It was in an abstract place, as if set in a nowhere above the great lagoon of the Etang de Berre, bathed in the oppressive heat of a late July afternoon, that we arrived in numbers from the motorway exit to witness a multiple Resurrection. Firstly, that of a place: the Vitrolles Stadium, for this is where the forces of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence have assembled to open their 2022 edition with Mahler's Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection”. Designed by the architect Rudy Ricciotti in the mid-1990s, this black concrete monolith on the side of a red canyon was soon abandoned, squatted and graffitied. It has become the subject of the wildest projects, at the centre of old local political quarrels. An association was created to save it, the “Renaissance of the Stadium”, which allowed the place to be classified as “remarkable contemporary architecture” in 2018 by the Ministry of Culture. This rebirth of a place is a sign of a vital and necessary revival of artistic life in troubled times.

Résurrection by Romeo Castellucci at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence
© Monika Rittershaus

It's in this remarkable and improbable place that the second resurrection takes place, the one created by Romeo Castellucci. On the immense stage covered with muddy earth, two gaps in the structure, both at stage left and right, open onto the twilight exterior and suddenly let in a great white horse. Haggard, it explores the place and sniffs at the wet shale. An animal on stage is a sign of life, spontaneous and unpredictable. Then a woman enters and finds it: “Ah, there you are! I was looking for you.” Amplified onto large loudspeakers facing the audience, the tone is set: a naturalist tone, a trademark of Castellucci's theatrical productions. Then she moves to the front of the stage. A pestilential smell seems to emanate from the earth. She picks up her phone and calls to come quickly. In the silence of the enigma thus raised, from the loudspeakers, a few starlings are heard in a joyful and mysterious flight, like an echo of Song V of Dante's Inferno, dear to Castellucci ever since his Divine Comedy in Avignon. And then the orchestra opens the proceedings with the Allegro maestoso. The tremolos in the violins, extremely slowed down, are worthy of the best thriller films or documentaries. It becomes clear very quickly that the musical project and the stage project are one and the same here in a result which is quasi-cinematic. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) trucks arrive with their representatives, masked and in white suits. And little by little, from the abyssal depths into which the conductor plunges us in successive orchestral layers, the exhumation of an immense mass grave is meticulously carried out on stage.

Résurrection by Romeo Castellucci at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence
© Monika Rittershaus

Esa-Pekka Salonen takes up the intent of the production: an historical and human investigation thanks to stretched tempi, very present and heavy breathing. He respects the five minutes requested by the composer between the first and second movements. In this choice of a calm and meditative musical narrative, the eruptions of percussion and brass are, for Salonen, the opportunity for real telluric shocks to wake the dead, thanks to a sound amplification that only serves to increase the effect. What's more, the venue's unusual acoustics give the impression that the sound of the Orchestre de Paris and its chorus comes out of the vaults, making the choice of amplification at this point coherent, like a soundtrack to the stage film – and this despite the distortions of orchestral balance that this amplification can cause at times (for example, the harp at the same level as the trombones).

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Orchestre de Paris and its chorus at Vitrolles Stadium
© Monika Rittershaus

On this hyper-concrete stage, the subject becomes universal, and Ricciotti's monolith becomes almost metaphysical. What should we do with our dead, what attention should we give them? From the original crime of Abel and Cain to the war in Ukraine, via the Shoah, this long and slow exhumation refuses the spectacular in favour of humility, piety and pity (the project is presented as an installation and not as a show), as if to humanise this macabre scene. We witness the birth of tragedy around the discovery of a mass grave, which invites contemplation. Particularly when the scientists line up at the side of the pit, to the sound of “O Röschen rot” sung from the orchestra by Marianne Crebassa, comforting with her delicately amber voice. How can one not be seized with awe at the perfectly whispered entrance of the seated choir, hands on thighs, echoing the corpses on stage, like so many voices of wisdom from beyond the grave saying to us: “Sterben werd' ich, um zu leben” (I shall die in order to live)?

Following his Requiem in Aix-en-Provence in 2019, and at a time when kitsch is triumphant in opera, Castellucci surprises us this time with his purity and therefore his humility of gesture, offering the audience to really hear the music. Salonen captures us with his attention to the stage and artistic risk-taking in the interpretation that one cannot but admire. Far from any romanticism, we are forcefully reminded how much living art remains an experience to be lived through, even in death, in all humanity, and not merely an object to be consumed during an entertaining evening.

****1