Elektra (7/10/13), Rigoletto (7/4/13), Don Giovanni (7/5/13), The House Taken Over (7/6/13)
Festival International d'Art Lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence
Pieczonka and Herlitzius in Chéreau's Elektra staging, the most eagerly awaited opera experience of the year
© Pascal Victor/Artcomart 2013
Herlitzius and Petrenko as Elektra and Orest at Aix
© Pascal Victor/Artcomart 2013
Herlitzius as Chéreau's Elektra in Aix
© Pascal Victor/Artcomart 2013
The evening began in ritualistic silence, with maids flicking water around the palace courtyard to settle the dust. A sliding door was unlocked by Donald McIntyre's Servant, and like a sequestered animal Elektra was unleashed to the thrilling opening of the Strauss score. The most eagerly awaited opera experience of the year, and certainly of this year's Aix-en-Provence Festival, had begun — a new production of Elektra by Patrice Chéreau, scheduled to be seen at the Met and across Europe. The show (seen July 10) was played here by the Orchestre de Paris, under the direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Chéreau drew from his cast a depth of text-driven characterization rarely seen on the opera stage, probing and analyzing every nuance of Hofmannsthal's libretto against Richard Peduzzi's bleak monumental palace, set in a mythological no-man's-land — a palace where the lives of three women unfold, dominated by Elektra's obsession with the burden of revenge, which, like Shakespeare's Hamlet, she fails to assume.
The Elektra of Evelyn Herlitzius was a diminutive, androgynous figure of towering vocal strength, meeting all the challenges of the score with vibrant, thrilling tone but capable of reigning in her soprano for the hushed intensity of the recognition scene. During her first monologue Herlitzius took large, stylized strides over the bodies of her imagined carnage, a movement that formed the genesis of her final convulsive dance, which ended not with a lifeless collapse but with a bleak, immobile stare into the Grand Théâtre de Provence. Vengeance had been accomplished, but what did the future offer for this fragile, damaged woman? That fragility had been remarkably expressed when Elektra curled her arms around her despised mother's legs in an infantile expression of filial love toward Waltraud Meier's Klytämnestra. The mezzo and Chéreau freed this character from the pantomime-harridan approach and presented her as a still beautiful woman haunted by her unspoken crimes — a figure of unbearable grief and vulnerability, on whom Meier lavished a rarely heard beauty of line. Elektra's desperate attempts to encourage Chrysothemis to join her in an act of violence led to her pulling her sister to the ground in a desperate hug, as if in an attempt to physically inject her sister with the lust for vengeance. Adrianne Pieczonka's Chrysothemis remained steadfast in her wish to forge a normal life outside this dysfunctional family, and her soaring assertions of potential motherhood matched her sister's appeals for vengeance with glowing soprano intensity.
Chéreau's attention to detail did not end with the principal characters. It is hard to remember a production in which the fifth maid's defense of Elektra has been as movingly and clearly expressed as it was here in the magnificent singing of soprano Roberta Alexander. McIntyre's still-resonant elderly Servant and Orest's tutor, sung by Franz Mazura, recognized each other in parallel with Elektra's discovery of her brother's identity. These iconic veterans from Chéreau's Bayreuth Ring fell into each other's arms with an irresistible emotional impact. The ninety-year-old Mazura fulfilled the libretto's description of the character as a "strong spirit with fiery eyes," unflinchingly coaching Orest in the plan to assassinate his mother and stepfather. He even knifed tenor Tom Randle's low-profile but well sung Aegisth, who discovered his wife projected onto the stage and murdered with Freudian bewilderment by her son Orest. Bass Mikhail Petrenko sang with stiff, forthright tone as Orest, but dramatically he seemed a pawn in the hands of his tutor and avenging sister.
Salonen's conducting of the score was as illuminating as Chéreau's staging. Those looking for decibels and overwrought orchestral hysteria were disappointed, but this is not Salonen's way. The maestro delivered a performance of clear orchestral detail, with as many hushed nuances as bold climaxes, and a constant attention to balance; the massive forces never covered the voices. This opera on the cusp of modernity was built to a shattering climax and played with bewitching accuracy by the Orchestre de Paris, to a prolonged standing ovation.
