Thursday, 16 June 2022, 6 p.m. – Théâtre de l’Archevêché – Festival d’Aix-en-Provence
In the lingering heat of the torrid late-afternoon sun, rehearsals for Idomeneo have just begun. Mozart’s opera, in production at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché for the 2022 edition of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, is being performed by the Pygmalion Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Raphaël Pichon; it is being staged by Satoshi Miyagi, accompanied by his entire — mostly Japanese — team. So far, rehearsals have been held with continuo, but without the orchestra, to make it is easier to concentrate on the stage directions. Communication on the set follows a very precise pattern: all instructions are uttered by the stage director in Japanese, and are then translated into French by the interpreter. Occasionally, Raphaël Pichon will summarise the information, to ensure the message is understood by all. Thus, the goal is not only to perfect an aesthetic convergence — between the world of Mozart’s opera seria and an imagery rooted in Japanese civilisation — but also to succeed in a joint effort, including all of the challenges and miraculous encounters between the two cultures.
On stage we see the monumental set designed by Satoshi Miyagi, along with Junpei Kiz, who already collaborated with the stage director on the outstanding production of Antigone at the Festival d’Avignon. The chorus, which play a central role in Mozart’ opera, manoeuvres around this spectacular set while inside mobile columns: these architectural elements serve as a contemporary nod to ancient Greek theatre, which is already evoked by the open-air venue of the Archevêché. The stage director has chosen to set the story of Idomeneo and its procession of mythological characters in a Japanese universe. While Mozart’s music already elicits a certain level of dread and pity, the staging also contributes to these emotions in a profound way, via the costumes designed by Kayo Takahashi Deschene, the clear division in the scenic space, the play between bright colours and grey tones, the architectural elements in motion.
Opera rehearsals are constantly abuzz, and never fail to impress onlookers: today’s rehearsal, which is no exception, is focused on the choreography of the Pygmalion Chorus that ends Act 1. The meticulous attention to detail is astonishing: nearly two hours are devoted to this relatively short moment alone. On set, the technical and artistic teams coordinate their efforts in a complex ballet, whose fluidity is crucial.
Thus far in the opera, the audience will have witnessed the tragic knot that has been tightening around the characters, and especially around Idomeneo, king of Crete, played by Michael Spyres. Caught in a violent storm that he fears will end in his death, the king promises Neptune, the god of the sea, that he will sacrifice the first person he sees when he sets foot upon land if the god spares the king’s life. Idomeneo’s barbaric promise takes a tragic turn when he finally reaches dry land and immediately espies his own son, Idamante, portrayed brilliantly by Anna Bonitatibus (the role was originally played by a castrato). As Idamante uncomprehendingly watches his own father flee from his sight, the chorus rejoices the return of their sovereign without realising the tragedy that is afoot. At this moment, Mozart’s opera includes a ballet that has been choreographed by Akiko Kitamura, the choreographer of the Japanese artistic team. She gives her instructions to the dancers directly in English, and they in turn convey the movements to the group of singers. The Pygmalion Chorus —very present in this staging — also stood out for their physical commitment in Romeo Castellucci’s 2019 production of Mozart’s Requiem. Today, the members of the chorus are gradually making these movements their own, while managing to maintain their high energy and good humour throughout the rehearsal, despite the challenge at hand: i.e. to sing while moving, dancing, and even repositioning portions of the scenery.
At 9:30 p.m., rehearsal begins again; but now the performers will be doing a run-through of Act 1, with stops. Ilia’s first aria, “Padre, germani, addio!” — wonderfully performed by Sabine Devieilhe — resonates throughout the house. The run-through is interrupted in the middle of Act 1: moving the components of the set poses a major challenge; every detail must be perfectly tweaked; and as a result, the singer, portraying the wildly furious Electra, has to restart her aria several times. Soon, the stage director intervenes: it is time for rehearsal to end. The air has begun to cool; small groups form and launch into animated conversation; and the stage gradually empties. But several technicians continue working on the lighting and scenery changes late into the dark night.
François Delécluse, dramaturge of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence