The festival summer is picking up speed, Salzburg and Bayreuth are just around the corner, while in Aix-en-Provence seven new productions have already taken place within just one week. The picturesque town in Provence offers an atmospherically unique setting for what is perhaps the most cheerful of all summer festivals.
But the dramatic upheavals of the past few months have left their mark on Provence, too. Pierre Audi, director in Aix for three years, had to reschedule one of his key productions: “We had a co-production with Moscow for ‘Salome’. Half of the cast was Russian because we wanted to play the production in Russia in September. Only small roles, but still. We reacted immediately, we cannot keep a co-production with Russia now.”
Audi has little understanding that the Salzburg Festival is sticking with the participation of Teodor Currentzis, whose ensembles in Russia are financed by sanctioned sponsors: “It’s a very strange thing! This is probably because Austria says: We are neutral. But how can you be neutral?”
Last but not least, thanks to its legendary long directorship at the Amsterdam National Opera, Audi is well connected in the industry and – quite contrary to the current trend of thinking smaller – fires off an unprecedented firework display of premieres. However, there can be no question of cheerfulness embedded in Provençal savoir-vivre.
The opening premiere is involuntarily explosive, although it was planned, like the entire schedule, long before Putin plunged Europe into war. But as it is, it seems visionary that “Résurrection” turns into a dark ritual in an apocalyptic place.
In Vitrolles near Marseille, Audi has had a gigantic black concrete cube – formerly a venue for handball games and pop concerts – upgraded in a wasteland. Romeo Castellucci stages Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” in this huge room. The choir and Orchester de Paris and the soloists Golda Schultz and Marianne Crebassa sit in the ditch, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts, while the stage, covered with dark earth, is silent.
At the beginning, a white horse trots in, drinks from puddles of water, sniffs the air and stops. Then his owner comes and wants to take him away, but she too stays put. Because the ground gives way, she shudders. Soon, people in white protective suits entered the stage, slowly digging up more than 100 corpses, one by one, laying them carefully on white body bags and finally transporting them away in white vans marked UNHCR. So we are at the scene of an alleged war crime and of course everyone is now thinking about Bucha and other places of horror in Ukraine.
Mahler’s Second Symphony sounds like a soundtrack to this horror, with the sweeter middle movements forming a difficult to bear contrast to the “plot”. Nevertheless: Since nothing happens apart from the slow exhumation of more and more corpses, vision becomes dull. In addition, the soundtrack is amplified and the balance is distorted, everything is designed for a brute overpowering effect, which Mahler inflates enormously, but also exploits.
The second premiere takes place in Aix: In the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Andrea Breth stages Richard Strauss’ “Salome”, with Ingo Metzmacher conducting the Orchester de Paris. Breth creates the opera as a small-scale, meticulously conceived chamber play, Metzmacher often turns the volume down extremely so as not to overwhelm Elsa Dreisig’s lyrical soprano in the title role. Dreisig’s voice lacks dramatic attack and penetrating power, as well as depth. She is a very girlish Salome, with little irritating, let alone demonic characteristics. The ambitious evening remains dull overall.
The third premiere isn’t consistently impressive either. In the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Satochi Miyagi stages Mozart’s “Idomeneo” open air, as an oratorical stand-up theatre, with the coveted Raphaël Pichon conducting the Ensemble Pygmalion. Miyagi refers to the defeat of Japan in World War II, but not much of it can be seen: the soloists are wheeled in on high platforms, turned and wheeled out again and have to remain static, it remains a kind of concert opera performance. In addition, it sounds too quiet from the ditch, sometimes badly stretched and tasteful, the choir sings fabulously, but too often from unfavorable positions. The fabulous Michael Spyres in the title role and Nicole Chevalier as the venom-squirting Elettra stand out from the great cast, which, however, seems to have been slowed down by foam.
Then breathe a sigh of relief at the fourth premiere: Rossini’s “Moïse et Pharaon” directed by the highly acclaimed Tobias scratches under the musical direction of Michele Mariotti, again at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché. With the exception of the figure of Moses, who is staged as a rascal from a sandal film, Kratzer transfers the biblical events to a hyper-realistic present of flight and migration.
He does this imaginatively, with a lot of movement on stage and dynamic personal and collective direction. The lengths of the work are carried by Michele Mariotti’s lively and always aggressive Rossini style, which properly heats up the choir and orchestra of the Lyon Opera. The big tableaux are thrillingly successful, the cast is excellent, truly worthy of a festival.
The first premiere of this year, Pascal Dusapin’s “Il viaggio, Dante”, again co-produced with Lyon, is a thoroughly successful, if not surprising, staged tastefully and effectively by Claus Guth in Etienne Pluss’ noble decor, with Kent Nagano conducting. Frédéric Boyer’s libretto uses Dante, but basically tells of a near-death experience. Pascal Dusapin has composed a dazzling soundtrack with expressive vocal lines, beautiful in sound and not disturbing at any point.
Finally solid Monteverdi’s “Poppea” directed by Ted Huffman with the fabulous Cappella Mediterranea conducted by Leonardo Garcia Alarcón. The experienced ensemble without any outliers lets Huffman play lively in shrill costumes, the evening is entertaining on a high musical level, but no event.
On the other hand, the second world premiere of “Woman at point zero” by Bushra El-Turk was a nuisance: in the form of a static interview between two women, an insult to men is presented in a musically uninnovative manner. As predictable as the clichés are, the evening is tiring.
Conclusion: With big names and exquisite casts, the festival in Aix offers a representative cross-section of current operatic work: from overwhelming aesthetics to director’s theatre, historical-critical performance practice, established avant-garde to didactic agitation theatre. Chapeau!