A Requiem for Humanity: Mozart’s Requiem at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Mozart – Requiem

Soprano – Siobhán Stagg
Contralto – Sara Mingardo
Tenor – Martin Mitterrutzner
Bass – Luca Tittoto
Enfant chanteur – Elias Pariente

Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon
Stage director – Romeo Castellucci

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Saturday, July 13th, 2019.

The only certainties in life are death and taxes, so the old saying goes.  Death, or rather extinction, lies at the heart of Romeo Castellucci’s new staging of the Mozart Requiem for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.  The evening, developed in collaboration with the Music Director of Ensemble Pygmalion, Raphaël Pichon (who also conducted his orchestra and chorus), combined Mozart’s mass in Süssmayr’s completion, with other music by Mozart, as well as an anonymous other influenced by him.  These included Gregorian chant, as well as the Meistermusik, and ‘O Gottes Lamm’ from the Zwei deutsche Kirchenlieder arranged by Vincent Manac’h.  It made for an intriguing musical and dramatic concept, one that promised much.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / ArtCom Press

It can often feel, listening to the opening measures of the Requiem, that one is listening to the darkest night of the soul, with consolation eventually brought by the entry of the soprano soloist.  In advance, one might have expected the visuals conceived by Castellucci to match this.  Instead, he takes us on a journey from death to life to a final awareness of death.  The opening scene sees a woman laying dead in her bed, alone on a black stage.  As the ‘requiem’ evolves, the stage becomes completely white, life literally being re-born in front of us.  Castellucci populates his stage with minimal sets.  Instead, he uses the singers of the Ensemble Pygmalion, as well as the soloists and a corps of dancers from the PNSD Rosella Hightower, to create constantly evolving stage pictures.

In a number of respects, this is a sister staging to Castellucci’s Madrid Moses und Aron, in the initial cleanness of the visuals, the use of the choral forces to create stage pictures, as well as the use of paint combined with captions on the back of the stage to set the scene.  What is surprising initially is the use of folkloric dance.  The idea of the chorus dancing the ‘dies irae’ might seem initially to be quite strange, yet it succeeded in two respects – to magnify the balletic athleticism of the music itself, but also rather than finding fear in death, it finds life.  There’s a reminder that even in the darkest moments that life continues, and that grief can also be a time of communal celebration of past memories.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / ArtCom Press

There is, however, a shadow hanging over the celebrations.  The captions on the back of the stage list names of things the world has lost – species, languages, buildings, peoples.  The pristine white of the stage is gradually rebuilt on, trees planted, soil covering what was once unspoiled, the walls sprayed with garish paint.  A young girl is covered in paint.  It can sound heavy-handed but the effect was consistently intriguing and, as Castellucci listed the names of destroyed synagogues on the back wall, for this spectator the impact was extremely moving.  Similarly, we might be able to accept the loss of distant species we’ve barely, if ever, heard of, but when Castellucci lists Chernobyl and Fukushima under ‘villes détruites’ it suddenly starts to hit closer to home.

Following the celebration of life, Castellucci achieves quite a visual coup.  The white background of the stage disappears, to be replaced by a black background listing ‘les extinctions d’aujourd’hui’.  As the evening comes to a close, the stage is elevated upwards, losing the detritus of the ages and gradually returns back to its unblemished state.  The stagecraft involved was seriously impressive.  The closing sounds, a boy singing a plainsong ‘in paradisum’, the closing sight a baby alone on stage.  There’s a darkness and yet a hope to Castellucci’s imagery that I found entirely convincing, even if along the way there were a few things that didn’t quite convince.  For instance, a wrecked car upon which members of the chorus posed in turn, or the fact that the soloists were marched on for their contributions and then marched off.

The most memorable moment came as Sara Mingardo sang ‘O Gottes Lamm’.  Above the stage, the caption predicted the extinction of ‘émerveillement’.  Somehow, in the elegant simplicity and beauty of Mingardo’s singing, I don’t think wonder is going anywhere soon.  Her contralto is in fabulous shape, warm and generous with an elegant legato.  Siobhán Stagg’s soprano started off a little tremulously, the tone not quite under complete control.  As the evening developed, she found her form, capping the ensembles in long, silvery lines.  Martin Mitterrutzner brought his bright, well-placed tenor to his music, singing with youthful tone.  On the bass line, Luca Tittoto was a humane presence, the tone perhaps with a wiry edge, but had depth and musicality to spare.  Perhaps the most astounding singing came from the boy soprano, Elias Pariente.  Unfazed by performing in front of a large audience, he sang a vocalise based on the music of the ‘Kyrie’ of the C Minor Mass with an ease and musicality that belied his young years.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / ArtCom Press

Astounding also the contributions of the Ensemble Pygmalion chorus.  Despite the extremely busy staging, they dispatched the fugal writing with staggering accuracy and tightness of ensemble – no ragged final consonants here.  There was a unanimity of approach between stage and pit that was seriously impressive.  Even when lined up, laying on their backs for ‘O Gottes Lamm’, they savoured the text, the 36 singers interpreting it collectively as if a single voice.  The choral sound was captivating.   The sopranos even in tone yet with a fizzy vibrato, mezzos (both women and men) tart and spicy, the tenors finding a metal that shone through the texture, and the basses firm and able to descend to the sepulchral depths with easy resonance.

Pichon led a masterful reading.  He found a balletic athleticism to the ‘ingemisco’ that matched that of the stage pictures.  Similarly, he built up the ‘lacrymosa’ with unbending tension, taking it slightly more slowly than one might have expected, but moulding it, shaping it, so that it unfolded organically, pulling the listener in.  His sizable string section was immaculate in tuning throughout.  The brass, especially, full of personality, while the basset horns added a beguiling raspiness to the texture.

This was undoubtedly a musically remarkable evening.  The quality of the playing and singing was exceptional.  Even more so, given that this was sustained despite a very active choreography.  As for Castellucci’s visualization, it certainly made for an intriguing evening and there’s no doubt that it was presented logically and fluently.  There were a few moments along the way that were somewhat distracting and/or unconvincing but ultimately, Castellucci’s meditation on death, our awareness of our own extinction, and rebirth was indeed moving.

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