Although Bozar recently offered a concert version of Lessons in love and violence (2018), Georges Benjamin remains little known to us. However, he has become one of the most prominent lyrical composers since the success of Written on skinhis second opera, created in Aix-en-Provence in 2012. We were therefore impatiently awaiting his Picture a day like this (“Imagine a day like this”), again written with his usual accomplice, the playwright – also English – Martin Crimp.
A European tour of opera festivals
Unlike their previous collaborations, Picture a day like this is a chamber opera: shorter – barely a little over an hour –, five singers who sometimes combine two roles and a chamber orchestra of around twenty musicians, the majority of whom are winds. The composer in the pit, leading the musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the soloists for whom he wrote to measure. Crimp’s libretto is a philosophical tale, an original story, even if it references various traditions. The woman who lost her son (Marianne Crebassa) learns that she can bring him back to life if she can find a happy person and get a button from the sleeve of his garment. She will thus meet two desperate lovers, a button maker, a fashionable composer and an art collector. They all seem happy at first sight, but their happiness turns out to be fragile and artificial as soon as they start talking: the couple is torn apart by the lover’s polyamorous desires, the craftsman has been suicidal since he was replaced by a machine, the composer is devoured by her narcissism and the wealthy collector is in love. In the end, the woman meets Zabelle (Anna Prohaska), her double, who lives in a marvelous garden. Zabelle leads her to change her point of view, the woman opens her hand: the button is there.
For each encounter, there is a specific instrumental combination, but also a musical development in two stages: the description of the apparent happiness, then the revelation of the crisis situation that it hides. The writing is centered on the voices, the orchestra being most often intended to color and characterize. It is a work of craftsmanship, sometimes nourished by ancient musical traditions (the trio with the loving couple is like a Venetian madrigal), but most often anchored in a contemporary aesthetic, free from all dogma. We do not come out of it upset, but moved.
Daniel Jenneteau and Marie-Christine Somma sign a staging that is also simple but effective. The decor (brushed aluminum walls, sliding boxes, curtains that divide the space) may seem all-purpose, even cold, but is transformed for the last scene: the videographer Hachim Berrida turns the garden into a sort of video aquarium where close-up chemical reactions look like lush vegetation, and it’s fascinating.
→ Aix-en-Provence, Jeu de Paume Theater, until July 23: www.festival-aix.com. Performances also planned in London, Strasbourg, Paris, Luxembourg, Cologne and Naples