11 Rue Gaston De Saporta
In 2007, Bernard Foccroulle took over the direction of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence after fifteen years as head of the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. He was already familiar with the Festival since the two institutions had collaborated on various co-productions, for example for the premiere of Philippe Boesmans’ Julie in 2005.
As an organist and composer Bernard Foccroulle is naturally drawn to both the baroque repertoire and contemporary creation, and he has been dedicated to pursuing his vision by making opera a lively meeting place for all. He is convinced that opera, by its interdisciplinary nature, is the crucible for future artistic creation and an extraordinary space for dialogue. Under his leadership, the Festival has become an intense period of exchange and reflection, where spectators of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds congregate. Indeed, opera has the capacity to encompass broad horizons and so Bernard Foccroulle is keen to allow each opera production to reach its full artistic potential by hosting residencies for artists from other worlds.
Bernard Foccroulle has also been working to integrate art and artistic practice into the heart of teaching. Every child must have the opportunity to discover the most beautiful aspects of art history. Music and opera must therefore re-establish contact with the primary, secondary and higher education systems. Each season, throughout the Festival, free events, conferences, exhibitions and educational sessions are held in relation to the opera performances and concerts. In addition, the Académie européenne de musique further develops its activities by producing an opera production that goes on tour during the rest of the year.
This festival has been an EFA member since 1952.
It all started with an enterprising individual
The post-war years in France were marked by an artistic renaissance that led to the creation of the Festival de Cannes in 1946, soon followed by the Festival d’Avignon in 1947.
In opera, the renaissance was initiated by an avid connoisseur, an art enthusiast with an insatiable curiosity, Gabriel Dussurget, whose idea to create a music festival in Provence benefitted from the financial support of Lily Pastré, a countess and prominent member of the high society in Marseille, and a generous patron of the arts. Lily Pastré suggested the use of her mansion in the borough Montredon as the venue for the event, a choice she believed would contribute to the revival of the Phoenician city. Indeed the Festival was born only three years after the end of the war, during a period when, after the defeat of 1940 and the Occupation, there was a widespread desire to restore a positive image of France. But the location proved inappropriate. After searching throughout the region, they chose the city of Aix-en-Provence. There Gabriel Dussurget set his heart on the courtyard of the archbishop’s palace, a rare find that he described soberly as having, “leprous walls, a fountain without any water of course and a tree that reached like a hand towards the sky”.
And the courtyard became a theatre
In the beginning there was a courtyard, the courtyard of the archbishop’s palace, where the carriages entered in times gone by. Thanks to a group of men and women united by a common conviction and the enthusiasm of the inspired and visionary artistic director Gabriel Dussurget, the courtyard was soon transformed into a temple for music, performance and voice, in other words, a place for celebration.
The Festival quickly gained an international reputation despite its modest beginnings, which were evoked by Gabriel Dussurget: “The singers were, we must admit it, merely decent. Georges Wakhévitch (who created the set for Così fan tutte in 1948) was an old friend who agreed to design a canopy and some feathers… all in all a small set, so that we could mount the show. We put some benches in the courtyard and some barely elevated tiers, and the set was positioned in a corner of the old warehouse that served as wings.” To give the stage a backdrop, Wakhévitch himself painted the walls. Edmonde Charles-Roux also remembered the launch when, “The courtyard of the archbishop’s palace was transformed into a sort of… you could not really call it a stage since there was not enough space, but rather a platform. No more than three people could fit on it at any one time. For a set, Georges Wakhévitch had simply made a sort of tent, which was decorated with a few bouquets of flowers. It was exquisite even if improvised. And really very lovely.” That charm had an impact…
1948: The Creation
The first Festival was held in July 1948. In addition to concerts and recitals given in the courtyard of the archbishop’s palace, the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral and other locations across town, it featured a production of Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte, a work that was almost completely unknown to the French public. As the music critic for Le Monde at the time Jacques Longchampt recalled, the opera had not been performed in France since a 1926 production at the Opéra Comique in Paris.
To mount the production, Gabriel Dussurget assembled a cast and led the rehearsals. He asked Georges Wakhévitch to create a small set for the stage and succeeded in inviting Hans Rosbaud, conductor of the Südwestfunk in Baden-Baden, who would return to conduct at the Festival up until 1962. Edmonde Charles-Roux remembers the first Festival fondly, “I think the strength of the first production in Aix lay in the fact that it was a success, done with great taste and with high-quality music even though performed by amateurs.”
1949-1972: Cassandre’s theatre and Gabriel Dussurget’s “magic”
With the production of Don Giovanni the following year the Festival came into its own, in large part due to the arrival of Gabriel Dussurget’s friend, the set designer and graphic artist Cassandre. Dussurget asked Cassandre to design scenery for Don Giovanni and to build a theatre to replace the rudimentary installation where Così fan tutte had been performed in 1948.
Cassandre’s theatre, the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, which with a depth of seven metres was relatively small, was used for 24 years. Its size had a considerable impact on the choice of programme for the Festival, which as a result was restricted to smaller baroque or Mozart orchestras. From the beginning works by the Austrian composer took pride of place at the Festival. Almost all of his operas were staged there in the early years: Così fan tutte in 1948 and 1950, Don Giovanni in 1949, The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1951, The Marriage of Figaro in 1952, Idomeneo in 1963 and The Clemency of Titus in 1974. Edmonde Charles-Roux recalls that “in southern France where the Italian masons sang Verdi from the scaffolding and where Verdi was continually played to satisfy a public hungry for all things Italian, mounting Mozart’s operas, which were never played, could have seemed revolutionary.”
