Saturday, July 31, 2021

Saoû chante Mozart - Artiste sur l'herbe : consécration ! - Alexander Tharaud - 07/24/21

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Modulierendes Präludium, KV 624 (626b) 
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin 
Allemande – Sarabande – Fanfarinette - Gavotte avec les Doubles de la Gavotte 
Sergei Rachmaninov: Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3 
Franz Schubert: Impromptus, Op. 90 

Although last Friday I took the evening off from concert duties (Sorry, mom!), little did I know that on Saturday morning I would not be as refreshed as I was hoping due to a night plagued by, in no particular order, little critters running around in the attic above me, cats fighting underneath my window, not to mention some mosquitoes in the actual bedroom. So much for the peace and quiet of the countryside. 
On the other hand, I figured that if I was not going to get good sleep in Dieulefit, at least I should get good music, and that’s what I did on Saturday night with my mom and our friend Jacqueline at the piano recital al fresco by French "artist on the grass" Alexandre Tharaud, which took place in the local parc de la Baume at 9:30 PM, but who’s counting anymore? At least we had time to have a lovely dinner al fresco too. 
The occasion was the 32nd Saoû chante Mozart (Saoû sings Mozart) festival, which, according to the program notes, this year offered 12 dates, 15 locations, 19 concerts and 120 artists. Take that, Mostly Mozart Festival, which is not even happening (again). At least this year I am on the right side of the pond. 

Although the festival has been including other composers over the years, Mozart still understandably manages to creep into most, if not all, playlists, which is not that difficult considering the incredible range of his œuvre. On Saturday night, as the night was falling, gray clouds were gathering, the opening speeches by local officials were finally over and the last valiant cicada was about to give up, Tharaud started his concert with Mozart’s Modulierendes Präludium, KV 624 (626b), a seemingly short and inconspicuous, yet delightfully lively prelude, which the composer used to play to check his piano and warm up his fingers. Before we knew it, it had gone by fleetingly, just like the summer breeze that was keeping us cool. 
Remaining roughly in the same time period, we moved on to Rameau, whose works for harpsichord are still as popular with contemporary musicians as they were with Mozart himself. I, however, am not really a big fan of the admittedly estimable French composer, and apparently neither is Mother Nature as it started raining in the middle of the Sarabande, and the performance had to be interrupted not only for the comfort of the musician, but also for the safety of the magnificent Steinway, which got its own cover AND canopy. Talk about special treatment! 
The shower dissipated quickly, and Tharaub came back and resumed playing, undisturbed by the fact that the canopy was covering the piano but not him, and gamely delivered a wonderfully heart-felt performance that even increased my appreciation of Rameau, which is no small feat. 
Moving boldly from French Late Baroque to Russian Romanticism, we next got to enjoy the five vignettes of Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de fantaisie. Since they first came out, the second one, the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, has had its own life as a ubiquitous concert encore and semi-regular presence in movie soundtracks. Unlike the composer and some snooty critics, I am always happy to hear it, with its solemnly resounding bells, rapid-fire middle section, and ever-mysterious finale, all in less than four minutes. Not bad for a 19-year-old barely out of the conservatory! Oh, and yes, the other four pieces are not bad either, as Tharaud convincingly reminded us on Saturday night. 
After Rachmaninov’s permanently depressive state, we moved on to Schubert’s intermittently depressive state with his four Impromptus, Op. 90. The Allegro molto moderato felt both warm and chilly, and never completely fulfilled, but then again, such is life. As we were settling into the melodic rêverie of the Allegro, we got jolted back to reality as some raindrops made the music stop again. The upside was that Tharaud eventually took it back up from the top, which means we got to hear the beginning again. The last two impromptus went on without any further external challenges, but plenty of dark overtones, a little desperation, and the occasional flicker of peacefulness. 

