Poolside Singers Toy With Puppets as French Show Charms: Review

A very watery production is stealing the show at France’s Aix-en-Provence festival this year.

In Robert Lepage’s striking take on Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale,” the orchestra pit has been turned into a pool that singers wade through as they operate puppets with the help of rubber-suited divers. Also on stage at Aix this season: Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Gluck’s “Alceste.”

“The Nightingale” -- an import from Toronto -- is by far the best. Canadian-born Lepage is known for his imaginative mix of theater, music, dance and puppetry, and he brings Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale delightfully to life.

Lepage puts the Lyon Opera orchestra (conducted by Kazushi Ono) onstage, and sets most of the action in the pit of the Grand Theatre de Provence, which has been filled with water for the occasion. Except for the nightingale, the emperor and the chamberlain, all singers have to splash through their roles.

Not only that: While singing, they must operate nearly 100 puppets representing the dramatis personae and the many minions at the court of the moribund Emperor of China. They’re aided by half a dozen frogmen and frogwomen.

The effect is quite simply magical.

At the premiere, the Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, who delivers the nightingale’s languid notes with aplomb, was greeted with a thunderous ovation. Among other singers, Edgaras Montvidas’s lyrical Fisherman stood out.

Because “The Nightingale” lasts less than an hour, the first part of the evening is filled with snippets from Stravinsky’s folk-style repertoire -- lighter fare, charmingly presented as shadow plays.

Rating: ****.

Don Giovanni

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s “Don Giovanni,” by contrast, proves that the virus of German “Regietheater,” or director-driven theater, is spreading to Russia.

The production -- set in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace, the festival’s main venue -- starts with a silent scene that would have baffled the composer: The cast sits around a table in the Commendatore’s library, staring at the landlord.

Tcherniakov explains in the program that “Don Giovanni” is a family drama, and its hero is the black sheep of the clan. To Tcherniakov, it seems, the opera’s many scene changes are distractions from the central theme. So the library remains his only setting.

As a result, all the funny episodes of mistaken identity and nocturnal exchange fall flat. There is nothing jocular in this version of Mozart’s “dramma giocoso.” Don Giovanni, wearing a shabby camel-hair coat over a torn undershirt, cuts a sad figure -- more nutcase than seducer.

Family Freak

The ending is no less surprising. The Commendatore who appears at the dinner table is not the real one, but rather a doppelganger hired by Ottavio with the intention of scaring the family freak. Whether Giovanni survives is unclear: In the final sextet, he still lies writhing on the floor.

The inconsistencies and too-clever-by-half ideas would be easier to stomach were the singing better. Bo Skovhus’s Giovanni sounds tired. Colin Balzer is a dry Ottavio. Marlis Petersen’s Anna and Kristine Opolais’s Elvira have a sour voice.

The best vocalism comes from Kyle Ketelsen’s robust Leporello. Anatoli Kotscherga, who sings the final scene in the pit while his doppelganger is acting onstage, is a powerful Commendatore.

The Freiburger Barockorchester, under the baton of Louis Langree, produces transparent, slightly undernourished sounds.

Rating: *.

French Alceste

The same orchestra, conducted by Ivor Bolton, accompanies the French version of “Alceste.” Gluck’s 1776 opera, though often praised as a forerunner of Wagner’s music dramas, is rarely staged.

It’s easy to see why. The story -- Alceste offers her life to the gods to save Admete, her dying husband, yet they both end up surviving -- moves at a snail’s pace, and the music, noble though it is, tends to be monotonous.

Director Christof Loy does his best to liven things up, and never quite manages. By turning the ubiquitous chorus into a bunch of shuffling children, he cheapens the drama.

Veronique Gens in the title role is dignified and moving. Joseph Kaiser’s Admete and Thomas Oliemans’s Hercules are both excellent. Still, on opening night, there were many sleepers in the audience and, after intermission, many empty seats.

Rating: **.

“The Nightingale” is in repertory through July 10, “Alceste” through July 13, “Don Giovanni” through July 20.

Information: http://www.festival-aix.com, +33-4-3408-0217. If you miss the Stravinsky show in Aix, you can catch it in Lyon from Oct. 12 through 21.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the stars mean:
 ****       Outstanding
 ***        Good
 **         Average
 *          Poor
 (No stars) Worthless

To contact the writer on the story; Jorg von Uthmann in Aix-en-Provence at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

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