Sunday, August 11, 2019


James Karas

The Ghosts of Versailles is a big a opera by composer John Corigliano on a libretto by William M. Hoffman. It was commissioned in 1979 by New York’s Metropolitan Opera and premiered in 1991. It is a highly ambitious work with a complicated plot, a large cast and huge production demands for cast, costumes and scenery. 

It is partly based on Beaumarchais’ third Figaro play The Guilty Mother with significant additions by Hoffman. The servants Figaro and his wife Suzanna, Count Almaviva and the Countess Rosina from The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro as well as Cherubino from the latter opera appear as do a host of other characters. I count 31 roles in the program plus dancers. 
(Center) Jonathan Bryan as Beaumarchais and members of the ensemble. 
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The ghosts are members of the French royal family with Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI being the most important ones. Beaumarchais plays a key role because his ghost is in love with Marie Antoinette’s ghost and he has written an opera that will change history. The characters from The Marriage of Figaro mentioned above and a few others will appear in the opera. The complications and turns of events are very numerous and not very exciting to be recited in a review. Let’s just say the complicated plot adds nothing to the opera.

Let’s give credit to the creators of the production starting with Director Jay Lesenger who handles the large cast, numerous scene changes, entrances and exits with aplomb. James Noone’s sets are visually stunning. Nancy Leary’s costumes take us back to 18th century grace and splendour that only massive wealth could have produced then and no doubt do not come cheaply today but that is irrelevant to the splendour they add to the production. No one can take issue with the production values that the Glimmerglass Festival has marshalled for this opera.

I did not like the rest of the production at all. Corigliano’s modern music sounded jarring, dissonant and frequently unpleasant. There are some arias, duets and quartets that were almost melodic but they were some distance from being completely enjoyable, I realize and admit that Mozart’s music kept playing in my head. I realize the unfairness in hearing other music instead what is played in front of me but so be it. At one point Rosina, the unhappy wife of Count Almaviva, sings an aria expressing her misery and seeking the lost years of her youth. That is similar to “Dove sono” from The Marriage of Figaro where the Countess seeks the pleasant past. Corigliano’s music sounded jarring compared to the sumptuous beauty of Mozart. Unfair comparison? Perhaps.

The Ghosts takes potshots at comic opera and there are few laughs in it. Beaumarchais wants to free Marie Antoinette from her present condition – remember she was beheaded and is now a ghost - change the course of history and enjoy life with her in Philadelphia – “if you can call that life!” is the last comment on the suggestion We have a sword fight only to discover you cannot stab to death someone who is already dead. 
(From left) Brian Wallin as Count Almaviva, Emily Mirsch as Florestine, 
Joanna Latini as Rosina, Kayla Siembieda as Susanna, and Ben Schaefer 
as Figaro. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
There is a great party at the Turkish embassy which goes on for too long and ceases being amusing long before it is over. Lesenger makes generous use of the aisles of the theatre and you see French royalty walking by you. At one point one of the cast mumbles the comment “is this thing still going on? It is so boring” or words to that effect.

Let’s give credit to the cast who work hard and I do not hesitate to express my adulation for their work. Of the ghosts, the main ones are Yelena Dyachek as Marie Antoinette, Jonathan Bryan as Beaumarchais, Peter Morgan as Louis XVI and Zachary Rioux as the Marquis.

The opera-within-the opera that Beaumarchais “composes” has some nineteen characters including Figaro (Ben Schaefer), Susanna (Kayla Siembieda), Rosina (Joanna Latini), Count Almaviva (Brian Wallin), Begearss (Christian Sanders), Cherubino (Katherine Maysek) Pasha (Wm. Clay Thompson) and Samira (Gretchen Krupp).

With the exception of Dyachek, the entire cast are members of the Young Artists Program.

There are aspects of The Ghosts of Versailles that people find entertaining, admirable and even wonderful. I find myself on the side of those who did not enjoy the opera at all.    
The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano (music) and William H. Hoffman (libretto) is being performed eight times between July 13 and August 23, 2019 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

Thursday, August 8, 2019


James Karas

Show Boat is a grand musical in the old style. It has a large cast, features some marvelous dance routines, a few great songs and touches on some societal issues. It is also sentimental, sometimes corny with a few too many coincidences but in the end it leaves you highly entertained and satisfied. And that describes the Glimmerglass Festival’s gorgeously sung and beautifully designed production directed by the highly capable Francesca Zambello.

