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Opera Reviews from Aix-en-Provence

Who can explain the vacillations of the critical heart? It is a mystery how an opera production, or a singer, or a conductor can thrill one's ears at one hearing and leave one vexed the next. You may recall a controversial staging of Don Giovanni in 2010, directed by Dmitri Cherniakov at the Aix-en-Provence festival. Like most critics, Marie-Aude Roux hated it the first time around, so she sounds genuinely shocked to find that she enjoyed the revival of the same production this summer. Her review (Aix-en-Provence : Dmitri Tcherniakov de retour avec "Don Giovanni", July 8) is one for all critics to read (my translation):
In love as in art, absolutely nothing is more exciting than having been wrong. In 2010, the Don Giovanni directed by Dmitri Cherniakov certainly had all the qualities we see in him: intelligence and originality of dramatic concept, exceptional and tyrannical acting direction, implacable force of narrative framing. But it also had huge faults and we had an almost allergic reaction rejecting it! Da Ponte's libretto made no sense, and worse, Mozart's music lost its magic. Three years have passed during which Cherniakov, without changing his concept, has deepened an idea into something vastly more intelligible for us today, to the point of completely reversing the situation. How else to explain that this Don Giovanni, so despised, moved us so deeply this time and took our breath away? That the legitimacy of what had seemed so arbitrary to us could now be understood?

The marking out of time (not in Mozart's work) through flashing signs, the hesitations and spaces put into the recitative, the shuffling of relationships among the protagonists (which we continue to think were not necessary). All this dramatic tightening made sense in terms of what it prepared: the deconstruction of a neurotic family clumped around one central figure, authoritarian and despotic (a mafia-like patriarchy in another guise), the Commendatore.
Part of the difference, Roux admits, is the change in the title role, with American baritone Rod Gilfry getting much more of Cherniakov's conception of Don Giovanni as "a man in (psychological) agony and struggle, a sex machine wounded and harassed, whose life is nothing more than a simulacrum of life, a Don Juan à la Kierkegaard." Gilfry was like "a wick lit near a detonator," making one wonder at times if it was not he who invented the entire story, between doses of anti-psychotics. The conductor and orchestra -- Marc Minkowski and the London Symphony Orchestra -- also had something to do with it. The performance will be broadcast on France Musique (July 27, 8 pm), so there may be a chance to hear it or even watch it online -- stay tuned.

Also worth a read is Christian Merlin's take on the Robert Carsen production at Aix-en-Provence (Un Rigoletto plus habile qu'inspiré, July 8) for Le Monde, a Rigoletto set in a circus. You can stop wondering if a director would ever decide to have Gilda sing Caro nome while swinging on a trapeze. You can listen to it live on Radio Classique on July 9, and watch it on ARTE on July 12.

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