We had made it to the end almost intact, if a bit damp, and most grateful that the man had not given up on us. As if to celebrate the completion of the program and wrap things up as soon as possible, just in case, Tharaud, who had been chatty in between works, moved right on to a resolutely uplifting, highly virtuosic piece that, in my non-expert opinion, may very well have been by Scarlatti. In any case, it was a fun ending for a memorable Saturday night in the park with Alexandre.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Journées Musicales de Dieulefit - Grandes Sonatas pour Cordes et Piano - 07/22/21

César Franck: Sonata in A major for Violin and Piano 
François Daudet: Piano
Virginie Robilliard: Violin  
Maurice Ravel: Tzigane 
François Daudet: Piano 
Virginie Robilliard: Violin 
Sergei Rachmaninov: Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 19 
François Daudet: Piano 
David Louwerse: Cello 

Last Thursday morning, my mom and I made it to Dieulefit one day later than expected, having spent part of the previous night with Rimski-Korsakov’s unpredictable but so exciting Golden Cockerel in Aix, but ready to take on more summer musical treats, of the chamber music kind this time, starting that very evening with the “Grandes Sonates pour Cordes et Piano” (Big Sonatas for Strings and Piano) concert of the Journées musicales de Dieulefit, a decades-old musical event (“festival” would be too big of a word) which consists of four concerts spread out on two “Musical Days in Dieulefit” and the surrounding areas. 
My mom being a recent volunteer with the small organization, not only had she been tapped to help out, but she had also signed me up for that evening, probably figuring out that it would be a productive way for me to earn my stay. So I found myself directing countless confused concert-goers, who apparently could neither remember the alphabet nor count until 12, to their seats inside the tiny and eventually packed Saint-Pierre Church as I was feeling the lack of sleep slowly but surely getting a hold on me. But hey, after the recent string of late-night performances I had to put up with, I knew I could handle it. 

And I could all the more handle it as our seats were just a few feet away from the “stage”, which allowed us to enjoy a full-immersion experience of what was going on there. As luck would have it, the music, starting with César Franck’s unabashedly luminous Sonata for Violin and Piano, was awfully enjoyable. One of the most popular sonatas in the repertoire, Franck’s little masterpiece simply never ceases to seduce the listener with its gorgeous melodies, rich lyricism, and a general feeling of uncomplicated happiness, even during the turbulences of the allegro. Pianist François Daudet, who also happens to wear the hat of music director, provided a solid background that let regular violinist Virginie Robilliard brightly shine through. 
The second goodie on the program was Maurice Ravel’s wild-at-heart with a French twist Tzigane, a true challenge for any violin player, and a true feast for any violin lover. Robilliard dedicated her performance of it to “freedom”, and sure enough, while she was clearly pulling all the strings (No pun intended) of her blazing performance, there was also an imperceptible sense of freedom in the air, the kind of freedom that an artist in full command of her craft can leverage and share. Not to be outdone by its brief part toward the end, Daudet got into the final race full speed ahead for a hell-raising grand finale
After virtuosic freedom came heart-warming love, as Robilliard decided to take it down a notch and reward our ecstatic ovation with a lovely rendition of Elgar’s “Salut d’amour”. 
Moving on without intermission, long-time regular David Louwerse and his cello took over strings duty for Sergei Rachmaninov’s Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, while the indefatigable François Daudet stayed at the keyboard. Not as widely known as the previous two pieces, our Russian portion of the evening nevertheless contained just about the same generous amount of compelling lyricism, as well as, in true Rachmaninov fashion, bell-like sonorities, bouts of mental anguish and overall mysticism. Giving equal importance to both instruments, the openly Romantic composition assigned each musician a daunting set of technical challenges, which they winningly overcame for a truly beautiful performance. 
So beautiful, in fact, that they decided to repeat the andante as an encore, and therefore concluded the concert on a seriously soulful note.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - The Golden Cockerel (Final Dress Rehearsal) - 07/21/21

Composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov 
Librettist: Vladimir Belsky 
Director/Producer: Barrie Kosky
Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon
Tsar Dodon: Dimitry Ulyanov 
Shemakha Queen: Nina Minasyan 
Astrologist: Vasily Efimov 
Aphron: Adrey Zhilikhovsky 
Gvidon: Vasily Efimov 
Polkan: Mischa Schelomianski 
Amlefa: Margarita Nebrasova 
Voice of the golden cockerel: Maria Nazarova
Body of the golden cockerel: Wilfried Gonon
Chorus: Chœur de l'Opéra de Lyon

