Magazine article Opera Canada

Letter from Aix-En-Provence: Denise Wendel Poray Savors the Particular Flavors of a Summer Festival That Blends the Old and the New

Magazine article Opera Canada

Letter from Aix-En-Provence: Denise Wendel Poray Savors the Particular Flavors of a Summer Festival That Blends the Old and the New

Article excerpt

The Festival d'Art Lyrique in the sleepy, sundrenched town of Aix-en-Provence started in 1948 as a venture to produce little-known Mozart operas. The cast of characters behind it was as improbable as that of a classic Mozart plot. Lily Pastre, a French countess, donated her millions to underwrite the inaugural festival, Algerian impresario Gabriel Dussurget was the director and Odessa-born, Faris-raised painter Georges Wakhe-vitch was the stage designer. Perhaps the most surprising presence so soon after the war was Austrian conductor Hans Rosbaud, conducting Germany's Sudwestfunk Orchestra. Writer and journalist Edmonde Charles-Roux, another founding member, recalls that first festival as a sort of improvised party between friends endeavoring to forget the sufferings of the war.

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A biographer and close friend of Coco Chanel, and the former editor of French Vogue, Charles-Roux was responsible for widening the scope of the tiny festival by luring members of the Parisian social and artistic elite to la douce Provence. It was she who proposed Balthus. the famous Swiss artist, to do the decor for Cost fan tutte (1950), and then, together with Alberto Giacometti, convinced Andre Derain to design Die Entfulrung aus dan Serail (1951), and Il barbiere di Siviglia (1953).

The festival has undergone numerous permutations since then, and the elegant Charles-Roux, now 88, has, with her inimitable grace, marked every one from year to year. She perhaps harbors a certain nostalgia for the early years, noting that "back then, we didn't talk about money."

One of the most flamboyant transformations took place 40 years after the founding, when Stephane Lissner took the reins of the festival in 1998. By then, talk about it or not, the budget was about [euro]11.7 million (about $16.3 million at current exchange rates), and it was up to [euro]20 million ($28 million) by 2010. Under Lissner's direction, the courtyard of the ancient Archeveche, the signature venue of the festival, was totally renovated. He created ateliers to create costumes and sets, which gave the festival total autonomy over the look of its productions. He founded the European Academy of Music, where young singers, musicians, stage directors, composers and conductors could study and produce a fully staged opera.

And he masterminded the festival's production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, combining forces with the Salzburg Easter Festival in a joint venture that featured Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a production by French theatre director Stephane Braunschweig. That initiative also saw the original Theatre de l'Archeveche superceded by the Grand Theatre de Provence, which was inaugurated with the premiere of Die Walkure in 2007.

Lissner was also instrumental in persuading Ben Heppner to take on the role of Siegfried. Eva Wagner-Pasquier had been Lissner's close friend and casting advisor since his days running Paris's Theatre du Chatelet. As Heppner explained it in an interview for the festival's website: "I had been offered the role of Siegfried many times, but I avoided it for years. But when Eva Wagner approached me about it, I said to myself that I could not let this chance go by." Though he has now dropped the role from his repertoire, Heppner made his debut at the 50th anniversary festival in 2008, and followed that with the Gotterdammerung Siegfried the following year.

Lissner left Aix to take over at Milan's La Scala just after the inaugural Das Rheingold in 2006, but his successor, Belgian composer and virtuoso organist Bernard Foccroulle, has maintained strong Canadian connections. …

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