Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2022 Review: Il Viaggio, Dante

Dusapin’s New Opera Captivates & Exhausts In Equal Measure

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

To mark the 700th anniversary of Dante Aligheri’s death in September 1321, the Aix-en-Provence festival staged the world premier of French composer Pascal Dusapin’s opera “Il Viaggio, Dante,” based upon the poet’s iconic narrative poem “The Divine Comedy.” To say that this is an ambitious undertaking is an understatement, especially as the work has been compressed into approximately 105 minutes. Not only will it generate comparisons with Dante’s original text, but the subject matter concerning the soul’s journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, steeped in mediaeval Roman Catholic theology and philosophy, is no longer a popular subject for modern day theatre audiences, notwithstanding the fact that historical works with biblical content are readily accepted; without Dante’s name attached to the work, selling such a narrative in our cynical era would be difficult indeed, whilst the idea of a work culminating with a hero entering Paradise as consequence of divine justice, itself based on a morality no longer widely accepted, makes it even more challenging.

Yet despite these reservations, it turned out to be an interesting, albeit emotionally draining, work, but which was able to capture and hold the audience’s attention. It has a quick changing, fast paced narrative, high in energy, containing disturbing scenes and repellent characters, only tempered by the knowledge that in the end Dante will find his Beatrice and a place in Paradise. And thanks to director Claus Guth, its potentially problematic conclusion was neatly side-stepped.

Boyer’s “Operatorio” Libretto

Librettist Frédéric Boyer, adapting texts from Dante’s “La Vita Nova” and, of course, his “The Divine Comedy” structured the work in seven tableaux preceded by a prologue, each one representing a stage on Dante’s journey. The prologue opens with a video, designed by rocafilm, in which Dante, distracted by his obsession with Beatrice while driving, loses control, crashes and dies. Thus does his journey begin.

A narrator then appears and warns the audience not to follow.

In the first tableau Dante is initially unaware he is dead. He is joined by Santa Lucia, Virgil, Young Dante and Beatrice, and in state of despair and grief, departs on his journey with Virgil as his guide. By scene three he has entered limbo, where the damned, sitting in what appeared to be a room in an asylum, await their fate. Next, in what is the largest tableau, he descends into the Circles of Hell, where the souls of the damned can be heard groaning and crying out, and in which Dante discovers, and is subject to, the torments of each circle. By tableau six he has entered Purgatory and moves towards the light, where, in tableau seven, he ends his journey in Paradise.

The libretto, with its religious content, is very much in the mould of an oratorio. The dialogue between the main characters is constantly punctuated by the chorus, singing exerts from hymns, and by the commentary of a Narrator, who acting as a one-man chorus addresses the audience directly. In fact, Dusapin refers to the work in his program notes as an “operatorio.”

Dusapin’s Transparent Score   

Dusapin scored the work for a standard classical orchestra of approximately 40 players, with an exotic percussion section without timpani, a glass harmonica for its angelic sound and an organ, which he employed in a very direct manner to create simple textures, with minimal ornamentation, and characterized by melodic and harmonic simplicity. All of which created a transparent soundscape, deliberately aimed at enhancing the clarity of the text, and allowing the words to shape the characters.

It is not, however, a score without color, and Dusapin has been particularly sensitive in his creation of the atmospheres which help define the scenes, with the orchestra switching between mesmerizing, brooding and rumbling passages to periods of unsettling, restless, disconcerting music, with sudden loud squally outbursts, although never at the expense of the singer. There are also areas of calm, notably in the final tableaux, in which the music is used to open up a calmer, almost spiritual space.

The Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon under the direction of Kent Nagano were given the responsibility of performing the world premier, and produced a balanced reading which successfully supported what was a dramatically intense staging.

Expertly Staged By Guth

The work was brought brilliantly to the stage in an imaginative, sensitive production by Guth and his team, consisting of Étienne Pluss, scenographer, Gesine Völlm, costume designer, and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour. Extensive use was also made of videos created by rocafilm.

Although the drama is initially updated to the present day, as Dante proceeds on his journey the setting become less time specific, although there are plenty of references through the costumes to the present day, and the tableau three waiting room scene is definitely set in a recent time period. The Circles of Hell are mostly set on an empty stage, with the occasional prop and the use of colorful lighting; in one particularly well-crafted scene, use is made of a black cloth, under which the tormented souls of the dead writhe around in agony, and through which Dante attempts to pass: the terror was palpable. The final tableau brings the exhausted Dante back to the house found the opening tableau, and is reunited with Beatrice.

