Aix magic gets off to a slow start

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The Provençal mornings are as sultry as ever. The afternoon light matches the seductive warmth Cézanne captured in paint, an impression confirmed by the exhibition of his work currently adorning Aix’s art museum. And the streets of this sunblest town are an invitation to hedonism. But the evenings? Aix in July is usually strong there, too. Its music and opera festival has been charming visitors for 60 years and, with a new covered theatre under construction, clearly plans to continue attracting an inter-national audience. Everything is within walking distance and the gastronomie is healthier than in Paris. Aix is the ideal festival town.

But the magic has faltered as the curtain has opened on one lacklustre show after another. Simon Rattle’s laboured Rheingold was followed by an execrable Zauberflöte and an amateurish adaptation of Offenbach’s La Périchole. Aix usually does better than this, and Sté-phane Lissner deserved a happier send-off for his last summer as festival director. A decade ago Lissner, 53, resurrected Aix’s annual culture binge, re-establishing it as a place where young artists could learn from old and connoisseurs could be guaranteed festive fare. Lissner is one of nature’s facilitators, creating an environment where great personalities in music and theatre feel free to express themselves.

He is now installed as the new general manager of La Scala, Milan – compared to which Aix will seem like an interlude in paradise. Some of this summer’s other shows, including a Boulez triple bill of stage works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Falla, may obliterate the memory of opening week. But Die Zauberflöte and Histoire vrai de la Périchole have left a bad taste.

For Mozart Lissner invited the internationally re-nowned Polish theatre director Krystian Lupa to stage his first opera. A tie-up with the Vienna festival, where Lissner organises the music programme, enabled the production to be run in before Aix. But Die Zauberflöte is a minefield even for experienced directors. Lupa waxed lyrical in a programme interview about Papageno’s “language of sympathy and humour” in polar opposite to Tamino’s “lessons of moral philosophy”. But on stage he was lost. A director who puts the three boys in drag, swamps the music with electronic overlays and robs the opera of humour does not deserve a second chance.

The same could not be said of Pavol Breslik’s Tamino, Günther Groissböck’s Sarastro and Adrian Eröd’s Papageno, all promising young singers. Casting was otherwise below festival standard and the conducting was dire. What on earth has happened to Daniel Harding? His mannered, miniaturist reading drained all life out of the music. He fusses over style while ignoring substance. Here is a young man in too much of a hurry. I blame his agent, Askonas Holt, for over-promoting him. Holt, which also manages Rattle, thought it was getting a Simon Mark Two. Instead Harding is heading for burn-out. Rather than consorting with the inter-national elite, he should have spent his 20s in the sticks, hammering away at the symphonic/operatic coalface and making an investment for life.

About Histoire vrai de la Périchole, a Julie Brochen concoction performed by 16 actors and three instrumentalists, the less said the better. Barring a few poorly croaked songs interpolated into 2½ hours of excruciating dialogue and mime, the show had nothing to do with Offenbach. It was more an absurd improvisation, supposedly focusing on the true story of the Peruvian street-singer who inspired Offenbach and his librettists. I can’t remember when I last had to sit through something so self-indulgent.

I doubt if Lissner will make the same mistakes at La Scala, which badly needs his enthusiasm and political skills. His seat at Aix will be filled by the highly intelligent Bernard Foccroulle, formerly of the Monnaie in Brussels, who has inherited more than he might have liked (The Ring, more Harding). He promises greater emphasis on the baroque, including Rameau. That reads more like a true Aix menu.

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