Pinocchio (7/3/17), Carmen (7/4/17), The Rake’s Progress (7/5/17), Don Giovanni (7/6/17), Erismena (7/7/17)
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Pinocchio (7/3/17), Carmen (7/4/17), The Rake’s Progress (7/5/17), Don Giovanni (7/6/17), Erismena (7/7/17)

Aix-en-Provence Festival

In Review Aix Pinocchio lg 1017
Stéphane Degout in Pinocchio at Aix
© Patrick Berger/ArtComPress

THE FORTY-NINTH EDITION of the Aix-en-Provence Festival opened on July 3 in the Grand Théâtre de Provence with a world premiere, Pinocchio, by Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans. Joël Pommerat, who also wrote the libretto, was stage director, and conductor Emilio Pomarico led the Klangforum Wien.

After his last opera Au Monde (2014), the eighty-one-year-old composer wished to take on a lighter subject, and the result was Pinocchio. Boesmans was eager to continue his collaboration with Pommerat, the librettist and producer of Au Monde, who had written a play featuring the character of Pinocchio, based more on Carlo Collodi’s original children’s novel than on the sugar-coated Disney take on the story. Here Pinocchio is carved by a poor family and exploited by society; he is a brittle, rude wooden puppet who learns from experience how to become a viable human being.

Boesmans’s music is a hybrid mix of memory and skill. In the manner of a modern-day Menotti, Boesmans knows how to construct a convincing opera, and his eclectic style is capable of a soaring Straussian phrase, a moment of bel canto and even a quotation from Mignon by Ambroise Thomas. The experienced nineteen-piece orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Pomarico, was enhanced by a band of musicians improvising onstage, led by a saxophone and including a Gypsy violinist and an accordionist. It was a joyous experience to attend a contemporary opera that produced not only intellectual admiration but a genuine enthusiasm from the first-night audience. In comparison to some of the composer’s previous work, the actual musical invention in Pinocchio was slim, even if the craftsmanship remains remarkable. Pommerat’s production captured the composer’s nostalgic mood in a studio-theater style of limited means, enhanced by skillful lighting and sets from Éric Soyer. The Fairy’s magnified dress and height filled the stage with enchantment, and the scene in which Pinocchio and his father were underwater in the belly of a whale was created with great theatricality. Pinocchio’s nose extended magically as he lied—an effect designed to delight both adults and children.

The diminutive soprano Chloé Briot was Pinocchio; she relished her cheeky, streetwise jargon and sang with great charm in precise, communicative French. At the center of the drama (and the six-singer cast) was baritone Stéphane Degout as the Ring Master cum master of ceremonies who introduced the opera with spoken dialogue. Degout reappeared throughout the evening as a narrator but also sang with his usual oaken baritone and impeccable diction. The rest of the cast was equally impressive. Soprano Marie-Eve Munger was gentle and alluring in her spun-sugar coloratura above the staff, which brought to mind Massenet’s Cendrillon, while mezzo Julie Boulianne contributed a funny, well-projected drunken cabaret singer as well as a naughty fellow pupil. Bass-baritone Vincent Le Texier sounded in  fine voice as Pinocchio’s father. Tenor Yann Beuron, who made the most of his vocal opportunities, was particularly amusing as the daffy judge.

In Review Aix Carmen hdl 1017 
Stéphanie d’Oustrac and Michael Fabiano in Aix’s Carmen
© Patrick Berger/ArtComPress

THE AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL'S decision to invite controversial director Dmitri Tcherniakov to stage a new Carmen (seen July 4) guaranteed that we would not see picture-postcard images of Gypsies and bullfighting on the Iberian peninsula. Tcherniakov’s concept was set up—before a note of the overture had been played—by spoken dialogue of the director’s own devising. A wife (a.k.a. Micaela) was discovered checking her husband (a.k.a. Don José) into a psychotherapy clinic for “roleplay” in order to stimulate his wilting libido. The theme chosen for his treatment was Carmen. Professionals in the clinic followed plotlines read out to the patient by a cast wearing labels to identify their characters. (This was similar to the device used by the director in his Brussels take on Verdi’s Trovatore, in which the drama was explored through a series of remembered documents.) Tcherniakov’s Carmen was a thrilling contemporary story, but lovers of Prosper Mérimée would justifiably feel betrayed.