“Never say never”, that’s what I was thinking as I was sitting down next to my mom in the Théâtre de l’Archevêché last Wednesday night at the personally unthinkable hour of… 10 PM, after two invitations to the final dress rehearsal of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel had unexpectedly fallen on my lap, and who was I to say no? So I said yes. And that’s how, after some last-minute schedule adjustment, a tentative disco nap and a substantial dinner, we were ready for what would be, this time for sure, the last opera of my first Festival international d’art lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence since the month-long event ended on Sunday. 
I did not know anything about The Golden Cockerel until it appeared on the festival’s program this year, and while I am a big fan of Russian music and always open to discovering new works, it did not feel like an absolute priority, until I was made an offer I simply could not refuse, that is. Moreover, my subsequent quick and totally informal survey taught me that while the opera is not very well-known, it is apparently worth-knowing. As an additional bonus, my inquiries also landed some interesting findings, such as a former Russian colleague having read the story as a child but having never heard of the opera, and my dad being given a recording of it by his mom when he was a teenager, and still remembering most of it. The man will never cease to surprise me! 

My first piece of intel about The Golden Cockerel informed me that it is based on a fairy tale in verse by Alexander Pushkin, which Rimsky-Korsakov turned into a sharp satire of Russian imperialism. That certainly sounded like an intriguing enough combination, which on top of it would probably open the door to all kinds of possibilities when it comes to staging it. Plus, an intermission-free two-hour performance would enable the show to briskly go on, and us to go back home at a semi-reasonable hour for opera buffs in summer (since apparently nobody in summer opera audiences have to go to work the next morning). 
Although the golden cockerel of the title has a pivotal role in the story, the opera’s main character is the hapless Tsar Dodon, whose laziness and sloppiness were made obvious as soon as the opera began by the quite disgusting ragtag outfits he was wearing. But while Russian bass Dimitry Ulyanov did not shy away from the Tsar’s unkemptness, his singing, all deep shades and emotional weight, was almost too magnificent for the part. Faced with what was essentially a daunting one-man show, he nevertheless went the whole distance with remarkable stamina and steadiness. 
The biggest distraction in his life was indisputably his encounter with the spell-binding and yet resolutely unattainable Shemakha Queen, to whom Armenian coloratura soprano Nina Minasyan gave dazzling vocal and physical life. Clad in a form-fitting sparkly dress and a high-feathered headdress, she looked like she was coming straight out of a Folies Bergères revue. Only that instead of the brash appeal of a showgirl, her artlessly luminous voice and discreetly tantalizing dance moves, not to mention her leg coquettishly sticking out as she was sitting down, couldn’t help but bring to mind the elusive eroticism of Scheherazade, this other powerfully seductive heroine of Rimsky-Korsakov. 
We regretfully did not get the planned astrologist, Russian tenor Andrei Popov, due to the latest COVID-related restrictions, so we ended up with Russian tenor Vasily Efimov singing the part from the wings while a stand-in was going through the character’s motions on the stage. But hey, that’s what you get when you attend a work-in-progress during a never-ending pandemic. 
The same Vasily Efimov was just as resourceful in his official role of Tsarevich Gvidon, one of the tsar’s two constantly-fighting-till-death-did-them-apart sons (Abel and Cain anyone?), AKA the nice one; Moldavian baryton Andrey Zhilikhovsky was equally efficient as his feistier sibling, Tsarevich Aphron. we quickly figured out that nothing good could come out of those two, but little did we know...
Russian talents were decidedly in full force in smaller parts with Russian bass Mischa Schelomianski’s general Polkan and Russian contralto Margarita Nekrasova’s housekeeper Amelfa. Both made the most of their characters with impressive vocal skills and strong stage presence. 
And what about the famous golden cockerel? Well, maybe because it was carrying such heavy responsibilities as not only the title role, but also as the foreseer of troubles to come, it took no less than two people to bring him to resounding life: Russian soprano Maria Nazarova provided remarkably loud and clear crowing, whose force only equaled its precision, from the wings. On the stage, the young and limber French actor Wilfried Gonon impersonated a cockerel as fascinating as foreboding, with few but well-calibrated moves, a de rigueur golden crest, and a lot of body paint. 
Beautifully contributing to the performance was the fantastic chorus, whose singers appeared as horses of a chess board for the men, as attractive ladies-in-waiting for the women, before they all cavorted in carnivalesque costumes as the kingdom’s people, and eventually stood in sober outfits for the equally sober epilogue, always impeccably fitting in. 

