This article is the first in a series on the 2010 Aix festival. Read the other articles in our Culture section.

The 62nd annual Festival d’Aix-en-Provence got off to a slow start last night with Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s bizarre new production of Don Giovanni-a heavy-handed subversion of Mozart’s tragic-comic dramma giocoso that transforms the irresistibly seductive Don Juan into a manic-depressive drunken lout in a dirty tee shirt.

Nothing can ever be really bad at the Aix Festival, especially not any production held, like this one, in the enchanting outdoor courtyard of the 17th-century Episcopal Palace. And this Don Giovanni has a lot of redeeming values too, notably superb performances by American bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello and German soprano Marlis Petersen as Donna Anna. The period-instrument Freiburger Barockorchester, conducted by Louis Langrée, plays with exceptional clarity and grace, and the English Voices chorus is excellent.

When the blistering heat of the day gave way to a soft Provençal summer night, with a whisper of a breeze and stars overhead, the stage was set for the festival’s usual lyrical sorcery. Instead, Mozart had to duel for attention with Tcherniakov’s confusing attempt at a satirical send-up. Characters have been rearranged willy-nilly, dressed in a mixed-era, mixed-season mélange of costumes that might have been plucked arbitrarily from a touring company trunk.

Leporello is no longer Giovanni’s servant but a friend of his wealthy family; Donna Elvira is no longer a seduced, abandoned and forgotten former conquest but Giovanni’s ex-wife; Zerlina is not a young peasant girl but Elvira’s daughter by a former marriage; no one is masked or disguised, but mistaken identity reigns supreme; everyone is constantly removing everyone else’s clothes, Don Giovanni’s leer is more like the grin of a village idiot, and Zerlina sings her delicious consolation aria Vedrai, carina not to her fiancé Masetto but to Don Giovanni’s coat. Go figure.

Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, a veteran Giovanni, delivers the familiar role with full-voiced assurance, while struggling valiantly with Tcherniakov’s strange vision, jumping up and down and flopping his arms like a crazed cockatoo. Canadian tenor Colin Balzer provides a finely tuned performance as a bespectacled bourgeois Don Ottavio, and the rich, stentorian authority of Russian bass Anatoli Kotscherga’s Commendatore ends the evening with a welcome flourish. It’s a fight to the finish, but Mozart wins again.

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