A Festival Has a Monumental Premiere (and Some Other Operas, Too)

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — I imply it as excessive reward once I say that at this summer season’s version of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, not one of the operas come near Kaija Saariaho’s “Innocence,” which premiered right here on July three.

Ushering new work into the world is probably an operatic establishment’s most troublesome process. This is an artwork kind so stubbornly lodged up to now that it all the time looks like a miracle when a “création,” because the French name it, succeeds.

And “Innocence,” which explores the aftermath of a lethal faculty taking pictures, does greater than succeed. With riveting readability and enigmatic shadows, and thru a vary of languages in numerous registers of talking and singing, it captures each the promise and darkness of cosmopolitanism itself.

It is a victory for Saariaho and her collaborators, and for the Aix Festival and Pierre Audi, its director since 2018. He managed to carry rehearsals with simply a piano final summer season, when all pageant performances had been canceled due to the pandemic, and to shift the premiere seamlessly to this 12 months.

“I have a long career in commissioning,” Audi informed The Times just lately. “And this is one of the five greatest pieces that I’ve ever been involved with.”

It is difficult for even probably the most beloved works within the repertory, a few of that are on supply at Aix by way of July 25, to measure as much as that. It felt symbolic that a second that was devastating in “Innocence” — a character crushing a handful of cake onto one other — returned as a foolish, passing little bit of slapstick the next night in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

The carnivalesque staging of Mozart’s “Le Nozzi di Figaro.”Credit…Jean-Louis Fernandez

Lotte de Beer’s “Figaro” manufacturing is an intentional, endearing mess — an eclectic, attention-deficit explosion virtually vibrating by way of completely different aesthetics, as if on a sweet excessive. The overture is staged as conventional, raucous commedia dell’arte; the primary act is a raunchy multi-cam sitcom, on a set that regularly (and actually) collapses into a demented carnival amid the confusions of the Act II finale, full with human-height penises strolling round.

After intermission, although, the curtain rises on virtually nothing — a mattress inside a dice outlined by white neon bars — and the appearing is equally restrained and gloomy. Then the fourth and ultimate act enacts a sort of utopian, queer-feminist knitting collective led by a minor character, Marcellina, the solid draped in clothes of Day-Glo yarn. Out of the mattress, which has come to be the positioning of male authority and adultery, an unlimited, inflatable fairy-tale tree slowly grows.

Thomas Hengelbrock led the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble in a crisp however sensuously phrased studying of the rating. Lea Desandre was a shiny, alert Cherubino; Jacquelyn Wagner, a Countess cooler than the norm.

In the title function of Barrie Kosky’s staging of Verdi’s “Falstaff,” Christopher Purves was additionally completely different than the norm, at the very least at the beginning. In the primary scene, Purves’s Falstaff is proven not as the standard gorging grotesque in a fats swimsuit, however as a cautious grasp chef, sensitively relishing his creations — and with, at finest, a dad bod.

Christopher Purves’s incarnation of Falstaff isn’t the standard gorging grotesque in a fats swimsuit. As a cautious grasp chef, he relishes his creations.Credit…Monika Rittershaus

While Falstaff is commonly likable, Kosky’s implicit promise is that we’ll admire him, too. This by no means fairly occurs, because the manufacturing settles into a extra well-worn groove, abounding on this director’s trademark vaudevillian touches: males pulling off wigs and dancing in skirts, the works. The title character’s seductions are barely extra subtle than in a thousand “Falstaff” productions; the merry wives of Windsor’s revenge, little crueler.

The conductor, Daniele Rustioni, led the orchestra of the Lyon Opera with a pacing that was genial however lower than diamond-precise. The voices, together with that of the sport, hard-working Purves, had been a contact too small for the roles. The check of a “Falstaff” is the impact of the nice ultimate ensemble fugue; right here the sequence was nice somewhat than cathartic.

