Sunday 28 August 2022

Mozart - Idomeneo (Aix-en-Provence, 2022)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo, Re di Creta

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2022

Raphaël Pichon, Satoshi Miyagi, Michael Spyres, Sabine Devieilhe, Anna Bonitatibus, Nicole Chevalier, Linard Vrielink, Krešimir Špicer, Alexandros Stavrakakis

ARTE Concert - July 2022

There's no question that Mozart's operas are beautifully expressive of the whole range of human feelings and experience. Even at the age of 24 in his earliest masterpiece Idomeneo, Re di Creta he defies the often dry conventions and expectations of the opera seria format to create a work that imbues ancient Greek mythology with a rare humanity and authenticity. A stage director can choose to work to bring those human elements out, to interpret or reinterpret them, or they can quite reasonably rely on the music to speak for itself. That appears to be the intention of the director Satoshi Miyagi at this production for Aix-en-Provence 2022, but whether it supports Mozart's music or works against it is less certain.

There is certainly nothing wrong with updating the setting of Idomeneo or using it to express the original ideas and themes in a different context. I must admit I had my doubts about it being a neat fit for the director's proposed intention of using the Japanese wartime emperor Hirohito as a substitute for Idomeneus the King of Crete, or whether this would be in any other way meaningful or revelatory, but it has to be said that this notion never really asserts influence over the performance of the work here. What is far more significant to how the opera plays out in this production is decision to present it in a Noh drama fashion, with minimal but highly stylised sets and movements.

It certainly looks impressive, achieving the same kind of glacial quality that Robert Wilson employs in his opera and stage productions, and they are - usually but not always - none the worse off for it. Consequently, the principal performers here, dressed in stylised Japanese costumes, remain expressionless with minimal movement, often raised on their own platforms at a distance from one another. The chorus meanwhile, wearing more familiar military uniforms, merge with the sets, becoming part of them, part of the while fabric of the opera.

As far as that goes it's fine, the sets remain fluid and slowly moving and changing, ensuring that everything doesn't remain too static. If Idomeneo were a typical opera seria, it might not be enough to enliven the work and make the drama come to life, but despite the qualities of the music and the fact that it does indeed speak for itself, it seemed to me that it didn't do Mozart any favours. Not only does the intention to relate this to Hirohito and the Japanese people fail to make any impression - the opera has been staged as a modern post-war conflict much more successfully elsewhere in numerous updated productions - but it even seems to almost work against and neutralise the music, and that is not a good thing.

Fortunately it doesn't quite do that thanks to conductor Raphaël Pichon. If there are any doubts that remain about the quality of this early Mozart opera and how it stacks up against his mature works, this was certainly dispelled by the musical direction. Sure, the composition of Idomeneo can't compare to the great Mozart operas with Da Ponte, but much of what is great about those later works can already be heard developing here in a truly exciting way. It's a strong enough work on its own terms - more than strong and certainly if compared to what preceded it in opera seria, it's hugely progressive, devoid of the mannerisms and much more relatable, the characters really seeming to engage with one another and not just wrapped in their own worlds. Which, when you get right down to it, might just be what Mozart's operas are all about and what makes them great.

Unfortunately the production's stylised Noh influenced staging pushes the opera back onto those mannerisms, removing emotional connections, putting physical distance between the characters. I personally found Satoshi Miyagi's direction cold and distracting, at odds with Mozart's warm sympathetic and deeply expressive music. Worse, it simply offered no way in to relate to the plot and the drama to find a reason to care about each of the characters, much less offer an interpretation as to their motivations and behaviours as others have done, particularly into the complex nature and behaviours of Elettra and the king himself. There is no denying however that the set designs and the lighting were terrific and this was beautiful to look at, and it did suit the elegant formality of Mozart's music, if not bring out anything deeper from it.

Up until the conclusion, that is. A blood red backdrop is projected against the characters, showing them set against the horror and devastation that their decisions have caused. While mainly abstract in its human shapes and shadows cast against the horror of war, the suffering, the trauma, the eventual release and the recognition of the folly of its leaders acting like gods, it did hit home effectively, particularly with Mozart's music and with the soaring singing of the principals and chorus. It's here that Hirohito is most effectively evoked through the voice of the god Neptune, his broadcast voice coming from a record player that appears on its own raised platform. The slow and detached build-up might have been testing, but by the time the conclusion was reached, you were left in no doubt that this production did justice to Mozart, if perhaps not exactly find anything new in it.

Despite the impositions placed on the singers to remain mainly impassive and inexpressive, there was also much to enjoy in the singing. These are already challenging roles - Mozart composing this in 1781 for the best singers in Munich at the time - and the casting of the right kind of Mozartian voices is ideal for this production at Aix-en-Provence's Théâtre de l’Archevêché. If the director had little in the way of showing any nuance in the character of Idomeneo, who can be played sympathetically or as a misguided relic of the past who gets his just desserts, Michael Spyres's soft timbre brought warmth and humanity to the role. Soprano Sabine Devieilhe's singing brought more feeling and drama to the role of Ilia than the minimal direction allowed. Anna Bonitatibus as Idamante and Nicole Chevalier as Elettra were more constricted by their roles having little room for interpretation, but both sang superbly. With a cast like that and Mozart's music beautifully interpreted by Pinchon and the Pygmalion orchestra and chorus, the greatness of Idomeneo remains indisputable. 