Although the original tale was unfolding in a quintessentially Russian context, Australian director Barrie Kosky judiciously decided to focus on its universality by coming up with a slightly surreal set à la Tim Burton, consisting of a landscape featuring a steep slope, countless bamboos and a dead tree, that looked in fact rather drab until soulful lighting made creative promises come true. As time went on, abstract and real, poetic and burlesque, humans and animals, all regularly interacted in a scenery where anything could happen, and pretty much did. 
Never hesitating to go the extra mile without ever going too far, as Kosky added some visually eye-popping touches such as the four Nijinsky-like dancers who sporadically showed up and did their thing in various, err, interesting outfits, including skimpy shimmering loincloths and not much else, or deliciously macabre scenes like the Tsar Dodon having a Hamlet lite moment when playing with his sons’ severed heads while their bodies were hanging upside down from the dead tree nearby. All those uncanny details were not only a feast for the eyes, but also winningly brought out the most unusual aspects of the score. 
Faithful to its composer’s mission of mixing illusion and reality, the abundantly lyrical music was full of contrasts, among which stood out, at least to my ears, the earthiness and exoticism of, respectively, western and eastern sounds, as well as the occasional bout of dark humor. In the pit, young and fearless Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni kept everything under control, even during the most challenging passages where the characters could have easily slipped into gross caricatures, and led the orchestra in a confident performance that effortlessly brought out the wild inventiveness of the whole enterprise. 

Cocorico to all indeed! Even better, it was all over at the stroke of midnight, and we were able to get some rest before moving on to new adventures.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - Tempest and Passion - 07/17/21

Balthasar Neumann Ensemble 
Conductor: Thomas Hengelbrook 
Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major 
Mozart: “Ruhe sanft, mein holders Leven” (Zaide
Mozart: “Et incarnatus est” (Mass in C Minor, K. 427) 
Mozart: “Alleluia” (Exsultate, jubilate) 
Soprano: Alexandra Flood 
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K 551 (Jupiter

As its name indicates, Aix-en-Provence’s prestigious Festival international d’art lyrique focuses on the many-faced art of the voice, and therefore mostly presents operas. But its original mission having broaden over the last few decades, nowadays it also offers a sizable choice of other events, among which are orchestral concerts that cover a wide range of works going from staunchly traditional to boldly adventurous. 
As my first opera at the festival, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, had been expertly performed by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, I figured that I might as well stick to the same composer and musicians for my first foray onto orchestral territory too. Another decisive selling point was a never-to-be-missed opportunity to hear the almighty Jupiter. Plus, his popular Symphony No. 39 was there too, as well as Mendelssohn’s "Infelice" for soprano and orchestra, providing just enough of a reminder that we were still at a lyrical art festival. 
The “Tempest and Passion” program may have been kind of predicable, but my well-planned evening had some surprises in store for me, starting when my cheap but very satisfactory nose-bleed seat in the Grand Théâtre de Provence was suddenly turned into an orchestra seat of my choosing right before the start of the concert. 
My stroke of luck, however, seemed to end just as quickly when, after I had strategically picked a seat in the middle of the partly filled last row for optimal view, acoustics and tranquility, a woman sitting nearby started to energetically fan herself, clearly not realizing that just the effort she was putting into it was probably making her even hotter. 
My luck quickly returned, however, when she got tired of it even before I did, and my enjoyment of Mozart’s 39th symphony was barely affected. Whew! 

And there was a lot to be enjoyed indeed! Although nobody can tell for sure if Mozart ever got to attend a performance of it, it can be assumed that he would have been pleased with the one by the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble on Saturday. The first of his last three symphonies has a lot going for it, what with an expansive adagio, a lovely andante, an attractive menuetto and trio, and a constantly surprising finale. All of those qualities and more were on full display on Saturday evening as the ensemble played with much commitment and vitality. 
Due to an illness, the promised Mendelsohn’s piece had been replaced by three arias by Mozart at the last minute, but young and endlessly versatile Australian soprano Alexandra Flood was unfazed, even if she needed her sheet music for the last two works. She handled them all with plenty of confidence and grace. 
Another surprise was that the intermission scheduled in the program did not happen in real life, but hey, who am I to complain about a well-paced evening? So we did not waste any time to move on to Mozart’s 41st and last symphony, which apparently was nicknamed “Jupiter” about a century after its composer had passed. 
Fact is though, rarely has a name been more fitting. With its Olympian perfection, its towering and yet accessible grandeur, its beautiful melodies and delightful surprises, it is the ultimate Mozartian gift that keeps on giving. Continuously digging out the little details while keeping the energetic pace that had adopted right at the famously attention-grabbing opening, the ensemble sounded like they were having as much fun as we were. 

