— At the Festival

Published on June 21 2022

[ REHEARSAL NOTES ] IL VIAGGIO, DANTE

Thursday, 6 June 2022, 4 p.m. — Grand Théâtre de Provence — Festival d’Aix-en-Provence
At the Grand Théâtre de Provence — in the auditorium, which is sometimes flooded by light from the crowning circle above, and other times plunged into darkness — the excitement is palpable. While technicians finish preparations to the stage, the artistic teams are getting ready to begin their first rehearsals with piano for Il Viaggio, Dante, Pascal Dusapin’s new opera, which is being premiered this year at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.

The theatre is now dark: the only shimmers of light are coming from the control table. Closest to the stage is Pascal Dusapin, along with the sound engineer: they are ensuring that the soundtrack is running smoothly, so that it can blend with the orchestra and the singers’ voices. A little further off, you can see Claus Guth and his entire team together. In the pit, Kent Nagano is already present; his precise and analytical beat is guiding the singers — and the pianist, who knows Dusapin’s work so well that the composer asked him specifically to take charge of the rehearsals with piano. Emotions are intense: for so many months, the composer honed his score, which the singers took and made their own before coming to Aix, while the stage director prepared every moment of the drama — not to mention the video and lighting crews, plus the chorus and the orchestra, who will arrive later. And now, it is all taking shape.

The rehearsal begins with a run-through of the Prologue and of Scene One. The narrator delivers his paradoxical exhortation directed towards the audience: “Return to your shores, do not enter the high seas, for perhaps, were you to lose me, you would remain lost. The sea I will be traveling has never been travelled before.” We’re immediately plunged into a dreamlike atmosphere, à la David Lynch’s Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive: Claus Guth parades the characters in an imaginary space, like a journey through themselves and through humanity, leading them from hell to paradise. The portion of Scene One that the singers are rehearsing opens onto the middle of a dream by Dante; the poet is being played by Jean-Sébastien Bou, who has participated in the world premieres of many other contemporary operas.

First, Santa Lucia appears, admirably played by coloratura soprano Maria Carla Pino Cury. After speaking to Beatrice, she asks Virgilio to guide the poet to paradise. Virgilio is played by Evan Hughes, whose performances have already been acclaimed many times at the Festival d’Aix. Dante, in mid-dream, is remembering his youth and the moment he met Beatrice. Christel Loetzsch’s warm and enticing voice bestows an incomparable depth to her performance as young Dante. The music composed by Dusapin gives pride of place to the singing, and allows especially for extremely pure duets. The score is perfectly adapted to the voices of the singers — with whom the composer has been working very closely — and takes this initiatory journey to a new level, towards ever-increasing transparency.

At the end of the run-through, the celebrated verses ring out on stage with a particular intensity: “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood…” The spell is broken when the house lights come back on and the stage director’s voice booms out. Certain gestures are now worked on, are better defined; a move is repeated, a posture accentuated. Step by step, they go over the scene so that nothing is left to chance; each detail in the production needs to make sense; each movement and expression must be an integral part of the whole.

Although much has already been decided by this point of the production, certain elements can still be changed. Thus, the character of the narrator, whom Pascal Dusapin originally imagined as a mere voice, has gained a more developed presence in Claus Guth’s staging. Pascal Dusapin reacts very quickly: upon reflection, the character could always say a little more. After a short phone call to Frédéric Boyer, the librettist, the decision is taken to add more text.

While the assistant stage director has the singers rehearse for Scene Two, the technicians are also busy on stage. The curtain on which the video is being projected (to create a ghostly transparent effect) became jammed at the end of Scene One. Once it is repaired, the crew will need to ensure that the equipment is functioning properly; indeed, the production will be ready only once all issues, great or small, have been resolved. The feverish agitation that took over the theatre during the break comes to a halt when the luminous ring above the auditorium gradually dims and the run-through begins anew, plunging us once again into the eerie atmosphere of this mysterious journey.

François Delécluse, dramaturge of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence