opéra standard version.

      • Belfagor says:

        Phoenix -- you sound like a Meyerbeer scholar! I hope there is a chance of hearing it somewhere. Thanks for all this information. I have a soft spot for this opera, as one of the very first times I went to Covent Garden I saw it with Bumbry and Bonisolli, and never got over the death scene, where La B expired on a pile of gorgeously embroidered cushions that had miraculously appeared on the island………!

        • phoenix says:

          Thanks very much, but I am not a Meyerbeer scholar (wish I was). But I always loved his operas ever since I saw Le prophète quite a few times at the Met in 1977. So, ever since that time, whenever I come across something on the media about Meyerbeer or read someone’s anecdotes, they stay with me for a long time because I find his music very special.

  • grimoaldo says:

    We just heard Domingo with Nebs in Giovanna d’Arco from Salzburg at the weekend. He was singing a baritone role. The audience gave him prolonged ovations, it was not just “show the grand old man we love him”, they enjoyed what he did in the concert they were listening to, and so did I. It was actually a historic occasion, I would say.

    • grimoaldo says:

      Sorry I complained about the subject being switched from Meyerbeer to Domingo and then did it myself.
      Belfagor that production of “Vasco da Gama” was at Chemnitz in March this year. Yes “O paradis” was set by Meyerbeer as “O doux climat”. I do not think that the other changes Fetis made were quite as great as you suggest, but the performance at Chemnitz was based on a new critical edition of the score. The performance was a big success.

      “This was a Historically Informed Performance of a different sort. The Chemnitz City Theater used as the basis for its production of Meyerbeer’s last opera the new critical edition from Ricordi-Munich, which not only restores the work’s original title, but includes all available published and (previously) unpublished parts of the piece. In what the critic believes practically amounted to the real world premiere of this opera, all of Meyerbeer’s great scenes – the council proceedings, shipwreck, and cult rituals – could be heard for what they originally were: highly complex, musical-dramatic structures with lyrical passages and a convincing build-up of tension before reaching their apotheosis…..
      Chemnitz had a group of outstanding soloists in the leading roles. Guibee Yang was vocally and theatrically ideal as Inès, with a perfectly produced “white” soprano such as Meyerbeer wanted for this role. Claudia Sorokina (Sélika) proved herself to be one of that rare breed of singer known as the “soprano Falcon,” and she used her deep, metallic timbre to give the Indian (not African) queen the desired exotic quality. Bernhard Berchtold was up to the part of Vasco da Gama, in which one can detect the influence of Verdi’s bel canto style on Meyerbeer. Here, da Gama’s showpiece aria was sung with its original text, “O doux climat.” Berchtold’s tenor was only missing that touch of Italianità one wished for in the cabaletta of the third act duet. With his ebony-hued baritone, Pierre-Yves Pruvot made a striking, “exotic” Nélusko. And it says something about the quality of the Chemnitz ensemble that the smaller roles were as well sung as the major ones.”

  • Belfagor says:

    Grimoaldo, thank you for this detailed information. Maybe there will be a recording, as CPO tends to release many operatic rarities from Chemnitz and other locations. And it certainly makes sense to change the title -- it did strike me that the 4th act started with a Marche Indienne, and various sources imagined that this meant that the opera took place in Madagascar. But, I suppose, if Vasco is the title character, he does rather slink off in the last act and leave the stage to Selika…..

    But the problem with Meyerbeer, and presumably why these scores are never presented complete, is that his structures rarely appear organic, and his scores don’t seem to have the sort of binding material, or much thematic continuity that make them appear inevitable or organic. Maybe ours is not the age for such a discursive dramatic or musical experience.

    • MontyNostry says:

      Which makes the ROH Robert le Diable even more of a cop-out. Pelly’s production really just bypassed the manifold dramatic challenges by doing the ‘camped up storybook’ thing. It didn’t even try to take it seriously on its own terms of with the aid of a commentary of some kind. The special effects in the mountain scene bit were admittedly rather fun, but that was the only exciting bit of the evening as far as the production went. Still, as Belfagor and I have discussed, Verdi clearly liked Meyerbeer’s way with a cor anglais and a soprano.