Show Boat equals the great aria “Ol’ Man River,” a personification of the grand Mississippi River that "jes' keeps rollin' along". “Ol’ Man River” equals the unequalled voice of Paul Robeson. In this production Justin Hopkins as Joe does justice to the song with his great midrange and wonderful rumbling low notes. 
Lauren Snouffer as Magnolia Hawks, Michael Adams as Gaylord Ravenal 
and members of the ensemble. Photo Credit: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
But there is more to Show Boat than one great song. Jerome Kern married Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics based on Edna Ferber’s novel and produced one of the landmarks in American musical theatre. The integration of plot and music, the subject matter which includes miscegenation and the overall quality of the show have made a milestone that is frequently revived since its premiere in 1927.

The Cotton Blossom is a floating theatre that travels along the Mississippi. The musical starts with a fistfight where the star of the show Steve (Charles H. Eaton) knocks out Pete the engineer (Maxwell Levy) for making passes at his wife Julie (Alyson Cambridge). The crux of the incident is to bring into focus one of the most disgraceful chapters in endemic American racism: the criminal prohibition of interracial marriage and sex. Julie has Negro blood and that makes her marriage to Steve a crime. Before the sheriff can arrest her, Steve cuts her hand and sucks some of her blood. Thus he can prove that he has Negro blood as well and their marriage is legal!

This is a minor but striking incident in the musical. We then get on with the main plotline which is the relationship between Magnolia (Lauren Snouffer) and the debonair gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Michael Adams). He is tall, dark and handsome, as they say, and she is blonde and pretty. He sings "Where's the Mate for Me?" and they both sing “Make Believe” and its love forever. Snouffer and Adams turn in superb performances.

They marry, have a child and do well until Ravenal returns to gambling, loses everything and disappears for a couple of decades. She hits bottom and rises to the top on Broadway and loves Ravenal forever.

Magnolia’s father, Cap’n Andy is overplayed by Lara Teeter who tries a bit too hard to be funny. His wife Parthy a.k.a. Parthenia (played by Klea Blackhurst) is a termagant and her name gives away her character. She is right about Ravenal but we prefer Andy’s judgment because we do not want to interfere with the course of love especially in a musical.
 Justin Hopkins as Joe and Lauren Snouffer as Magnolia Hawks. 
Photo Credit: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The musical covers some 40 years from 1887 to 1927 and by the end Magnolia’s and Ravenal’s daughter Kim (Hayley Ayers) is grown up. Andy arranges for a reunion on the Cotton Blossom. Kim rushes into her father’s arms but Zambello, quite smartly, does not have Magnolia do the same. It may be a musical but reality has not been abrogated.  

Show Boat has a chorus of stevedores and working girls who perform a number of songs and brilliant dances choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel.

The sets by Peter J. Davison from the brilliantly coloured show boat to the gritty harbour to the posh hotel and Trocadero are superb.

The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra is conducted by James Lowe.

The Mississippi may be eternally rolling along oblivious to the affairs of humanity but humanity, especially the audience in The Alice Busch Opera Theatre was certainly not oblivious to “Ol’ Man River” or this production of Show Boat as marked by their standing ovation.
Show Boat by Jerome Kern (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics) is being performed thirteen times between July 6 and August 24, 2019 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of  The Greek Press.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019


James Karas

The Glimmerglass Festival is in its 45th season on the shores of Lake Otsego and, yes, near Cooperstown. The village lays claim to fame for opera, of course, the Fenimore Art Museum, The Farmers’ Museum, and The Fly Creek Cider Mill and Orchard winery. Oh yes, there is also the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Despite the latter, people of culture and civilization still go to Cooperstown and walk up and down Main Street. Then they surreptitiously sneak away and drive along the lakeshore towards the Alice Busch Opera Theatre.  The Cooperstown Association for the Preservation of Civilization advises visitors to put on a baseball cap (preferably Blue Jays so no one will notice or care) and sneak by the village’s only traffic light and go to the Alice Busch Opera Theatre without arousing suspicion. The cap lets you enter any one of the ten thousand shops selling baseball memorabilia so you can camouflage the real purpose of your visit.

Back to civilization. This year the Festival offers six productions among other events. There is something new, Blue, something old, La Traviata, something modern, The Ghosts of Versailles, and something classic American, Show Boat. In addition to these, there is a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Flood by the Glimmerglass Youth Ensemble and a version of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. 
(From left) Mia Athey as Girlfriend 3, Brea Renetta Marshall as Girlfriend 2, Briana Hunter 
as The Mother and Ariana Wehr as Girlfriend 1. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Blue is a new opera that was commissioned by Francesca Zambello, the Festival’s Artistic and General Director. The title refers to the colour of the uniform of the New York City police. The music is by Jeanine Tesori whose first opera A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck premiered at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2011. The libretto by Tazewell Thompson tells the tragic story of a family living in Harlem that is also a parable of the life of blacks in America.

