La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Mozart Mistreated at Aix-en-Provence Festival

At the festival of Aix-en-Provence, now in its sixty-first year, the final installment of Wagner’s Ring, with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, has hogged the spotlight. Nevertheless, Mozart has always been at the core of the Festival repertory and the new production of Idomeneo did look good on paper. The opera has 6 performances, from June 4 through 17, in the traditional venue, the courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace in Aix.

Director Olivier Py has been heaped with praise for his work at Geneva’s opera for the past several years. Recently appointed to head the top Odéon–Théâtre de l'Europe in Paris (where the great Giorgio Strehler did much of his best work) he seemed a theater god who could do no wrong. This lumpy, limping production, however, suggests a serious case of clay feet.

First seen on stage are well-dressed African boat people (the Trojan prisoners in the libretto) who are menaced by AK-47 bearing men in black for no apparent reason. The story-telling did not subsequently improve. The use of massive amounts of structural steel led one critic to suggest that it was like Mozart meeting Gustav Eiffel. Actually, it was Eiffel who consistently demonstrated how light and graceful steel structures could be. Py’s “heavy metal” approach was garishly lit and oppressive to the eye. The ungainly sections twirled on wheels and, during duets, couples were compelled to sing while ascend stairs and opening doors all the while negotiating Mozartian rapids. The usually-cut ballet sequences (no choreographer was credited in the program) had half-naked young men camping it up when they were not pretending to dismember each other, reminding me of Madonna’s back-up dancers on tour.

It was not great vocal night when the singer with the only real feel for Mozartian style was the Arbace. Very impressive here, young Xavier Mas is clearly one to track. In the title role, tenor Richard Croft (Mozart’s 1789 tenor version was used) often had fine moments and his "Fuor del mar" was well received. However, his singing was strained when the music went “forte” and beyond. French tenor Yann Beuron, as Idamante, has had his voice fill out and thicken these past years and, while still lovely, it no longer has ease and agility. The talented Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser impressed as Ilia but, as with the decor, less steel would have been preferred.

When the grand Mireille Delunsch first descended the staircase as Elettra there was electricity in her voice that demanded attention. But, reaching stage level and directorial requirements - silent-screen gesticulations that would have embarrassed Theda Bara - all hope of a definitive character vanished. Later, during her final scene, there actually was a bucket of blood and she went ahead with the sponge bath, putting to rest the French idea of “du trop.” The Neptune - almost always on stage waiving his trident - was wearing what appeared to be a Woolworth’s bargain Halloween costume.

The singing, while not up to highest festival standards, served the music and Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble contributed a strong orchestral underpinning with their traditional gusto. A few orchestral sour notes could be attributed to the changing humidity as night falls - a traditional problem with outdoor concerts. This opera written when Mozart was only 25 year has been receiving much deserved attention in recent years; for instance, a fine new production of Luc Bondy at the Paris Opera. The Aix production, however, broadcast throughout Europe on the night I saw it, July 10, is not likely to induce a flood of ticket request for next season. This is an extraordinary opera but marred by cumbersome staging.

- Frank Cadenhead

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