Implications of War: Idomeneo at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Mozart – Idomeneo

Idomeneo – Michael Spyres
Idamante – Anna Bonitatibus
Ilia – Sabine Devieilhe
Elettra – Nicole Chevalier
Arbace – Linard Vrielink
Gran Sacerdote di Nettuno – Krešimir Špicer
La Voce – Alexandros Stavrakakis

Pygmalion / Raphaël Pichon.
Stage Director – Miyagi Satoshi.

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Friday, July 8th, 2022.

This new Idomeneo at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence marked the return of Raphaël Pichon and his superb Pygmalion orchestra and chorus to the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, following their musically stupendous Mozart Requiem here back in 2019, just before the world changed.  It also marked the first opera for noted Japanese stage director, Miyagi Satoshi, united around a cast that on paper looked extremely promising – and did indeed fulfil its promise tonight.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Miyagi gives us a staging that feels universal, while staying true to his Nipponese roots.  He makes use of the conventions of opera seria to create an evening that is both unconventional and extremely convincing.  Just as in the aftermath of Cretan war, Miyagi was inspired to use the events of the plot to give us a reflection on the Japan of 1945.  The regal figures of Idomeneo, Idamante and Ilia, are perched on top of columns that are wheeled around the stage.  Elettra, on the other hand, moves between being on the stage and being on a column, as if living in two worlds.  As the evening progresses, we become gradually aware that the columns are in fact moved by people, and that the chorus and extras are almost hidden, ghost-like figures imprisoned within the columns, whose influence on the events is muted.  This I found to be a very interesting and pertinent reflection – the idea that war is not done to its leaders but to the people who have to live with the consequences.  This impression was heightened by the fact that the principals remain relatively static on stage, all while being moved around, gesticulating in hieratic gestures, yet remaining cold and aloof from the crowd below.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

The downside of such an approach is that it could lack in dramatic impetus.  How often have we sat through a show where figures sing to the front and don’t engage with each other?  Yet here, I think it works – partly as a result of the form of opera seria, partly also because Miyagi gives us stage pictures that are constantly evolving and makes us reflect on the implications of war and of leadership.  It also places great demands on the principals to find meaning in their music even more than if their movements were freer – and in almost all cases they were successful in this.  This is an extremely fluent and fluid piece of theatre, one that requires the chorus and actors to execute movements of remarkable complexity, all while negotiating columns around a set.  That they did this, and also executed other movements such as processing in formation, with such accuracy is a sign of the intense work that had gone into the staging.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Musically, Pichon led his orchestra and chorus in a reading that was entirely convincing.  The sound world produced by Pygmalion was full of a rainbow of orchestral colour.  Right from the overture, surging with the heady sounds of waves, it was clear that we were in for a very special evening.  Pichon’s tempi were well-nigh ideal and he inspired his cast to decorate their lines with taste, each principal making it sound tonight like they were the only people in the world capable of singing their roles.  String intonation was spot-on and Pierre Gallon’s fortepiano scintillated beguilingly within the orchestral textures.  The choral singing was superb – tuning utterly impeccable, the blending between the voices brought out the beauties of Mozart’s harmonies, and the work of the choral soloists was testament to the quality of the voices Pichon can call on in his forces.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Michael Spyres brought his unique instrument to the title role.  He gave us a staggering ‘fuor del mar’, with seemingly endless breath control, sustaining the runs with remarkable accuracy and growing from a baritonal bottom register to a bright and shining top.  The warmth of this tone gave his Idomeneo even more gravitas than we often hear.  Spyres gave us a staggering piece of singing tonight.  As Idamante, Anna Bonitatibus brought her familiar orange-toned mezzo to the role.  Bonitatibus transcended the static nature of the staging, filling the text with meaning and drawing out so much detail, varying the tone to create such a convincing incarnation of her character even with the minimum of movement, thereby rendering the surtitles superfluous.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Sabine Devieilhe sang Ilia with long, limpid lines and beguiling beauty of tone.  The voice is in wonderful shape, able to do all that its owner asks of it.  Devieilhe added some stratospheric embellishments to her line, floating on high bringing the tone right down to a silvery thread, yet able to carry with ease into the furthest corners of the auditorium under the magical Provençal stars.  And yet, despite the undoubted excellence of her vocalism and clarity of the text, Devieilhe left me relatively cold.  I think that this was due to the relative lack of variety of tone colours and ability to use vocal colour to draw out meaning.  This of course could have been heightened by the static stating in a way that it might not have been as noticeable in a more active one.  Nicole Chevalier gave us a passionate Elettra.  Hers isn’t the most refulgent of sopranos, but she sang with genuine feeling, drawing out meaning and filling the text with drama.  Her ‘d’Oreste, d’Ajace’ was sung with undeniable rage, the text spat out and the voice taken to its limits to portray Elettra’s desperation.  The remaining roles were agreeably taken, reflecting the quality one has come to expect here.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

This was a fascinating evening in the theatre. Unconventional, certainly, but also one that was clearly a thoughtful and intelligent piece of theatre and that provoked thought and discussion.  It was visually impressive and had clearly been prepared with care and fluency.  Musically, it really was at the very highest level.  We heard singing from the principals that was the epitome of Mozartian style, while Pichon and his forces gave us a reading that was full of colour in tempi that always felt right.  The audience gave the cast a very warm welcome at the close. 

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