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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

At this summer’s Aix festival, the only laughter is bitter

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AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France – Few opera organizations have as long a track record in new production as the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Two of the most important parts of the 21st century have originated here: “Writing on Skin” in 2012, and “Innocent,” premiered last year.

But the lesson of the festival is that you can’t just create a masterpiece in a decade. You have to provide with commissions, big and small, year after year, knowing that most will be, if not stupid, far from perfect.

A small percentage of new operas end up of lasting importance, and that’s the number Aix is ​​playing. Absolute volume is key, as the Metropolitan Opera, with its commitment to presenting at least two contemporary titles per season, is learning.

Aix, too, will be hosting two premieres at this year’s edition, running through July 23. Both aren’t quite as satisfying, but I have great respect for the festival’s commitment to contemporary as one. mainstay of its program.

The larger of these is “Il Viaggio, Dante,” which dares to condense not only all three of “The Divine Comedy” but also the poet’s first “La Vita Nuova” into two non-stop hours. So Dante, recalling his past in a midlife crisis, is transported through hell and purgatory to heaven by a mob: Virgil, his poetic model, as well as Beatrice, love my eternal love; Santa Lucia, who promotes his journey; and younger self.

While Frédéric Boyer’s libretto spans a large amount of material, the text does not feel rushed, but is solemnly calm, prayerful, and solemn like a Gregorian friar, with choral verses. intermingled transparently. And the famous French composer Pascal Dusapin responded with music of almost indomitable pomp.

His sonic world is brooding, with violently hovering drones, enhanced by electronic effects, under heated declaration. The orchestra emerges with groaning roars – although these climaxes are ready rather than rough – which tend to be cut off abruptly, leaving behind the vague reverberation of bells and a series of shimmering percussion before the next slow accumulation.

There is a work of art here, as when a flight of runways is gently clamped by choral writing: below is a moldy grunt, a woman’s voice above. Young Dante – a shorts role, here sung by clarinetty soprano, Christel Loetzsch – has a medieval-style free-pure monologue to mourn the loss of love . And near the end, Beatrice and Lucia’s voices vibrated and swooped like birds around a low, sober choir.

The dreamlike, mythical pacing recalls Debussy’s “Pelleas et Mélisande” and Bartok’s “Greenbeard’s Castle,” but Dusapin’s approach doesn’t have much variety or tension. Hell’s range of sinners offers a clear opportunity for Bartok’s strategy – the performances are evocative as different doors are opened – but the score of “Il Viaggio, Dante” remains adamant, unanimous most dreary: dyspepsia dumbfounded even in heaven.

However, whatever the opera’s flaws, it’s hard to imagine it being presented better than here. At Friday’s premiere at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Kent Nagano led the Opéra de Lyon’s orchestra and choir in a strictly elegant performance. The baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou is a steady but intense, fiery Dante.

Most importantly, with a video prologue and superb stylistic setting, veteran director Claus Guth has shaped the oratorio-like work into a coherent narrative approach. Set in our time, his cast alternates between the country house interiors, the forbidden forest, and the hellish world of “Inferno” – this is an empty, surreal space, part circus (sparkling white suits), part Kubrick (strange twin girls), part Lynch (ominous curtain walls and eerie howls).

Shorter – just an hour, with just a handful of performers – is “Woman at Point Zero,” performed Sunday at the Pavillon Noir black box. Based on the 1975 novel by Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El Saadawi about the pressures and limitations imposed on women in a patriarchal society, the film depicts a filmmaker interviewing a sex worker was jailed for killing an abusive pimp.

Neither Dima Orsho (Fatma, prisoner) and Carla Nahadi Babelegoto (Sama, interviewer) are dominant as their lines shift from spoken to sung in a gentle recitation style to completely immersed in the choreography. focus, minimal by Laila Soliman.

It is unusual and exciting to see an opera that has women directing, conducting, composing and writing the libretto, as well as starring. Kanako Abe led and abetted – patting her hip and making clicks and mumbles – six Ensemble ZAR musicians, who played a wide range of cross-cultural instruments, including cello, accordion, duduk (an Armenian cousin of the English trumpet), daegeum (a Korean bamboo flute) and bowing Persian kamancheh, among others. But Bushra El-Turk’s score produced little new or compelling color from these unusual combinations, and Stacy Hardy’s libretto song left the two women out and their interaction fluff hollow.

The characters feeling the freshest at this year’s Aix Festival are performing Ted Huffman’s lively staging of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea”. Nearly 400 years old, “Poppea” is surprisingly modern in the moral gray area it occupies. Hardly anyone is completely lovable or unlovable; lust and ambition at the same time infatuated and condemned.

At the Théatre du Jeu de Paume jewelry box – which seats less than 500 people, an ideal venue for Baroque opera – there was hardly a set. Much of the only element is a giant tube, half-white, half-black, hanging over the action, perhaps a symbol of fate never falling into the hands of power-hungry, adulterers.

Sexy stage sex is even rarer than writing about erotic sex, but Huffman guided his cast in truly captivating scenes, ignited by Monteverdi’s subtle sensual music. Secret? For all its bare body and body contact, the modern dress (and undressed) production, which opened on Saturday, recognizes that eroticism doesn’t just come from lovers in love. caressing each other but also from a distance. Similarly, letting performers spend their time between scenes on either side of the stage, watching their fellow singers, somehow enhances our sense of depth and realism. figure.

To hear young, new artists in this production, in this theater, is a joy. Fleur Barron is the wounded Ottavia, Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian is the heartbroken Ottone, Alex Rosen is the angry Seneca, Maya Kherani is the fragile Drusilla. Miles Mykkanen is boisterous, but not as grotesque as the two old ladies of the opera; Julie Roset is a wary Amore; and has exquisite support from Laurence Kilsby, Yannis François and Riccardo Romeo.

Their voices are tense and harsh, Jacquelyn Stucker and Jake Arditti are a Poppea and Nerone has almost gone mad with lust. The chorus before their stinging final duet, “Pur ti miro,” was cut out, keeping this coronation a private homage that we watched.

Leonardo García Alarcón led a small but powerful group from his band, Cappella Mediterranea, with almost improvised versatility, but without sacrificing polish. (Playing with bigger forces on Monday, the concert version of Alarcón and Cappella Mediterranea by Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” has a slightly more pervasive feel, though Mariana Flores’ Euridice makes for a late lament. same serenity.)

When it’s performed at this level, “Poppea” is acidic and exhilarating. You giggle in surprise at the abilities of these characters and your ability to empathize.

This year’s film festival has excellent quality but is almost entirely devoid of comedy: Besides the two dismal premieres, there are Romeo Castellucci Choreographs Mahler’s Symphony “Easter”, a rare refugee Rossini, an icy “Salome” and an “Idomeneo” that evoke nuclear disaster. In that bleak company, Monteverdi’s bitter laughter will have to do.

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