Links: ARTE Concert, Festival Aix-en-Provence

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Mahler - Resurrection (Aix-en-Provence, 2022)

Gustav Mahler - Resurrection

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2022

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Romeo Castellucci, Golda Schultz, Marianne Crebassa, Maïlys Castets, Simone Gatti, Michelle Salvatore, Raphaël Sawadogo-Mas

ARTE Concert - 13th July 2022

I don't think we need to get into a debate about what is an opera and what isn't. The definition is so wide now that there are works with less singing and drama and indeed music than Mahler's Second Symphony. There can be little argument however about the fact that Auferstehung, Resurrection, was conceived as a symphony, but symphonies have a narrative of their own and Mahler's symphonies are by no means conventional. The composer might have had his own intentions for the work but the listener is free to let the music speak directly to each of us as individuals and interpret in their own way. Romeo Castellucci, much as many begrudge him even directing an opera in his own way, is likewise free to do so, and comes up with a bold visual narrative for this performance of Mahler's great work (they are all great as far as I'm concerned) for the Aix-en-Provence festival.

Knowing Castellucci, and knowing indeed what he made of Mozart's Requiem for the 2019 Aix-en-Provence Festival, his vision for what we think of as a resurrection is certainly far from what either you or indeed Mahler might have imagined. Almost as a companion piece to the Requiem, this time there is little in the way of a set for Resurrection. The location of the abandoned and graffiti vandalised sports stadium in Vitrolles is in a way 'resurrected' for this production and performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 2. The audience however are greeted with the site of an empty mud covered floor to look down on, as a white horse wanders onto the muddy expanse that constitutes a "stage". His owner comes looking for the horse and finds nearby what looks like the remains of a body. After a panicked phone call a UNCHR team in white overalls begin digging up not just one buried body but discover that they have begun excavating a mass grave.

By any standards, it's a grim notion of a resurrection. In a way though it is a true modern secular idea of a resurrection, one that nonetheless has a meaningful role to play for many families who have lost family in such horrendous circumstances that constitute war crimes all over the world. Buried in mass graves, their recovery, identification and re-burial is a resurrection of sorts, one that allows the dead to be accorded after death and burial with a dignified and proper interment, as well as giving grieving families the release of knowing what has happened to their loved ones and the opportunity to pay respects. So yes, a resurrection of sorts, a necessary disinterment, even if it is quite a grim process.

Castellucci's production spares the viewer little of the grim reality of such a find. It is a frighteningly realistic depiction of just how such a process would take place. Emaciated semi-decomposed bodies, including a number of children and newborn babies, are unearthed by hand and delicately lifted over to be placed in rows on white sheets. Vehicles for heavy digging are brought in as the scale of the horror becomes evident, vans arrive for the collection and the forensic examination of the bodies. There is little of the familiar Castellucci abstraction or symbolism here, this is as direct as it gets. If the audience were unaware of what would take place, this would certainly come as something of a shock.

That sense of shock, or deep emotional impact is undoubtedly provoked just as much by the scene being set against Mahler's powerful, expressive and deeply emotional music, conducted here by Esa-Pekka Salonen. I've questioned before (in Calixto Bieito's Turandot) how far it is necessary and permissible to stage indescribable horrors, and whether the opera stage is really a suitable vehicle for such statements. There of course should be no limits to artistic expression, even if it feels like there is a subversion where the intentions of an original work of art are used to express something other than they are intended. That's down to the individual to react or take what they wish, but it's certainly is important that an artist is free to interpret as they see fit.

What is essential for any work of art - particularly performance art - is that it remains vital and meaningful. Musical fashions change and even Mahler might not withstand the reality of philistinism from deeply conservative and right-wing culture war attacks on multiculturalism and freedom of expression as a means of stirring up fear and division. (Bieto's Turandot more or less addresses this). As far as Resurrection goes, Castellucci piles horror upon horror that no viewer could remain unmoved by what is shown, and there is evidently justification for showing it this way. This however is only a stage representation. Imagine how utterly devastating it must be to know that such situation are not uncommon in real-life.

You don't need examples to confirm that such scenes have taken place and many times even in living memory. It's not even really a surprise that even as this production was being conceived and developed, that similar gruesome discoveries were being made in Mariupol in Ukraine. Dealing with such a subject in this day and age, there is no place for Castellucci provocation in the staging or for sentimentality in the musical performance, and both were resolutely direct and had real impact. The text of Des Knaben Wunderhorn in the fourth movement, sung by Marianne Crenbassa certainly hit home, as did Golda Schultz as the soprano in this performance. With superb choral work, the production unearthed and laid bare the underlying humanism and spirituality of the various stages of the process of death, mourning and rebirth in this remarkable work.

Links: Festival Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert