At the Festival Published on 22/06/2022

Tuesday, 14 June, 6 p.m. – Grand Théâtre de Provence – Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

This evening, the Grand Théâtre de Provence is hosting rehearsals for Salome, the masterpiece by German composer Richard Strauss. On stage, a fleet of technicians tweak the machinery being used in Raimund Orfeo Voigt’s set design. This task poses a true challenge: the stage floor is divided up by myriad set components that move up and down without making a sound, to form a precipice, a hill, a platform or a wall! After a bit of last-minute drilling, the auditorium lights go out, and the rehearsal begins.

The performers pick up again with the encounter between Salome and Jochanaan — the name given to the prophet John the Baptist in Oscar Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera. Half-buried in a trap door, the two characters seem to miraculously emerge from below the theatre. Although the orchestra is not yet present in the pit, the power of the music is already apparent thanks to the artists on stage: Elsa Dreisig plays a young girl driven by an unknown and devastating desire, while Gábor Bretz portrays an unyielding and brutal saint. Elsa Dreisig’s flexible body and rounded gestures are in sharp contrast to Gábor Bretz’s straight and angular movements. Their encounter becomes strained, could veer off course with the slightest nod, when suddenly Jochanaan verbally explodes, and his insults violently force Salome out of her scenic space at the edge of the cistern in which Jochanaan is confined. She cowers on the ground as she slowly recovers from this epic failure. Donning kneepads so that she can crawl without hurting herself, the singer tries to determine the best way to quickly extricate herself from the chasm in which Jochanaan disappears. Several conversations start up between the auditorium, the pit, the stage and the backstage, to adjust the ballet of panels, to reposition the hill that will be climbed, and to perfect the musical timing: the effect is being honed down to the slightest detail.

With Andrea Breth, movements are always precise and accurate. Everything must be in the right place at the right moment. The stage director interrupts the scene several times, asking for a certain passage to be repeated until it perfectly conveys her intentions. And the final result is impressive: when Salome tilts her head as she turns slightly towards the audience, and when she moves her chest a bit closer to Jochanaan’s, it all makes sense. The change is minimal, but the intentional force is heightened. The French-Danish soprano listens carefully to the advice, and suggests several moves until she finds just the right one: her body must now meticulously memorise the postures, for they will have to be repeated again and again at every performance! Alone on stage, Elsa Dreisig becomes the focus of all attention. She must determine a path between the various sections of the set, which move as she walks through them. The stakes are high, both dramatically and musically: after being cursed by the prophet, Salome experiences the absolute revelation of her desire through the music; and as she crosses the set, inhabited by this new feeling, her subconscious turmoil seems to emerge from the depths of the theatre.

A deep silence reigns around the stage director and her artistic collaborators: the production requires a high level of concentration from all of the teams. No noise dares disturb the rehearsal: the only sounds in the house are Andrea Breth’s instructions in German. All energy is concentrated on Elsa Dreisig, the incandescent figure on stage, who vacillates between frightened prey and a young girl full of unbridled rage. At the slightest utterance from Andrea Breth, everyone halts and waits for her clarifications. And thus the session carries on, with a quiet calm in which each individual works almost imperceptibly.

It’s 7 p.m., and there’s a change of scenes: from the fly-loft, a new panel of the set descends; and behind it, a round, white, blinding moon gleams in the background. It’s a lunar stroll, the stage director explains — a journey to the heart of all-consuming emotion.

Rapahëlle Blin, dramaturge of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

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