In July 2005 I went to Aix-en-Provence to attend two opera performances: Così fan tutte and Il barbiere di Siviglia. Here is a review I did for an internet forum on the Così fan tutte performance.
The opera was directed by Patrice Chéreau and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg choir were conducted by Daniel Harding. It was taking place in the courtyard of the Arch Bishop’s palace downtown Aix – a most beautiful location spiced up with a warm, quiet July night featuring a rising moon behind the stage.
I think it was a splendid production with one of the best directions of the piece I have ever seen. The opening scene where the wager is established between Don Alfonso (Ruggero Raimondi), Ferrando (Shawn Mathey) and Guglielmo (Stéphane Degout) was brillant and original. I have never seen it done as a real fight where Don Alfonso actually fears for his life. Raimondi did a great job in portraying an old man standing firm on his principles and beliefs but also afraid of these two fops who are not carrying their swords as toys. Very interesting idea that Don Alfonso is not really master of the situation. In all it was a very serious and dark interpretation which I liked, since I often find Così fan tutte to be interpreted rather too lightly.
The scenography was quite harmless in my eyes. It didn’t provoke me and it didn’t awake much interest either. I am sure there was a lot of thought behind it but it is not clear to me what about. It was the back stage of a modern theatre. Was it because we are seing the back of the persons’ feelings – the dark side? Or because we witness also what takes place behind the scenes? I don’t think I am concluding the right things which is, I believe, a problem. If I can’t understand the staging something is not working. I am not a professional but I have seen a lot of opera and theatre and I have almost completed my 7 year study in the humanities (art history) – so I feel capable in terms of interpreting staging and direction. Excuse me, this is not meant as an egotism, just to say that if I don’t get it a lot of my co-audience is not getting it either.
The singers were very good. Especially Elina Garanca (Dorabella) and Shawn Mathey will stay in my memory for a long time. Normally I prefer barytones (surprise, surprise…) but this young american tenor made me listen so very carefully to every syllable. He gave us “Un’aura amorosa” so that 1500 people held their breath. I think this got to be the most wonderful performance of a tenor aria I have ever heard.
And Raimondi? He was much better than I expected. I had told myself that I was going to hear a man well past 60, trying to put down my expectations. But he was very good. Of course he has been better but there was not a single minimally embarrassing moment (as there can be with singers even ten years younger the he) just nice singing and perfect acting.
I made a wonderful mistake in the first act: I found my seat ”H22” which was a much better seat than I expected having bought a student ticket (where you cannot choose your seat) but having experienced something similar in Salzburg I didn’t think more of it. As the lights went out and we expected the conductor three italians ran in to be seated in the last moment. It turned out that I had taken one of their seats! But as the opera was about to begin there was no time to realize that and the two women sat besides me and the man found another (good) seat some metres off. In the break it turned out that there were two ”H22” and that my seat was in the balcony not on the floor. The italians were furious and not even my most humble excuses in their own tongue made them more cheerful. BUT! I think there was some sort of poetic justice in the whole story. They were very late and I, a poor opera loving student, got a seat just next to Ruggero Raimondi singing the opening scene! I was there waiting for the singers to enter and from behind I hear feet running down the steps just next to me. My first thought was (knowing the opera) ”here comes Raimondi” and yes indeed – the next moment he is standing in front of me. Value for money;-)
Back to the other singers: Barbara Bonney was a disappointment. I have heard her live a couple of times and I love her voice, but as Despina she was not good. She lacked spirit and acted as she was casted for Ariadne or some other depressed figure. I think part of it was the direction, and I like the idea that Despina has had some bad experinces with men and therefore is without any illusions. But this angry and bitter character? I love it when Alfonso and Despina make an odd third couple, flirting and being in it together – none of that was to hope for with Bonney. And how much fun it would have been with Raimondi! Such a pity.
Well as she was the least important I went home with a feeling of absolute happiness. Musically it was a perfect evening with Daniel Harding conducting a fast and crisp version of Mozart (how I think it should be done) and the direction I liked very much. Coming from Copenhagen I am used to good directions and scenographies and singer teams where maybe half is very good and the rest in the middle, so I have learned to appreciate an evening with world class singers and orchestra. This was a wonderful experience!