Summer sends audiences scurrying all over Europe for their operatic fix. Glyndebourne and a whole host of imitators dominate the English country house scene, or you may head for Savonlinna’s Finnish castle, or the glitz and glamour of Salzburg. But one destination in South France draws the connoisseurs: Aix-en-Provence. Established in 1948, part of a post-war artistic renaissance in France, along with festivals in Cannes and Avignon, Festival d'Aix en Provence is not just an operatic destination. It also hosts a number of concerts and recitals during the month of July. It’s not just a local audience either, but national and international too, drawn by its location, balmy temperatures, its open-air theatre and its imaginative programming.

Théâtre de l'Archevêché © Vincent Beaume
Théâtre de l'Archevêché
© Vincent Beaume

The festival was created by Gabriel Dussurget with the financial support from Countess Lily Pastré of Marseilles. Together, they searched the region to look for an ideal location… and settled on Aix-en-Provence and the courtyard of the archbishop’s palace in particular. Dussurget described it as having “peeling walls, a fountain that naturally had no water flowing, and a tree that raised itself like a hand towards the sky” but had a vision for what the venue could offer. The open-air Théâtre de l'Archevêché is the jewel in the architectural crown of Aix-en-Provence and one of the locations that most memorably evokes the past of its historic centre and is now the venue most closely associated with the Festival. Other venues include the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume – where Louis XIV used to play ‘la paume’ (an early type of indoor tennis in 1660) – and the Grand Théâtre de Provence, which was inaugurated in July 2007 with a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre.

In the 1950s, Festival d’Aix swiftly gained an international reputation, but the restricted space meant a limit on the size of the orchestra employed, so Mozart and Baroque works formed the backbone of its operatic programming and helped establish its credentials. The first opera to be staged at Aix was Mozart’s Così fan tutte – which was the first time it had been played in France since 1826! Così returned last summer, in Christophe Honoré’s challenging, but gripping, staging. This season, Bernard Foccroulle's penultimate one as artistic direcotr, it is the turn of Don Giovanni, conducted by Jérémie Rhorer who is forging a fine reputation as a Mozartian with his exciting young orchestra Le Cercle de l'harmonie. Don Giovanni is sometimes seen as something of a director’s graveyard, so it will be interesting to see what approach Jean-François Sivadier will take. He certainly has an excellent cast at his disposal, including Philippe Sly as the reckless womaniser and Nahuel di Pierro as his trusty servant, Leporello. Eleanora Buratto, Isabel Leonard and Julie Fuchs are three of the ladies destined for his catalogue of conquests.

Théâtre du Jeu de Paume © Festival d'Aix
Théâtre du Jeu de Paume
© Festival d'Aix
The last Don Giovanni at Aix was directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov in 2013. This enfant terrible can sometimes shock with his revisions of repertoire favourites, though he is an intelligent advocate of lesser-known Russian repertoire. He’s back at Aix this summer, tackling possibly the most famous opera of them all – Carmen – on French soil. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll set the work in picture-postcard Seville, but he’ll surely get to the opera’s gritty core, perhaps drawing it closer to Prosper Mérimée’s original novella. Aix is extremely fortunate to have secured the services of Stéphanie d'Oustrac as Carmen – a rare example in recent years of a French mezzo excelling in the title role, impressing our editor in Glyndebourne’s revival. Rising star Michael Fabiano sings Don José while Teddy Tahu Rhodes tackles the role of the charismatic bullfighter, Escamillo.

Aix runs co-productions with some of Europe’s leading houses. This season is gives the première of Simon McBurney’s new production of The Rake’s Progress which then transfers – with the same forces – to Dutch National Opera next season. Stravinsky was inspired by William Hogarth’s series of paintings known as A Rake’s Progress which charts the dissolute life of an 18th-century English libertine in great satirical detail. Tom Rakewell deserts Anne Trulove for the attractions of London, egged on by Nick Shadow, who turns out to be the Devil. After several misadventures, Tom ends up in Bedlam, a hospital for the insane. After his inventive Die Zauberflöte (another DNO/Aix co-commission) it will be fascinating to see McBurney’s take on this 20th-century neoclassical masterpiece.  

Contemporary opera is an important strand in the festival. One of the greatest operas in recent years, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, was commissioned by Aix and has since gone on to conquer the world’s great opera houses. 2017 is the turn of Philippe Boesmans who has composed an opera on the story of Pinocchio to a libretto by Joël Pommerat who has adapted Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s tale for to the present day.

<i>A Midsummer Night's Dream</i> at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, 2015 © Vincent Pontet
A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, 2015
© Vincent Pontet
Baritone Stéphane Degout, who appears in the new work, revealed to us in February that “Crucially, Pommerat's Pinocchio isn't a cute piece of wood: he's a creation who completely escapes his maker Geppetto, and in a bad way: he's into his first teenage crisis the moment he's born.” Although there are touches of the supernatural – Pinocchio’s nose is still long –  this is a version that connects with contemporary concerns.

The fifth full-length staged opera of the festival should appeal to adventurous Early Music fans: Cavalli’s Erismena. Created for Venice in 1655, it was the first opera to be translated into English, although it’s not known whether Erismena was ever performed in Britain. Cavalli advocate Leonardo García Alarcón teams up with director Jean Bellorini to return this rarity to the stage.

Other highlights of the festival include a concert performance of Eugene Onegin by the Bolshoi Opera (it’s a shame Tcherniakov’s Bolshoi production isn’t travelling to Aix as well) and concerts by orchestras such as the Orchestre de Paris, the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra and Orchestre Cappella Mediterranea.

Since 2008, some performances have been beamed around the world via cinema to French Institutes around the world or via internet streaming, but the best way to experience it is surely to head to Aix-en-Provence itself.

Click here to see the festival's full listings. 


Article sponsored by Agir publicité.