But the concert that was not all-Mozart before becoming all-Mozart turned out not to be all-Mozart after all with a last, but definitely not least, surprise that included a couple of special guests from the Cuban-European Youth Academy (CuE), an innovative exchange program meant to help young Cuban and European musicians pursue the study of their craft. 
And that's how, on Saturday night, fabulous composer-first violin Jenny Peña Campo led the whole orchestra into an irresistibly sexy and infectious Latin-flavored encore of her own writing, which she eventually enhanced with hot dance moves with the equally talented maracas player. And just like that, this ultimate, totally unexpected treat of the evening got what even the Viennese master had not: a spontaneous long, roaring and standing ovation.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - Innocence - 07/10/21

Composer: Kaija Saariaho 
London Symphony Orchestra 
Librettist: Sofi Oksanen/Aleksi Barrière 
Conductor: Susanna Mälkki 
Producer/Director: Simon Stone 
Waitress: Magdalena Kožená 
Mother-in-Law: Sandrine Piau 
Father-in-Law: Tuomas Pursio 
Bride: Lilian Farahani 
Groom: Markus Nykänen 
Priest: Jukka Rasilainen 
Teacher: Lucy Shelton 
Markéta: Vilma Jää 
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir 

Since my first, long-overdue experience of Aix-en-Provence’s Festival international d’art lyrique was the oldest opera on this year’s program with Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, I figured that my second one might as well be the most recent opera on this year’s program, so recent in fact that it had its world première just one week before the performance I would attend, mine being technically the troisième of Kaija Saariaho’s much anticipated Innocence
I had been intrigued by her L’amour de loin when I saw at the Met back in 2016, and I consequently was very curious to see what the arguably most exciting contemporary opera composer has come up with lately. Truth be told, I was almost grateful for the pandemic since it had postponed the première of Innocence by a year, just in time for me to be in Aix to check it out. 
Even better, after having enjoyed two very different and equally rewarding outdoors performances so far this summer, I have to admit that I was shamelessly relishing the modern comfort of the deliciously plush seats and perfectly calibrated A/C of Aix’s Grand Théâtre de Provence, where I happily plopped myself down between a young Asian woman and an elderly German couple at the totally civilized time of 8:00 PM last Saturday evening. 

I knew very little about Innocence before committing to it, except that it was inspired by the 13 characters of The Last Supper, that its duration would be about 110 blissfully uninterrupted minutes, and that it would be sung and spoken in English, Finnish, Czech, Romanian, French, Swedish, German, Spanish and Greek, which of course did not fail to tickle the linguist in me. Once in the auditorium, there was no turning back as the compact Rubik’s Cube-like décor and the ominously dark first notes set the tone for a riveting evening. 
Although her first appearance was rather inconspicuous, there was soon little doubt that superb Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená would be the link between the joyful wedding and the tragic shooting that were happening 10 years apart in the expertly organized vignettes. And we could have hardly wished for a better one: She carried her visceral pain with painful dignity and thrilling vocal power. 
French soprano Sandrine Piau may be a Baroque specialist, but on Saturday night she brilliantly demonstrated that she’s just as comfortable with challenging contemporary music as the mother of the groom who just can’t let go of the past no matter how much denial she’s desperately trying to be in. 
Her husband did not fare much better in terms of dealing with upsetting ghosts and an uncertain future, and this was made perfectly clear by stern Finnish bass-baritone Tuomas Pursio, who was nevertheless still trying and failing to bring some normalcy into a situation that was anything but. 
Irano-Dutch soprano Lilian Farahani was achingly efficient as the young bride merrily celebrating her new life and her new family before the harsh truth brutally and irrevocably crushes her happy ending. 
As for her new husband, baby-faced but powerful-voiced Finnish tenor Markus Nykänen confidently went from unabashedly looking forward to the future to torn by unbearable guilt and despair. 
Germano-Finnish bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen was terrific as the heart-breaking priest who had lost his faith, but nevertheless remained the only friend and significant support of the ill-fated family. 
American soprano Lucy Shelton was deeply moving as the teacher who did not realize what was going on until it was too late, and subsequently had to renounce teaching out of excruciating guilt. 
The six young artists impersonating the international students all did an excellent job, whether they were acting, speaking or singing, but a special mention has to be made of young Czech folk singer Vilma Jää who, with her crystalline voice and otherworldly presence, was a truly outstanding Markéta. 
Although they were not visible, the members of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir provided a subtle touch of hauntingness to the performance. 

