Christian Gehrher never left the stage.
It could be, as the title character in Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck”. But in Simon McBurney’s brutal, elegiac production At the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France, Gerhaher is revealed from the outset: his harrowing transformation, from hapless soldier to psychologically broken murderer, is worn on the face in 90 minutes of the opera, as Wozzeck puts it, “one thing after another.”
It was hard to watch, as this opera should be: guerrere, a baritone, a dominant falsetto singer with a scholarly interest in the text and a chameleon’s ability to live in thoughtful personas, even for a few minutes. This remarkable skill, at operatic level and under the auspices of McBurney’s stern and inconspicuous play, marks a high point in Geerhaier’s long career which has already won him much praise.
With Simon Rattle conducting the unquestionable London Symphony Orchestra in the pit, “Wozzeck” was one of those operatic miracles: a harmonious meeting of singing, playing and directing on an impressively high level. It’s the best presentation ever This year’s version of the Aix Festival75.
Both understandable and disappointing, the festival’s clearest success was also the most conventional production: McBurney’s “Wozzeck” could have come from any major opera house. But this kind of offering alone isn’t what makes Aix a summer music destination.
no. Its draw is also in departing from tradition. Without them, Aix would be just another Salzburg opera festival rather than the most interesting opera festival in Europe – although at this point in Pierre Audi’s tenure as artistic director the ‘Opera’ is quite limited, with a list over the past week of films and stage music. and concerts and operas, including two new works, each of a very different character.
Many summer festivals exist primarily for the fun of making music outside of the usual concert halls and theatres. That’s part of Aix’s ethos, too, but what sets it apart—aside from the plentiful pink and relaxed linen dress code—is that it seems to ask at every turn: What else can we do here?
Significant fluctuations are made every year. In this edition, not everything worked out artistically (or with audiences); Some of what I saw was reckless, and some of it offensive. But it was worth discussing.
There was provocation even at the slightest point, “Ballets Russes,” A trio of Stravinsky’s scores for the Ballets Russes – “The Firebird”, “Petruchka” and “The Rite of Spring” – was accompanied by three films and staged in the cavernous Court de Vitrolles, in the hills south of Aix. In the pit, so to speak, was the Orchestra de Paris under the direction of its music director, Klaus Makela.
The films were standouts: Rebecca Zlotowski’s remake of the 2016 Planetarium on “Firebird”; an extended fashion ad of questionable sexual politics by Bertrand Mandico for “Petrushka”; And he addressed “Rituals” by Evangelia Craniotti, which treated the brutality of the music so literally and tastelessly that it included imagery of indigenous Brazilians, drug use among homeless gay youth, and bloody violence against a transgender person.
I found my eyes drifting from the screen to the orchestra, and this rich and physical ballet scored from a hot moment in Stravinsky’s career. But this, too, was troubling. Makela’s thematic approach insists on little, but in fact pays off when he conducts players of the highest order, such as the Concert Geepau in Amsterdam or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – and less so for the New York Philharmonic, where he made his debut last December, as well as for the New York Philharmonic. One of the purposes of this festival is the Orchestra de Paris.
What McKayla extracted from the Parisians was cleaner and more incisive than their recording of “Firebird” and “Rite” earlier this year. But it’s still marred by a muddled hellish dance, for example, and an overly solo bassoon at the beginning of “Ritual”. Struggling to define her casual style clearly, Petrouchka flattened her frizzy contrasting layers as if shimmering over them in one stroke.
It was Dmitry Chernyakov’s performance “Cosi Fan Tutte,” The festival’s annual Mozart production, at the open-air Théâtre de l’Archevêché. Chernyakov’s treatment of operas were “Così” by Ingmar Bergman and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” , replacing the typical young lovers with older lovers who need to rekindle their love through experimental therapy and role-playing.
It is not easy for aging singers to capture Mozart’s score in bright and graceful vocal writing, so Chernyakov’s concept gave him priority over music. Despite this, the cast coped bravely — especially the soprano Agneta Eichenholz as Fiordiligi, who performed the drawn-out “Per pietà” through a sudden onset of rain. But the singers’ vocal shortcomings were unfairly exposed, and they were unreliably supported by Thomas Hengelbrock’s incongruous baton conducting Balthazar Neumann’s orchestra.
Most comfortable was the soprano Nicole Chevalier as Despina, married here to Don Alfonso; Together, they run a couple’s resort or retreat and enjoy manipulating others’ sex lives. Chernyakov seemed to be on her way to ending a resurgence in sexual appetite. But the finale turns violent – an unexpected storyline – upending the group’s upscale resort in a shocking movie scene.
Director Thomas Ostermeyer, of Schaubühne in Berlin, had more control over his production: Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann’s “The Threepenny Opera”, In a refreshingly corrected new French translation by Alexandre Patou. Musically, it featured a newly included ballad, “Pauv’ Madam Peachum”, written in the late 1930s for a French revival, and harmonies slightly altered by Maxime Pascal, whose Le Balcon orchestra turned vigorously into the pit at the Archevêché.
But Ostermeyer seems to have had so much control over the material, with such a clerical treatment of the text, that it was considered polite. Despite its grit and modern appearance, this “Threepenny,” performed by the Comédie-Française, was ultimately traditional. The director must know exactly what he is saying with the piece; Anything else, as here, serves as the intensity of the recitation.
A much more rewarding portrayal of Weil can be found in the courtyard of the Hôtel Meinier d’Aubéde, where pianist Kirill Gerstein, festival artist-in-residence, has performed Weil and Hans Eisler songs with H.K. Gruber, composer, conductor and arguably the greatest living interpreter of the style. Their selections from “Threepenny” in particular showed how best to balance infectious melodies with bitter texts: Gerstein’s jig-and-dance riffs, Gruber’s near-falling snarl, with a sinister R rolling on phrases like “Beefsteak Tartar.”
The concerts proved as satisfying as any production staged during Aix’s opening week: Gerstein and members of the Berlin Philharmonic performed a hall arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, for example, or his exhilarating crescendo to Zemlinsky’s rare act, “Ein Lichtstrahl”. And at the Darius Milhaud Conservatory, soprano Asmik Grigorian gave a powerful and thoughtful rendition of Tchaikovsky’s and Rachmaninoff’s arias with pianist Lukas Genusias.
And then there was “Wozzeck”. Jerhir was not alone in his victory. To name just one colleague, soprano Malin Bystrom, as Marie, she exuded despondency and sympathy. Rattle pushed the score in transparent detail and, in the final instrumental interlude, squashed Mahlerian pathos and grandeur.
At that moment, I was reminded of the production of “Wozzeck” by William Kentridge, which had recently been performed in the leading opera houses in France, at the Paris Opera, and in the United States, at the Metropolitan Opera. In that orchestral climax, Kentridge crowds the stage with soaring, clear, scattershot war images that exaggerate to effect.
At the Grand Théâtre de Provence, McBurney would approach the bare walls of his set, creating a shallow back-up stage and letting the music speak for itself while highlighting newly orphaned baby Wozzeck and Marie. It was one of the many haunting images on the show.
Elsewhere, McBurney’s production could easily be taken for granted if not examined closely: it’s minimalist, yet technically sophisticated and directed by choreographer Leah Hausmann – who moves the performers’ audiences seamlessly, and she can evoke a bar scene or make it disappear with magical brevity.
During a week in Aix I finally saw “Wozzeck”, and I’m glad it’s the way the schedule has been played out. Experimentation worked its way, but McBurney’s staging was evidence of opera’s undying ability to move, smash, and shock on its own. Thankfully, the festival makes room for both.