As the patient/Don José, Michael Fabiano started by mocking the proceedings cynically, but at a certain point the therapy went off the rails.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac—playing Carmen through the filter of a professional role-player pesona—was wonderfully funny in the habanera, with an encyclopedic repertoire of mezzo hip thrusting and hair tossing to excite José. Funnier still was the moment in the Lucille Ball-style routine when the anecdotal flower got stuck in her hair. It was up to d’Oustrac’s character to worry that the Carmen roleplaying was getting out of hand and to ask for it to stop, but Fabiano’s character was determined to continue toward total breakdown. In the final act a new client began his roleplaying, and the chorus repeated their antics of the Act I chorus, miming the children’s chorus to a comic dance routine. An increasingly desperate Fabiano attempted to rape the distressed d’Oustrac’s “Carmen” before stabbing her repeatedly with a mock stage knife. The treatment over, the patient’s wife (Micaela) is given back her husband with the ironic suggestion that his sexual problem is “cured.” A shocked d’Oustrac gets back to her feet, shaken in her professional role as Carmen and dramatically sidelined by the turn of events.

D’Oustrac has all the penetrating tone and dramatic elegance needed for playing Carmen. Fabiano’s would-be Don José was a remarkable portrayal, moving from a jaw-jutting skeptic to a man on the brink of breakdown, his slightly accented French only underlining his emotional vulnerability. The tenor ended the flower song with a delicate falsetto B-flat before a thrilling no-holds-barred finale. As is often the case with baritones at work in the hard-to-cast role of Escamillo, Michael Todd Simpson found the toreador’s famous song of derring-do both too high and too low. Tcherniakov was also less sure of how to treat the character of Escamillo, contenting himself with presenting a white-suited, smooth-talking guy, who was used by Micaela during her aria to provoke José’s jealousy. Soprano Elsa Dreisig’s Micaela was not the usual innocent girl from the country but a forthright, secure woman determined to reignite the flame of love in her man. 

There was great work from the Choeur Aedes, who skillfully role-played, alongside a strong supporting cast, who somewhat anonymously represented the staff of the clinic for a therapy-obsessed society. Pablo Heras-Casado conducted the Orchestre de Paris; from the opening of the opera, he seemed intent on presenting a full, colorful version of the score, even when the Lillas Pastia scene was just a cocktail between girls with little to justify the rising frenzy in the score. This made a sharp musical contrast with the tawdry visual image of the 1980s-style clinic foyer, but Bizet’s opera climaxed brilliantly in Tcherniakov’s reading, and the first night audience on July 4 greeted the show with a standing ovation for both cast and director.

In review Aix Rakes Progress hdl 1017 
Rake’s Progress at Aix, with Julia Bullock and Paul Appleby
© Pascal Victor/ArtComPress

AIX-EN-PROVENCE PRESENTED STRAVINSKY'S Rake’s Progress (seen July 5) in a new staging in the Théâtre de l’Archevêché by Simon McBurney, well remembered here for his exceptional Zauberflöte in 2014. Eivind Gullberg Jensen conducted the Orchestre de Paris.

The stage space was limited, but Michael Levine’s ingenious set was a magical creation—an empty paper-lined white cube, onto which could be projected videos, but which could also be ripped apart, and behind which Nick Shadow could appear in silhouette. Baba the Turk’s extravagant collection of possessions would later pierce the structure, leaving a ripped and tattered backdrop for Tom Rakewell’s descent into madness. The ephemeral nature of life and possessions was echoed by this perishable set, on which even the floor was an unstable base from which grasping hands could emerge. Characters entered through the theater auditorium and used a walkway in front of the orchestra pit, bringing the moral tale as close as possible to the public. McBurney’s reading concentrated more on condemning our consumer society than on the devilish nature of Nick Shadow, who appeared as a plausible business entrepreneur until the final scene of the opera. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen’s Shadow offered the best singing of the evening, with pointed projection of Kallman and Auden’s wonderful text. The score and libretto were given their full value by the entire cast, led by the Tom Rakewell of Paul Appleby, who sang with sturdy tenor tone. He presented a flawed character from the outset, reluctant to conform to the rules of a hard-working society, remembering the moral of the opera is “For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds work to do.”

