Visions of the Beyond: Résurrection at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Mahler – Symphony No. 2

Soprano – Golda Schultz
Mezzo-Soprano – Marianne Crebassa

Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris, Jeune Chœur de Paris, Orchestre de Paris / Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Stage director – Romeo Castellucci.

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Stadium de Vitrolles, Vitrolles, France.  Sunday, July 10th, 2022. 

When Romeo Castellucci’s staging of the Mozart Requiem was staged at this very festival back in 2019, it was widely received as a revelation.  This staging of Mahler’s second symphony, creating a show entitled ‘Résurrection’, is in many respects a sequel to that seminal production, which has since been seen all over the world.  Resurrection in this case refers not only to Mahler’s symphony and its subject matter, but also to the venue.  For this production, the festival joined forces with the nearby city of Vitrolles to renovate the Stadium, an arena which was constructed in 1994, only to fall into disuse four years later.  It’s a striking building, a block of concrete now covered in graffiti, situated in a red-soiled landscape that could be on the outskirts of Brasília as much as in Provence.  While striking from the outside, the venue on the inside brings a new meaning to the idea of suffering for art – the room was extremely hot, the rake vertigo-inducingly steep, and the seats were hard and very close together which, in a time of plague and given the French public’s reluctance to wear masks, was perhaps less than optimal, despite the extremely inspiring nature of the building itself.  Yet as soon as the show began, one forgot about the discomfort and the risk of catching plague and one was completely and overwhelmingly brought into a work of art of vision and originality. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The past two years have marked all of us with loss.  Some have lost loved ones, others their way of life, all of us the way we lived before.  Castellucci’s work tonight felt cathartic, as if allowing us to relive all of the pain of the last two years and allowing us, as Werther’s Charlotte would say, to ‘laisse couler les larmes’.  The ambition of Castellucci’s work is staggering – and the budget must have been extremely generous.  The action takes place on a platform, taking up around a third of the area of the Stadium.  The orchestra, chorus and soloists performed from a pit in front of the action.  The first visual of the evening, before the music began, was the sight of a beautiful white horse, running free in a field of mud.  Once her owner finds her, the owner realizes that the horse has discovered a body under the mud.  Over the course of the next ninety minutes, we watch a group of people exhume what transpires to be a mass grave, removing scores of bodies, laying them out and then packing them up. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The image of a mass grave feels particularly timely given what we have lived through over the past two years.  Whether seeing those mass graves of pandemic victims in Manaus or, more recently, victims of Russian atrocities in Bucha or Mariupol.  The presence of trucks marked with UNHCR is a reminder also of where hate can lead us – particularly if we bear in mind how the rhetoric of far-right politicians, such as Priti Patel in the UK, breeds on hate and dehumanization. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The thread through all of this is Mahler’s music and it struck me throughout the evening of how Castellucci’s visuals enhanced and grew out of Mahler’s score, leading us to feel, to think, and indeed to grieve all we have lost in the past two years.  As the brass chorale rang out in the ‘Urlicht’, the diggers stood still, a moment of peace and reflection, where the implications of the mass graves became clear.  Later, in the fifth movement, where those soaring fanfares appeared to promise momentarily a glorious life ever after, one determined digger kept searching for bodies, only now to find items of clothing left from the departed.  This I found such an affecting image.  Perhaps she was a family member of those who had left, trying desperately to find answers, to deal with a grief that was only just starting to manifest itself.  In a way, it’s quite a depressing view of the beyond, that idea that there really is nothing that could follow the end.  But I was also, waking up the next day, left with a sense that life really is for living and that we should make the very most of every possible chance of happiness. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

How could one follow such powerful imagery? Perhaps in the only way possible – by allowing us to focus almost exclusively on the vocal message.  In giving us the opportunity to look into the void of the now empty, muddy field, Castellucci allowed Mahler’s choral finale to achieve its maximum power.  After all, ‘was entstanden ist, das muss vergehen’.  While that great final peroration took place, we saw rain fall over the field, washing away the traces of the grave, creating the ground again as new.  The effect was overwhelming.  Yes, those we have loved may have gone, their traces may no longer be with us, but their memory will be forever present – and that is something that nobody can take from us.  Indeed, the memory of this evening will stay with me for a very long time.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Musically, Esa-Pekka Salonen led an Orchestre de Paris on magisterial form.  Amplification was used in order to boost the sound with the effect that Mahler’s climaxes become overwhelming.  The sound itself was rather tinny for the strings and, perhaps given the location of my seat in the auditorium, they sounded as if they were playing behind the winds and brass.  Salonen’s reading was rather brisk, but he made the first movement sound like an expressionistic nightmare, using the amplification to bring out the intricacies of Mahler’s writing.  The scherzo led us on with inexorable force, the winds and brass giving us echoes of klezmer that felt more nightmarish than familiar.  Salonen kept tight control of the disparate forces in the finale, although the chorus had a tendency to fall behind the beat in places. 

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The choral sound from the tenors and basses was wonderfully full in tone, the amplification bringing out the impact of the lower basses as they descended to the sepulchral depths.  The sopranos had a tendency to flatness as they soared in their final phrases, but the addition of the electronic organ gave the total sound an overwhelming glow.  Marianne Crebassa sounded rather out of sorts in the mezzo part.  She had difficulty sustaining those long Mahlerian lines, the tone faltering towards the end of phrases.  Her German was also not as clear as it could have been, the ‘ch’ sound in ‘ich’ and ‘mich’ practically non-existent.  Golda Schultz was a radiant presence in the soprano part, singing with wonderful textual acuity, soaring over the choral forces with limpid, creamy beauty.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

This was an unforgettable evening and the kind of event that only a festival such as this can give us.  Castellucci, together with Salonen, has given us a work of art that speaks to our experience of the last two years, that allows us to feel and to grieve, and to inspire us, not with the reality of what happens after death, but to use the time that we have to make the world a better place for us and for others.  The sheer depth of Castellucci’s vision, the fluency with which he realized it, combined with the excellence of the musical performance, made for an evening that will stay with those who saw it for a very long time.  Applause felt cathartic afterwards, with the audience greeting the cast with an enormous ovation.

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