Aix Festival reviews – a spellbinding Moses and Pharaoh, a heartbreaking resurrection
It read as a staging of today’s political events. Confused by power, an entire government – leaders, aides and backbenchers – throws themselves into the sea and drowns. Suits, ties and high heels swirl in the current. When Schadenfreude was the order of the day, it was hard to stifle a giggle.
Of course, this was the Egyptian army under Pharaoh, not the Johnson government, but Tobias Krazer’s new staging of Rossini’s Moses and Pharaoh for the Aix-en-Provence festival is so up-to-date, so clever and so relevant that it is far too easy to see current events in 1827 opera series.
The story itself – a refugee population in exile, ruled by a religious fanatic, locked in bitter conflict with a despotic regime – is far too easy to update. Kratzer uses the stage of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché to maximum effect, with Rainer Sellmaier’s sets evolving from refugee camps and government headquarters to a beachfront for resolution.
Moses is dressed as a biblical prophet from a 1960s movie, while everyone else is in modern dress; we see from the start that he is a rigid and old-fashioned cult leader, who annoys his supporters with his undiplomatic outbursts. There is one problem: he really has a direct line to God and can beat people blind, order a cyber attack or call up troubles at will. His own people are afraid of him, but they would also die for him.
Pharaoh, in a tailored suit, is Assad or Putin or any other contemporary dictator, distrust of all, engrossed in ambition and rage. Kratzer and his team have turned every line of the libretto over and over again, and the level of insight is confusing. These are people who may not mean what they say, or may not say what they think, but we see all the complex relationships exposed with relentless clarity. It’s a knuckle-bleaching trip, every moment enchanting; this is classic Directing theateras good as it gets.
Michele Mariotti clearly agrees with all Kratzer’s ideas, conducts with passion, a strong sense of architecture and superb attention to detail. The cast is excellent, from Michele Pertusi’s stentorian Moses and Mert Süngü’s agile, skilled Eliezer to Jeanine De Bique’s sometimes crazy but strong Anaï and Vasilisa Berzhanskaya’s heartbreakingly beautiful Sinaïde. Pene Patis’ fierce, self-absorbed Aménophis is a tur-de-force. The choir and orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon are in top form. If only opera could always be so much fun. ★★★★★
On the other hand, Romeo Castellucci is resurrection, a staging of Mahler’s Second Symphony, is a heartbreakingly sober affair. It is played near Marseille in an abandoned handball stadium, a giant pile of misunderstood property that the Aix festival is helping to rehabilitate.
The audience crams into narrow rows of steep seats, facing a raised platform covered in wet sand and earth. The choir, the youth choir and the Orchester de Paris are in a cave grave under the stage. Outside, the light fades; suddenly a white horse gallops through the back doors and holds the stage, explores the sand dunes and stares curiously at the audience. His coach shows up, collects the reins and then stumbles upon something terrible, half buried in the sand. Within minutes, a forensic team is on site, digging a rotting body from the ground. More team members and more bodies follow.
Castellucci uses Mahler’s music to tell the story of the discovery and disinterral of a mass grave. As the bitter, dark movements unfold, with their moments of tenderness and explosive outbursts of rage, a small army of white-clad workers dig up eighty dilapidated bodies of men, women and children, place them on body bags, catalog them, zip them up and load them. them into pending UNHCR vans. All of this is accurately choreographed to fill almost the entire duration of Mahler’s symphony. It is completely immersive in a good quarter of an hour, but becomes numb as the music rolls on, reducing the expressive nuances of Mahler’s extensive score to the soundtrack of a genocidal documentary.
The excitement rises when first solo singers (the melting beautiful Golda Schultz and Marianne Crebassa) and then the double choir sing about security and resurrection. The vans with the bodies go; the workers go. On the empty stage the rain falls. That’s it. Castelluci has given us the most meaningless kind of death that exists. It could be Bucha or Mariupol today, or Syria or Sarajevo or Rwanda or too many other places, all near and recently.
The Esa-Pekka Salon tailors a version of Mahler to the circumstances, which is light years away from the comfort of a concert hall. His orchestra is necessarily reinforced – expensive, but not always good – and he keeps the tempo high, the tone raw and the mood between sardonic and crushing.
So we have a lot of rage against the injustice of death. What we do not get is any kind of resurrection. Fair enough. Perhaps the point is to bring to light the past injustices, the little rituals that acknowledge a lived life. The closest Castelluci allows us to hope is the compassion the diggers show each other. Maybe in the end it’s the best we can hope for. ★★★★ ☆
Pierre Audi’s 2022 festival is ambitious, complex and challenging, and often takes the audience out of their comfort zone. Andrea Breth’s gloomy, fragmented Salome frees itself completely from the narrative, much of it takes place in the dark conceptual space of the unconscious mind. Elsa Dreisig is convincing and childlike in Strauss’ title role, aided by Raimund Orfeo Voigt’s singer-friendly set, changing, box-like rooms that act as acoustic shells; John Daszak is a wonderfully tense Herod, Angela Denoke a stuffed, cool Herodias, Gábor Bretz has real gravitas like Jochanaan. ★★★★ ☆
The idea of handing over Mozart Idomeneo over to the Japanese director Satoshi Miyagi was a high risk – Miyagi had no previous opera experience – and his completely static theatrical style is reminiscent of nothing more than an Edward Gorey cartoon of an opera: clammy old-fashioned, a bit shaky, really sad of something deeply perverted. Raphaël Pichon and his Pygmalion Orchestra played as if their lives depended on it, with a solid cast that tried to deliver all the emotions that were missing from Miyagi’s cool staging. ★★ ☆☆☆
The curves and crochet that met Miyagi’s team at curtain talks were easier to understand than those at the end Moses and Pharaoh or Salomebut it is at least reassuring to see that Aix is willing to ruffle some feathers.
The festival lasts until July 23, festival-aix.com