Soprano Julia Bullock has a sweet, attractive voice that is perhaps not quite strong enough for Anne Trulove, but apart from a few straight-toned high notes, this was a lovely performance. Bullock’s Anne appeared more often than usual in this Rake staging, observing Tom’s downfall with a sympathetic eye, almost childlike in her dedication to her lover. It might have seemed a fun idea to cast bearded Baba the Turk as a countertenor, and Andrew Watts was irresistibly funny, but the role needs an experienced mezzo to achieve the pathos of her later scenes and a larger vocal range for a character that was sung at the opera’s world premiere by the legendary Jennie Tourel. Good support came from bass-baritone David Pittsinger as Anne’s caring father, contralto Hilary Summers as a statuesque Mother Goose, and tenor Alan Oke as Sellem, the auctioneer, who offered wonderful dramatic attack.

What made the evening disappointing on July 5was the orchestral performance under Jensen, who was a late replacement for an indisposed Daniel Harding. Playing was largely accurate, but the coruscating orchestration, which is such an important element in Stravinsky’s opera, never emerged from the pit. This was partly a problem of acoustics, but the dramatic energy present onstage, especially from the English Voices chorus, was never echoed in the pit in this cautious and underprojected orchestral performance.

In Review Rake's Progress Aix lg 1017 
Nahuel di Pierro and Philippe Sly, Leporello and Giovanni
at Aix

© Pascal Victor/ArtComPress

MOZART'S DON GIOVANNI returned to Aix on July 6, with Jérémie Rhorer conducting his period-instrument band, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, at Théâtre de l’Archevêché. After the excitements of Tcherniakov’s controversial Aix Don Giovanni in 2010 and his Carmen here this season, this new Giovanni production by Jean-François Sivadier represented a return to more traditional values.

Sivadier, who recently produced Molière’s Dom Juan at the Odéon in Paris, works at finding the truth of the drama from intensive work with the singers, encouraging them to find the reality of the characters from within their own personalities rather than an imposed characterization. His theater-within-a-theater was performed on a relatively bare stage, enlivened by some Murano globes of colored light, perhaps representing Don Giovanni’s conquests. The themes of liberty and freedom were at the heart of his reading, built around the almost adolescent Don Giovanni of French–Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly. Sly’s athletic figure exhibited an unquestioning dedication to pleasure and unbridled desire, and he achieved an almost Christlike confrontation with conventional morality. Donna Anna provided a crucifix for the letter “T” of “liberta” at the end of Act I, and a nearly naked Don Giovanni lived on in the memory as a dancing image of freedom in the face of moral rectitude. The Commendatore was given a human dimension, and his flesh-and-blood presence in the finale gave the character, thunderously sung by bass David Leigh, an interesting father-like presence.

Sly is a talented young singer with a galvanizing stage presence and a precise turn of phrase. Unfortunately, on opening night, his voice gradually disappeared in the second half of the opera due to an unforeseen indisposition. For the broadcast performance a few nights later he had an announcement, but it seems that the role goes well beyond the possibilities of his light bass-baritone. (His habit of striving for effect by taking his voice off the breath needs urgent correction.) His sidekick Leporello was solidly performed by bass Nahuel di Pierro, who made a good vocal foil to Sly. Their role-swapping scene was brilliantly managed by Sivadier with the clever use of floating screens and exchanged wigs. 

