Festival Aix-en-Provence by StÈphan Lissner

This summer (July 3 –
31, 2009) is its sixty-first edition, though perhaps more importantly it is the
twelfth edition of the Festival as re-invented by StÈphan Lissner. The Festival
is now overseen by Bernard Foccroulle as Mr. Lissner has assumed the higher
calling of setting things straight at Milan’s La Scala.

Miracles wrought by Mr. Lissner in his nine years at the helm in Aix (1998 –
2006) include revamping the Festival’s signature performing space, the
open air 1300 seat ThÈ‚tre d’ArchevechÈ, the construction of the Grand
ThÈÂtre de Provence, a 1400 seat indoor multi-purpose theater capable of
hosting fairly large scale opera productions, the revitalization of a small,
old Italian style theater, the Jeu de Paume for Festival use, inaugurating use
of the Grand Saint Jean countryside park a few kilometers from Aix for small,
technically simple productions, and establishing a facility for scenic
construction. Whew.

Mr. Lissner conceived the AcadÈmie EuropÈenne de Musique that has grown to
include workshops in opera, lieder, chamber music, and opera production during
the festival period (this summer there are eighty-five participants and a
faculty of thirty). And he has conceived such magnificent opera projects as a
StÈphane Braunschweig production of Wagner’s Ring with the Berlin
Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle in the pit. This summer was its final
installment, four performances of Gˆtterd‰mmerung. Wow.

An enormous accomplishment indeed, though all that was lacking was good
opera. Mr. Lissner’s artistic Ideas were pretentious, productions were
ill-conceived, and performances were mediocre. It is hard to think of
exceptions though surely there must have been some. Meanwhile the predominately
French audiences did not seem to mind, as they flocked to performances. Go

This summer, the third festival guided by Bernard Foccroulle, offers
glimmers of hope that the tide has turned, this hope based on two productions
seen in its opening days, Mozart’s Idomeneo and
Offenbach’s OrphÈe aux Enfers. The Idomeneo was just what a
festival production should be — one well beyond the scope of an ordinary
season of opera. The orchestra was Les Musiciens du Louvre – Grenoble, playing
on period instruments, the conductor Marc Minkowski is a specialist in period
style. The production, by Olivier Py, pushed the envelope with huge,
stilt-legged, light metal platform constructions that were in continuous,
balletic motion, no electronically controlled horsepower here, only the flexed
muscles and sweat of ten (or so) formally dressed, athletic grips (stagehands),
these classy oversized nibelungens always in full, working view.

07-02Id458.gifA scene from Idomeneo

Three and one half hours into the performance (performances begin a dusk,
9:30 PM, thus at 1 AM) we hit the ballet. Not only did the set elements begin
to fly, i.e. move wildly around the stage, seven dancers retold the entire
story in frenetic, fast forward pantomime for a final fifteen minutes. Then the
house came down, including some French inflected boos (hoos in French). And the
final curtain descended to a huge whoop from backstage — relief and
pleasure that they had achieved a miracle, a flawless (or so it seemed)
convergence of a myriad of elements realized against all possible odds.

The cast were fine young singers who continuously inter-played in complex
staging with the monumental buildings of Crete, Idomeneo its
shirt-sleaves-rolled-up master builder. Eminently striking was the use of a
tenor voice for Idamante, Mozart’s original counter-tenor — the
French back then and now too apparently never cottoning up to male mutilation
even for artistic purposes. Absence of cross dressing (the mezzo as male) also
makes story telling more direct these days though changing the clef (tessitura)
of this voice robbed its music of much of its power.

Olivier Py’s concept was naive, if blatant — white and black,
i.e. modern dressed Europeans and versus Africans in modern countryside
regalia. Illa was a beautiful young singer of vaguely African origins, her
dancer counterpart for the ballet was a lithely beautiful Black nymph, plus
three strong, young black dancer warriors and two Brown Cretans. Not to mention
a few real African figurants (supers). Of course the dynamic between
Europeans and Africans is far from that of the Cretans and the Thebians so this
heavy-handed social commentary look was far from appropriate. But who cares,
the performance was magnificent.

06-22Go499.gifA scene from Gˆtterd‰mmerung

When it was all over suspicions arose that we had not heard the piece, short
of a couple of show-stopping arias in the first act, the famous third act
quartet having been lost amongst the choreography of the singers moving within
the moving set. But this suspicion was quickly supplanted by the notion that
this had been a true gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis of all the arts that
make opera — the rigid and controlled tempos appropriate to Baroque
musical structures were realized on the primitive versions of modern
instruments melting into the stark architectural structures moving dance like
on the stage together with the supple bodies and pure young voices of idealized
Mozartian singers. This production was proof that this Mozart opera transcends
its music.

