The House Taken Over, Aix-en-Provence Festival – review

Willingly shut away in the house of their dead parents, a middle-aged brother and sister spend their days in meaningless rituals of preservation. Behind closed doors unnamed forces begin to occupy the house.

A 1944 story by Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar is the basis for The House Taken Over, this year’s world premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça has teamed up with librettist Sam Holcroft to create an hour-long thriller for two singers and chamber ensemble.

In many ways, this year’s newcomer is the offspring of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, last year’s great success. Katie Mitchell is again responsible for the stage direction; Mendonça is a student of Benjamin, and his work has been nurtured in the festival’s incubators over the past three years.

In the end, the comparison is to Mendonça’s detriment. His music is neither beguilingly beautiful nor startlingly original; his craft lies mostly in onomatopoeic sound-paintings and in the canny build-up of tension.

Care has been lavished on the stage technology of the beautiful outdoor setting of the Domaine du Grand Saint-Jean. The result is vivid and intimate acoustics, but they cannot give Mendonça’s score the overtones and subtleties of an enclosed theatre. Nor does Mitchell’s painstakingly literal production give room for suggestion or ambiguity – a pity, as these are the subject’s strongest assets. Brother and sister are at least as much trapped by their childhood traumas and fears as they are by the unseen invaders; Mitchell errs too far on the side of the paranormal, depriving the piece of the ambivalence it needs.

Oliver Dunn and Kitty Whately give strong performances in the work’s only two roles, and Etienne Siebens directs the excellent Asko/Schönberg ensemble with precision and sensitivity.

The festival values the development of young talent, and there is certainly room for Mendonça’s music to develop. As the production proceeds to Luxembourg, Antwerp and Lisbon, it will no doubt settle and mature. That can only be a good thing.

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