OPERA NEWS - Alcina (7/2/15), Die Entführung aus dem Serail (7/3/15), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (7/4/15)
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Alcina (7/2/15), Die Entführung aus dem Serail (7/3/15), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (7/4/15)

Festival d'Aix en Provence

In Review Aix Alcina hdl 1015
Petibon and Gregory in Alcina at Aix
© Patrick Berger/ArtComArt

A NEW PRODUCTION OF HANEL'S magical opera Alcina opened the Aix-en-Provence festival on July 2 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence. Katie Mitchell directed the show, with Andrea Marcon conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester.

Mitchell treated the opera as a macabre thriller, in which sisters Alcina and Morgana exercise their sorcery over passing men before transforming them into inanimate stuffed animals or gnarled trees. Gothic horror ensued in an enchanted country house, where designer Chloe Lamford created five separate acting spaces. On the lower level this allowed for two antechambers where the aging sisters, played by actresses, silently lamented their fading powers before a dose of magic potion allowed them to enter the main acting space as their younger, more glamorous selves. This was managed with exemplary technical skill. 

On the upper level a taxidermist’s machine, not unlike an airport baggage scanner, transformed their victims into inanimate objects to be placed under waiting glass domes. Sex loomed large in the world of the sisters. Morgana had a taste for sadomasochism and was cuffed and tickled to order, assisted by a group of brothel attendants who kept her “treatments” up to standard. Alcina had more classic tastes. When Alcina’s love for Ruggiero fatally flawed her powers, her failing witchcraft and descent into human despair were vividly charted. Mitchell ignored the conventions of opera seria, preferring to tell the story with colorful theatricality — and no ballets to delay the action. Da capo arias were acted as a continuous dramatic action, but the repetition of the first section of the aria brings its own music-led climax; as George Bernard Shaw said, “Handel’s style consists in force of assertion.” Occasionally the effect here was too busy, and the eye was drawn to many different intriguing elements. 

Mitchell muffed one important moment of the score. Handel’s treatment of the drama goes well beyond the opera seria formula with a moment of shattering realism when individual members of the chorus celebrate their return to human form after their horrific period of petrification. Here the chorus was in the pit, and the moment passed almost unnoticed.

Otherwise, musically, this was a performance of the highest festival level. Marcon was exceptional, showing a notable improvement over his direction of last year’s open-air performance of Handel’s Ariodante. Here the continuo and instrumental solos attained a rarely heard level of ensemble with an orchestra honed to perfection, with none of the paucity of tone of some period-instrument ensembles. 

In the title role, Patricia Petibon’s total physical commitment was remarkable; her soprano easily met the demands placed on it. Petibon evidently feels obliged in this repertoire, though, to nudge the vocal line with unnecessary would-be-expressive “special effects” that occasionally drain the tone of all pitch. As Morgana, soprano Anna Prohaska began the evening with a timid “Tornami a vagghegiar” but made amends with a delicate contribution to her final aria, where she was cuffed for a final session and whipped timidly by tenor Anthony Gregory’s well-sung Oronte. The role of Ruggiero, written for the great castrato Carestini, was taken not by a mezzo, as is customary, but by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. This brought contemporary dramatic sense to the action, but the role lies low for Jaroussky, who is more at ease with ethereal beauty than with macho gusto. But the countertenor’s time-stopping traversal of “Verdi prati” showed him at his very best. 

Bradamante and Melisso, whose mission is to regain Bradamante’s lover Ruggiero and destroy the power of Alcina, were both excellent. Katarina Bradič managed her male impersonation stylishly and returned to her loving partner with supple mezzo tone, while bass Krzysztof Baczyk had all the qualities of a firm-toned marine. Joining the grownups was Elias Mädler as Oberto, whose father had been abducted by the sisters. His firm, expressive treble belied his twelve years and brought some of the warmest applause from an enthusiastic first-night audience.

In Review Entfuhrung hdl 1015
Entführung at Aix, with Moretti, Archibald, Portillo, Gilmore and Behle
© Pascal Victor/ArtcomArT

The opening night of the new production of Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail began ominously on July 3, with an announcement by festival director Bernard Foccroulle that some images had been removed from Martin Kušej’s production, as they were deemed too inflammatory and disturbing in the current political climate. Foccroulle’s speech was eloquent and well-intentioned but gave warning that this was not to be a traditional comic take on the opera. (Jérémie Rhorer paced the Freiburger Barockorchester in the Théâtre de l’Archevêché.)