As becomes a story about a people as well as a family, the characters are not given names. The main characters are the Father (Kenneth Kellogg), the Mother (Briana Hunter), the Son (Aaron Crouch) and the Reverend (Gordon Hawkins). The Mother has three girlfriends and the father has three friends who also act as members of the Congregation.

We first meet the Mother who is deliriously happy about being pregnant. Her friends are more practical, perhaps cynical and advise her that the rule is “thou shall not bring black boys into the world”. The Mother’s excitement is undiminished. We meet the Father who is a rookie police officer and deeply in love with his wife and thrilled at the prospect of fatherhood.

The Mother and the Father have friends and belong to an integrated society that should reflect the America Dream. They have every right to belong and think that they belong. That notion is quickly shattered.

When the Son is 16, he rebels against the racial injustice in America that besmirches its history like a huge streak of blood on a white sheet from the arrival of the first slave in 1619 to last week’s shooting of a black man by the police. The Son engages in peaceful protests against the endemic racism around him and has a falling out with his Father. He is shot dead by a police officer.

The family and the dream of a good life are destroyed. The Father becomes bitter, hateful and thirsting for revenge. The mother is distraught and the effect of racism is brought into horrifying relief. It is a portrait of America.

After the son’s funeral, there is a dream sequence which paints a picture of what might have been if the son had not been killed.

The libretto tells a simple story, almost mundane in view of what occurs so frequently. One becomes almost anesthetized at its horror. It is a parable and not a documentary account and it is more powerful for its simplicity.

Tesori’s music is beautifully modulated and apt for the changing scenes of the opera. It opens with dark, foreboding music but we quickly get into the uplifting scenes of happiness and hope.

We experience the jarring notes of the fight between father and son; the attempt by the Reverend to preach forgiveness in the midst of anger, and desire for revenge. During the funeral scene, we hear the congregation sing airs with the cadence of Negro spirituals until the final notes of resolution in the dream sequence.

Bass Kenneth Kellogg as the Father is big physically and vocally. He has a marvelously resonant voice with some rumbling low notes. He goes from a buddy with fellow police officers, to a happy new father, to a man who is hated by his teenage son, to a vengeful man and finally to one who is reconciled through his faith. It is a tough role that Kellogg handles superbly.
                (From left) Kenneth Kellogg as The Father, Aaron Crouch as The Son and Briana 
Hunter as The Mother. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Briana Hunter is a young singer who as the Mother starts as an attractive, spirited and happy woman who is excited about motherhood, deeply in love with her husband and must face the reality of racist America. A well done performance by Hunter.     

Bass Gordon Hawkins played a well-sung and sympathetic Reverend giving Christian hope in a situation where there is little room for it.

The Son (Aaron Crouch) and the six singers who made up the three girlfriends, three friends of the Father and the congregation, all members of the Festival’s Young Artists Program, did fine work supporting the main characters.

The set by Donald Eastman consisted of a few pieces of furniture as required for each scene in front of a backdrop of a three-story apartment building.

Librettist Tazewell Thompson also directed the production with economy and simplicity as becomes the telling of a parable.

John DeMain conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in a fine performance of a new work.

Back to reality. The advisability of wearing a Blue Jays cap as camouflage in Cooperstown may be short-lived. There is strong evidence that the Toronto team will do in baseball what the Raptors did in basketball. In that case being seen in an American town with or without an opera festival with the cap of a Canadian team becomes highly risky.
Blue by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Tazewell Thompson (libretto) is being performed eight times between July 14 and August 22, 2019 at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York. Tickets and information (607) 547-0700 or

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press.

Thursday, July 18, 2019


Reviewed by James Karas

I don’t think anyone has considered Mozart’s Requiem – a mass for the dead – as an opera. It is his last composition and he left it seriously unfinished because, well, he died. Don’t tell conductor Raphael Pichon and director Romeo Castellucci that – they know he died, they think the Requiem can serve as an operatic work. They have taken Mozart’s unfinished work and by adding from his other compositions and works by other composers have fashioned a glorious evening at a mass for the dead, make that the opera.