The homogenous cast was in fine form indeed, but the whole enterprise would not have succeeded so well if they had not benefitted from really ingenious staging. As it was, the various rooms distributed on the two levels of the continuously rotating, labyrinthic set allowed for seamless transitioning of past and present scenes as time inexorably went on. While such a concept could have easily brought confusion, in this case it was cleverly putting all the pieces of the puzzle together one by one like clockwork. 
By converting and emptying the various spaces until only a few symbolic touches remained (empty walls, dispersed corpses, blood stains), the Australian director Simon Stone helped the story steadily progress from the boisterous wedding party to the timidly hopeful conclusion, peppering it with memorable scenes such as Markéta’s first eerie appearance to her mother, or the quiet horror of the school shooting slowly unfolding with neither gun shots nor shooter, or the many consequence-heavy confrontations that left nobody intact. 
The ambitious score was both predictable and surprising in its boldly unusual and highly successful combination of textures, harmonies and colors that were conveyed by a wide range of techniques. Saariaho’s ever-inquisitive mind had obviously been at work again, and the result was fascinating. Throughout the evening, the story peeled off its many different layers, the characters revealed uncomfortable truths, and universal questions about innocence and guilt were raised. 
A staunch contemporary music advocate, and also Saariaho’s long-time partner in wild adventures, prominent Finnish maestra Susanna Mälkki led the reliably fabulous London Symphony Orchestra in a performance that was as pointedly multi-faceted and vividly human as the work itself. It can't have been an easy feat to keep the remarkably complex, dense-in-its-transparency music going for almost two hours, but they handled it like the true pros they are. 

The ovation was deservedly long and loud, and went up a few notches when pretty much everybody got up to greet a frail but smiling Kaija Saariaho as she was wheeled on the stage by Vilma Jää. By all accounts, she had done it again.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Festival international d'art lyrique - Le nozze di Figaro - 07/05/21

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 
Librettist: Lorenzo da Ponte 
Balthasar Neumann Ensemble 
Conductor: Thomas Hengelbrock 
Producer/Director: Lotte de Beer 
Andrè Schuen: Figaro 
Julie Fuchs: Susanna 
Gyula Orendt: Count Almaviva 
Jacquelyn Wagner: Countess Almaviva 
Lea Desandre: Cherubino 
Monica Bacelli: Marcellina 
Maurizio Muraro: Bartolo 
Choir: Chœur du CNRR de Marseille 

In normal times (Remember those?), if you were an opera buff and a Francophile, summer’s arrival could only mean one thing: It was time to pack up and head for Aix-en-Provence and its Festival international d’art lyrique (International Festival of Lyrical Art). Since its modest beginning in 1947 with a few low-key concerts and one opera (the little-known at the time Cosí fan tutte) the event has constantly evolved to nowadays present prestigious orchestras, world-famous artists, and numerous ground-breaking productions ranging from modern takes on war horses to specially commissioned works. 
This year again, the program does not lack ambition or eclecticism, plus a long list of strictly enforced “health and safety” rules, lingering pandemic oblige. But then again, what rules wouldn’t we follow to hear some live music again? Therefore, back in the spring, my mom and I wasted no time getting tickets for Le nozze di Figaro because, obviously, how could we go wrong with Mozart? Our next steps were getting our vaccines, and then keeping our fingers and toes solidly crossed until D-Day. All accomplished.
Truth be told, my relationship with Mozart’s beloved opera buffa has been a tad ambivalent. While I’ve always been in awe of the flawless score (Who isn’t?), I’ve also kind of resented the fact that, when faced with her husband’s unsavory intentions towards her own maid, the lovely countess does nothing but laments, and then forgives. Even before our long-overdue #MeToo era, this had always felt wrong. Was it too much to ask to have her kick the bastard out, or at the very least take a hot young lover of her own? 
Over two centuries later, enters fast-rising Dutch director Lotte de Beer and the promise of a feminist take on the misogynistic tale. So, it was with great expectations that we took our amazing seats among a bunch of German tourists in the festival’s most iconic venue, the wonderfully intimate Théâtre de l’Archevêché, in the courtyard of the imposing 14th-century palace of the city’s former archbishop, at the ungodly hour of 9:30 PM last Monday night. 

