GIUSEPPE PENNISI visits Aix-en-Provence
for three operas and an orchestral concert
for three operas and an orchestral concert
The Aix-en-Provence International Festival of Lyric Art (this is the official denomination) is almost seventy years old. It is no longer a 'mostly Mozart festival' as originally conceived but essentially a manifestation of co-productions which are given world premieres (or first European performances) before tours in the forthcoming 'seasons'. Thus, listeners can feel the general tendencies in the sector. This year it features some eight operas from 2-21 July 2015 in its four main theaters as well as a large number of concerts and recitals. In June there were concerts by the European Music Academy, a post-graduate training institution for musicians. I spent a week in Aix and attended three operas and a concert. This is a report of my main findings.
Svadba ('The Marriage') by Serbian composer Ana Sokolović was, in my view, the festival surprise. It is coproduced with the opera houses of Angers, Nantes, Luxemburg, Ljubljana and Sarajevo but I think it will also tour to many other theatres. It is a low cost and very effective piece of musical theatre. Performed 'a cappella', ie without orchestra, it requires only six young voices (three sopranos and three mezzos) in a single very simple set (by Samal Black) and stage direction (Ted Huffman and Zack Winokur) quite sensitive to the acting.
In about one hour, we see a bride-to-be spending her last night as a single person with five of her closest friends. Memories of childhood and youth are mixed with hopes and concerns. In the morning the protagonist wears her wedding attire and her friends leave jeans and short skirts to appear as elegantly dressed bridesmaids. The musical score is quite interesting because it is a fusion of several genres: from lullaby to songs, from dancing to folk, to melologue to plainly spoken dialogue, until the explosion of a great arioso by the protagonist (Florie Valiquette) in the final scene. In the small and elegant eighteenth century Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, there was an explosion of accolades.
A Midsummer Night's Dream by Benjamin Britten is not a brand new production but a revival of Robert Carsen's work premiered in Aix in 1991 which has toured extensively. In the nineteen nineties I saw it in Ferrara and in 2009 at La Scala. I returned to see it in Aix on 7 July 2015 and found the production as fresh and as enchanting as it had been several years ago. In 1991, Carsen, still very young, read Midsummer as an exploration of eroticism from that of the very young (the two fugitive couples) to that of the adults (Titania and Oberon) and that of the peasants. The set is a wide bed with a green cover and two huge white pillows. On a green carpet, there are six beds in the second act and three, suspended above the stage, in the first part of the third act. The final scene is a white but dull Athens. It is presented in the theatre where it had been conceived, the Théâtre de l'Archevêché.
Kazushi Onu conducted a chamber music ensemble from the Orchestra of the Opéra National de Lyon: two harps, a harpsichord, a small number of violins and cellos, brass and percussion. The small orchestra is a highlight of the performance: its crystal clear and transparent texture is a real thrill. A mostly British cast provided excellent acting and singing. The countertenor Lawrence Zazzo was a superb Oberon. Sandrine Piau sang a sexy 'coloratura' Titania. The two young couples (Rupert Charlesworth, Elisabeth DeShong, John Chest and Layla Claire) were full of ardor. Miltos Yerolemou was an athletic Puck. The group of peasants led by Brindley Sherratt was very effective. The Trinity Boys Choir as Titania's retinue were simply charming. There were ovations at the end of the performance ... at nearly 01:15 in the morning.
Händel's Alcina is based on an episode from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. At first sight, the opera seems to revolve around black magic because the protagonist and her sisters are sex starved sorceress, seducing Paladins for intercourse and, after making love, transforming them into plants and animals. In Kate Mitchell's reading, the opera is more about loneliness of the two women — sopranos Patricia Petibon and Anna Prohaska. When the former finds real love in Ruggiero (countertenor Philippe Jaroussky), their lives are changed. Bradamante (mezzo Katarina Bradić) wears a soldier's uniform, enters Alcina's Palace and after a series of complex developments, destroys the sorceresses' power and the Paladins return to their lives.
There are no cardboard castles or forests. The plot is set in a luxury mansion in the late twentieth century. The characters are well designed. On the musical front, baroque specialist Andrea Marcon conducts skillfully the Frieburger Barockorchester. Of the many singers, the most impressive are Patricia Petibon, Katarina Bradić and Philippe Jaroussky, while Anna Prohaska had some difficulties with her high notes. I attended the third performance on 10 July 2015. In spite of a few cuts (mostly of ballet music), the opera lasts four hours, with an intermission. The audience applauded open stage after some of the main arias and gave the cast, conductor and orchestra nearly ten minutes of ovation. This production, co-produced with Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, will travel a lot.
Finally, just a few words on the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, on 9 July 2015 in the Grand Théâtre de Provence. In the first part, we listened to Brahms' first Piano Concerto in D minor, with no less than Krystian Zimmerman at the piano. In the second, the program included two musical poems by Dvořák. As an encore, there was a short but impressive Dvořák dance. The audience appreciated the contrast between very dramatic nineteenth century music and early twentieth century programme music.