The Festival became committed to presenting unknown pieces by revitalising Mozart’s operas, great works of early opera by Monteverdi and Gluck, opéra bouffe, enticing works of opera comique by Cimarosa, Grétry, Rameau, Haydn, Rossini and Gounod, and by commissioning a variety of contemporary music pieces, such as the collaborative work La guirlande de Campra by Arthur Honegger, Daniel-Lesur, Poulenc, Auric, Tailleferre, Sauguet and Roland-Manuel.
In addition the Festival acted as a showcase for the region and its artists, with regular performances of music by André Campra (1660-1744) and Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), for example Le Carnaval de Venise and Les Malheurs d’Orphée.
The Festival attracted a large number of the most eminent figures in French art, literature and theatre - musicians, painters and writers, such as François Mauriac who spoke in 1949 of a “Don Juan among the stars”. They were all united by the same enthusiasm. However the arrival in the mid-1960s of a new and largely profit-driven administration at the casino of Aix-en-Provence, the main patron at the time, hastened Gabriel Dussurget’s resignation. His departure marked a profound change in the Festival’s organization and raised questions about its aims.
1974-1982: Bernard Lefort’s era or the triumph of bel canto
Under the leadership of Bernard Lefort the Festival was focussed on bel canto and so became a great celebration of lyrical singing: “Lyrical singing reigned supreme and each season was in part or fully dedicated to it.” Mozart was no longer favoured. A new era began. Lefort decided to revive bel canto at a time when the repertoire of the early Nineteenth Century was relatively unknown, even among zealous opera fans.
Two major productions marked the new director’s mandate: Rossini’s Semiramis performed in 1980 by the exceptional duo of Montserrat Caballé and Marilyn Horne, and in 1981 another one of Rossini’s operas, Tancredi, that brought together Marilyn Horne and Katia Ricciarelli.
This “great celebration of lyrical singing” also provided the opportunity to organise operatic recitals, which in turn gave rise to a prize, “the golden cicada”, that was awarded to already established singers such as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who was the first laureate, Gabriel Bacquier and Teresa Berganza.
Lefort also aimed to make the Festival a more local event. The incidents of May 1968 highlighted the elitist and Parisian nature of the Festival and the new director encouraged change firstly by opening the way to productions of opéras bouffes for six successive seasons. The square, Place des Quatre Dauphins, hosted productions of Mozart’s The Impresario, Pergolesi’s The Servant Mistress and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Secondly, he emphasised the celebration of lyrical singing in all its forms so as to reach a broad audience. That celebration included jazz concerts with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, folk music by Joan Baez as well as Spanish and Berber songs.
Finally, Lefort established a tradition of afternoon recitals entitled “an hour with…”, which took place in the cloisters of the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral, and so introduced a new generation of young singers to the public in an intimate and more relaxed environment than that of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché. The mid-1970s were therefore marked by a real desire for democratisation.
1982-1996: Louis Erlo’s eclectic mix of baroque and contemporary music
Under the theme of ‘authenticity and innovation’, Louis Erlo shifted the focus from bel canto to Rossini and greatly expanded the repertoire of French baroque opera with Lully, Campra and Rameau as well as Purcell and Gluck. He restored Mozart to a position of prominence, scheduling barely known early works as well as the famous operas. He also included twentieth-century masterpieces by Prokofiev and Britten. In keeping with Gabriel Dussurget’s original plan and keen to promote young talent, he presented a panoply of young singers and a few stars.
At Erlo’s initiative, the Théâtre de l’Archevêché was renovated over the course of the year 1985. The contract was given to the architect Bernard Guillaumot, who standardised the dimensions of the theatre and upgraded the stage technology, which encouraged an increase in co-productions. Erlo was conscious of the risks of standardisation and took “the necessary measures to ensure that the productions would not be overly transformed when they went on tour”.
At the time of Erlo’s departure, the Festival entered a period of financial difficulty.
1998-2006: Stéphane Lissner and the renewal of the Festival
1998 was marked by the complete renovation of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché. The same year Stéphane Lissner launched his mandate as director of the Festival with a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, staged by Peter Brook. His mandate was characterised by the meeting of the worlds of theatre, dance and opera, with performances by artists such as Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown, Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker, Patrice Chéreau and Stéphane Braunschweig.
The Festival became a centre for intense musical creation and new works were commissioned from various composers: Festin by Yan Maresz, Le Balcon by Peter Eötvös based on a novel by Jean Genet in 2002, Kyrielle du sentiment des choses by François Sarhan with a text by Jacques Roubaud in 2003, Hanjo by Toshio Hosokawa based on Yukio Mishima’s Nô theatre in 2004 and Julie by Philippe Boesmans based on Strindberg’s play Miss Julie in 2005. The Théâtre du Jeu de Paume was reopened in 2000 and, with its intimate size, still acts as an ideal venue for some of these new works.
The Festival was instilled with a new energy with the establishment of production workshops, which include set, prop and costume departments, in Venelles, located a few kilometres outside Aix-en-Provence.
In 1998 Stéphane Lissner also established the Académie européenne de musique, the European Academy of Music, conceived of as extension of the Festival focussing on pedagogical initiatives and the promotion of talented young artists (instrumentalists, singers, stage directors, conductors and composers), facilitating their exposure through numerous concerts, conferences and master classes.