Thursday, 21 July 2011

Andrea Chénier, Bregenzer Festspiele

I drove down to Lech am Arlberg in Austria, yesterday, in preparation for my recital on Sunday with KFV and SK, stopping off in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to visit the Richard Strauss Institute; something I've been promising myself for years. The place is fascinating and includes a good exhibition of his life and works, his house in Garmisch and quite a few of his artefacts, including - horror of horrors - a clip-on bow tie. I honestly thought he was better than that. Upstairs, there's a superb library chock-a-block with just about everything ever written on or by him. I left the building with a three-volume collection of his correspondance with colleagues and, of course, a mug.

I got to Lech at 6.30pm and was immediately asked if I wanted to go on the trip to the premiere of Andrea Chenier at the Bregenzer Festspiele. Knackered as I was I agreed and hell, what a good decision that turned out to be.
For those unfamiliar with the Bregenz Festival, one of the productions is on Lake Constance. You sit in a 7000-seater grandstand and the action takes place on a stage built on the water. It's spectacular; we saw Tosca there a few years back, the production which is featured in the James Bond film A Quantum of Solace. Practically every production done on the lake is Opera Meets Cirque du Soleil and is a feast for the eyes and ears. Yesterday's Andrea Chenier was, along with Stefan Herheim's production of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, quite simply the best thing I've seen on an operatic stage, ever. The singing is, for the most part, very good, in particular Hector Sandoval's revolutionary poet, but it's the way that opera singers, dancers, acrobats and performance swimmers combine so seamlessly under Keith Warner's direction to tell the story of the doomed poet without one special effect ever appearing gratuitous. The set is a marvel to behold. Designed by David Fielding, it is an enormous, stylised reproduction of part of Jacques-Louis David's 1793 painting La Mort de Marat. Jean Paul Marat was a radical Jacobine, stabbed to death in his bath by the 'moderate' Girondine Charlotte Corday and it is André Chénier's impassioned ode to her that seals his death warrant. In addition, there's an over-dimensional open book and a hand surging out of the water, carrying a tray, providing two more stages and an enormous knife which appears out of the water, as if from nowhere. The face is incredible: the eyes open and close, are by turns vacant or alive, the mouth opens, acrobats appear out of the top of her skull, singers are seen to walk amongst the folds of his nightcap. The skin changes colour according to the plot and, finally, enormous needles appear out of the entire face and upper body, impaling the citizens and looking, to all intents and purposes, like the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. As Chénier and Maddalena are executed the body turns the colour of a corpse, the lips turn blue, the eye sockets black. Their death is represented by Idria Legray, the lady Maddalena replaced on the scaffold, slowly being engulfed in the French Flag, a tricolour stream of water, in the enormous facsimile mirror, presided over by the Grim Reaper, an omnipresent character the entire evening. I'll try to find a picture of the set. Don't go away.

Yes! There it is. The hand holding the platter starts off in front of the bust i.e. where you can see the knife. The pièce de résistance was the court scene, where the head tipped back as if its throat had been slit (this being the implication) to reveal stacks of enormous books and the procurators suspended in mid-air. Lots of swirling dried ice for this scene, naturally. Quite the most amazing thing I've seen for many a long year. If you have the opportunity to see it this year, it runs in Bregenz, Austria, until August 21st. They're doing it next year, too. Book now.

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