Gagnidze, Chacón-Cruz and Valeria Tornatore (Countess Ceprano) in Carsen's Aix Rigoletto
© Patrick Berger/Artcomart 2013
he Aix-en-Provence Festival opened on July 4 with its contribution to the Verdi bicentenary celebrations — a new production of
by Robert Carsen, with Gianandrea Noseda conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Carsen is well remembered here for his ground-breaking productions in the 1990s of Britten's
Midsummer Night's Dream
. The problems of the Théâtre de l'Archevêché are well known: there is very little depth of stage and virtually no offstage space. It was essential to find a single set that would serve for the entirety of Verdi's favorite opera. Carsen chose the world of the circus. Rigoletto appeared during the prologue to set the tone for the evening, laughter turning to tears beneath his heavy white clown's makeup, thrusting a blow-up doll toward a predatory public. The duke and his friends were a group of exploitative, hard-living men who abused the scantily-clad circus girls. The big-top circus ring made a convincing single set, and the talented young circus performers were well integrated into the show. The production will undoubtedly look better with the extra space the show will have when it transfers to Strasbourg and Brussels. There remains the question of the
concept — not, perhaps, the most original of Carsen's ideas — and the resulting absence of social rank and the power of the aristocracy, which is unfortunate. It was difficult to believe that anyone would be attracted to this feckless, chauvinist duke, who surely must possess elegance and class to provoke such passion. This was a brooding peep-show in which the abusive treatment of women by drunken men was paramount. The score was conducted with coruscating energy by Noseda, who drew electrifying playing from the London Symphony Orchestra and competent singing from the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.
George Gagnidze, an experienced Rigoletto, phrased his lines with loving care. His even, soft-grained baritone is well schooled but lacked the gritty edge to burrow into the lines of the vengeance duet with the necessary projection. Opposite him, Irina Lungu was a Gilda whose soprano sounds destined for a heavier repertoire; she was better suited to her post-rape music than to the vertiginous virginal moments of the earlier acts, in which she looked cramped by her miniature caravan. "Caro nome" was dreamily sung from a trapeze swinging against the Provençal sky, but Lungu lacked coloratura ease and gave no sign of a functioning trill. Her best singing came in the final scene, when a trapeze artist unfurled from the sky — which was either a distracting piece of stage business or a moving illustration of Gilda's death, depending on one's point of view. Arturo Chacón-Cruz's insolent Duke of Mantua was courageous and fluent. His wiry tenor is not particularly mellifluous, and occasionally he pushed the top of his voice sharp, but all praise goes to the tenor for stripping naked during his cabaletta before setting off to rape poor Gilda without losing a beat or blinking an eye. One of the best performances of the evening came from Gábor Bretz, as a dangerous wide-boy-type Sparafucile, making the role more than a series of cavernous low notes. José Maria Lo Monaco looked terrific as the circus-girl Maddalena but lacked vocal weight.
Wildly unconventional: Aix's revival of Tcherniakov's 2010 Don Giovanni staging
© Patrick Berger/Artcomart 2013
t was a brave but controversial decision to bring back to the Aix-en-Provence festival Dmitri Tcherniakov's wildly unconventional 2010 staging of
. This season's revival at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché offered a new cast and Marc Minkowski conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Tcherniakov presents the opera as a claustrophobic family drama, inventing various relationships undreamed of by da Ponte. Zerlina is the daughter of the Commendatore, Leporello a relative of the family on a visit. Traditionalists will already have thrown in the towel, but Tcherniakov's show is a compelling theatrical experience, if not the one envisaged by librettist and composer. The director draws expert playing from the entire cast, centered on the shambling figure of Rod Gilfry's Don Giovanni, a drunken, spaced-out antihero who exercises an inexplicable fascination for the opposite sex. Any sense of spiritual retribution is lost in Tcherniakov's concept, and Don Giovanni jokingly role-plays certain of the more supernatural scenes with Leporello. The Commendatore comes to dinner as a lookalike actor, provoking Don Giovanni's heart attack, which may or may not prove fatal. Act I of this willful production had convincing moments — as when Don Ottavio refused to believe Donna Anna's protestations that she had repulsed the stranger in her bedroom, uttering "respiro" through clenched teeth. However, if one accepts that Act I of
is a particularly fluent piece of operatic writing, it is irritatingly perverse to bring down the curtain violently between scenes in order to reinforce the director's wrong-footed timing. Act II of
, which has a more episodic quality, worked better in Tcherniakov's world, but his task was made easier by the omission of Don Ottavio's second aria.
