The Festival d’Aix-en-Provence’s new La traviata was (apart from the orchestral contribution of the London Symphony Orchestra) a very French affair. Though the director Jean-François Sivadier has a few operas to his credit, his biography describes him firstly as a comédien, hardly the most obvious requirement for Verdi’s melancholy work. He spent most of his production seemingly searching for une idée, yet never made it clear who any of his characters were, except perhaps a bunch of attention-seeking luvvies. The largely empty stage at the opening became the venue for a rehearsal-studio party. As designed by Alexandre de Dardel, Act 2’s country house featured more detritus than Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, though its location was signposted when clouds and green pastures dropped down on a series of big canvases. Violetta’s harrowing death scene returned us to an empty stage. It was all very atmospherically lit by Philippe Berthomé.
And it was clearly designed to showcase Natalie Dessay’s first Violetta in Europe, following her assumption of Verdi’s tragic heroine at Santa Fe two summers ago. From the moment her blonde, waif-like character was glimpsed putting on make-up during the Prelude (July 9), she grabbed most of the limelight; as always, Dessay was a compelling dramatic creature—more of a small-time coquette than grande horizontale—but she resorted to her usual neurotic mannerisms and her sometimes hectic vocalism (and weaker middle notes) confirmed that she probably shouldn’t really be singing such a heavy part. Charles Castronovo’s Alfredo was his usual, reliable self, and Ludovic Tézier’s Germont made a rather blank and expressionless father-figure who sang sonorous notes but not long musical lines, so there was no frisson at hearing ‘Di Provenza’ in Provence. All were well supported by a warm and elegant LSO under the stylish baton of Louis Langrée.
The festival’s highlight was the first showing in Europe (July 8) of William Kentridge’s virtuosic staging of The Nose, created last year for the Metropolitan Opera. The South African artist-director’s productions of Il ritorno d’Ulisse and Die Zauberflöte have travelled widely, making the much-anticipated appearance of his version of Shostakovich’s madcap ‘anti-opera’ a red-letter event.
Indeed, there were a lot of red letters here: Kentridge takes his cue from typography and Constructivist art reflecting the visual style of the time of the opera’s 1930 premiere in Leningrad. His multi-layered production also embraces artefacts reminding us of the work’s source in the novella by Gogol, which tells of how an olfactory organ goes AWOL and assumes its own frightening identity.
Concentrating on the story’s political rather than sexual resonances, Kentridge and his collaborators (Sabine Theunissen and Luc De Wit) have assembled an animated collage that brilliantly reflects the hectic pace of the music. Each scene has its own visual ‘tone’ (more than can always be said of the music); the railway station is evoked in stage-high projections of old timetables for the line to Pskov and surrounding places. Kentridge’s trademark ‘drawings for projection’ mix with Soviet-era video and film of Shostakovich himself at the piano, and he directed the huge cast with telling detail. It was led here by a strong Vladimir Samsonov as the hapless, nose-less Kovalyov; the title role was sung by the extremely high (though thankfully never nasal-sounding) tenor Alexander Kravets, and Vladimir Ognovenko was a sonorous, droll Ivan (the barber). Conducting the forces of the Opéra de Lyon, where the show travels next month, Kazushi Ono unleashed brutal power but also made music of this notoriously unrelenting score.