There is plenty of choral music to be sure but there is also joyous singing and dancing, a review of some historical events and finally a wonderful and completely unexpected affirmation of life. 
Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Pascal Victor / Artcompress
The evening begins with a bed on the stage and a woman smoking. We hear a beautiful voice singing a cappella an anonymous hymn about Christ being obedient unto death for us and exalted by God. The orchestra joins in with somber music and we hear male voices chant “he filled me with bitterness” from Mozart’s K 477B.

People come on stage dressed in black and carrying black flags. They drape the deathbed as we listen to the Introit, the first part of the Requiem proper. A Kyrie eleison sung by the chorus follows that is so splendidly done it rises to the ears of the Lord in heaven.

The Pygmalion Chorus with soprano Siobhan Stagg, alto Sara Mingardo, tenor Martin Mitterrutzner and bass Luca Tittoto provide the glorious, celestial splendour of the sacred music. The Pygmalion Orchestra conducted by Pichon provides the accompaniment.

We do the entire Requiem as put together but Pichon and Castellucci and see delightful, celebratory dances in colourful East European costume. Evelin Facchini is responsible for the gorgeous and spirited traditional choreographies.

Through generous use of projections, Pichon and Castellucci with dramaturge Piersandra Di Matteo also attempt to list and illustrate in part how we have evolved from vertebrates to homo sapiens. They also list all that we have lost, all that has died. The civilizations or cities that have disappeared from the Minoans, the Myceneans, the Etruscans, the  Lydians, the Phrygians, the Illyrians, the  Pelasgians and a host of others. 
Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Pascal Victor / Artcompress
The number of categories of things from the past and the present that that they presented were so fascinating in themselves that they ran the danger of being distracting.

The last part of the requiem, Communion, sung by the entire chorus is an invocation to the merciful Lord to grant the dead eternal rest with the saints forever. The evening finishes with the beautiful traditional burial service mass for male voices “In Paradisum.”

An unforgettable evening.
Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with additional chants by other composers as put together by Raphael Pichon, Romeo Castellucci and Piersandra Di Matteo is being performed eight times until July 19, 2019 on various dates at the Théâtre d l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press -

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


Reviewed by James Karas

Les Mille Endormis (The Sleeping Thousand) is a one-act chamber opera by Adam Maor (music) and Yonatan Levy (libretto). Maor is Israeli, born in 1983, and Levy is Canadian, born in 1973, and Les Milles is their first foray into the creation of an opera. The work has been commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the theatres of the city of Luxemburg among others. It premiered in Aix on July 6, 2019.

The sleeping thousand of the title are Palestinian detainees of Israel who have gone on a hunger strike.  The result is a type of biblical plague. The earth will not grow food, the crops grow dead and there is a real crisis. The United Nations is considering a resolution to stop rainfall over Israel and the United States will not veto it Reality and unreality go hand in hand.

The opera is cast for four singers. The Prime Minister sung by Polish baritone Tomasz Kumiega is a classic politician beset by a problem that he is out of his depth to handle. He deteriorates in front of our eyes as he struggles with an unsolvable problem. 
                                              Festival of Aix-en-Provence 2019 © Patrick Berger / Artcompre
Nourit is the Prime Minister’s assistant, sung by Israeli soprano Gan-ya Ben-gur Akselrod as the good and faithful servant.

S. is the head of Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency and the man who thinks of deftly solving the problem of the hunger strikers. American bass David Salsbery Fry sings the role of S.

French baritone Benjamin Alunni takes on the roles of Minister of Agriculture, the Voice of the People, a protester and the Cantor.    

What do we do with the hunger strikers? They cannot be tried or set free or left to die or much of anything else. S. has a solution.  There is no choice but to put all of them to sleep. And we see them arrayed in the Prime Minister’s office on scaffolding all wearing orange overalls.

The plot is part biblical, part science fiction, part theatre of the absurd and with perhaps some expressionism in the heady mix.

Three years after putting the Palestinians to sleep, things seem to be better but not great. Five years later the problems are hallucinations, nightmares and inability to sleep. The Prime Minister, the main character in the opera is starting to lose it.

A Cantor enters and chants Plague of Firstborn Children, an apocalyptic description of pestilence. Jewish babies struck with epileptic fits babbling in Arabic. Blood comes out of a Jewish child’s mouth and it is attributed to tongue-biting caused by involuntary Arabic speech.

This may be satire but it is delivered by the Cantor in a somber monotone addressed directly to the audience. He is dressed in a white robe with a gold, shiny globe on his head that looks like something from a sci-fi show. What are we to make of it?

