All the Perfumes of Araby
directed by Martin Kušej
conducted by Jérémie Rhorer
The entire stage is one vast bed. Tytania sleeps in it, Puck bounces on it, Oberon struts proudly over the covers. The sky is a midnight blue, both on the stage and above it.
Robert Carsen's 1991 production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a piece of history. It was the young director's first international big break, and gave the Festival a fresh new take on Britten's work.
The production has travelled widely in the interim, and will continue to do so. For Aix, Carsen has lovingly reworked his old production. Michael Levine's sets and costumes do show their age - does anyone still use that shade of blue? - but everything else looks fresh enough to provoke a tinge of nostalgia for a time when a production could be modern and yet still tell the story at face value.
Kazushi Ono's conducting undoubtedly helps. The orchestra of the National Opera of Lyon rewards him with lush, precise playing, while a strong, well-matched cast devotes just as much care and attention to detail to their parts as Carsen has to the staging. If Brindley Sherratt's Bottom gets the most laughs, Lawrence Zazzo's Oberon has the best moments; he manages the transitions from haughty scorn to seductive charm with consummate skill.
All of this proves a stark and not particularly flattering contrast to the previous evening's brand new Entführung aus dem Serail, also presented in the peerless outdoor Théâtre de l'Archeveché. A quarter of a century after Carsen's charming take on midsummer confusion, Martin Kušej has taken it upon himself to produce an updated version of Mozart's Singspiel that has something profound to say about Arab-Christian tension. Festivals are, of course, an ideal place for bold artistic experiments, and Aix's courage in standing up for Kušej's vision is in itself commendable.
But when Indendant Bernard Foccroulle appeared before curtain up on opening night, metaphorically wringing his hands and begging the audience for its understanding, it seemed a fair bet that Kušej's handiwork had not produced quite the results he had hoped for.
In these difficult times, said Foccroulle, Kušej's choice of images could prove too painful for some emotional viewers; accordingly, Festival management had intervened to excise two scenes that could potentially have caused offense.
Kušej's Bassa Selim lives in a tent in the desert in 1920s Palestine, surrounded by turbaned henchmen. Belmonte and his cohorts wear Western dress and swear in American-accented English. Together with German celebrity playwright Albert Ostermaier, Kušej has re-written Gottlieb Stephanie's texts, to profoundly unfortunate effect.
"Like a fist, my heart grabs what it needs," declares Blonde, and the entire audience seems to groan quietly.
When the music has finished, only Bassa Selim remains on stage. Osmin returns from the wings clutching a bundle of clothing from the four Europeans, all of it blood-stained. Rumour has it that he was to have reappeared with four bleeding heads. Would it have made much difference?
Certainly it would not have saved this production from its biggest handicap, the complete absence of meaningful insight. Where Kušej sets out to cast a profound look at the Middle East in a time where current conflicts began, he falls far short of his own ambitions and presents us, rather, with a desperately cliched series of images of primitive, gun-toting sheiks and their poor little white victims.
What does Mozart's Singspiel gain from a few references to oil-fields, large quantities of sand and some interpolated platitudes?
Superlative singing and thrilling conducting could make us believe more in Kušej's hackneyed Arabian dream. But of an adequate Aix cast, only Franz Josef Selig's full-blooded Osmin and David Portillo's sharply-drawn Pedrillo provide moments of excitement. Jane Archibald's Konstanze is steadfastly run-of-the-mill, Daniel Behle's Belmonte restrained and cautious, Rachele Gilmore's Blonde equally muted.
Jérémie Rhorer conducts the excellent Freiburger Barockorchester with lively tempi and a good sense of balance, but too often the ensembles do not hold together.
Even the boos for the direction team at the end of the long evening sound tired. Kušej has failed to provide true controversy because he has failed to provide true content. It is an opportunity lost.
photos | ©Pascal Victor