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Aix-en-Provence: where's the beef?

by Joel Kasow

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, FRANCE, 14 August 1998 - The Festival International d'Art Lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence, new style, is off and running. Stéphane Lissner, maître des lieux, has made certain choices bearing not only on this year's festival but that are also intended to leave a mark on future editions. The establishment of the Académie Européenne de Musique is the start of a long-term commitment to a training programme for young artists, both performers and composers. This year the Académie presented Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Britten's Curlew River on alternate evenings (more or less), even though the works will be offered on a double bill in 17 different cities on tour next spring. Workshops were devoted to Zauberflöte to be presented at the next festival.

The two new "major" productions were very much of the 'Emperor's new clothes' variety. Don Giovanni was entrusted to Peter Brook, Lissner's Parisian colleague from the Bouffes du Nord, thereby encouraging some wags to dub the festival the Bouffes du Sud. Claudio Abbado opted for more reasonable tempi than Daniel Harding. Brook's "poor" production profited from unusually generous rehearsal time: rarely are the recitatives delivered with such conviction. Unfortunately, the arias too often left much to be desired.

Peter Mattei in the title role may have a certain good-natured sex appeal, but lacks charisma. Gilles Cachemaille's Leoporello has seen better days vocally, but his extensive knowledge of the two main roles helps him through. John Mark Ainsley's Ottavio is not the traditional wimp; moreover, his arias became positive statements. Till Fechner's slender Masetto and Gudjon Oskarsson's sturdy Commendatore rounded out the male contingent. Carmela Remigio's Anna sounds more substantial in the flesh than on the recent Abbado recording, but she remains stretched by the arias, while Lisa Larsson's charmless Zerlina seems to possess one vocal tone colour. Melanie Diener's Elvira seemed to have strayed from another opera, unmoved by the events around her and not always comfortable vocally. Chloe Obolensky's costumes looked as if she had gone shopping at the summer sales, while the experimental approach was not appreciated in all quarters. At 900 francs (£85 or $150) a seat, festival audiences might reasonably expect a more glamourous visual and vocal experience. The production will be seen in Stockholm, Lyons, Milan, Brussels and Tokyo before it reappears at next year's festival.

Bluebeard's Castle (30 July) was in safe hands under Pierre Boulez, aided by Laszlo Polgar in the title role and Violetta Urmana as Judith. All were betrayed by Lissner's choice of choreographer Pina Bausch as director, whose eight dancers made an enormous racket running around the stage so that at times it was difficult to hear the music. One hoped that such key episodes as the opening doors might be treated with some awareness of the text but all we got were obsessive repetitions of the same gestures and gags, so that the well-dressed, older man two seats down from me was moved to boo the dancers at the end, and he was not alone in his disapproval.


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