Seven years later the plague is still on. The Prime Minister has not slept for a long time and the Arabs are eating all Jews at the Khafia. The Prime Minister looks like a jackal. The thousand are not sleeping and Nourit will be sent to infiltrate the Arab world of dreams.

She does go and then Levy gives a quick and unsatisfactory end to the tale. He has only an hour and fifteen minutes and he has packed a great deal for the audience to absorb on a first hearing.  S’s last words are the ambiguous and intriguing “my whole life I have spoken only nonsense.” 
                                                Festival of Aix-en-Provence 2019 © Patrick Berger / Artcompre
Elena Schwarz conducts the United Instruments of Lucilin, a small ensemble based in Luxemburg that specializes in contemporary music.  

The opera has elements of satire, even comedy as it focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian problem. It is sung in Hebrew as the creators look at the huge problem in the Middle East.  
Levy is not afraid to satirize the Israelis for jumping to conclusions that are not warranted by the facts and for being basically ridiculous in some aspects of their treatment of Palestinians.

The music is taut, sinuous and at times somewhat monotonous. This is a highly ambitious work that tackles a major political and human tragedy from a number of angles in a very short time. Are they trying to do too much very fast? Perhaps.
Les Milles Endormis  by Adam Maor (music) and Yonatan Levy (libretto) opened on July 6, 2019 and is being performed five times at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, France.

James Karas is the Senior Editor – Culture of The Greek Press.


Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival does not hesitate to stage original, often brilliant, sometimes touched by genius productions of operas.  For example, Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov turned Carmen into a psychiatric therapy session. He turned Don Giovanni into a family drama that takes place entirely in the library of the Commendatore’s house. Peter Sellars took Mozart’s mostly lost Zaide and turned it into a melodramatic anti-slavery tract to compete with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And Rigoletto found work in a circus.

This year we are invited to a rehearsal of Tosca. To be more precise, it is a performance that pretends to be a rehearsal that becomes a concert performance that ends up as a production touched by genius or a travesty.

We all know that the first act of Tosca takes place in the grand church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome where Mario Cavaradossi is painting and hiding the escaped political prisoner Angelotti. Wrong.
                                    Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Jean-Louis Fernandez
This production directed by Christophe Honoré opens in the posh apartment of a diva who is listening to Vissi d’arte on a CD and on a projection screen we see the CD spinning. She is listed as the Prima Donna (Catherine Malfitano) in the program who speaks English to her son and he replies in French. They are getting ready for a crew to film a rehearsal of Tosca.

Puccini steps in and we see the Sacristan (Leonardo Galeazzi) doing his bit at a lectern, score in hand. We will see almost all the characters grab a score and check what they are supposed to be singing. It’s all a casual rehearsal as we see the diva roaming around the numerous people who are doing their job. Tosca (Angel Blue), Cavaradossi (Joseph Calleja) and Angelotti (Simon Shibambu) are going through their roles. The nasty Scarpia (Alexey Markov) appears and proves that he can sing the role but there is no reason to get all worked up. It is just a casual rehearsal.

We get the joke and now can we get on with the performance in the second act? We are in Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese. There are several rooms and screens above them so we can see everything from a different angle or close up. The Prima Donna is everywhere and she will be with us almost uninterruptedly until the end of the opera. She does not sing.

Are we going to see the grotesque evil of Scarpia, hear Cavaradossi being tortured and witness Tosca kill the loathsome creep. Why bother during a rehearsal? Singers move around, they sing but not much else is required of them. We see Cavaradossi drinking and eating at the beginning of the act and lying on a bed with the Prima Donna sitting by him   while he is supposed to be tortured

                                    Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Jean-Louis Fernandez
Tosca throws some ketchup on Scarpia when she is supposed to be murderously stabbing him but the whole atmosphere is laid back. Angel Blue does get to sing Vissi d’arte but why let her show off her vocal splendour? The projection screens are there so let’s show photos of other sopranos in the role. Photographs of Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Leontine Price and, you guessed it, Catherine Malfitano appear on the screen. Is there a point to this? Is Angel Blue joining the ranks of the erstwhile greats? Is she surpassing them? Is there a reason to spoil her singing by having us look at photographs of other singers?

By this time you figure it can’t possibly get worse. Wrong.

