On the Beat: Provençale Recipe.

In Aix, stunning programming and a committed audience are proof of a festival’s imaginative vision.
by Brian Kellow 

On the Beat Svabda hdl 1015
Pauline Sikirdji, Andrea Ludwig and Florie Valiquette in Ana Sokolović’s Svadba
© Bernard Coutant/Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

THE AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL is one of the opera world’s centers of intensely fomenting creativity; returning there last July for the third consecutive season, I once again came away with the feeling that much of the opera produced here must be about as good as it gets anywhere in the world. Yet there’s nothing hurried or frenzied or electrified about the atmosphere in the town; with the performances at the outdoor Théâtre de l’Archevêché starting at 9:30 in the evening, and people sitting around in cafés until all hours, the nights in Aix have a pleasant feeling of time out. Even the intense summer heat is somehow soothing — an invitation to turn inward and not worry about anything other than the next performance or meal.

The audience is one of the most fully engaged I have ever experienced. They tend not to react strongly as the performance is going on, as if they were under some kind of a spell; they’re demonstrative only at the curtain call. These range from ecstatic (for KATIE MITCHELL’s clever production of Alcina, PETER SELLARS’s magical and moving Iolanta, and a superb revival of ROBERT CARSEN’s indelible Midsummer Night’s Dream) to the contemptuous (en masse booing for MARTIN KUŠEJ’s dark, dark Entführung aus dem Serail, with its terrorist theme, and the quartet of lovers slaughtered at the end — a sure sign that Kušej was thinking waaaaay too much). But even the booers are civilized. I won’t soon forget the older Frenchwoman sitting in front of me who turned around at intermission for Entführung, lips perfectly pursed, and spat out, “C’est une atrocité!” She didn’t seem like a reactionary; she seemed equal parts enraged and amused, and I found myself hoping she’ll be seated in front of me again next year.

It’s fair to say that the eyes of the international opera world are firmly focused on what happens in Aix; its influence on the programming of other major theaters is growing with each recent season. (GEORGE BENJAMIN’s Written on Skin has triumphed the world over, and this year, the Met presents the profoundly beautiful PATRICE CHÉREAU Elektra; both bowed in Aix.) BERNARD FOCCROULLE, Aix’s general director, is a quietly commanding and focused man, apparently without a trace of bravado or the need to self-promote. His mind seems utterly driven by the work. When he spoke with me one afternoon in his office, he appeared unfazed by the occasional artistic failure, because he knows instinctively that that is part of the game.

One of the high points of this year’s festival was the premiere of ANA SOKOLOVIC´’s Svadba, an opera for six female voices a cappella about a Serbian bride-to-be and the five close friends who help her prepare for her wedding day. Sokolovic´’s score is compelling and beautifully transparent, and the show, adeptly staged by TED HUFFMAN and Zack Winokur, is easy-to-tour and will, I expect, have a good life on other world stages. 

Foccroulle has high praise for Katie Mitchell, who has been working at the festival for several seasons. He calls her concept for next season’s Pelléas et Mélisande “absolutely fantastic.” But he seemed little more pleased than the audience with Entführung, in which he feels Kušej presents “a very reduced, archaic and brutal view of Eastern culture. The problem is not between the Western and Eastern culture. The problem is that within the Eastern culture, the terrorist groups are a huge danger—and the Eastern population is suffering more than we do. When they describe the Pasha Selim as a cultivated person who likes poetry and philosophy and he enters in Western costume, what does that mean? It means culture is on our side — I am not in agreement with that vision.”

Foccroulle believes that to pit tradition and creation against each other spells death for any opera company. The key, it seems, is to mix them up in a way that transforms the operagoing experience. “It’s an organic question. Maybe the danger we are all facing is the danger of consumerism. If we see a spectator as a consumer, it’s the end. We should see a spectator as somebody who is taking his own person, his own generosity, into the show, and then it transforms substantially the relationship between the person and the show and between the institution and the person — well, I think that’s quite a fundamental change in perspective.” In Aix, Foccroulle has given thrilling life to that point of view. spacer

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Current Issue: October 2015 — VOL. 80, NO. 4