      • Cocky Kurwenal says:

        That’s Pelly all over though, isn’t it? It’s what drives me mad about his Fille du Regiment production in particular -- he’s so hell bent on sending everything up and making everything a big joke that the moments in the score of genuine pathos don’t get properly set up on stage, and fall flat. The only Pelly productions I’ve seen that I liked are his Offenbach operettas.

        The cor anglais/plaintive female combo is a favourite rhetorical device of all of them.

        • MontyNostry says:

          I think Pelly runs out of ideas as soon as he places something on stage. The first image is often great and then he just kind of gets people to jiggle about. I’ve noticed that with his Love of Three Oranges, Cendrillon, Ravel double bill at Glyndebourne and now Robert. (I haven’t seen his famous Fille.) How did he cope with Pelléas (it’s on DVD, but I haven’t seen it)?

          • Cocky Kurwenal says:

            I won’t be drawn into a discussion re Pelleas, Monty. It’ll only get box-quoted back at me on Sunday.

          • Flora del Rio Grande says:

            Lots of us in Santa Fe have a belly full of Pelly. This summer we had to endure again the Traviata done a few years ago for Dessay, though there was some refinement and better costuming for Violetta. Even so, why ruin a truly gorgeous performance of the prelude — a great moment of the opera we have to admit — with a funeral procession, a dozen or so men in black, with umbrellas, clumping across the stage while new Maestro Hussain was conducting a perfectly ravishing performance of the atmospheric prelude? So perverse! Pelly makes Violetta into a vulgar tart, party guests pulling open her split skirt to reveal all to the audience, etc etc. That most certainly was not Verdi’s
            Violetta. The good news out of this year’s La traviata, however, is Leo Hussain’s shapely and nuanced, and very theatrical conducting of the score, and young Miss Brenda Rae singing the most beautiful and affecting Violetta I have heard since — when? It’s a lyric coloratura voice, of good size, with the easiest top I’ve heard in ages. She makes every note seem spontaneous and is exquisitely on pitch — a rare accomplishment these days. And in the final performance we heard earlier this week, she took an unexpected and resplendent high Eb at the close of Act I. She was wearing very pale makeup so for once “qual pallor” meant something, and in general she struck me as a gorgeous young Anna Moffo, only better. As you volk may know, she captured operadom’s attention last year when as a member of the ensemble at Frankfurt, she was called to Vienna as a last minute replacement of an indisposed Lucia and Brenda knocked it out of the ballpark — huge excitement ensued and SFO were very lucky to have her for this summer, and she is coming back in 2014 for Mozart’s Impressario and Stravinski’s Rossignol on a double bill. Remember Brenda Rae of Wisconsin — she could be a great new star. I don’t want to overlook Michael Fabiano, still under age-30, with a big resonant tenor, some elegance in his musicianship (he can modulate down to a lovely p. or pp. tone for the quieter moments), and he has a strong and ringing top. Nice looking fellow, masculine and moves well on stage. There could be great things ahead for both Fabiano and Rae, and Santa Fe had ‘em early on, something of a local specialty. And where has Leo Hussain been? — nudge to the Metropolitan Opera, get this fellow, he will refresh a lot of your thrice-familiar scores.

            Donna del Lago was a fine success due to Miss di Donato, and two high tenors -- Brownlee and Rene Barbera — dumb as hell opera, but such lovely music and the right singers make it go well. Santa Fe had them.
            You will see a scaled up version of this production at the Met next season, I think it is. Di Donato seems at her peak; I hope she stays there for a while; I may have to go to Kansas City for Capuletti.

            The balance of Santa Fe’s summer rep was all OK, if rather routine. La Graham seemed slightly bored in her Offenbach, Phillips’ Contessa was pretty good once she got past a very off-pitch Porgi amor — and why does she avoid the high-Cs in the boudoir scene? Young Zach Nelson, lovely as his baritone voice is, was just a tad too callow for Figaro; he’ll improve with experience as he packs the vocal goods.

