Il Viaggio, Dante is a new opera by Pascal Dusapin that received its premiere at the 2022 Aix-en-Provence Festival. It received a major production with Kent Nagano conducting the Orchestre de l’Opera de Lyon and directed and choreographed by Claus Guth. They are both major figures in the world of opera and you snap at attention when you see their names.
Pascal Dusapin is a prolific composer who has written ten operas. In Il Viaggio we accompany Dante as he travels in the underworld led by Virgil. It is a dream, a nightmare or perhaps a realistic bow to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is the 700th anniversary of the great work.
The opera begins with the Narrator (Giacomo Prestia) wearing a sequined suit welcoming us. He will appear several times during the opera, grab a microphone and address us. He looks like standup comic, but he speaks of us being in a small boat following his big one. This sounds more like Charon, the deliverer of the souls of the dead to Hades than some variety show host.
A man is sleeping, and we see a video showing him driving at some speed while thinking of a beautiful woman in a red dress. There is a serious crash and the last thing we see is the man’s bloody hand reaching for the hand of the woman. The man is Dante (baritone Jean-Sebastien Bou) and he is dreaming of his eternal love, Beatrice (soprano Jennifer France).
We see an ordinary apartment which becomes the waiting room the damned. Santa Lucia
(soprano Maria Carla Pino Cury) and we meet the Roman poet Virgil (Evan Hughes), shepherd’s stick in hand, who will guide Dante through the circles of hell, out of the darkness, through purgatory and finally to Paradise where there is light and joy and Beatrice appears. The scene is rich with biblical references from the Song of Songs to a Gregorian Chant.
The old Dante is journeying through the underworld, but he recalls his youth and his passion for Beatrice and he is represented by Young Dante (mezzo soprano Christel Loetzsch). We also have the impressive Voice of the Damned in Dominique Visse. The singing was generally impressive even when we were exposed to some screeching that was clearly intentional.
The Chorus of the Opera of Lyon and group of dancers as well as extras are put to extraordinary use. Ken Nagano conducts the Orchestra of the Lyon Opera through the complexities of Dupasin’s music. It ranges from the lyrical to the seriously dissonant and goes to places that would challenge the knowledge of the most musically educated especially on a first hearing.
The opera is complex both in its narrative and musical content. Is it a psychological drama with references to the Divine Comedy, is it a dream that librettist Frederic Boyer has devised and Guth has added to with his inimitable touches? It is hard to say on a first viewing and perhaps after many more exposures to the work.
Il Viaggio, Dante was commissioned by the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and Opéra National de Paris in coproduction with Opéra National de Paris, Saarländisches Staatstheater Saarbrücken and Les Théâtres de la ville de Luxembourg.
Il Viaggio, Dante by Pascal Dusapin opened on July 8 and will be performed a total of four times until July 17, 2022, at the Grand Theatre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France. www.festival-aix.com