For the third act which takes place on the battlements of the Castel Sant’Angelo, the orchestra is brought on the stage leaving no room for much else. There is a miniature of the castle at the side of the stage and we get a close up of Ms Malfitano looking into it. She walks across the audience to the other side of the theater and sits on the stage. She will go and touch the conductor and walk through the orchestra during the scene and when Tosca and Cavaradossi are singing their incredibly moving duet she will be right there with them. When Tosca is supposed to be jumping off the parapet (she does not), Malfitano will be lying down on a terrace above the orchestra. 
                                         Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Jean-Louis Fernandez
That is not all. The third act switches from a rehearsal to a concert performance. Cavaradossi appears in a tux and sings “E lucevan le stele” and Tosca comes out dressed to kill. She gives instructions to Cavaradossi about how to act after the fake shooting while he is standing on the side of the stage near the model castle and she is centre-stage. He is not shot and she does not jump off anything but simply raises her hand.

This is only a partial list of the unbelievable things in this production. I can add many more and express my disbelief that they actually put on a production like that. Is this what we can expect from Pierre Audi, the new Artistic Director? Or is the production touched by such genius that I missed it?
 Tosca by Giacomo Puccini is being performed eight times between July 4 and 22, 2019 as part of the Aix-en-Provence Festival at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, 26 Rue Gaston de Saporta, Aix-en-Provence, France.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019


Reviewed by James Karas

The Aix-en-Provence Festival is in its 71st season which shows admirable longevity and it has a new artistic director, Pierre Audi, which promises change and renewal. Audi has scheduled six operas for the season most of them never seen at the Festival in Aix before.

One of the new productions is Jakob Lenz, a one-act chamber opera composed by Wolfgang Rihm on a libretto by Michael Fröhling which premiered in Hamburg in 1979. It has been produced in cities across Europe but it has made only a couple of tentative steps in the United States with productions at the Julliard Theater in New York and in Bloomington. I can find nothing about it being produced in Canada.
 Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Patrick Berger / Artcompress

The opera is based on a novella by Georg Buchner, the man who provided the material for the more famous Wozzeck. It tells the story of the poet Lenz (Georg Nigl) who has serious emotional and mental issues (probably schizophrenia) not the least of which is his mourning for his love Friederike. He roams the mountains, hears voices and ends up with his friend Pastor Oberlin (Wolfgang Bankl).

The closely written and intense novella which deals largely with internal turmoil would appear to be almost impossible to transfer into a libretto but Fröhling has managed to do it. It may be worth noting that Lenz, Oberlin and Kaufman are historical figures.

Lenz stays with Oberlin for a while but his emotional turmoil, the voices that he hears and the images of Friederike that haunt him drive him back to the mountains. He hears the voices again and despairs of finding Friederike.

Their friend Kaufman (John Daszak) joins them. He is a friend of both men, but Lenz’s mental illness makes it impossible for them to deal with him and they finally put him in a straitjacket, tie him up to a bed and leave him.

The emotional and even intellectual breadth of the opera takes your breath away and the performance of Austrian baritone Nigl is simply heroic. Austrian bass-baritone Bankl as Oberlin and British Tenor John Daszak as Kaufmann give impressive performances though the demands on them are not as strenuous.

The opera has 2 sopranos (Josefin Feiler and Olga Heikkila), two altos (Camille Merckx and Beth Taylor) and two basses (Dominic Grosse and Eric Ander). They provide the eerie atmosphere and stamp the mental hell in which Lenz agonizes.

The music is modern, dissonant, sometimes jarring, sometimes cacophonous and at times harmonious. It represents the violent emotional tempests that Lenz is going through as he hears his voices, jumps into pools of water (indicated only metaphorically in this production), tries to revive a young girl who he thinks is Friderike and bears a cross in unmistakable emulation of the suffering of Jesus. It is heavy-duty stuff. 
Aix-en-Provence Festival 2019 © Patrick Berger / Artcompress
It is a dark opera done in modern dress. The stage décor by Martin Zehetgruber represents metaphorically and economically the rocky mountains, Oberlin’s residence and the more bizarre states of mind of the half-naked and Christ-like Lenz. He is seen wedged on what looks like a shelf and in positions of pain as he wrestles with his voices, God and his own dementia.

Director Andrea Breth handles the intense and overwrought material with a skillful hand as she takes us through the complexities of the plot in an hour and a quarter with no intermission. 

Ingo Metzmacher conducts the Ensemble Modern orchestra through the permutations of what sounds like a very difficult score.
Jakob Lenz by Wolfgang Rihm is being performed three times in reprise of the 2014 Stuttgart Staatsoper production. On July 5, 8 and 12, 2019 at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.

James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of The Greek Press.