The work was inspired by the Austrian victory over the Turks; at the time of its composition, Vienna was obsessed with all things Turkish. The pantomime was viewed with lighthearted good humor. Enter Kušej, who saw in the work a contemporary Islamic State saga of desert kidnapping and decapitations, setting the work loosely at the outbreak of World War I but incorporating contemporary images. The work took on a tragic hue at odds with the joyous music. The heavily rewritten dialogue — with references to jihadists and oil riches — took place outside a menacing black tent in the desert. 

Tobias Moretti’s suited Pasha Selim was a civilizing influence, but his love for Konstanze seemed unhealthily obsessive. Kušej did not allow the audience a happy ending. After Selim’s forgiveness, Osmin entered with blood-stained rags: vengeance had been taken. Pedrillo and Blonde were supposedly American; dialogue was in a mix of German and English. The opening scene found Pedrillo buried up to his neck in sand and expiring from thirst, while Blonde exalted Western feminist values against the terrorist evil of Osmin. It was a production that was chilling in its portrayal of fundamentalist culture. Whatever images were removed from the staging, the message remained clear and challenging. The four lovers trudged across the desert to gain their freedom, with blackouts to chart each desperate day, before the devastating finale. 

Mozart’s music occasionally transcends the comic idiom — notably in Konstanze’s arias — but those glimmers of high drama were transformed here into an evening-long tunnel of horror. Despite too many Pinteresque pauses in the dialogue, the evening made a convincing drama, but one without any thought of comedy. The Turks could feel justifiably aggrieved. The audience reaction at the end of the evening was a mixture of applause and boos. Some had been caught up in a drama rarely seen in this opera, while for others the bubbling charm of the music was undermined. Musically this was another evening of festival quality. Jane Archibald made her French debut as Konstanze a decade ago at the Lacoste festival. Since then her German has become more communicative with little loss of 

vocal freshness or light-voiced technical assurance. There was insufficient contrast in timbre with the Blonde of Rachele Gilmore, who managed the top Es of her aria with style, and who brought a gritty girl-next-door attitude to her dialogue, opposite the excellently projected tenor of David Portillo as Pedrillo, convincing as a suffering GI on the edge. Tenor balm came from Daniel Behle’s smooth-voiced Belmonte. Bass Franz-Josef Selig had all the notes and experience for the terrorist Osmin — nothing comic about this character. Rhorer conducted with his usual light and persuasive hand, and the period instruments responded well, but for an open-air performance the string sound was timid. Despite some wonderful woodwind playing, the jangling percussion section dominated.  

In Review Aix Midsummer hdl 1015
Yerolemou and friends in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
© Patrick Berger/ArtcomArt

Following the terrors of Seraglio life and Alcina’s sexual sorcery, Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream came as a more conventionally magical evening in Robert Carsen’s acclaimed production, first seen here and in Lyon twenty-four years ago. Kazushi Ono conducted the Lyon Orchestra for this revival.

As night fell in the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, this seemed the ideal space to enjoy an opera of musical enchantment and Shakespearean depth. The opening of shimmering string glissandos produced an otherworldly atmosphere against the Provencal sky. This remains one of Carsen’s finest productions: it avoids overplaying the composer’s obsessions with playful adolescent innocence. The colorful use of the limited space by designer Michael Levine transforms the stage into a giant bed from which the magic properties of sleep and dreams can exercise their power, dominated by the blue of the sky and the green of nature, before floating away at the climax of the opera. What is most impressive is the clarity of the reading in an opera in which detail can sometimes obscure the magical message — an evening animated by the spoken role of the athletic tumbling Puck of Miltos Yerolemou, whose cheeky confidence was never mannered.

Vocally the cast was led by two outstanding performances on July 4 — countertenor Lawrence Zazzo as Oberon and Sandrine Piau as Tytania, the fairy queen. Zazzo’s voice was a creamy rock of delicately poised and detailed inflection, while Piau, whose English diction was remarkable, has never sounded finer, with melting soprano tones at the top of her range. This was very much a company show, cast around the excellent boys of the Trinity Boys Choir as the naughty, rough-voiced fairies. 

Elizabeth DeShong’s Hermia must be singled out for juicy projection of her mezzo lines, beside soprano Layla Claire as the much put-upon Helena, lyrical tenor Rupert Charlesworth as Lysander and determined baritone John Chest as Demetrius. The comic scenes, which featured tenor Michael Slattery’s transvestite Flute, the role originally sung by Peter Pears, was amusing — even if occasionally W. H. Auden’s comment on the opera as “dreadful, pure Kensington” came to mind during this slightly self-conscious British fun. 

More convincing was the pompous and gravely voiced Bottom of bass Brindley Sherratt. Ono conducted the score with his usual sensitive ear for detailed understatement, and it was an indulgent pleasure to hear a full orchestral sound in the pit after two evenings of period instruments.  —Stephen J. Mudge

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