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard gave a sympathetic performance as Donna Elvira, but her singing lacked the pointed precision that only a soprano can bring to the role. Eleonora Buratto’s Donna Anna was a severe character, dressed in black, who managed both her arias more than adequately, but Buratto’s voice sounded a little hard and unyielding opposite the smoothly sung Don Ottavio of tenor Pavol Breslik, who did not find the dramatic energy to face up to his unyielding fiancée. 

The best singing of the evening came from the Zerlina of French soprano Julie Fuchs and the Masetto of Polish bass Krzysztof Bączyk. Fuchs sang both her arias with glowing tone and managed to convey true love for Masetto as well as irresistible attraction to Don Giovanni. Bączyk brought a solid and loyal presence to Masetto, which seemed to lie particularly well for his fine bass. 

After two nights of hearing the full sound of the Orchestre de Paris, the overture as performed by the Cercle de l’Harmonie was a shock. The band sounded undernourished in tone, with imprecise intonation, but Rhorer favors light-footed, transparent orchestral textures in Mozart. Tempos were generally fast with just a few unusually slow moments, such as Zerlina’s second aria. There are other historically informed ensembles that find more tonal luxuriance to accompany similarly fleet dramatic timing.

In Review Aix Erismena lg 1017 
Jakub Józef Orliński and Francesca Aspromonte in Erismena
© Pascal Victor/ArtComPress

IT IS REMARKABLE TO CONSIDER the number of singers who have passed through the academy of the Aix-en-Provence festival, which offers international young musicians the opportunity to work with some of the most accomplished musical figures of our time. This year’s display case was a new staging by Jean Bellorini of Francesco Cavalli’s Erismena, with Leonardo García Alarcón conducting his orchestra, the Cappella Mediterranea (seen July 7).

García Alarcón has made something of a specialty of Cavalli over the past few seasons, beginning with Elena for the 2013 Aix-en-Provence Festival, followed by Eliogabalo at the Paris Opera in 2016 and Il Giasone in Geneva earlier this year. Erismena, one of the composer’s most popular works, had its premiere in Venice and was revived frequently across Italy. It was also the first full-scale opera performed in England, in 1673. Following the Venetian tradition of intrigue and disguise, the plot has more twists and turns than any listener could reasonably be expected to follow. At the center of the drama, which combines humor and tragedy in equal measure, is Erismena, who dresses as a boy to find the lover who has deserted her; the plot resolves with not only a happy reunion but the discovery of her long lost father. The work’s popularity was partly due to a story that does not feature mythical historical figures but was entirely invented by poet and librettist Aurelio Aureli.

Bellorini provided a simple but effective staging, with exploding light bulbs to underline the unraveling of the plot, and a movable platform—an unstable looking tilting grill—set within the bare carcass of the theater. The excellent singers were knowingly led by García Alarcón, whose sense of drama in this repertoire is unerring. The beauty and interest in the score never flagged, with fine playing from the period instruments of the Cappella Mediterranea. 

The charmingly intimate Théâtre du Jeu de Paume was an ideal venue, and it was easy to imagine being in the San Apollinare theater in Venice, where the work had its premiere in 1655. Adding to the fun were the deliberately kitschy costumes of Macha Makeïeff, with 1970s colors and flashy kilts creating androgynous confusion.

The singing was probably the most consistently brilliant of all the shows at this year’s festival, led by the Erismena of soprano Francesca Aspromonte, whose commitment and acutely focused soprano were a joy. No fewer than three countertenors provided a variety of timbres, from the athletic, clear-voiced Jakub Józef Orliński, as Orimeno, to the more emotional, rich-toned Carlo Vistoli, as Erismena’s absent lover Idraspe, and Tai Oney, who contributed a precisely observed and sung Clerio Moro. As in so many Venetian operas there is a tenor transvestite nurse. As Alcesta, Stuart Jackson, a giant of a man, was not only wonderfully funny as he towered over all; he also produced some heroic notes at the top of his range. Other notable contributions came from bass-baritone Alexander Miminoshvili, as the king, Erimante, and the impressively sung Aldimira of soprano Susanna Hurrell.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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