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Chorégies d’Orange

Aida in Orange, with Elena O’Connor and Anita Rachvelishvili
© Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

NEW COMPANY DIRECTOR Jean-Louis Grinda has exciting plans for the Chorégies d’Orange. For decades, the festival has relied on filling the amphitheater with the same limited repertoire of popular operas, cast with international stars. Grinda has rightly observed that the popular appetite for this repetitive formula has flagged in recent seasons. He aims to retain the popular identity of the Chorégies, but to expand the repertoire to stimulate a new audience: he plans to open the 2018 festival with Arrigo Boito’s rarely performed Mefistofele. Grinda’s first task is to ensure the festival’s financing, which relies principally on revenue from the audience and is currently in debt to the sum of one and a half million Euros.

The 2017 season’s programming, which Grinda inherited from his predecessor Raymond Duffaut, included a production of Verdi’s Aida by Paul-Emile Fourny; the musical forces for the production, conducted by Paolo Arrivabeni, included the Orchestre National de France and a full-toned chorus from six different companies. The production’s originally announced Aida, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, withdrew in July. The August 2 premiere was a big night for American soprano Elena O’Connor, who was given a chance to make her role debut as Aida in front of a near-capacity audience of more than seven thousand—an unenviable challenge. 

One of the production problems Grinda should address is the limited ten-day rehearsal period. It is hardly surprising that productions in Orange tend to concentrate more on traffic control than on original ideas. Fourny is experienced at the exercise and did a professional job. Some booing at the final curtain suggested that the audience expected a more spectacular show. The only innovative idea in the production was dressing the chorus as Victorian observers of nineteenth-century Egyptomania, clutching their guidebooks while observing the tawdry selection of antiquities. It might have worked better had there been the opportunity to explore the concept in more depth. The reference to the erection of the Luxor obelisk on the Place de la Concorde in Paris during the triumphal march would have looked better with a full-sized model: the mini obelisk was dwarfed here by the great Roman wall. A good solo dance did not excuse an embarrassing comic dance for some Napoleonic soldiers.

O’Connor made a vulnerable heroine under the practiced, careful baton of Arrivabeni. Her young voice has a luminous top, which as yet is not matched by similarly lustrous tone in the middle of her voice, but in the circumstances, her performance was a brave achievement. Marcelo Álvarez was not in his best voice as Radamès, with snatched-at high notes in “Celeste Aida” and dry tone suggesting an unannounced indisposition. Even in top form, Álvarez does not naturally posses the vocal heroism demanded by the role; his caressing lyricism came into its own only in the final tomb scene. Baritone Quinn Kelsey, as Amonasro, phrased the opening of the “Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente” ensemble with a stylish legato and made a powerful contribution to his patriotic persuasion of Aida.

The great performance of the evening was the Amneris of Anita Rachvelishvili, who combined power with scrupulous musicianship. It is rare to hear the princess’s Act II preparations for the return of Radamès sung with such hushed, opulent warmth, and the Georgian mezzo delivered arena-filling splendor for the judgment scene opposite the exemplary Ramfis of bass Nicolas Courjal, whose effortless lower register made its points impressively. Bass José Antonio Garcia, as the King, suffered from disastrously imprecise intonation and vague tone. Better support came from the promising offstage priestess of soprano Ludivine Gombert and the juicy tenor of Rémy Mathieu as the messenger.      —Stephen J. Mudge 

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