There was musical catharsis to spare in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” with a supreme solid and the London Symphony Orchestra performed with lithe flexibility by Simon Rattle. But Simon Stone’s staging — an virtually comically practical evocation of up to date Paris, from a high-rise condominium to a Métro automobile — is perplexing, because it purports to elucidate the brunt of the plot as a girl’s fantasies after studying her husband is dishonest.

From left, Dominic Sedgwick, Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” directed by Stone, who moved the opera to modern-day Paris. Credit…Jean-Louis Fernandez

Perhaps deliberately, however nonetheless frustratingly, the manufacturing’s line between actuality and fantasy retains getting blurrier, till it’s onerous to know who’s actually betraying whom, who’s getting stabbed and who survives. But if Nina Stemme’s voice has misplaced a contact of sumptuousness, she’s by no means been higher as Isolde — singing fearlessly, and ardently invested within the manufacturing. Stuart Skelton sings somewhat than barks Tristan, a tenor’s Everest, and Franz-Josef Selig is a commandingly melancholy Marke.

Aix has lengthy been notable for putting smaller items, together with new ones, amid canonical titans and grand-scale premieres like “Innocence.” In an unlimited former ironworks at Luma — the brand new artwork complicated in Arles, about 50 miles from Aix — “The Arab Apocalypse” was created as a part of the pageant’s heartening dedication to connecting southern France and the better Mediterranean world.

But primarily based on Etel Adnan’s direly expressionistic poems concerning the Lebanese civil battle, with music by Samir Odeh-Tamimi and a sketched staging-in-the-round by Audi, “Apocalypse” was dreary — the rating alternating between shivering and pummeling, the motion busy however bland.

“Combattimento: The Black Swan Theory” was a grab-bag of early Baroque Italian music, with wealthy helpings of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Luigi Rossi and extra. Silvia Costa tried to corral this beautiful materials into a sort of stylized pageant, a unfastened trajectory of battle, mourning, society-building, extra battle, extra constructing.

From left, Julie Roset, Valerio Contaldo and Etienne Bazola in “Combattimento: The Black Swan Theory.”Credit…Monika Rittershaus

Her photos had been extra mystifying than evocative. But the efficiency, led by Sébastien Daucé, was musically beautiful, with eight excellent younger singers ideally mixing purity and keenness, and 13 members of Ensemble Correspondances filling the jewel-box Théâtre du Jeu de Paume with the visceral drive of a symphony orchestra.

Audi’s ambitions are to increase Aix, implicitly taking over the Salzburg Festival in Austria, which opens on the finish of July, and is classical music’s most storied summer season occasion. (While Salzburg is redoubtable, the temper, clothes and ticket costs in Aix are considerably extra relaxed.)

The program of concert events — which, in Aix, has lengthy been an afterthought to opera, however is a Salzburg powerhouse — will develop, as will the scope of the pageant’s productions. With “Tosca,” Aix’s first Puccini, in 2019, it declared that it might cowl the red-meat Italian hits. In addition to Luma, Audi has his sights on different unconventional areas within the area.

Commissions are additionally central to his agenda; “Innocence” is resounding proof. Seeing it a second time, on Saturday, confirmed the preliminary impression of its depth and restraint, its emotional pull and mental energy.

The manufacturing — like “Tristan,” directed by Stone — keenly depicts each the surprising actuality of the central tragedy and its surreal reverberations, which carry years into the longer term. I query just one directorial intervention: The shooter, a scholar on the faculty, is ultimately proven onstage, performed by a silent actor, regardless that he’s not within the libretto.

This dilutes the thriller of the piece, during which all of the characters revolve round, and run from, a determine who’s absent, a sort of god towards whom everybody’s innocence (and culpability) is measured. When he seems within the flesh, the opera’s influence wavers.

But solely barely. This is a quibble with a staging that, normally exactly, aligns with a sublime but savage work. While recalling the starkness of Greek tragedy, “Innocence” can be among the many first operatic barometers of our globalized age’s travails.