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The Ups and Downs of Europe’s Most Interesting Opera Festival


Christian Gerhaher never left the stage.

He could have, 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 was exposed from the start: He wore his harrowing transformation, from hapless soldier to psychologically crushed murderer, on his face for the opera’s 90 minutes of, as Wozzeck says, “one thing after another.”

It was hard to watch, as this opera should be: Gerhaher, a baritone, is a reigning lieder singer with a scholarly attention to text and a chameleonic ability to inhabit richly considered characters, even for just a few minutes. This remarkable skill, on the scale of opera and under the care of McBurney’s stark, unshowy staging, makes for a high point of Gerhaher’s long, already much-lauded career.

With Simon Rattle leading a virtually unimpeachable London Symphony Orchestra in the pit, this “Wozzeck” was one of those operatic miracles: a harmonious meeting of singing, playing and direction at an impressively high level. It is the finest presentation at this year’s edition of the Aix Festival, the 75th.

It’s both understandable, and a touch disappointing, that the festival’s clearest success was also the most traditional production: McBurney’s “Wozzeck” could have come from any major opera house. But this type of show alone is not what makes Aix a summer music destination.

No. Its draw is also in the departures from tradition. Without them, Aix would be another Salzburg instead of the most interesting opera festival in Europe — though at this point in Pierre Audi’s tenure as artistic director, “opera” is too limiting a label, with a slate over the past week of film, music theater, concerts and, yes, opera, including two new works, each of vastly different character.

Many summer festivals exist primarily for the pleasure of music-making beyond the usual concert halls and theaters. That’s part of the ethos of Aix, too, but what differentiates it from the others — aside from its abundant rosé and laid-back, linen-forward dress code — is that it seemingly asks at every turn: What else can we do here?

Big swings are taken every year. In this edition, not everything succeeded artistically (or with audiences); some of what I saw was reckless, some of it offensive. But it was all worth discussing.

There was provocation even at the low point, “Ballets Russes,” a concert triple bill of Stravinsky’s scores for the Ballets Russes — “The Firebird,” “Petrouchka” and “The Rite of Spring” — accompanied by three films and screened in the cavernous Stadium de Vitrolles, in the hills south of Aix. In the pit, so to speak, was the Orchestre de Paris under the baton of its music director, Klaus Mäkelä.

The films were distinct: Rebecca Zlotowski’s recut of her 2016 movie “Planetarium” for “Firebird”; an extended fashion ad of questionable sexual politics by Bertrand Mandico for “Petrouchka”; and a take on the “Rite,” by Evangelia Kranioti, that treated the music’s savagery so literally and tastelessly that it included Indigenous Brazilian imagery, drug usage among queer homeless youth and bloody violence against a transgender person.

I found my eye drifting from the screen to the orchestra, so richly scored and physical are these ballets from a white-hot moment of Stravinsky’s career. But that, too, proved troubling. Mäkelä’s objective approach insists on little yet actually pays off when he is leading top-tier players, like those of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — less so the New York Philharmonic, where he debuted last December, and, for the purposes of this festival, the Orchestre de Paris.

What Mäkelä elicited from the Parisians was cleaner and more decisive than on their recording of “Firebird” and the “Rite” earlier this year. But it was still marred by a muddled Infernal Dance, for example, and an overly tentative bassoon solo at the start of the “Rite.” The “Petrouchka” struggled to define its episodic style clearly, and flattened its layers of unsettling counterpoint as if polishing over them in one stroke.

Also uneven, but largely more coherent, was Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of “Così Fan Tutte,” the festival’s annual Mozart production, at the outdoor Théâtre de l’Archevêché. Tcherniakov’s treatment of the opera was “Così” by way of Ingmar Bergman and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” replacing the typically young lovers with older ones in need of rekindling their love through experimental therapy and role play.

Mozart’s score of bright, agile vocal writing isn’t easy for aging singers, so Tcherniakov’s concept inevitably prioritized itself over the music. The cast, though, handled it courageously — particularly the soprano Agneta Eichenholz as Fiordiligi, who performed the punishingly long “Per pietà” through the start of sudden rainfall. But the singers’ vocal shortcomings were also unfairly exposed, and they were unreliably supported by Thomas Hengelbrock’s inconsistent baton leading his Balthasar Neumann Orchestra.

Most at ease was the soprano Nicole Chevalier as Despina, here married to Don Alfonso; together, they run a resort or a couple’s retreat and get pleasure from manipulating the sex lives of others. Tcherniakov seemed to be building toward an ending of renewed sexual appetites. But the finale turned violent — an unearned non sequitur — flipping the set’s upscale resort into the scene of a shocking snuff film.

The director Thomas Ostermeier, of the Schaubühne in Berlin, had more control over his production: Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann’s “The Threepenny Opera,” in a refreshingly corrective new French translation by Alexandre Pateau. Musically, it featured a newly inserted song, “Pauv’ Madam Peachum,” written in the late 1930s for a French revival, and a slightly altered orchestration by Maxime Pascal, who vigorously conducted his ensemble Le Balcon in the pit at the Archevêché.

But Ostermeier appeared to have so much control over the material, with such a by-the-book treatment of the text, that it came off as mannered. For all its grit and modern look, this “Threepenny,” performed by the company of the Comédie-Française, was ultimately conventional. A director must know exactly what to say with the piece; anything else is bound, as here, to be a slog of a recitation.

A far more rewarding portrait of Weill could be found at the courtyard of the Hôtel Maynier d’Oppède, where the pianist Kirill Gerstein, the festival’s artist in residence, performed songs by Weill and Hanns Eisler with HK Gruber, the composer, conductor and arguably greatest living interpreter of this style. Their “Threepenny” selections in particular demonstrated how best to balance the piece’s infectious melodies and bitter texts: Gerstein’s playing buoyant and dancing, Gruber’s semi-Sprechstimme snarling, with wickedly rolling R’s on phrases like “Beefsteak Tartar.”

Concerts proved as satisfying as any staged production during Aix’s opening week: Gerstein and members of the Berlin Philharmonic performing a chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, for example, or his delightful mounting of a rarely seen Zemlinsky pantomime, “Ein Lichtstrahl.” And at the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud, the soprano Asmik Grigorian gave a characteristically mighty and dramatically considered recital of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff songs with the pianist Lukas Genusias.

And then there was “Wozzeck.” Gerhaher wasn’t alone in his triumph; to name just one colleague, the soprano Malin Byström, as Marie, exuded desperation and sympathy. And Rattle propelled the score with transparent details and, in the final instrumental interlude, crushing Mahlerian pathos and grandeur.

During that moment, I was reminded of the artist William Kentridge’s “Wozzeck” production, the one most recently presented at the leading opera houses in France, at the Paris Opera, and in the United States, at the Metropolitan Opera. At that orchestral climax, Kentridge crowds the stage with towering, obvious and distracting war imagery that overstates the effect.

At the Grand Théâtre de Provence, McBurney had the bare walls of his set simply close in, creating a spare, shallow stage and letting the music speak for itself while a spotlight shone on the newly orphaned child of Wozzeck and Marie. It was one of the show’s many haunting images.

Elsewhere, McBurney’s production could be easily taken for granted if not examined closely: cleanly minimal, yet technologically sophisticated and guided by the choreographer Leah Hausman — who moves masses of performers so smoothly, she can conjure a bar scene or make it vanish with magical brevity.

During a week at Aix, I saw “Wozzeck” last, and I’m glad that was how the schedule worked out. Experimentation had been worthwhile in its way, but McBurney’s staging was evidence of opera’s undying ability to move, shatter and shock on its own. Thankfully, the festival makes room for both.


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