A Festival Has a Monumental Premiere (And Some Other Operas Too)

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AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — When I say that this summer’s edition of the Aix-en-Provence Festival hasn’t come close to any of the operas, I say this in great praise. “Innocence” by Kaija Saariaho It premiered here on July 3.

Bringing new works into the world is perhaps the most difficult task of an opera company. It’s an art so obstinately stuck in the past that when a “kréation” as the French call it succeeds, it always feels like a miracle.

And “Innocence”, which explores the aftermath of a deadly school attack, is more than successful. Through riveting clarity and enigmatic shadows and a range of languages ​​in different recordings of speech and song, he captures both the promise and the darkness of cosmopolitanism itself.

is a victory for Saariaho and colleaguesFor the Aix Festival and its director since 2018, Pierre Audi. He managed to rehearse with just one piano last summer, when all festival performances were canceled due to the pandemic, and smoothly shift the premiere to this year.

“I have a long career in commissioning” Audi recently told The Times. “And this is one of the five greatest pieces I’ve ever been involved in.”

Even the most beloved works of the repertoire, some of which are on display in Aix until 25 July, are hard to match. It was symbolic that a devastating moment in “Innocence”—a character crushing one handful of cakes into another—returns the next evening, silly, a bit of a slapstick, in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

Lotte de Beer’s production of “Figaro” is an intentional, endearing mess – an eclectic, burst of attention-deficit, pulsating with different aesthetics like candy. The overture is performed as the traditional, muffled commedia dell’arte; The first act, II. Amidst the chaos of the act’s finale, it’s a sensual multi-cam sitcom set on a set that slowly (and literally) turns into a crazy carnival with human-sized penises floating around.

Yet after the hiatus the curtain rises to almost nothing – a bed inside a cube defined by white neon bars – and the acting is equally restrained and somber. Then the fourth and final act portrays a kind of utopian, queer-feminist knitting collective led by Marcellina, a minor character dressed in Day-Glo yarn. Outside the bed, which has become the domain of masculine authority and adultery, a huge, inflatable fairy tale tree slowly grows.

Thomas Hengelbrock led the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble in a clear but sensibly articulated reading of the score. Lea Desandre was an intelligent, alert Cherubino; Jacquelyn Wagner is a cooler-than-usual Countess.

Barrie Kosky’s staging Verdi’s “Falstaff” starring Christopher Purves was also different from the norm, at least initially. In the first scene, Purves’ Falstaff is shown not as the usual grotesque in a fat suit, but as a careful master chef, delicately enjoying his creations and, at best, a father’s body.

While Falstaff is generally cute, Kosky’s implicit promise is that we’ll adore him, too. This never quite happens, as the production settles into a more weathered line brimming with this director’s trademark vaudeville touches: men pulling wigs and dancing in skirts work. The seductions of the protagonist are little more complex than a thousand “Falstaff” productions; Joyful wives of Windsor’s vengeance, little tyrant.

Conductor Daniele Rustioni conducted the Lyon Opera orchestra with a cheerful but not as precise tempo as a diamond. The voices, including the hard-working Purves game’s voice, were too small for the roles. The test of a “Falstaff” is the effect of the grand final ensemble fugue; here the sequence was pleasant rather than cathartic.

Had musical catharsis to back it up Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” with a superb cast and the London Symphony Orchestra, led with agile flexibility by Simon Rattle. But Simon Stone’s staging—an almost ridiculously realistic evocation of contemporary Paris, from a high-rise apartment to a subway car—is startling, as he claims to explain the heaviness of the plot as one woman’s fantasies after she finds out her husband is cheating.

Perhaps on purpose, but still frustratingly, the production’s line between reality and fantasy blurs further, until it’s hard to know who really betrayed whom, who was stabbed, and who survived. But while Nina Stemme’s voice has lost a touch of grandeur, she’s never been as good as Isolde – she sings fearlessly and is passionately invested in the production. Stuart Skelton sings instead of barking, Tristan is a tenor’s Everest and Franz-Josef Selig is an extremely melancholy Marke.

Aix has long been noted for placing smaller pieces, including new ones, between standard giants and large-scale premieres like “Innocence.” At a massive old ironworks in Luma, the new arts complex in Arles, about 80 km from Aix, the “Arab Apocalypse” was created as part of the festival’s heartwarming commitment to connecting southern France with the greater Mediterranean world.

But based on Etel Adnan’s highly expressive poems about the Lebanese civil war, with music by Samir Odeh-Tamimi and a sketchy staging by Audi, “Apocalypse” was bleak—the music oscillating between shaking and punching, action-packed but bland.

“Combattimemento: The Black Swan Theory” was a grab bag of early Baroque Italian music, with rich help from Monteverdi, Cavalli, Luigi Rossi and more. Silvia Costa tried to turn this magnificent material into a kind of stylized spectacle, a loose trajectory of war, mourning, community building, more war, more building.

His images were more mysterious than evocative. But the performance, led by Sébastien Daucé, was musically brilliant, with eight magnificent young singers who ideally blended purity and passion, and 13 members of the Ensemble Correspondances, who filled the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume with the instinctive power of a symphony orchestra.

Audi’s goals are to expand Aix by indirectly taking on the Salzburg Festival in Austria, the most storied summer event in classical music, which opened at the end of July. (While Salzburg is suspect, the mood, clothing and ticket prices in Aix are significantly more relaxed.)

The program of concerts in Aix, long considered an afterthought for opera, but a powerhouse in Salzburg, will expand and the scope of the festival’s productions. with “Toska” Aix’s first Pucciniannounced that it could cover red meat Italian hits in 2019. In addition to Luma, Audi is also interested in other unconventional areas in the region.

Commissions are also at the center of his agenda; “Innocence” is a resounding proof. Seeing it for the second time on Saturday confirmed the first impression of his intensity and restraint, his emotional pull and intellectual strength.

Like Stone’s “Tristan,” the production sharply portrays both the shocking reality of the central tragedy and the surreal reflections of the years into the future. I am only questioning the intervention of a director: the shooter, a student at school, is played by a silent actor on stage at the end, although he is not in the libretto.

This dilutes the mystery of the work, where all the characters revolve around and flee from some kind of god who is absent, where everyone’s innocence (and guilt) is measured against him. The effect of the opera ripples when it appears in that body.

But just a little. It’s a wordplay, with a staging that’s exactly in line with an elegant yet brutal piece of work overall. While “Innocence” reminds us of the brutality of Greek tragedy, it is also among the first operatic barometers of the pains of our globalizing age.

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