The Arts Invade Aix-en-Provence
The Aix-en-Provence Festival, which runs through the end of July, presents new opera productions of established repertoire, neglected works, and premieres—all within the span of a month.
This summer, in addition to works such as Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Ravel’s L’Enfant et Les Sortileges, the festival is producing a rarity: David et Jonathas, by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a French Baroque opera based on the biblical story of David, the heroic and sweet-voice psalmist, and Jonathan, the son of King Saul. William Christie, the visionary conductor of Baroque music and the founder of the company LesArts Florissants, leads the performances. No less compelling is Written on Skin, a festival commission from the English composer George Benjamin, which is based on a 13th-century Occitan tale of jealousy and consequent violence (the title is a reference, both literal and allegorical, to the “skin” or parchment of medieval illuminated manuscripts). The premiere earlier this month was widely praised: it is difficult to argue with the review in The Telegraph: “Benjamin’s score has a beauty that is rare in contemporary music.”
In addition to stage productions, Aix presents varied range of symphonic programs, chambermusic, and solo recitals. As with its international casts of opera singers, conductors, directors, and designers, the musicians presented at Aix are established artists (soprano Renée Fleming, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard) and young performers whose careers are very much in the ascendant. And though this is the venerable festival’s 64th season, there is perhaps more than ever an air of excitement.
Moreover, the venues are singular: spectacularly beautiful, yet intimate. The two largest, the Théâtre de l’Archevêché and the Grand Théâtre, an open-air theater and a new state-of-the-art operahouse scarcely five years old, respectively, both with the same capacity, 1,250 seats are still small by American scale—in other words, ideal for performances and a delight for audiences. What’s more there is the very special Jeu de Paume, which Bernard Foccroulle, the festival’s general director, aptly describes as “an exquisite baroque theater, built in 1749, with a capacity of 450 seats and beautiful acoustics, and perfect for medium scale operas of any style or period.”
In nearby Arles, a city that dates to Roman times and earlier, but probably remains most celebrated because of Vincent van Gogh’s residency and the paintings and drawings the artist made of Provençal life and landscape. Today, Arles’s visual legacy is expressed in an international photography festival involving more than 60 exhibitions ofphotographs by the celebrated, the iconoclastic, the young and new, and which runs well into September. The shows are displayed in a range of historic and heritage sites as well as newly adapted galleries: 12th-century chapels and 19th-century industrial spaces. Last summer’s festival lent its focus to photography—historic, vintage, contemporary—of Mexico. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment in 1982 of the École Nationale Supérieure de Photographie. The school, one of President François Mitterand’s “Great Projects,” was founded not in Paris, such as the Opéra Bastille or the National Library, but in Arles. Therefore, it seems wholly appropriate to take measure of the achievements and development of the school of French photography, now 30 years old, which emerged from this initiative in order to consider the larger picture—and evolving potential and influence—of the pervasive photographic medium.
Mario Mercado is the arts editor at Travel + Leisure.