            Oscar you say? Let’s not. It was a gen-u-ine flop. Large majority of critics so negative and they should have been. Boring at every level, almost laughably so at times. Uninteresting through-composed music, no melody, little harmonic development, nothing memorable. The book was terrible, all negative, only the ‘dark side’ of Oscar. Big mistake. Daniels sounding menopausal and blowzy (sorry!), but superb conducting by Evan Rogister and sterling vocal and histrionic performances by Stober and Burden, with a splendid production by Newbury and Korins. Too bad for Oscar. What a fool he was and that is what the new play with music showed us. Composer Morrison is such a smart musician and fine in his choral work, but in spite of collaboration of John Cox, maybe he is just not an operatic/theatre talent???
            And next summer, Sun Yat Sen. Oy!

            • MontyNostry says:

              I saw Brenda Rae as Zerbinetta in Bordeaux a couple of years ago and was highly impressed. She’s a very good actress too.

        • Porgy Amor says:

          It’s what drives me mad about his Fille du Regiment production in particular — he’s so hell bent on sending everything up and making everything a big joke that the moments in the score of genuine pathos don’t get properly set up on stage, and fall flat.

          I was not impressed either. I have only seen it with Dessay. To me, it was a textbook case of a director and a star singer trying too hard to imbue an opera with qualities it already has, and consequently killing it by overdose. There is so much frenetic leaping and mugging from the start that it has nowhere to go at the moments when it might have profited from getting “zany.” As you say, this overkill places everything in a context that militates against any feeling, besides being tiresome in itself.

          The only Pelly productions I’ve seen that I liked are his Offenbach operettas.

          I have not seen those; his Monnaie Don Quichotte with Van Dam is the one I have liked so far. Now, that may reflect a limited frame of reference. The opera does not come along so often, and I always had wanted to see it staged with a good cast. Pelly’s production had an interesting look, as his usually do, and the performers were sympathetic. There was nothing, I felt, standing in the way.

    • Indiana Loiterer III says:

      [Meyerbeer's] structures rarely appear organic, and his scores don’t seem to have the sort of binding material, or much thematic continuity that make them appear inevitable or organic.

      Well, it wouldn’t be for lack of trying. Actually, there is a lot more “binding material” in a Meyerbeer score than in a Bellini or Donizetti score; he was German, after all.

  • grimoaldo says:

    Well the “Vasco da Gama” at Chemnitz was a big success, as was “Les Huguenots” at Brussels two years ago -

    Meyerbeer’s operas can be made to work for modern audiences, given good performances. There is so much prejudice, if I may use the word, involved with Meyerbeer due to the hostile attitude of Wagner and his acolytes.
    As oedipe has said, today 19th century French grand opera in general and Meyerbeer in particular, even in Paris, are considered not the sort of thing connoisseurs are supposed to enjoy. Meyerbeer, of course, was German and wrote German works as well, was even the Kapellmeister for the king of Prussia and Prussian General Music Director, extremely influential, extremely important for music in Berlin and Germany generally, maybe German opera houses can help to reclaim and re- present his works for modern audiences more than French ones can.

  • grimoaldo says:

    Le prophète is really Meyerbeer’s masterpiece in my opinion, I think it is a tremendous work, I hope it will receive more good productions with suitable singers in the near future.

  • Indiana Loiterer III says:

    Oddly, there’s no track listing in the enclosed booklet with cue points at all even though they are listed on the disc menu itself.

    This seems to be a trend with opera DVDs. It’s very annoying.

  • Archaeopteryx says:

    I just read an interview with Stephen Revell of Opera Rara, who claimed that this company would like to colaborate with the Concertgebouw Amsterdam for some recordings of their Saturday matinées -- a project desiderated is L’Africaine. Since the interview is five years old, I think this project never came to happen -- or does anybody know anything about this?