Magazine article Opera Canada

Letter from Aix-En-Provence: With a Change of Leadership in a Turbulent World in the Offing, Denise Wendel-Poray Reflects on the Positioning of One of Europe's Most Innovative Festivals

Magazine article Opera Canada

Letter from Aix-En-Provence: With a Change of Leadership in a Turbulent World in the Offing, Denise Wendel-Poray Reflects on the Positioning of One of Europe's Most Innovative Festivals

Article excerpt

From its very beginnings in 1948, the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence was an upstart venture, a "Yes, we can" response to the trauma of the post-war in a country where food was still rationed and the future uncertain. As one of the founding members of the festival, writer Edmonde Charles-Roux, recalls: "The inaugural summer was a sort of improvised party between friends endeavouring to forget the sufferings of the war." For her, the fact that Austrian conductor Hans Rosbaud became the first Music Director and brought his 70-member Sudwestrundfunks Symphonie with him was an "act of peace."

The 2016 festival was the first at which Charles-Roux was not in her usual seat. The 96-year-old had died earlier in the year. But the principles of tolerance and peace she embodied are still an inspiration for General Director Bernard Foccroulle. Indeed, in recent months, his conviction that opera can be a forum for positive cultural, political and interdisciplinary exchange has become poignantly relevant. Amid the largest refugee crisis since World War II and just weeks after Britain voted to leave the European Union, the 68th Festival opened in an atmosphere of disarray. At the press conference, Foccroulle commented: "We all have a responsibility in a context like this" and called for "not fewer ties with Great Britain, but, rather, to develop even stronger ones." British director Katie Mitchell, who was about to open her fifth Aix production, Pelleas et MeUsande starring Barbara Hannigan, took the microphone to express her "deep sadness" at the Brexit decision and her conviction that British artists "will need help not to become isolated."

A war-torn Cost fan tutte opened the season at the Theatre de l'Archeveche, directed by a proponent of the new "Nouvelle Vague" filmmaker Christophe Honore. His production relocates the opera to 1930s Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, when fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini aimed to conquer the Ethiopian Empire and made use of chemical warfare in the form of mustard gas. Ferrando and Guglielmo are the Italian usurpers and accomplices to war crimes against the local population, played by the extraordinary Cape Town Opera Chorus. They then return to their fiancees in the disguise of black travellers. Honore's production, like Martin Kusej's Die Entfuhmng aus dem Serail for Aix in 2015, is a condemnation of racism, fascism and the ravages and consequences of European Imperialism.

The following night, Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski's staging of Handel's Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, his first oratorio, written when he was just 22, used local teenagers as extras. The protagonists are allegories--more concepts than characters. During the overture, a film shows a club scene in which the main character, Beauty (the extraordinary Sabine Devieilhe), is seen dancing and sharing drugs with her lover, who suddenly passes out and finally ends up dying of an overdose. As the action begins, she has ended up in a rehab centre with the parental figures of Time and Disillusion trying to convince her to abandon earthly pleasures--or drugs. Once again, Warlikowski chose the dark side of this myth, but one that addressed the concerns of the young people involved.

Another cycle devoted to Stravinsky (following his Persephone in 2015) continued with the double bill of Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms directed by Peter Sellars. With tenor Joseph Kaiser a vocally and dramatically exceptional Oedipus, Sellars proffered a pure and mystically inspired reading, and, as in Jean Cocteau's version, made use of classical masks. The sculptures by Ethiopian artist Elias Sime were strikingly evocative. The festival boasts a prestigious history of artists as stage designers, beginmng in the 1950s with sets created by Antoni Clave, Balthus, Andre Derain and Andre Masson, and, more recently, Miquel Barcelo. By bringing Sime to the Festival, Foccroulle is at once honouring and enlarging this tradition with the goal of building cultural bridges so that opera in the 21st century is no longer essentially a European genre. …

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