Canto: Aix Marks the Operatic Spot

by Judith Malafronte
Published September 1, 2017

After seeing five operas in four days at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in July, I realized that with
so much going for it—sold-out performances, a variety of historical and modern theaters, successful outreach programs, commissions and collaborations, plus a vibrant young artist academy—it might be easy to overlook the importance of early music in its history and success. In 1948, the opening season featured Così fan tutte, not heard in France since 1826, in a courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace. Mozart features heavily throughout the festival’s history, and the 1980s saw important productions of Handel, Lully, Campra, Rameau, Purcell, and Gluck take their place alongside standard repertoire presented by opera’s most brilliant directors. The courtyard space eventually developed into a modern theater, still open to the warm summer air of Provence.

Since 2007, the festival has been led by the visionary Bernard Foccroulle, founding member of the Ricercar Consort and former director of Brussels’ Théâtre de la Monnaie (1992-2007). The Belgian organist, teacher, composer, conductor, and opera director shepherded the Aix Festival through many projects with historical instruments—a René Jacobs Orfeo and a superb Alcina with Freiburg Baroque, not to mention four Cavalli operas—as well as important commissions, such as 2012’s Written on Skin by George Benjamin. The 2018 festival promises a fascinating “participatory opera” based on an interweaving of the mythological tale of Orfeo and Euridice with the similar Persian legend of Majnun and Layla. Workshops and explorations of the material will engage schools, social groups, and cultural institutions in a touring theatrical collaboration in seven European countries.

A new production of Dido and Aeneas will place the story firmly in a Mediterranean context with a newly written prologue. American administrators rarely impress me with their erudition or sensitivity, but Foccroulle is constantly questioning the meaning and importance of opera and of cultural collaborations. Next year, he will leave his post at Aix to resume his performing career, write a book about the organ as a mirror of the European identity, and complete the composition of an elaboration and staging of Schumann’s Dichterliebe.

This year’s festival offered a stunning Erismena of Cavalli, conducted by Leonardo García Alarcón with his ensemble, Cappella Mediterranea, and a Don Giovanni with period instruments led by Jérémie Rhorer. The gorgeous red-and-gold 18th-century Théâtre du Jeu de Paume was the perfect setting for Erismena, seating 500 in a typical Italianate three-tiered horseshoe space. The floor-level pit barely held the 12-member band, and Jean Bellorini’s direction, lights, and sets were all about the music and, although modern in style, supported the dramatic power of the work without a trace of gimmickry. I chatted with conductor and keyboard player Rhorer, an artist I admire for his flexible and supple tempos and richly detailed handling of instrumental textures. Rhorer and his period-instrument orchestra, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, redeemed the festival’s bafflingly intellectualized production of Don Giovanni. Moving easily between early music, particularly 18th-century works, and later styles, Rhorer’s idol is Leonard Bernstein, a fellow charismatic composer-conductor. He regards the work of early pioneers like Harnoncourt and Leonhardt as “revolutionary not just in using historical instruments, but in their way of seeking to enter a piece of music from the composer’s own sensibility.” The Giovanni cast included standard-issue opera singers as well as those with HIP experience. Wary of the inflexible, every-note- sounds-alike technique of some, Rhorer finds that “without theorizing or editorializing, singers recognize with historical instruments that they can sing more gently, phrase with more flexibility, and don’t need to push.”

The lineup in Aix also reinforced something I’ve been considering of late. As 18th-century music, even with HIP instruments, becomes more mainstreamed and medieval music remains its own specialty niche, what is happening with 17th-century music? What do you think?

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