The new management at the Paris National Opera may be counting the days until Myung-Whun Chung must abandon his post as music director next month, but the South Korean-born conductor at least seems assured of a long and fond adieu from his French admirers.
Ousted last month after five years at the Bastille Opera, Chung won the right to perform one final opera, Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra."And at Monday's opening night, he was given a rousing ovation, first when he arrived and later when he joined the cast onstage after the final curtain.
French critics were also warm in their praise of Chung and his orchestra, if not of the production itself.
"The orchestra of the opera was in top form," Le Monde's music critic, Alain Lompech, wrote. "As always with Chung, the balance of the orchestra was perfect."
Not for the first time with the Bastille Opera, though, much of the drama Monday evening took place offstage, with some members of the packed audience shouting insults at the management of the Paris National Opera, the parent organization of the Bastille.
It dismissed the 41-year-old conductor after an embarrassing public wrangle over his contract.
Chung's removal has also stirred anger and bitterness in the Bastille orchestra. Significantly, as he appeared on stage Monday, members of the orchestra showered him with roses and joined the audience in applause. Chung, who is an American, then went down on one knee and applauded the musicians in return.
"What touched me most was the reaction of the musicians," the conductor said later. "I'll keep that with me. All the other things, I'll forget. I'm sorry to leave the musicians. I'm not so sorry to leave the administration, but life is like that and you move on."
Chung, who will conduct nine more performances of "Simon Boccanegra" before leaving in mid-October, said he had other engagements to look forward to, although he provided no details. "I continue," he added. "My musical life continues."
Appointed music director by a Socialist government in 1989, Chung ran into trouble after a fresh management team was named by a new conservative administration last year. In particular, the new team felt its hands had been tied by the renewal of Chung's contract through the year 2000.
This spring, the Paris Opera's director-designate, Hugues Gall, who takes over next year but is in fact already running things, decided to renegotiate Chung's contract to end in 1997 and to freeze his salary at the 1993 levels.
Gall also signaled that in the future, he alone would make major artistic decisions.
Last month, after the conductor refused to accept the new terms, he was abruptly dismissed. Subsequently, a French court said his original contract was still valid, and eventually a deal was worked out under which he would perform "Simon Boccanegra" and be compensated with two years' salary.
The entire episode merely reinforced the Bastille's reputation for political in-fighting and left its new management team struggling to win public acceptance.
Whether it will name a new music director is also still up in the air, with some signs that Gall may prefer to work only with guest conductors.
Certainly, in the view of French critics, this "Simon Boccanegra" will be remembered principally as Chung's last hurrah. But they also praised the American baritone, Frederick Burchinal, who stepped into the title role at the last minute; the American tenor, Franco Farina, as Gabriele Adorno, and the Italian bass, Roberto Scandiuzzi, as Jacobo Fiesco.
The critics were less generous about Kallen Esperian, the American soprano, who sang Amelia Grimaldi.
"She disappointed me because she lacked any sense of the dramatic," Pierre-Petit, Le Figaro's critic, wrote. Christian Leble said in Liberation that her voice was lost in the huge auditorium.
The worst marks, though, went to the production itself. Indeed, cheers turned to boos on Monday when Chung was joined onstage by Nicolas Brieger, the director, as well as by Gisbert Jakel and Nicole Geraud, in charge of decor and costumes respectively. "One can understand the malaise of a public that had come to acclaim Chung," Pierre-Petit wrote.