Based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1784 stage comedy La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Mad Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), Le nozze di Figaro was the first of three landmark Mozart-da Ponte collaborations, which would later include no less than Don Giovanni et Cosí fan tutte. Although it was only a critical success in Vienna, it soon became a huge hit in Prague, helping Mozart reach the rockstar status that he still holds there, and the rest has been history, as the almost-packed-despite-all-the-restrictions theater confirmed on Monday night. 
As if to underline that this production was indeed women-focused, the female singers turned out to be remarkably compelling, starting with French soprano Julie Fuchs, whose delightfully canny Susanna never stopped running around trying to do her job and to escape the count without missing a beat… or a note. 
American soprano Jacquelyn Wagner handled the unforgiving role of the hapless Countess Almaviva with much grace and commitment, and an exceptionally meticulous phrasing. From her first appearance, in an aerobics outfit that would have made Jane Fonda proud, to the sublime, high road-taking “Più docile io sono”, she made a memorable impression. 
I have never been a fan of trouser role, but I sure was internally cheering for Franco-Italian mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre every time she showed up and sang as the wide-eyed, totally endearing Cherubino. 
Last, but not least, Italian mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli expertly rounded up the female cast as a no-nonsense Marcellina. 
While the ladies deeply impressed, the men effortlessly fit the bill as well. Romano-Hungarian baritone Gyula Orendt was clearly having a field day as the lecherous Count Almaviva, the relentless predator that we all love to hate. In fact, the singer had such a charismatic presence, unflappable comic timing, in addition to a solid and flexible voice, that he made it hard for us to dismiss his character as just another jerk. 
Not to be outdone, his direct rival, the assertive and dignified Figaro, immensely benefitted from Italian baritone Andrè Schuen's vocal talent and strong personality, as well as his easy chemistry with the vivacious Susanna, at least until jealousy got the best of him. 
Italian bass Maurizio Muraro was a wonderful Bartolo in his smaller but essential role. 
The chorus, from Marseille, fit in seamlessly in what ended up being a mad performance of the infamous “Mad Day”. 

While the cast was highly competent in their various roles, the modern and resolutely farce-oriented production, introduced by a frantic commedia dell’arte-flavored overture, quickly proved to be frustratingly uneven. As much as I appreciated the fact that de Beer had whole-heartedly thrown herself into the exciting endeavor with a vivid imagination and a palpable sense of purpose, I also often felt that her generally commendable output was in dire need of some serious editing. 
For each brilliant idea, and there were for sure plenty of those, like the countess’ wide range of suicide attempts and failures, or the hot iron symbolizing burning desire, or the transgenerational female bonding over knitting (pussy hats?), there was a gag that was irrelevant, too heavy-handed, or simply not funny, like a bunch of cheerleaders coming out of the blue, or countless doors being incessantly slammed (Slapstick anyone?), or some good old raunchiness that overstayed its welcome (The huge, inflatable, multicolored tree made of phalluses slowly unfolding at the end was not as innovative as it looked. Yayoi Kusama thought of it first and better). 
I mean, did we really need a cream pie-throwing stunt during the ultimate feat of complexity and finesse that is the legendary sextet? That is one example of the main problem: While all the breathless agitation was going on in the admittedly smart, sitcom-worthy set of the first two acts, and then slowed down on the bare stage occupied by a large conjugal bed encased in the glass cage that was holding the countess prisoner (Get it?) and the subsequent make-shift forest, it was hard for Mozart’s magnificent score to receive all the attention it so richly deserves. 
It was all the more regrettable that down in the pit the German Balthasar Neumann Ensemble did an outstanding job under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock. From the dazzling overture to the superb finale, from the show-stopping arias to the extraordinary ensembles, the maestro and his musicians joined the singers to deliver a performance whose confident warmth, elegance and wit more often than not stood out in stark contrast to all the forced entertainment raging above them. And just that was worth the (stiff) price of admission. 

That said, after having stumbled back into the real world at 1:30 AM, during the 5-minute walk and then the 5 flights of stairs leading to my apartment, we had to admit that there was no denying the pure joy of hearing beautiful music on a beautiful summer night in a beautiful Provençal town.