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Hooker in Love, Runaway Nose, Gay Emperor Meet at Aix: Review

Natalie Dessay in the title role of
Natalie Dessay in the title role of "La Traviata" at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. Photographer: Pascal Victor/Festival d'Aix-en-Provence via Bloomberg

July 13 (Bloomberg) -- This year, New Yorkers don’t need to travel to the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, the annual French musical jamboree: The one outstanding production comes from the Metropolitan Opera.

“The Nose,” Shostakovich’s 1930 opera, is hard to stage, not least because of its enormous cast: Some 30 soloists sing more than 70 roles.

The Soviet authorities loathed the dissonant score, which was obviously inspired by Berg’s “Wozzeck,” and suppressed the work after a few performances. It wasn’t revived in Russia until 1974. Yet “The Nose” is probably the wittiest opera of the 20th century.

All kinds of interpretations have been let loose on Nikolai Gogol’s grotesque 1835 novella on which the opera is based. Some read the story of poor Kovalyov, who discovers one morning that his nose is missing, as a satire on the obsession with status symbols.

For Freudians, the nose is a metaphor for another part of the body, and the novella is about impotence.

Whatever interpretation you prefer, you need an inspired director to pull off this work. The South African artist William Kentridge, who was wildly feted on opening night here, fits the bill.

He not only directed the huge cast, he also designed -- with Sabine Theunissen -- the exhilarating sets and created the videos that animate the action. The result is a visually stunning show of rare wit and originality.

The cast is only partially identical to the one in New York. Vladimir Samsonov is brilliant as the hapless Kovalyov. Andrey Popov is a wonderfully squeaky Police Inspector, Vladimir Ognovenko a sonorous barber -- to name just two of the supporting singers.

Kazushi Ono, conducting the Orchestre de l’Opera de Lyon, brings out every detail of the spiky score.

Rating: ****.

‘La Traviata’

The most eagerly awaited production, on the other hand, is a disappointment.

Natalie Dessay, probably France’s leading soprano, lacks the wherewithal for “La Traviata”: She masters the coloratura with ease, yet doesn’t have the necessary power for the emotional outbursts of the woman in love. She is such a fine actress, though, that you almost forget her shortcomings.

The last staging in Aix of Verdi’s opera about a posh Parisian call girl, in 2004, treated the audience to wet asphalt, a dark tunnel and an oversized windshield wiper.

Director Jean-Francois Sivadier stays closer to the composer’s intentions. The minimalist set (Alexandre de Dardel) may be short on poetry yet it doesn’t distract from the story. The crowd scenes are obviously modeled on Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Charles Castronovo is a decent, if not particularly exciting Alfredo. The healthiest singing comes from Ludovic Tezier’s sturdy, none-too-subtle Germont father.

The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Louis Langree, sounds too Protestant for Verdi’s Catholic music.

Rating: **.

Mozart’s Emperor

The orchestra is more at ease in “La Clemenza di Tito.” In 1976, Colin Davis made a celebrated recording of Mozart’s last-but-one opera, and for his debut in Aix the conductor has chosen the same work, which is evidently close to his heart.

The 83-year-old Davis has lost nothing of his feel for the score. The woodwinds accompanying the two highlights of the opera -- Sesto’s “Parto, parto” and Vitellia’s rondo “Non piu di fiori” -- sound gorgeous.

The vocal side is less beguiling. Gregory Kunde is overtaxed by the devilish demands of the title role. Carmen Giannattasio handles Vitellia’s coloratura well though her voice lacks warmth.

Sarah Connolly as Sesto is better, yet her lower register is weak. It’s the small roles -- Anna Stephany’s Annio and Amel Brahim-Djelloul’s Servilia -- that make the strongest impression.

David McVicar, the director and set designer, has updated the action to Mozart’s times, presenting Rome as a mix of classical and baroque architecture.

He has turned the march of Titus’s entourage into a ballet of good-looking hunks in black, suggesting that the erotic preferences of the emperor, who forgoes marriage to no less than three women in the course of one day, lie elsewhere.

Rating: **.

The Aix-en-Provence festival, which is supported by Vivendi SA, runs through July 25. Information: http://www.festival-aix.com or +33-4-3408-0217.

(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 Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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