After the propitious inauguration of Pierre Audi’s management of the Aix Festival in 2019 came the pandemic. The 2020 festival went up in Covid flames. The 2021 festival roars again to life on June 30 for its annual three or so weeks in July.
At least on paper, and in fervent hope that the miracle vaccines hit their mark.
Two productions survive from last summer’s canceled season, both having been rehearsed last spring, then shelved — the world premiere of Innocence, by famed Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, staged by Simon Stone, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, staged by Barrie Kosky.
The customary four main-stage productions of previous Aix festivals now become five. These productions include Falstaff, staged by Barrie Kosky [see above}, and Tristan und Isolde, staged by Simon Stone [see above}. Both directors have fame and infamy in their portfolios from teutonic festivals, Mr. Stone for a splendid Lear (with Mickey Mouse as the Duke of Gloucester) and a questionable Medée (a break-up docudrama) in Salzburg, and Mr. Kosky with a gigantic, hook-nosed Beckmesser balloon in Bayreuth and a radically showbiz infused operetta Orphée en Enfer for Salzburg.
Many may welcome this rapprochement to a larger, pan-European sentiment. One cannot deny the institutional wit of Mr. Audi’s festival in turning these revisionist directors loose on the iconic moments of the two greatest of 19th century composers. One can lament the lack of inclusion of an opera from the French operatic canon. It is a French festival.
The cornerstone of the Aix Festival has always been a Mozart opera, and that makes the fifth production, and maybe an interesting first in Aix — a Le nozze di Figaro with a female, Lorre de Beer at the directorial helm. This further example of institutional wit [Mozart’s operas are, after all, about women] challenges Mlle. Beer to one-up her 2018 Amsterdam Cosi fan tutte enacted by clowns.
The formidable infrastructure of the festival developed by former artistic director Bernard Foccroulle remains in place, the London Symphony Orchestra continues its annual residency, this year for the Saariaho Innocence, and with its music director Simon Rattle conducting the Tristan und Isolde. The partnership with the Opéra de Lyon and its brilliant young conductor, Daniele Rustioni continues for two productions, the Falstaff and The Golden Cockerel, both productions presumably will become part of future opera seasons in Lyon.
As well Freiburg’s famed, original instrument Balthasar Neumann Ensemble returns to Aix for Le nozze, conducted by Raphaël Pichon who offered a deep reading of Mozart’s Requiem with his own orchestra, Pygmalion for Romeo Castellucci’s 2019 Aix staged production.
Mr. Foccroulle as well established an Arabic initiative at the Aix Festival, integrating the Middle Eastern traditions and populations inhabiting the south of France and the rim of the Mediterranean. Lebanese born Pierre Audi continues and enriches Mr. Foccroulle’s initiative with two operas that fuse artistic traditions. The Arab Apocalypse by Israeli born, German finished composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi will be performed off-site, 50 miles away in Arles at the Frank Gehry designed LUMA Arles. The Woman at Point Zero, a multi-media piece by London born Bushra El-Turk takes will be assembled on the recital hall stage of Aix’s Milhaud Conservatory.
And finally, historically a festival highpoint, there is a small, always minimal, always very smart production in Aix’s tiny, old opera house, Le Théâtre de Jeu de Plume. This year it is Il Combattimento The Black Swan Theory, bringing together surprising things (we are promised Monteverdi, Rossi and Cavalli), inappropriately rationalized — a tenet of so-called “black swan theory” [don’t ask, find out in Aix] — at the hands of harpsichordist Sébastien Daucé and his Ensemble Correspondences, and stage director Silvia Costa, a protege of Romeo Castellucci.
Casting at the Aix Festival historically finds younger, pre-establishment artists from around the world, and always artists of great interest appropriately cast to the specifications of the festival’s productions. This year, with productions like Tristan and Falstaff, the casting reach is more complex. Nina Stemme sings Brünnhilde and Christopher Purves sings Falstaff. Seventy-eight year-old Leo Nucci sings Francesco Foscari in a concert performance of I due Foscari.
The full slate of concerts and happenings of the festival will be released in early January. All Festival d’Aix information is found at www.festival-aix.com.