Festival d’Aix En Provence 2023 Review: Picture a Day Like This

By João Marcos Copertino
(Photo Credit: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Reviewing a new opera is always a hard task. Beyond the many difficulties of reflecting on an extremely elaborate piece of work, after only one or two hearings, there is also a major difficulty for the critic when addressing unavoidable questions like, “is the new work any good?” This often transforms itself into a more dangerous question, “did I like it?”

It is hard to circumvent a subjective level of criticism, so let me be honest from the start. I had a good experience while watching “Picture a Day Like This.” In fact, I liked it so much that I went to see it a second time. Will it be a work for the ages? There, I am no oracle.

What is ‘Picture a Day Like This?’

“Picture a Day Like This” is George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s fourth collaboration. It is an opera with a parodic tone that takes as its object something mid-way between a medieval morality play and those one-act psychological thrillers like Bartok’s “Bluebeard Castle” and Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine.” “Picture a Day” has humor, but it is never funny. The music is often intense and even plays with some musical motives, yet it often sounds like an allusion to Stravinsky’s renaissance phase.

The opera depicts the saga of a woman seeking to revive her son, who has died just before the action begins. To do so, she must find a shirt button from a happy person. In the course of her quest, she meets a series of characters who, sometimes despite initial appearances, are never happy. Until she finds Zabelle. Zabelle reveals that she is happy only because she does not exist. The final meeting makes the woman realize that her whole saga has been part of her journey through grief.

Martin Crimp’s libretto is not devoid of charm and presents its ideas with remarkable concision. Crimp moves us seamlessly through skeptical or satirical representations of polyamorous relationships, sexual harassment, drug addiction, and the intellectual shallowness of the art world. Nevertheless, such concision sometimes makes the characters, subjected as they are to parody, seem awfully schematic. The action is often predictable. As is often the case with such Manichean plots, it also lacks psychological intensity.  In no moment during the opera did I feel that the woman was in any peril. There was no danger in her quest and no realization or immense breakthrough. It might be that I simply missed the fun of of it. Only time will tell.

Main Music Asset

To my mind, George Benjamin’s main musical asset is his devotion to the operatic voice. At most moments, his score seems calculated to elevate the talents of his singers. His use of coloratura and the falsettos in the male voices is meant to showcase a certain beauty of tone inside each singer. Sometimes, the singing line is written as an exaggeration of a spoken-word delivery of the text and I can see that being irritating to some. But, it is an interesting way of engaging with a certain tradition of the operatic.

The opera has two main scenes that could each be considered its highlight, by my own criteria. First, is the very dramatic aria “Cold Earth—dead stems,” when the woman almost despairs of her quest. Second, is the transition to the scene in Zabelle’s garden, where the orchestra repeats in a somber mood a musical motif from the woman’s claim for “the door.”

Benjamin knows how to write music for the English language. When I chose my seat to see the opera a second time, I made sure to choose a place where I would not be able to see the subtitles. The text was mostly comprehensible to the extent that operatic singing with melismatic phrases allows.

Benjamin is an opera composer. Let me explain.

There are opera composers, and there are great composers who also compose operas. While the former loves the genre and understands the main technical aspects of how it functions, the latter also enjoys opera in all its possible grandiloquence. Either type is more than welcomed on my ears and many opera composers composed amazing things that were not opera. But, it is evident especially nowadays when we hear music composed by someone that loves opera and understands its functioning.

The opera staging is austere, but aesthetically exuberant. The work of the duo, Daniel Jeanneteau and Marie-Christine Soma, plays a lot with darkness and reflection without ever making the scenario uninteresting. The videos of Zabelle’s subaquatic garden were particularly beautiful. This is one of the few times that video projection in opera ornamented the stage lightning without looking like a cheap trick to avoid paying for craftier scenarios.

More than Excellent

The vocal cast is more than excellent and led by the star mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa. With her instrument as beautiful as ever, Crebassa gives the protagonist a tender sense of vulnerability and numbness. Her character is clearly weakened by the circumstances of grief and avoids at all costs descending into any histrionic behavior. Facing harassment, she simply says “no” or asks to leave. Her “operatic” moment is to be confided only to herself and the audience, of course. However, she exposes it to no one else. As a result, she constructs a character that is unashamed of showing her vulnerabilities through her voice. Her low notes were never forced, but timidly sung. Her high notes, with exception of the aria, were unobtrusive. The product of such carefulness was a very limpid and warm voice with language as crystalline as when heard in a long recitative.

John Brancy plays the roles of the Artisan and the Collector with much mastery. Benjamin uses and abuses his baritone voice in the falsetto region, showcasing a sharpening but mesmerizing tone. While both of his characters were men on the verge of severe psychological problems, it was hard to not be impressed by the beauty of his voice.

Beate Mordal and Cameron Shahbazi always sang together. They represented the most humorously narcissistic figures. At first, they incarnated as a pair of lovers who began singing languid and luxurious vocal lines, stressing their inebriating love.  Shahbazi is completely comfortable transitioning from the sharp and rounded sounds of his countertenor register to the lower notes that embody a kind of old-school masculinity that nowadays usually appears only as an object of criticism. Both their vocal and stage chemistry is unerring. In their second appearance, as a composer (Mordal) and her assistant (Shahbazi) the dynamic of their relationship is invert, with Mordal proving that she can also bring to life some of the more objectionable aspects of today’s so-called intelligentsia. Mordal has a tight vibrato and an agile soprano voice, but I was most impressed by the way she captured a certain mode of physical presence, the tight-hipped, short-stepping sexualized repression I see every time I go to a pseudo-fancy event.

Finally, Anna Prohaska sings the insightful Zabelle with much care and attention, especially to the open vowels. I still remember how well the word “day” sounded in her mouth.

Obviously, for this debut, George Benjamin provided the best orchestral reading that the opera has received so far. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra proves why they are one of the most celebrated musical groups nowadays. They play with much attention to the singing lines and with such a diverse range of colors that would have made the opera extremely interesting even as a purely symphonic piece.  I truly want to see “Picture a Day like this” again, in a year or so, to discover if it still makes such a positive impression.


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