It was in the way Guth sharply defined and developed the characters, and his ability to manage their interaction with each other which really stood out. Dante is just a man thrust into a very abnormal situation, and suffers, as anyone would, the dislocation and then the terrors of entering Hell. Virgil is a man of wisdom from antiquity, and so on, while the souls of the dead were treated as individuals each with their own burden. The overall result was that everything became very believable, very real, and so the narrative convincingly held together, and drew the audience into the story on an emotional level. The use of the video was not just used to set the scene by presenting us with the car crash, but frequently projected images of Beatrice onto the sets, ensuring that she was always in our minds. It was a staging in which the audience was dragged along, and forced to share Dante’s terrors and torment. To say the least, it was an emotionally exhausting piece of theatre to experience!

As Dante follows the light out of Purgatory and into Paradise, the mind turned to the fundamental question of how this was going to end. Surely, not with Dante and Beatrice reunited in the presence of God. Having traveed with him through so much, and been the subject of an emotional pounding, a sentimental conclusion would be a severe disappointment, and anti-climactic. Guth, obviously having given consideration to this fact, came up with what was possibly the only solution that could both satisfy a modern audience, whilst remaining true to Frédéric Boyer’s libretto, Dusapin’s music and to Dante himself.

The exhausted Dante enters the house, that is Paradise, and speaks with Beatrice who tells him he is in the presence of God. He collapses and stretches out a hand towards her. She does not reciprocate, but leaves him, and he dies. It has all been but a dream, a delirium!

Or has it? It could be exactly as written, that Dante has entered Paradise, and that his death is a metaphor for his metamorphosis owing to him being in the presence of God. Most likely, this is the case, but the ambiguity leaves the door open, and proved to be an excellent solution to what could have been a tricky conclusion.

A Strong Cast Of Opera & Non-Opera Singers  

Playing the role of Dante was baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou, who proved himself to be a versatile actor with his compelling psychological portrait of a man who moves between emotional extremes, from obsession, terror, torment and dislocation to hope and realization. He possesses an attractive voice with a rich timbre which he used forcefully and with a high degree of flexibility to capture the nuances of his character’s fast-changing emotional states.

The Young Dante was played by mezzo-soprano Christel Loetzsch. She made an excellent impression with performance which captured her character’s emotional anguish and obsession. It was also a performance which was notable for her prodigious vocal versatility, intelligent phrasing, colorful pallet and secure technique.

Beatrice sings only in the first and final tableaux, yet as she was cleverly inserted into many of the other scenes through the use of video, impersonation and non-singing appearances, she gave the impression of being ever-present. Soprano Jennifer France playing the role produced a confident performance, capturing the changing embodiments of the character, which she supported with an expressive vocal presentation.

Coloratura soprano Maria Carla Pino Cury was excellent in the role of Santa Lucia, the saint known for having had her eyes forcibly removed. She moved around the stage with her eyes in the palms of her hands, which gave her movements a very strange appearance, in what was a brilliant acting performance. It was also a role which allowed her to showcase her bright, piercing voice and impressive coloratura.

Dominique Visse was superb in the role of the Voice of the Damned, whom we first meet impersonating Beatrice, and tormenting Dante. Although not a traditional singing role, he went beyond normal spoken speech, veering into cabaret, sprechstimme and high-pitched mimicry and screeching, heavy with mockery and wild laughter, the voice always laced with malice.

Bass-baritone Evan Hughes was an authoritative, stoical Virgil, who kept his emotions firmly under control, an image which his long hair, beard and biblical staff accentuated.

Giacomo Prestia, playing the spoken role of the Narrator, and dressed every inch like a game show host, put in an accomplished performance. His diction was clear and he varied his tone and mode of expression expertly to meet the needs of the drama.

The Choeur de l’Opéra de Lyon under the management of Richard Wilberforce gave an energetic, strong and sensitive performance. They sang offstage.

Overall, this was a worthwhile, rather than an enjoyable production. It is a high intensity work of mainly negative emotions and disturbing visual imagery, and it leaves one thoroughly exhausted. The question which determines the success of any new work, at least on a personal level, is whether you would go to see it again. If asked, I would say yes, but definitely not in the near future, and not too often.


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