Die Zauberflöte (7/9/14), Ariodante (7/10/14)
Festival International d'Art Lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence
Eriksmoen as Pamina in McBurney’s staging of Die Zauberflöte in Aix
© Pascal Victor 2014
Raw emotion: Petibon as Handel’s Ginevra
© Pascal Victor 2014
July brought difficult days in France for festival organizers, with striking intermittents du spectacle (freelance theater workers) grabbing the headlines and provoking cancellations across the country. The status of the intermittents comes from an enlightened decision by the government to assist theater workers during “resting” periods with a subsidy based on their earnings over the year. Not surprisingly, this has made show business a more attractive career option, but tough economic times have led the government to try to reduce the cost of the scheme. Theater managers, anxious to preserve performances, have generally supported the strikers. International operagoers from countries where no such system has ever been considered are less impressed when long-planned visits to the opera are scuppered. This was the case at the Aix-en-Provence festival for the canceled first performance of Rossini’s Turco in Italia and the protest-stricken premiere of Handel’s Ariodante. Throughout the festival, technicians, orchestral players and singers wore scraps of red material to indicate their support for the intermittents.
Fortunately, the festival’s opening production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte went ahead relatively undisturbed at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, opening a new and exciting chapter in the Aix-en-Provence festival tradition of Mozartean excellence. The success of the evening began in the pit, where the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra provided a thrilling reading of the score under the young Spanish maestro Pablo Heras-Casado, whose flexible conducting and ideal pacing of Simon McBurney’s production suggests an exciting future. Time was when authentic early-music bands in Mozart offered unpredictable period instruments and an overall paucity of tone, despite the academic musical rigor that informed their performances. The German band confounds this criticism with exceptional playing from all desks of the orchestra and a glowing palette of orchestral colors. The integration of orchestra, public and stage was emphasized in McBurney’s production. Singers frequently walked though the band in the raised pit where players were not just accompanying an opera but playing an essential part of the drama. The magic flute itself was not poorly mimed by the Tamino, as is often the case, but passed to an orchestral soloist who accompanied the hero spiritually with glorious non-metallic tone. Papageno’s glockenspiel was also expertly played by an amusing doppelganger.
The staging, first seen in Amsterdam, uses a central disc. To one side of the stage a team of artists prepared video projections, while opposite was a sound-effect workshop that provided an accompaniment to the spoken dialogue. These modern theater techniques were used without recourse to a sophisticated reinterpretation of the libretto. The squirming snake and the fire and water of the trials were all thrillingly realistic. The approach naïvely mixed humor with Sarastro’s learned library, matching Schikaneder and Mozart’s inspiration. The excellent three ladies in military fatigues were understandably seduced by Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s Tamino, which marked a new and exciting step forward in the young French tenor’s career; he produced a firm line in the portrait aria and sustained an ardent lyricism throughout the evening. Act II opened with Christof Fischesser’s handsome Sarastro standing beside the conductor with a microphone, explaining to gathered politicians, led by Maarten Koningsberger’s experienced Sprecher, the nature of the crisis facing the community. This neatly echoed the moving speech given by one of the French strikers from a similar position at the beginning of the evening, calling on the government to echo the sentiments of justice and harmony proposed by Mozart’s masterpiece.
Vocally, the outstanding performance of the evening came from Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night, whose thirst for vengeance had gnawed away at her physique, transforming this proud woman into a wheelchair-bound crone. The soprano dispatched the coloratura with outstanding dramatic force and raw, percussive vocalizing. Fischesser’s Sarastro was more at ease in his central bass register than in the basso profundo moments of his arias, which were under-projected. The beautiful, ethereal upper register of soprano Mari Eriksmoen made the most of Pamina’s poetic moments, but she lacked a strong mid-range, as did tenor Andreas Conrad as Monostatos, who found the role uncomfortably low and had trouble projecting his aria. Josef Wagner was a truculent, energetic Papageno, presented as a bearded hippie on the edge of society, trailing a useful ladder behind him, and accompanied by actors fluttering folded pieces of manuscript to represent his ornithological companions. His duet with Regula Mühlemann’s Papagena was unfortunately interrupted on July 9 by some glass on the stage, which needed to be swept up before the show could continue. Mühlemann lacked plosive precision in her duet with Wagner’s baritone, before the final chorus, sung by the choir English Voices, brought this memorable performance to its life-affirming conclusion.
It was a great festival for the Freiburger Barockorchester, who were also in the pit for Handel’s Ariodante, in a new production by Richard Jones, conducted by experienced Handelian Andrea Marcon. If the opera sometimes needed greater tension and attack, the orchestral sound and pacing were ideal and some of the playing remarkable: the finely tuned bassoon part in Ariodante’s “Scherza infida” was infinitely moving.
After the offstage protests of the first night, the production had settled down peacefully by July 10. Jones took the original title of the libretto, “Ginevra, principessa di Scozia” (Ginevra, princess of Scotland), written for an opera by Perti, to the letter, setting the opera in a bleak Hebridean fishing village in the 1970s. It was a chilly evening in the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, and despite the comfort of free blankets, it seemed as if Scottish weather had been imported to the South of France for the occasion. There is nothing Caledonian about Handel’s drama, and the awkwardly interpolated Highland dancing and the unfurling of Presbyterian biblical quotations did little to support the drama. Jones and his designer Ultz divided the gloomy living quarters into three sections, separated only by a device for opening the imaginary doors. This demanded clever acting from the cast and was visually unattractive but had the advantage of providing three separate acting spaces where characters could perform privately or be secretly overheard. It also solved the problem of the limited stage area of the theater. The positive quality of the production was the clarity of the characters and their motivations. The typical opera seria plot has rarely been so clearly presented — a tale of betrayal and trickery in an attempt to undermine the relationship of Ariodante and Ginevra. If the puppets, whose playlets took the place of the dances, looked sadly out of place in the fishing community, the most controversial moment of the staging came in the final moments of rejoicing — here not the happy end envisaged by Handel and the libretto. Instead, poor Ginevra had enough of this punitive Presbyterian lifestyle, packed her case and wandered offstage — an interesting idea, but one that lacked any musical support.
It was an evening of fine Handel singing led by the Ariodante of Sarah Connolly, whose mezzo is in its glorious prime. Despite exemplary phrasing and forceful declamation, Connolly is not a natural Handelian virtuoso. Passagework was kept precise by using a very small girth of sound, which sapped the force from some of her show-stopping arias. Patricia Petibon turned the role of Ginevra into a display of raw emotion. Unfortunately she went too far in her expressionist singing, sometimes draining her tone of all substance and pitch, and spoiling her impressive soprano line with would-be expressive nudges. More stylish singing came from fellow French soprano Sandrine Piau as Dalinda, who has a pivotal role in the drama as a sensibly dressed serving wench, whose lust for Polinesso leads her to betray her mistress and provoke the couple’s ensuing misery. Sonia Prina’s curious guttural technique sounded suitable for Polinesso as she threw out her menacing coloratura with throaty mezzo precision. Jones saw the character as a priest with lurid sexual perversions — a cassock hiding a tattooed predator. Some of the most moving singing of the evening came from bass Luca Tittoto as the kilted King of Scotland, whose emotional response to his daughter’s alleged infidelity was gripping, and also from tenor David Portillo’s excellently sung Lurcanio, whose pursuit of Piau’s Dalinda frustratingly never bore fruit.
STEPHEN J. MUDGE
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