Planet Opera: New Film Captures the Glowing Light of Aix-en-Provence

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I was a latecomer to Aix-en-Provence in my emphatically itinerant life but, when I got there last year, it took no time at all to fall madly in love with it. Aix is, somehow, the perfect amalgamation of charming old Provençal culture, delicious food, glorious weather and a world-class opera festival, the Festival International d’Art Lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence.

The city glows. Locals are quick to tell you there are 300 days of sunshine per year. The glow is due to the way the sun lands on the ochre-colored yellow limestone used to build the city in 17th century. This whole area of Provence, including Cassis and Marseille (this year’s European capital of culture) has used and exported limestone in many colors, including white, pink, gray and yellow, for at least 26 centuries. These colors, along with greenery from pine, olive, fig and plane trees, and the profusion of herbs, lavender and wild flowers, make for a heady blend that beguile the eye and nose.

The beauty of Aix, with its gracious squares, buildings and promenades, also owes to the fact that it was built as the capital of Provence, which it was until the time of the French Revolution, when it was replaced by Marseille. Aix was the first Roman town in this area, founded in 123 BC as Aquae Sextiae. Its name derived from the abundant supply of good water in nearby springs and for Sextius Calvinus, the consul who established the settlement. Aix has 40 beautiful fountains in the city center. My favorite is probably the Place d’Albertas, a three-sided space with a fountain in the middle that would make a natural setting for a theatrical performance.

People have come to Aix ever since, particularly since its university opened in 1409. It is a center of religion and inspiration in all senses. Composer Darius Milhaud, born in Marseille, lived in Aix for a long time. Emile Zola spent his childhood there. The concert pianist Hélène Grimaud was born there in 1969.

East of town rises the Sainte-Victoire mountain, which appears in many paintings by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Aix’s most famous son. The mountain looms over a dam built by Zola’s father. As you walk on the mountain, in the nearby valleys, or in town, you quickly understand where Cézanne found his inspiration for color. It is easy to imagine him in Aix’s open-air food market, observing the colors and shapes of fruits and vegetables as well as the subtle gradations of green and gold to be found in the gorgeous local olive oils.

Cézanne came from a family of bankers and grew up near the Brasserie Les Deux Garçons, which has been a focal point on Aix’s Cours Mirabeau since 1792. Everyone who passed through Aix seems to have stopped there and it is one of the innumerable places in the world where Ernest Hemingway is known to have raised a glass. Nearby are many bakeries, each with their carefully-guarded recipe for calissons, the local sweet made with almonds and melon.

Walk (this year the city center became entirely pedestrian) up the street that begins at the restaurant and passes the open air market. You will soon find the church of the St. Saveur, built on the site of the original Roman forum. Close by is the Archbishop’s Palace. Enter the grand portal and you will find the Théâtre de L'Archevêché, the principal venue of the opera festival since its founding in 1948. The theater has 1200 seats and, while it has little of the beauty of the rest of the city, it makes a special setting for watching open-air opera performances by outstanding musicians.

As the festival has grown in scope and importance, operas have been staged in other venues, including the 18th-century Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, the recently-built Grand Théâtre de Provence, and the the outdoor Théâtre du Grand Saint-Jean outside of town. This summer will be three of my favorite operas: Don Giovanni (production by Dmitri Tcherniakov; conductor Marc Minkowski), Rigoletto (with the very enticing team of producer Robert Carsen and conductor Gianandrea Noseda) and Elektra (watch the Operavore blog for future coverage).

The Strauss opera is tipped for greatness, with a production by Patrice Chereau and conducting by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the leads sung by Evelyn Herlitzius, Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis) and Waltraud Meier (Klytemnestra). It is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and opera houses in Barcelona, Berlin and Helsinki. The fact that Aix-en-Provence can be the incubator for productions for these prominent opera companies is indicative of the opera festival’s importance.

In addition to these big works, there are two more operas in this year’s festival (July 4-27). One is Francesco Cavalli’s Elena. Cavalli’s (1602-1676) star has been rising recently as his works are being rediscovered and returned to opera stages. After Monteverdi, he was the most prominent opera composer in Venice in the 17th century when that city was the center of the opera universe. Aix will also have a new work called The House Taken Over by Vasca Mendoça (b. 1979).

A Behind-the-Scenes Portrait

My thoughts returned to Aix recently when I had the chance to see a new film called "Becoming Traviata," directed by Philippe Béziat, which will begin a two-week engagement at New York’s Film Forum on May 15. The movie opens in Los Angeles on May 24 and I hope it receives a wider audience elsewhere. The film, whose French title was "Traviata et Nous," might have been better titled "Becoming Violetta." It is a documentary about the rehearsal for a new production of La Traviata at the 2011 Aix festival in which we see Natalie Dessay dig deep into the character and music of Violetta.

While we see other performers (Charles Castronovo as Alfredo; Ludovic Tézier as Giorgio Germont), the film rightly centers on Dessay and her collaboration with stage director Jean-François Sivadier and conductor Louis Langrée. The production is modern and streamlined, as most current stagings of La Traviata tend to be, but without corruptions imposed by most overreaching stage directors. 

The film is an effective presentation of how the rehearsal process works. We see the soprano, conductor and director try many options, rejecting some and incorporating others into the production as they look for precise details and telling moments. As she explores “Ah fors’é lui” from the first act, Dessay improvises lyrics to crystalize what she thinks of Alfredo before reverting to the text Verdi set to music.

I did wish that the filmmaker would have included the names and roles (or jobs) the first time we see each person on screen. And occasionally I wanted to see more of the singers and fewer close-ups of the stage director as he listened to them. It would have been more interesting to simply hear him voice his opinions rather than see his facial expression.

However, the film is gripping because Dessay is such a devoted and serious artist. Through her we discover the work that goes into creating a character. It is assumed, in the film, that she has already spent a very long time learning the music and words and making them inhabit her voice and person. She will have studied the history and settings of the story, and have read La Dame aux Camelias, Alexandre Dumas’s novel that inspired the opera. By the time we meet her in rehearsal, Dessay will have integrated all of this knowledge but then wear it lightly so as to create a character who is vivid and immediate on the stage.

I will not soon forget the conclusion of the film, as Dessay repeatedly rehearses how Violetta falls dead at the end of opera. We never to get to see what she chose to do in performance, and that is part of the film’s strength. It asks us, the audience, to engage and imagine along with Dessay and we too become Violetta.

I have an image of Natalie Dessay, on rehearsal days in Aix, stopping by the city’s food market to gather the best ingredients of the day and then go home to her flat to prepare a world-class ratatouille (above) as the city’s golden glow filters through her kitchen windows. And I get to taste it. We are all entitled to reveries.

Above Photos by Fred Plotkin. Below: the Official Trailer for "Becoming Traviata"