The Saito Kinen Festival, which happens every year since 1992 in Matsumoto, has been made famous by recordings of not-entirely-mainstream repertoire with world-class soloists and (in opera) ambitious productions under the baton of Seiji Ozawa and, more recently, other promising names. Also, the Festival orchestra has gained a reputation for its “sound culture”.
Due to unstable health conditions, Ozawa has been increasingly cancelling his concerts all over the world. In his own Festival, he took the very honest precautionary measure of informing that he might be replaced if he would not be up to the task of conducting Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. French conductor Stephane Denève, who was in charge of the second item in the double bill, Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, would be the replacement. Fortunately, the revered Japanese conductor proved to be in good health and could honor his engagement in Matsumoto.
Predictably, Ozawa and his musicians offered hauntingly beautiful sounds throughout. In their recordings, André Previn would provide more sense of humor and Simon Rattle a little bit more punch (some would say ‘too much”), but Ozawa did round off all the sharp angles in this music in a way that made it sound extremely spontaneous if less theatrical. The final scene – with its difficult spoken-word effects and anti-climactic ending – especially well-handled. Unfortunately, the Matsumoto Performing Arts Center has a difficult acoustic for singers, what gave them very little space for subtlety. In that sense, Isabel Leonard, whose fruity mezzo has gained strength since last time I saw her, was a good choice for the Child. If her delivery of the text lacks the clarity of, say, Magdalena Kozená (Rattle’s CD), her voice was very hearable and successful in suggesting feistiness. Among the other roles, Yvonne Naef proved to be the singer less challenged by the hall as the Mother, the Chinese Cup and the Dragonfly. Anna Christy may lack the crystalline quality of Arleen Augér (Previn’s 1st CD), but her grainy, metallic soprano carried well in the auditorium and her coloratura was very nimble.
For L’Heure Espagnole’s earthier score, Stephane Denève elicited an entirely different sound picture from the orchestra, which offered him fuller and more incisive sonorities. The very nature of this music made the challenge in producing demi-tintes less of a problem for the cast too. Isabel Leonard (Concepción) proved to have a Carmen waiting to be matured in her and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was very well cast as her husband, Torquemada. David Portillo (Gonzalve) may lack some roundness in his high notes, but they are all firm and easy. He also got the measure of his role and music, offering a spirited performance. Elliot Madore (Ramiro) too acted well and sung with some nuance in a baritone voice a bit soft-centered for the circumstances.
For Ravel’s operatic opera omnia, the Saito Kinen Festival has collaborated with the Glyndebourne Festival, where – if I am not mistaken – Kazushi Ono assumed the conducting duties. Director Laurent Pelly offered a chic, slightly unsurprising but exquisitely traditional approach to L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, aided by Barbara de Limburg’s beautiful sets (the Fire scene particularly impressive). For L’Heure Espagnole, the approach was rather Almodovar-esque – an interesting idea – but both Personenregie and Caroline Ginet and Florence Evrard’s sets skated a bit on the crazy-comedy surface of the story, whereas taking these comedy characters a little bit more seriously would have made all the difference in the world.