Musically, Minkowski's reading had its moments, and the London Symphony Orchestra did its best to imitate a period-instrument band, but tempos were distressingly irregular, and the ensemble was never stable. The champagne aria went seriously awry on opening night (July 5), and there were moments when stage-to-pit coordination was unacceptably untidy for an international festival. Gilfry sang well but sometimes lost too much timbre in Tcherniakov's trance-like approach to recitatives, and the shock of finding his full baritone for the character's more dramatic declarations sounded awkward. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, the original sidekick Leporello of this production, sang a superb catalogue aria. The decently sung Elvira of soprano Kristine Opolais returned from the original cast to replace the announced Sonya Yoncheva. Opolais looked particularly at home in the production. As Donna Anna, Maria Bengtsson negotiated her arias with musical caution and a powerful soprano. Best of the ladies was soprano Joelle Harvey as a delightfully fresh Zerlina opposite the irritable Masetto of baritone Kostas Smoriginas. The finest singing of the evening came from the Don Ottavio of tenor Paul Groves, whose honeyed tone and flexible phrasing made the absence of "Il mio tesoro" especially disappointing. Bass Anatoli Kotscherga sounded dry-toned in the final scene, in which the fires of hell were sadly absent from Tcherniakov's book-lined family home.
World premiere of Mendonça's The House Taken Over at Aix
© Patrick Berger/Artcomart 2013
bout ten minutes outside the center of Aix, the Domaine du Grand Saint Jean on the Puyricard plateau is dominated by a ruined sixteenth-century château, chosen by the festival as the venue for this season's world premiere,
The House Taken Over
, by Vasco Mendonça (seen July 6). The hour-long opera is based on the novel
, by Julio Cortázar, but Portuguese composer Mendonça opted for an English-language libretto, written by Sam Holcroft. The performance was accompanied by the chamber ensemble Asko/Schönberg, conducted by Etienne Siebens. The production was by Katie Mitchell.
The atmospheric venue, with its raked seating against a wall of the château, could not have been more propitious for a work that deals with a haunted house. A brother and sister's lives are reduced to a series of cleaning and tidying rituals in their family house, which is being gradually taken over by poltergeist activity. Their movements within the house are progressively limited until they are confined to the entrance porch and finally obliged to face the outside world.
The composer is a pupil of George Benjamin, whose opera Written on Skin had its premiere in Aix in 2012 and was acclaimed as the best new opera of the past twenty years. Mendonça's work is refined and subtly orchestrated for a chamber ensemble of strings, woodwind, brass and percussion, with an interesting use of flugelhorns and imaginative combinations of the timbres of the thirteen players. This world of worrying glissandos and disturbing percussion was an atmospheric accompaniment to a horror movie, which was impressive for its refinement without ever being memorable, despite the excellence of the ensemble under Siebens. As the doomed siblings left the house, the score reached a more intense climax than Holcroft's libretto suggested. The novel could have been interpreted with a more strongly political agenda, an idea evidently rejected by the composer in favor of a Pinteresque exploration of the vacuous daily lives of the protagonists. The sister retreated into her life of knitted dolls. Her brother was a more disturbed and arrogant character, resisting the poltergeists and aggressively imposing his domestic rituals of time-checking, book-wiping and floor polishing. The vocal lines were disappointingly dull and consonant over the muttering modernism of the orchestra, but they posed no problem for the excellent mezzo Kitty Whately and baritone Oliver Dunn.
Mitchell's production combined two stifling bourgeois interiors, where the portrait of the siblings' father dominated. The poltergeist movements were brilliantly managed: plates and pictures flew off the walls with disturbing panache. The sister's gentle rebellion was nicely managed, while her brother's anxiety was too frequently expressed by nervous hand-movements in this evening of spooky country-house action.
STEPHEN J. MUDGE
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