Operas in Aix are largely about conducting and staging. Less about singing.
The price of a single ticket indicates what to expect. Ring tickets
cost 350 euros each ($525), the singers biographies ticking off Bayreuth,
Vienna, the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, etc. Idomeneo tickets
cost 210 euros ($315), its singers mixing often substantial major theater
credits with important regional opera house credits, and finally the 170 euros
($255) price of an OrphÈe aux Enfers ticket provides entry level
professionals and the occasional alumnus of the Aix Festival’s AcadÈmie

The lower ticket price does not mean lesser attention to conducting and
production, the OrphÈe aux Enfers as case in point. The show was in
the pit, conductor Alain Altinoglu whipped up the Camerata Salzburg orchestra,
here forty some players (more or less the number Offenbach used at the Theatre
des Bouffes Parisienne in 1858 into a frenzy of amusing musical details that
graciously titillated the far-from-subtle satire of Second Empire life. This
lively young conducting star moved the musical action along at a comfortable,
always lively toe-tapping pace until the can-can, taken at its fitting
breakneck speed and danced (sort of) by everyone on stage (real dancers need
slower tempi because they kick much higher).

06-30Or267.gifA scene from OrphÈe aux Enfers

The fun was in the pit, far more than on the stage, the young singers, some
less able than others to substantiate the larger-than-life personalities of
Offenbach’s Olympian personalities. This however was the strength of Yves
Beaunesne’s production. The young artists did what they could do without
the usual overload of opera-stars-having-fun. Truly exceptional was the
virtuoso violin mimicking of OrphÈe (Julien Behr) and the opera comedy
monologue inserted by John Styx (JÈrÙme Billy) that had the audience and the
orchestra (especially Mo. Altinoglu) in stitches.

The modest, and truly intelligent tone of the production was perfection, as
it let the personalities of these charming young artists shine. There was no
attempt to magnify the humor, to push to show over-the-top. Decors
were cleverly created to capture the modesty of production of this first
Offenbach operetta (this first version succeeding far more than its later
Offenbach re-make, and countless productions since, all seeking to make the
operetta fun when it already is — just ask Mo. Altinoglu). l The Olympus
scenes were especially effective, a grand dinner party using the architectural
elements of the facade of the old Episcopal palace, (now the back wall of the
theater) bathed in a sickly yellow-gold light that was un-enviably
other-worldly, with the drugged-out Olympians in gorgeous formal dress strewn
about the stage (the costumer, Patrice Cauchetier wore a cream colored shirt
printed with luscious giant red roses for the opening night bows).

The Gˆtterd‰mmerung was, one assumes, a legacy of the Lissner
regime. StÈphane Braunschweig is a director/designer, thus in principal
achieves one unified vision without the distraction of collaboration. Mr.
Braunschweig bestowed an exquisitely beautiful, ultra minimalist look
(elevators rose and descended creating basic stair, bench, pit forms) evoked
distilled abstractions of locale, the forest was an abstract sculpture of five,
tall narrow trees. Mr. Braunschweig did not burden his “look” with
a conception, his minimally costumed (basic black or white generic male or
female shapes, save Siegfried who was in brown plaid) actors played
Wagner’s domestic comedy in clean, very precise movements and placement,
often with toes touching the edge of the downstage, i.e. facing directly into
the hall. This very effective trick did not always work well. Br¸nnhilde stood
there way too long while what we wanted was to see some real fire consume

This minimalist staging, believe it or not, held its own much of the time
just above the splendor of the Berlin Philharmonic seated just below, Sir Simon
Rattle pulling forth the Wagnerian leitmotifs with a purity of tone that seemed
the primal discovery of mythic drama. This created a dramatic reality for the
actors that heightened their sordid humanity, the soap opera baseness overcome
by the solemnity of the music of Wagnerian philosophy. While true poetry
sometimes emerged from the pit — the brass choir sang the break of day
with splendid purity — little poetry was projected from the stage, the
out-of-place realistic video of spring water undermined the usual poetic
innocence of the charming encounter of the Rhine Maidens with Siegfried at the
beginning of the third act.

When finally the medium sized square of video flames subsided, we saw the
chorus dressed in shining white formal wear gazing down into a huge geometric
pit that had opened through the floor of the stage. One longed for a Calixto
Bieito resolution where the chorus would surely be naked
(obligatoire), and where there would be an outhouse nearby
(obligatoire) to make Wagner’s purified humanity even more
primal, and to make our encounter with this nineteenth century artistic
monument a real one.

It was, of course, Cadillac casting — fine singing actors who perform
these roles on the world’s great stages, including Ben Heppner who was a
fish out of water in this high “look” production.

Three operas in three days, a fourth to come later in the month. Imagine an
Austrian orchestra, a French one no to mention the hundred and twenty of so
players of the Berlin Philharmonic (not counting the five extra harps for
Gˆtterd‰mmerung), plus the Rundfunkchor Berlin, three full-scale,
technically demanding productions and a host of opera singers plus the AcadÈmie
participants, all this stuffed into this large town in the south of France,
arguably the most charming town in France if not on earth. And there still
seems plenty of room for capacity audiences at this true European cultural

This month-long festival, operating on a budget of 20,000,000 euros
($30,000,000), is amazing indeed.

Michael Milenski

image_description=A scene from OrphÈe aux Enfers [Photo by E. Carrechio courtesy of Festival d’Aix-en-Provence]
product_title=Festival Aix-en-Provence by StÈphan Lissner
product_by=Richard Wagner: Gˆtterd‰mmerung
W. A. Mozart: Idomeneo
Jacques Offenbach: OrphÈe aux Enfers
product_id=Above: A scene from OrphÈe aux Enfers

All photos by E. Carrechio courtesy of Festival d’Aix-en-Provence