In Review > International

Le Nozze di Figaro (7/5/12), David et Jonathas (7/6/12), L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (7/6/12), Written on Skin (7/7/12)

Festival International d'Art Lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence

In Review David Jonathas hdl 1012
Brotherly love: Charbonneau and Quintans in Aix’s David et Jonathas
© Pascal Victor/ArtComArt 2012
In Review Provence Figaro lg 1012
Ketelsen and Petibon, Figaro and Susanna at Aix
© Pascal Victor/ArtComArt 2012

At the opening of this year’s festival on July 5, conductor Jérémie Rhorer interrupted Act III of Le Nozze di Figaro, bent down to the first violins and discussed with them whether or not the show should go on. A light rain was falling, moistening not only the audience but the musicians and their instruments. After a minute or so, the performance continued and, sure enough, the rain soon stopped. The festival has been lucky with its main venue, the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace: the mistral, a cold wind, can make lightly dressed ladies shudder, but it almost never rains.

Although Mozart is the festival’s patron saint, Nozze was not a good show. Inspired by the legal quarrel between Figaro and Marcellina, director Richard Brunel set Act I in a modern-day lawyer’s office, complete with photocopier and shredder. Act II took place not in the bedroom of the Countess but in what looked like a tailor’s workshop. Brunel is, of course, not the first to ride roughshod over Lorenzo da Ponte’s stage directions. That didn’t make his arbitrary updating any better. His funniest idea was to have the Count, when he stormed into his wife’s workplace, accompanied by a well-trained Weimaraner. At the curtain calls, the dog was the first to appear, acknowledging the applause with cool dignity.

The musical side left much to be desired. The best singing, by far, came from Kyle Ketelsen’s ebullient Figaro. Patricia Petibon had the right agility for Susanna but not the lyrical timbre for the creamier moments of her part. Malin Byström, the Countess, had a warmer but less steady voice. (Byström was visibly pregnant — somewhat surprising for a lady who bewails the estrangement from her husband.) Paulo Szot was convincing enough as the Count, though on the dry side. Kate Lindsey sounded a bit pale as Cherubino but had the perfect looks for a teenage boy, even in underwear. Most of the comic characters were badly over the top. Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, the “historically informed” band founded by Rhorer in 2005, offered anemic strings and aggressive wind and timpani.

That Baroque orchestras don’t have to sound that way was proven the next day by William Christie and his Arts Florissants. Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas is home turf for them: they recorded the 1688 opera in 1988. Against the backdrop of the conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines, the opera tells the story of David’s ascent to the throne, the paranoid jealousy of his predecessor Saul and David’s friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan. Originally, the opera was sandwiched between the prologue and each of the five acts of a lost play, which explains why it’s more commentary than action.

Director Andreas Homoki resisted the obvious temptation to transpose the biblical drama to the present-day Middle East. The costumes of the two feuding tribes, one sporting fezzes, the other in dark, vaguely rural dress, suggested a Balkan country. The only props on an otherwise empty stage were tables and chairs. In the prologue, which had been shifted to the end of the first part, set designer Paul Zoller divided the scene into three identical sections, each with the Witch of Endor on a chair — a gripping image of Saul’s hallucinations.

The snag, as it so often is in Baroque operas, was the singing: none of the three protagonists — David (Pascal Charbonneau), Jonathas (Ana Quintans) and Saul (Neal Davies) — produced what could be called balm to the ear. The best vocalist was Dominique Visse as the Witch — a role that the countertenor sang on Christie’s 1988 recording. 

Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (also seen July 6) is a delightfully scored work with a whip, a rattle, a wind machine and even a cheese grater in the pit. To reduce the orchestra to a piano, a flute and a cello, as Didier Puntos did in Aix, might be acceptable at a house concert; for a festival, even in the tiny Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, it’s a no-no. The second mistake was to set it in an attic full of old furniture, instead of the middle-class living room that gets turned upside down by the animals and things the naughty Child has maltreated. The best that can be said about this misguided undertaking is that Chloé Briot was a cute, very convincing Child. I would love to see her in a full-fledged production of the work. 

In Review Written on Skin hdl 1012
Crimp’s Written on Skin at Aix, with Purves, Mehta and Hannigan
© Pascal Victor/ArtComArt 2012

The most eagerly awaited event of the festival was Written on Skin, a new opera by British composer George Benjamin (seen July 7). His compatriot Martin Crimp based the libretto on the legendary love life and grisly end of Guilhem de Cabestanh, a thirteenth-century troubadour. The Provençal legend of a jealous husband who kills his rival, cooks his heart and serves it to his wife also appears in Boccaccio’s Decameron and Ezra Pound’s Cantos.

Crimp, who is known for his enigmatic plays and hailed by many people as Harold Pinter’s successor, had renamed the love triangle. The troubadour had morphed into a scribe of illuminated manuscripts and was simply called the Boy. The noble lady who falls for him, Seremonda (or Soremonda in the legend), and her vengeful husband reappeared as Agnès and the Protector. The fifteen short scenes were, from to time, interrupted by three angels in modern dress. Musing on parking lots and airports, they were supposed, according to an interview with the author in the program, to remind us of the historical distance between the Middle Ages and our time. Another peculiarity of the text was that the characters talked about themselves in the third person and sometimes recited the stage directions. The crucial scene, in which Agnès unwittingly eats the heart of her lover, started with the husband singing “Woman and her Protector — night. A room. A balcony. A long, white table. What has he placed in front of her?”

Fortunately, Benjamin’s music was more compelling than Crimp’s stilted alienation effects. The fifty-two-year-old composer may not have been born with theater blood in his veins; Written on Skin is only his second opera. The first, Into the Little Hill (2006), based on another medieval legend, lasted little more than half an hour. Yet, like his teacher Olivier Messiaen, Benjamin knows how to create sensuous, haunting soundscapes. The violent conflicts notwithstanding, the singers mostly communicated in a quiet conversational style. The drama erupted in the orchestra. The general impression, however, was that of an eerie calm not unlike the one that permeates Pelléas et Mélisande.

Benjamin wrote the vocal parts in close collaboration with the three protagonists. No wonder the Protector (Christopher Purves), Agnès (Barbara Hannigan) and the Boy (Bejun Mehta) were all excellent. Director Katie Mitchell and set designer Vicki Mortimer had found a clever solution for presenting the two sides of the story: the medieval world, which looked like an Old Master painting, was framed by an ultramodern, neon-lit printing office peopled with mysterious, slow-moving extras.

The composer himself conducted the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. At the curtain calls, he was greeted with a standing ovation. spacer 


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