AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France — Few opera institutions have as strong a track record in new work as the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Two of the most significant pieces of the 21st century have originated here: “Written on Skin,” in 2012, and “Innocence,” which premiered last year.
But the lesson of the festival is that you can’t just pop out a masterpiece a decade. You have to chug away with commissions, big and small, year in and year out, knowing that the vast majority will be, if not duds, then far from perfect.
A tiny percentage of new operas end up with lasting importance, and that’s the numbers game Aix is playing. Sheer volume is key, as the Metropolitan Opera, with its recent pledge to present at least two contemporary titles a season, is learning.
Aix, too, is putting on two premieres at this year’s edition, which runs through July 23. Neither fully satisfies, but I have great respect for the festival’s commitment to the contemporary as a pillar of its programming.
The larger of the two is “Il Viaggio, Dante,” which dares to condense not just all three books of “The Divine Comedy” but also the poet’s early “La Vita Nuova” into two intermissionless hours. So Dante, recalling his past during a midlife crisis, is accompanied through hell and purgatory to paradise by a crowd: Virgil, his poetic model, as well as Beatrice, his eternal love; Santa Lucia, who spurs his journey; and his younger self.
While Frédéric Boyer’s libretto spans a tremendous amount of material, the text doesn’t feel rushed, but as calmly solemn, prayerlike and formal as a ceremony of Gregorian monks, with choral incantations interjected throughout. And the prominent French composer Pascal Dusapin has responded with music of nearly unmitigated portentousness.
His sound world is brooding, with grimly hovering drones, enhanced by electronic effects, under heated declamation. The orchestra rises to groaning roars — though these climaxes are more poised than raw — that tend to cut off abruptly, leaving the hazy resonance of bells and a shimmering battery of percussion before the next slow buildup.
There is artful work here, as when a passage of droning is softly sandwiched by choral writing: a moist, mossy grumble below, women’s voices above. Young Dante — a trouser role, here sung by the clarinetty mezzo-soprano Christel Loetzsch — has a monologue of medieval-style spare purity mourning the loss of love. And near the end, Beatrice and Lucia’s vocal lines quiver and swoop like birds around a low, sober, sonorous chorale.
The mythic, dreamlike pace recalls Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” but Dusapin’s approach is without much variety or tension. Hell’s range of sinners presents a clear opportunity for Bartok’s strategy — evocative showpieces as different doors are opened — but the score of “Il Viaggio, Dante” remains resolutely, drearily homogeneous: dully dyspeptic even in paradise.
Whatever the opera’s flaws, though, it is hard to imagine it being better presented than it was here. At its premiere on Friday at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, Kent Nagano led the orchestra and chorus of the Opéra de Lyon in a rigorously elegant performance. The baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou was a steady but intense, impassioned Dante.
Most important, with a video prologue and a coolly stylish set, the veteran director Claus Guth shaped the oratorio-like piece into a form approaching coherent narrative. Set in our time, his staging shifts among a country-house interior, a forbidding forest and the netherworld of “Inferno” — here a spare, surreal space, part circus (sparkly white suit), part Kubrick (weird twin girls), part Lynch (ominous walls of curtains and eerie howling).
Shorter — just an hour, with a mere handful of performers — is “Woman at Point Zero,” performed on Sunday at the black-box Pavillon Noir. Based on the Egyptian writer and activist Nawal El Saadawi’s 1975 novel about the pressures and limitations on women in a patriarchal society, the piece depicts a filmmaker interviewing a sex worker who has been imprisoned for killing an abusive pimp.
Neither Dima Orsho (Fatma, the prisoner) nor Carla Nahadi Babelegoto (Sama, the interviewer) overplayed as their lines moved from speaking to light recitative-style singing to full keening in Laila Soliman’s focused, minimal staging.
It was unusual and heartening to see an opera that had women directing, conducting, composing and libretto-writing, as well as starring. Kanako Abe led and abetted — slapping her side and making clicking and murmuring noises — six musicians of Ensemble ZAR, who played a multicultural array of instruments, including cello, accordion, duduk (an Armenian cousin of the English horn), daegeum (a Korean bamboo flute) and the bowed Persian kamancheh, among others. But Bushra El-Turk’s score created few new or intriguing colors from these unusual combinations, and Stacy Hardy’s libretto flattened the two women and their interaction into cliché.
The characters who feel the freshest at this year’s Aix Festival are populating Ted Huffman’s vivid staging of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea.” Almost 400 years old, “Poppea” is startlingly contemporary in the gray zone of morality it occupies. Almost no one is entirely likable or unlikable; lust and ambition are simultaneously reveled in and condemned.
At the jewel-box Théatre du Jeu de Paume — which seats fewer than 500, an ideal intimacy for Baroque opera — there is barely a set. Pretty much the only element is a huge pipe, half painted white, half black, hanging over the action, perhaps a symbol of the fate that never quite falls on the adulterous, power-hungry leads.
Sexy onstage sex may be even rarer than sexy sex writing, but Huffman has guided his cast in scenes that are genuinely seductive, heated by Monteverdi’s exquisitely sensual music. The secret? For all its bare bodies and physical contact, this modern-dress (and undressed) production, which opened on Saturday, realizes that eroticism comes not just from lovers pawing each other, but also from distance. Similarly, having the performers spend their time between scenes at the sides of the stage, watching their fellow singers, somehow increases our sense of the characters’ depth and reality.
To hear young, fresh artists in this piece, in this theater, was a joy. Fleur Barron was a wounded Ottavia, Paul-Antoine Bénos-Djian an agonized Ottone, Alex Rosen an angry Seneca, Maya Kherani a delicate Drusilla. Miles Mykkanen was uproarious, but not grotesque, as the opera’s two old women; Julie Roset was an alert Amore; and there was subtle supporting work from Laurence Kilsby, Yannis François and Riccardo Romeo.
Their tones inflamed and acute, Jacquelyn Stucker and Jake Arditti were a Poppea and Nerone driven nearly mad with desire. The chorus before their aching final duet, “Pur ti miro,” has been cut, keeping this coronation a private reverie on which we spy.
Leonardo García Alarcón conducted a small but potent group from his ensemble, Cappella Mediterranea, with almost improvisatory spikiness, but without losing polish. (Playing with larger forces on Monday, Alarcón and Cappella Mediterranea’s concert version of Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” felt a bit more diffuse, though Mariana Flores’s Euridice produced a serene final lament.)
When it is performed at this level, “Poppea” is acidic and exhilarating. You giggle in astonishment at what these characters are capable of, and at what you’re capable of sympathizing with.
This year’s festival is of superb quality but almost entirely without comedy: Besides the two bleak premieres, there are Romeo Castellucci’s mass-exhumation staging of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, a contemporary-refugee Rossini rarity, an icy “Salome” and an “Idomeneo” evoking nuclear disaster. In that dour company, Monteverdi’s bitter laughter will have to do.