Power and Exile: Moïse et Pharaon at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

RossiniMoïse et Pharaon

Moïse Michele Pertusi
Adrian Sâmpetrean
Jeanine De Bique
Pene Pati
Vasilisa Berzhanskaya
Mert Süngü
Géraldine Chauvet
Osiride, Une voix mystérieuse
Edwin Crossley-Mercer
Alessandro Luciano

Chœur de l’Opéra de Lyon, Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon / Michele Mariotti.
Stage director – Tobias Kratzer.

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Thursday, July 7th, 2022.

Tonight marked the premiere of this new production of Moïse et Pharaon at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.  Tobias Kratzer is known as a director with a strong social conscience – one need only think of his Fidelio at the London Royal Opera which, in a country governed by the extremist far-right, showed what happens when we stand by while others suffer.  Watching this work close to the Mediterranean Sea, where those in the most desperate of situations attempt daily to cross to Europe, it was natural that Kratzer would want to explore the nature of exile, of power relations between those who have so much and those who are desperate for a better life, and of love between cultures and social class. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Kratzer sets the action in a courtyard that could be a part of any converted building in an ancient city such as this.  On the one hand, one sees a corporate office, the world of the Pharaon occupied by people in suits; on the other, a refugee camp occupied by the Israelites.  While virtually all the cast is dressed in modern dress, Moïse is dressed in typically biblical attire, as if Charlton Heston revived.  This raises issues of faith and agency that I don’t think Kratzer fully engages with, given how prominent Moïse is to the story.  Are we watching something allegorical here, or are we instead watching a literal interpretation of a cult led by a leader who inspires them through performing miracles dressed in biblical costume?  My own interpretation of Kratzer’s view on this is that he sees the miracles – the plagues, the parting of the waves – as figments of the imaginations of people who desire better, but again, I’m not convinced he makes this explicitly clear to his audience.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The other area where I found Kratzer’s direction less than convincing was in the personenregie.  Far too often, characters would just sing to the floor in front of them.  It felt that we were watching a group of people with inner thoughts expressing them to themselves rather than to others.  This meant that the extensive duet between Anaï and Aménophis seemed to lack in chemistry between the characters, making it hard to believe in any kind of relationship between them.  The same goes for the scene between Aménophis and Sinaïde, again there the interaction between the characters felt more performative than genuine and tender. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

That said, Kratzer gives us a closing scene of undeniable power.  One that makes us truly reflect on how fortunate we are to live in a world where we can consume art freely.  There were a few isolated boos at the end (drowned out by cheers) and, as at that Fidelio, it made me reflect that those booing had no awareness of how fortunate we are to live in Europe, and while the forces of the far right are in power in the UK, Hungary, Poland and others, we can, and indeed should, fight back and make a difference for a better day. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The evening was led musically by Rossini specialist Michele Mariotti.  He has this music in his bones, having been born in Pesaro.  I found his reading to focus very much on bel canto beauty of line.  This worked well in those long-lined, pensive choruses, or when he needed his principals to dispatch long, florid lines.  Where I found Mariotti’s reading less convincing was in the lack of firmness of attack, of rhythmic propulsion, and of leading a rhythmically tight reading off the stick.  Instead, his conducting felt somewhat over-manicured and lacking in dramatic tension, which meant that the evening dragged.  The Lyon orchestra played with commitment, but the strings weren’t always completely united in approach – some passages of less than unanimous negotiation of the more florid writing, or sour string intonation, reoccurred throughout the evening.  The chorus was also committed, singing with generosity and vibrant tone, even if the sopranos weren’t always ideally blended with each other.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Michele Pertusi brought his considerable background in Rossinian style to the role of Moïse.  This was exemplified by the way he sustained those long, florid lines with impeccable breath control and an implicit understanding of the style.  However, the more declamatory writing saw his bass sounding grainy in tone, the sound emerging seemingly through sheer determination.  Adrian Sâmpetrean brought an exceptionally handsome bass-baritone to the role of the Pharaon.  As with Pertusi, he has an implicit understanding of the style and gave us singing that was warm in tone, combined with an impressive ability to turn the corners. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Pene Pati took on the role of Aménophis.  It’s a big sing, requiring a heft and ping at the top, with that typical Rossinian ability to dispatch long, florid lines.  Pati had clearly worked hard on the text, but his French was rather anglophone in flavour.  His nutty tenor has some attraction in the tone, but it struck me that the technique is unfinished, in as much a technique can ever be ‘finished’.  The top was unreliable, lacking in consistency of approach, and some of the acuti were a bit misadvised.  Pati became audibly tired as the evening progressed, to the extent I feared he wouldn’t last the course.  There’s some promise there as an artist, but I felt tonight that either Pati was suffering from an unannounced indisposition or that he was miscast in an extremely demanding role.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Jeanine De Bique dispatched Anaï’s music in her customary diamond-toned soprano.  Her mastery of the demanding Rossinian coloratura was spectacular, dispatching endless streams of perfectly modulated runs with ease.  It did sound, at least in this acoustic, that the top was somewhat problematic, with De Bique not quite sustaining the higher-lying phrases with the ease one might have expected, the tone starting to flag somewhat.  A friend whose opinion I trust on voices had raved to me about Vasilisa Berzhanskaya and I must say he was right.  This lady is a phenomenal talent.  She sang Sinaïde’s music with immaculate control and a top that seemingly defied gravity.  The voice has an attractive plushness and warmth to the tone and her ability to negotiate the coloratura was seriously impressive.  A name to watch.  Edwin Crossley-Mercer was luxury casting as Osiride, singing in his customary firm baritone, while Mert Süngü dispatched Eliézer’s music in a compact tenor with an easy top.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

This was an evening that had much to offer, both musically and dramatically, but that ultimately left me with a sense of a whole that wasn’t quite complete – although this isn’t an uncommon feeling on a first night of a new production.  Musically, we got some thrilling singing, as well as some that was more problematic.  The conducting focused heavily on bel canto beauty, somewhat to the detriment of drama.  Kratzer’s staging does have so much to offer, but here again, the impact was blunted by the personenregie.  In humanizing the plight of refugees, Kratzer is making a theatrical statement that should inspire us to be better humans.  The fact that a small number of people booed goes to show that there is much to do in trying to make a better world.  Fortunately, the cheers were so much louder than the boos and in his closing tableau, he reminded us that we all have a responsibility to make a difference.  And when all is said and done, this is what an inspiring evening in the theatre does.

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