Dessay’s waiflike Violetta is a compelling dramatic creature, in Jean-François Sivadier’s production more of a neurotic small-time actress than a fallen courtesan – but it’s never really clear exactly who she or any of the other characters are.
Charles Castronovo’s Alfredo is simply his usual, reliable self, and Ludovic Tézier’s Germont makes a rather blank and expressionless father-figure, who sings sonorous notes but not long musical lines.
The mostly bare stage is designed by Alexandre de Dardel to suggest that the first-act party is taking place in a rehearsal studio full of attention-seeking luvvies. Act II’s country house features more detritus than Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, though its location is signposted when clouds and green pastures drop down on a series of big canvases. Violetta’s harrowing death scene returns us to an empty stage.
The festival’s highlight is the first showing in Europe of the virtuosic William Kentridge staging of Shostakovich’s The Nose, created last year for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The South African artist-director’s productions of Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse and Mozart’s Zauberflöte have travelled widely, making the much-anticipated appearance of his version of Shostakovich’s “anti-opera” a red-letter event.
Indeed, there are a lot of red letters here: Kentridge takes his cue from typography and Constructivist art reflecting the visual style of the time of the opera’s 1930 premiere in Leningrad.
His multilayered show also embraces artefacts reminding us of the work’s source in the novella by Gogol, which tells of how an olfactory organ goes AWOL and assumes its own frightening identity.
Concentrating on the story’s political rather than sexual resonances, Kentridge and his collaborators (Sabine Theunissen and Luc de Wit) have assembled an animated collage that brilliantly reflects the hectic pace of the music. Kentridge’s trademark “drawings for projection” mix with Soviet-era video and film of Shostakovich himself, and he directs the huge cast with telling detail.
It is led by a strong Vladimir Samsonov as the hapless, nose-less Kovalyov, while the title role is sung by the extremely high (though never nasal-sounding) tenor Alexander Kravets. Conducting the forces of Lyon Opéra, where the show travels in the autumn, Kazushi Ono unleashes brutal power but also makes music of this unrelenting score.
To July 25; www.festival-aix.com
This review also appears in Seven magazine, free with The Sunday Telegraph
Mr. Sivadier’s direction of the other principals was also skillful, but his overall concept for the opera was hard to fathom. The setting (décor by Alexandre de Dardel) is apparently a theater where a rehearsal of “Traviata” is in progress. The chorus does a lot of rearranging of chairs, and before the death scene Violetta’s maid Annina helps her off with wig and makeup, as if to help her get down to business.
Charles Castronovo sang Alfredo with a robust yet flexible tenor, but it was the baritone Ludovic Tézier’s idiomatically accented Germont that brought an ideal match of voice and music. Louis Langrée led the London Symphony in a handsomely polished performance, but the real drama onstage was supplied by Ms. Dessay.
The 63rd installment of France’s premier summertime musical event in this hot but captivating city in the South includes four other new opera productions (of which I caught two) plus chamber and orchestral concerts.
The intimate Jeu de Paume was the setting for the world premiere of “Thanks to My Eyes” by the young, New York-based composer Oscar Bianchi. With an English-language libretto by Joël Pommerat, based on his own French play, the new opera proved to be an intriguing but murky piece about achieving independence from one’s father.
The insecure Aymar’s attempt to follow his father as a celebrated comedian provokes the latter’s scorn but wins him female fans. Two such women are important characters but are indistinctly differentiated. Mr. Bianchi’s highly modernistic score for chamber orchestra, vividly played by Ensemble Modern, puts a premium on imaginative sonorities, including getting instruments to do unorthodox things. He seemed happiest when allowing players to indulge in aggressively angry moments, yet there were some affecting string solos.
Over all, though, the music was hard to get a grip on and frequently seemed to go its own way irrespective of events onstage.
Vocal lines, while austere, allowed one to appreciate the virtues of the unusual countertenor-baritone Hagen Matzeit, as Aymar, and the clear-voiced soprano Fflur Wyn, as A Young Blond Woman. Mr. Pommerat’s simple but effective staging allowed the action of the 75-minute opera to unfold smoothly.
David McVicar’s production of “La Clemenza di Tito” by Mozart, which like “La Traviata” plays in the open-air theater of the former archbishop’s palace, demonstrated how one false move by a producer can negate a host of good work.
For most of the evening Mr. McVicar brought out the potent emotional content of an opera long thought to be lame because of the tendency of the Roman emperor Tito (Titus) to see good in everyone. Especially laudable was the decision to perform the recitatives with few cuts. It made for a tense exchange between Tito and his errant friend Sesto, which blossomed magnificently into Sesto’s sublime aria “Deh per questo istante solo,” sung with supreme eloquence by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. The architectural variety of Mr. McVicar’s imaginative sets made for a multi-faceted picture of ancient Rome.
But in the final scene a statue of Tito was unveiled to show a figure with a blood-red head. Perhaps Mr. McVicar simply wanted to suggest a disturbing underside to Tito’s magnanimity, but the sight of this grim object eviscerated the opera’s uplifting final moments.
Other, relatively minor, quibbles: the stylized movements of Tito’s guards, who behaved like practitioners of Oriental martial arts, and Tito’s gleaming white costume (designed by Jenny Tiramani) in 18th-century mode, which seemed to poke fun at his virtue. But the experienced tenor Gregory Kunde sang Tito authoritatively, and Carmen Giannattasio brought a keen-edged soprano to the scheming Vitellia. Amel Brahim-Djelloul and Anna Stephany made a lovely pair as Annio and Servilia.
With the London Symphony again in the pit, Colin Davis set unusually broad tempos, yet they underscored the nobility and beauty of this incomparable opera.
La Traviata. Aix-en-Provence Festival. Through July 24.Continue reading the main story