OPERA NEWS - Così Fan Tutte (6/30/16), Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (7/1/16), Pelléas et Mélisande (7/2/16)
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Così Fan Tutte (6/30/16), Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (7/1/16), Pelléas et Mélisande (7/2/16)

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

In Review Aix Cosi hdl 1016
Honoré’s “colonial” take on Così Fan Tutte at Aix
© Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

AS THE SUN SET over the courtyard of the archbishop’s palace on June 30, the first-night audience of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, poised to hear the opening notes of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, were woken from their dream of Mozartean elegance by a scratchy record of a popular song about Mussolini’s military campaign in Ethiopia, now known as Eritrea. Director Christophe Honoré announced his colonial take on the work before a note of Mozart had been heard.

Honoré set his Così in a world of racial prejudice and indulgent colonials behaving badly—“White Mischief” in Africa. The black-shirted Italian invaders thought nothing of raping and abusing the indigenous population; only the feminist Despina was not averse to interracial flirtation. This year’s invitation to the excellent Cape Town Opera chorus underlined the message of racial conflict. Once the concept had been established, da Ponte won out with his tightly plotted libretto and its comic conventions, which could not aspire to the violent story Honoré wanted to tell. However, the disguises of Ferrando and Gugliemo were unusually convincing, as they put on black face makeup to become Dubats (African mercenaries). Fiordiligi and Dorabella confronted their fears and prejudices but floundered when faced with sexual attraction. Don Alfonso was an alcoholic colonial figure in an ill-fitting safari suit, reminiscent of the crumpled diplomat in Under the Volcano, with nothing better to do than mess with the lives of those around him. The finale found Ferrando and Dorabella reunited, while Fiordiligi was left alone—wounded but matured by the experience. This was a dense exploration of desire and violence; the Marquis de Sade spoke of human nature in a constant quest for amusement. Any easy sympathy for the characters was undermined in this dusty bush camp, but the largely enthusiastic audience was alerted to its own uncomfortable prejudices.

The Freiburger Barockorchester is the only early-music band for which no caveats need to be made about intonation or paucity of tone. Maestro Louis Langrée was stylish and precise, conducting a clear Così with the purity of a mountain spring, gushing forth with unfettered speed and not lingering for much sentiment. The great performance of the evening came from Sandrine Piau, as Despina, whose soprano has taken on new weight without losing any of its fresh sparkle. Her doctor and notary were produced with a classic comic touch. (Here, the producer was constrained by the libretto.) 

Dorabella’s “Smanie implacabili” was played for real, to dark effect, with pulpy mezzo tone from Kate Lindsey. The soprano of Lenneke Ruiten, as Fiordiligi, was light for the role but well schooled and appropriately youthful. Their lovers were less successful. Tenor Joel Prieto has a pleasant timbre but lacked honeyed magic for Ferrando’s “Un’aura amorosa,” and Nahuel di Pierro sounded too gruff as Guglielmo, perhaps because Langrée chose a bass for the role, who took the lower line in the ensembles below the baritone of Rod Gilfry’s vocally frayed Don Alfonso.

In Review Trionfo lg 1016
Devieilhe in Handel’s Trionfo at Aix
© Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

The dichotomy between pleasure and restraint was continued the following evening in a rare staged performance of Handel’s early oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, with Emmanuelle Haïm conducting her Concert d’Astrée ensemble. Written when the composer was just twenty-two, the oratorio discusses the cares and worries of Beauty, Pleasure, Disillusion and Time.

It was clear that Warlikowski was not going to take Handel’s moralistic story at face value. Any thought that the young girl, Beauty, would accept the “triumph” of Time and Disillusion was quickly dispelled by Malgorzata Szczęśniak's set—the raked seats of a cinema facing the audience with an enclosed column at its center where extravagantly clad youths jived and jollied. Beauty embraced adolescent love with fervor and popped pills with her seductive young lover. A hospital bed suggested that he died of an overdose. The first half ended with a typical Warlikowski touch—a moment of cinema, with Jacques Derrida interviewed about the nature of ghosts for the film Ghost Dance (1983). The French philosopher believed that ghosts were the memory of something that has never been present, underlining the producer’s abstract view of passing time. The young Handel was probably all too happy to fit in with the Catholic dogma of Rome in 1707, but Warlikowski saw his job as warning against the message of the oratorio. He may have been provoked by the setting in the archbishop’s courtyard—a powerful symbol of religious power at the time of the work’s creation. Inspired by the troubled English playwright Sarah Kane, who explored extreme sexual identity, Warlikowski saw the oratorio as the story of Beauty’s oppression—a suicidal victim of a society that tries to rob of her youth and her discovery of sexual liberty. This may corrupt the composer’s message, but it made a convincing theatrical statement thanks to the fecund talent of the young composer and the beauty of the arias, which opened the spirit toward the producer’s radical approach.

The score is particularly rich, with a string of da capo arias enhanced by an occasional duet and a miraculous quartet. The talented young soprano Sabine Devieilhe sang with pinpoint coloratura and delicate shadings above the staff. Dramatically, her fresh-faced youth was particularly appropriate for Warlikowski’s conception. Franco Fagioli, decadent and loose-limbed, offered range and coloring surpassing those of most of his countertenor colleagues. His finest moment was not in the fast fire of the coloratura but in the famous “Lascia la spina”—familiar in its later incarnation as “Lascia ch’io pianga” in Rinaldo but first heard in this oratorio—which was gloriously phrased here. Opposite this pair of hedonists were the “parents”—Michael Spyres, in complete control of his tenor over nearly three octaves and a comforting, homey presence as Time; and the Disillusion of Sara Mingardo, whose plush mezzo phrased with warm intensity, creating an older woman confined by the rules of an oppressive society. Haïm was at her best on July 1, sculpting the Baroque lines with fluid beauty and resisting her penchant for jerky overemphasis. She exerted calm control over her forces, whose strings nonetheless lacked the full sound of the Freiburger Barockorchester in Così Fan Tutte.

In Review Pelleas et Melisande hdl 1016
Mitchell’s Aix Pelléas, with Degout, Brunet-Grupposo, Naouri, Hannigan and Selig
© Patrick Berger/ArtComArt

The most eagerly awaited production of this year’s festival was Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in a new staging by Katie Mitchell in the Grand Théâtre de Provence, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra from London.

Mitchell set the work in a bourgeois villa that nature threatened to invade. There were no Gothic castles or towers, and the fountain was represented by an empty indoor swimming pool in a state of ruin. The show opened with Mélisande in a wedding dress, lying down in the bedroom before entering a harrowing dream, exploring her own sexuality and relationship with this close-knit family. Observing and participating in this domestic drama were actor doubles of the two central characters. Mélisande’s double observed her own death before waking up in the claustrophobic prison of the villa. Both the lost sheep and the mysteriously huddled trio of poor people were represented by a slow procession of Geneviève, Arkel and Golaud—products of Mélisande’s subconscious dream world. The poetry of the work was captured with caressing balletic movement, and no points were labored. Though Pelléas and Mélisande lay naked side by side, the biological father of her child remained ambiguous. Importantly, Mitchell understood the crushing reality of Debussy’s drama, the actor doubles of the protagonists being the only suggestion of misty surrealism. The staging was of extraordinary technical virtuosity, using, as the producer has done in her previous productions here, different areas of the stage that silently transformed from bedroom to staircase, balcony and disused swimming pool. The exemplary work of the technicians on July 2 allowed the show to moved forward with cinematic ease.

Salonen, who scored such a triumph in Aix with Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra, returned with a different orchestra for an exceptional reading of Debussy’s score, nearer in spirit to Boulez than to Karajan in its clear textures, but more dramatically alert than the work of the great French conductor. Salonen drew his forces to an ecstatic climax at the end of the love duet; this was followed by a shattering moment of silence before the time-stopping elegiac music around Mélisande’s death. Perhaps the Désormière approach, with its discreet orchestral tapestry, makes life easier for the singers, but this full version of the score, including all the orchestral interludes, had irresistible force. 

The conductor was supported by a cast of festival quality, led by the Mélisande of Barbara Hannigan. She is one of today’s most fascinating artists, as committed physically as vocally to finding truth. The role lies low for her soprano, but she projected the text with the right mix of innocence and force. Maggie Teyte, who worked with the composer, was always concerned with the delicate phrasing of Mélisande’s initial “Ne me touchez pas!” She would surely have been satisfied with Hannigan’s mysterious opening to her performance, which ended with a death scene of heart-rending intensity. Stéphane Degout’s experienced Pelléas showed further proof that the role could have been written for his high baritone, with glowing high notes and perfect diction. Degout’s was not a poetic Pelléas but a strange, almost autistic young man whose mechanical movement shed light on the character’s unworldly quality. Golaud is a more straightforward character, falling into an abyss of doubt and jealousy and involving his son, Yniold (the excellent Chloé Briot), in painful scenes of domestic espionage. It is one of Laurent Naouri’s best roles, his gritty bass baritone eaten to its very essence by doubts over his wife’s fidelity. Bass Franz-Josef Selig brought Wagnerian intensity to Arkel, and Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo was an exceptional Geneviève, whose exemplary reading of the Act I letter provided lustrous tone and finely chiseled diction to complete this exceptional evening.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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