Aix's Festival of Lyric Art is one of the cultural highlights of the year in Provence and its open-air performances in the balmy midsummer nights are magical occasions.
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Since 2007, the Director of the Festival international d'art lyrique d'Aix en Provence - to give it its full name - has been the Belgian organist, composer and opera director Bernard Foccroulle. The dates of the 2015 Festival d'Aix are 2-21 July, slightly shorter than the previous year.
The Festival has flourished under Foccroulle's lead and his appointment has been renewed until 2017. Click here for the website for the Festival d'Aix.
The 2015 Aix en Provence music festival is looking like a vintage year. Foccroulle intends to continue the cycle of operas by Handel which began in 2014 with Ariodante. In 2015 another opera seria by Handel, Alcina, opens the festival in the open-air courtyard of the Archevêché (the mediaeval Archbishop's Palace).
It's directed by the Aix and Avignon regular, Britain's Katie Mitchell. André Marcon is in charge of the musical direction and the French soprano Patricia Petibon sings the title role.
Foccroulle is also launching another, three-year cycle celebrating the work of Stravinsky. This begins with a production of Persephone directed by the iconoclastic Peter Sellars with Teodor Currentzis leading the orchestra.
Playing alongside it is Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, an opera with a surprising local connection: the lead character is the daughter of none other than the city's own Good King René (though Iolanta isn't actually set in Aix).
The Aix Festival, hit by the economic crisis like everywhere else, did not commission a new opera in 2014. But its finances have looked up and in 2015 it will premiere The Monster in the Maze, an opera for children based on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur by Jonathan Dove.
Simon Rattle will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra, joined by local musicians from the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra and a cast of 300 singers that mixes professionals with amateurs - children and adults - from the region. A joint commission, The Monster in the Maze will also be performed in Berlin and in London in each country's respective language.
Another new-ish opera is Svadba, an a cappella portrait of a bride and her five bridesmaids on the eve of a wedding inspired by Balkan folk tunes and stories.
The Aix Festival traditionally features an opera by Mozart and in 2015 it is Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). The provocative Austrian Martin Kušej directs (it's his first original production to be staged in France) and Jérémie Rhorer takes on the musical direction. The lead roles will be sung by Jane Archibald and Daniel Behle.
And, reaching back, Robert Carsen's wildly acclaimed 1991 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Benjamin Britten returns to Aix in 2015. This time Sandrine Piau sings Titania and Lawrence Zazzo is Oberon. Kazushi Ono will conduct the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon. The Freiburger Barockorchester remains at the Festival in the second year of its three-year residence.
There's much more to the Festival d'Aix than the main opera programme, of course. Spectres, a new commission, is a humorous piece for six dancers and a string quartet (whose musicians will also dance, apparently), while Be With Me Now is a romantic "musical spectacle" inspired by Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Aix also has a packed programme of concerts, notably Rattle, the LSO and Krystian Zimerman playing Brahms' First Piano Concerto. And, just to keep the music going all summer, the city has two other mini music events in June and August: Aix en Juin and Musique dans la Rue.
THE FESTIVAL D'AIX IN 2014
In 2014 the Festival d'Aix (like other cultural festivals all across France) was disrupted by strikes, demonstrations and other militant action from freelance arts workers protesting against incoming legislation that would dramatically affect their benefits. In 2003 both the Avignon and Aix festivals were cancelled altogether due to a similar situation.
The main victim of the pickets was the premiere of Ariodante, which was drowned out by chanting and at one point a car alarm. However its cast, including Sarah Connolly, Patricia Petibon, Sandrine Piau, Sonia Prina and Bernard Richter, sang valiantly on, while Richard Jones directed and Andrea Marcon conducted.
Simon McBurney's extraordinary production of The Magic Flute was not a world premiere but had been staged in Amsterdam in December 2012 and in London by the English National Opera in December 2013. Pablo Heras-Casado led the orchestra in Aix.
Rossini's opera buffa Il Turco in Italia (whose first night also had to be cancelled owing to strike action) was directed by Christopher Alden while Marc Minkowski conducted the Musiciens du Louvre. The 2014 Festival d'Aix line-up was completed by two smaller-scale "musical spectacles".
One was Die Winterreise, while the other was Trauernacht, a Bach cantata staged by Mitchell and performed by the conductor Raphaël Pichon and the singers and musicians of the Académie Européenne de Musique.
Both Kentridge and Mitchell had appeared recently in Aix, Kentridge with The Nose in 2011 and Mitchell with Written on Skin in 2012 and The House Taken Over in 2013.
Pictured: Barbara Hannigan and Bejun Mehta in the Aix production of Written on Skin.
Three new works inspired by the surrealist poet René Char were commissioned from the German composer Manfred Trojahn and the cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras had carte blanche to give concerts and recitals with musicians of his choice.
And a concert version of Jean-Philippe Rameau's opera Les Boréades, featuring young singers selected by the Académie Européenne de Musique, marked the 250th anniversary of the composer's death. Marc Minkowski conducted.
The World Orchestra for Peace gave a concert to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War and there were tributes to Patrice Chéreau, who died shortly after directing a highly acclaimed production of Richard Strauss' Elektra at the 2013 Festival.
The Festival d'Aix has a reputation of being aimed at a moneyed elite, and there's certainly some truth in this. In 2014 average ticket prices were a mighty 130 €uros (though that didn't stop the performances from playing to over 98% capacity).
However there are also plenty of free and low-cost spectacles too and a hot tip for younger visitors is Le PASS, available from the Festival box-office, which gives free access to almost 50 events for anyone under the age of 30. Music-lovers over 30 can buy Le PASS for 15 €uros.
A further offshoot of the aim to broaden the Festival's audiences are projects to transmit some performances live by satellite to international venues, as well as to stage others in venues outside the centre of Aix.
And if you are in Aix in June, don't worry about missing out: since 2013 the city has held a curtain-raising event, Aix en Juin, which offers a programme of some two dozen concerts and masterclasses. Aimed at locals but open to everyone, many of these are either free, or free if you buy Le PASS.
Aix en Juin reaches its climax with Parade[s], a very popular open-air promenade concert on the Cours Mirabeau, just before the start of the Festival d'Aix proper.
In 2015 Aix en Juin runs from 9-30 June. Click here for the full programme. Parade[s] is held at 9.45pm on 26 June and is a recital of arias by Handel. It's also free but you'll need to reserve ahead to get a seat.
And, just to prove it's not over till it's over, Aix manages to pack in one last little music festival before the end of the summer: Musique dans la rue (Music in the Street), a series of over a hundred free concerts all across town in the early evening for nine days at the end of August.
There's music in the courtyard of the Town Hall, on the place Jeanne d'Arc at the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau, on dozens of café terraces and more locations in the centre of Aix and in outlying villages. All kinds of sounds are represented from baroque and classical to jazz and Latin vibes.
And fans of the festival will want to make a diary date for another top-flight celebration of classical music in the city: the Festival de Pâques (Easter Festival), which in 2015 ran from 30 March-12 April.
Under the artistic directorship of the violinist Renaud Capuçon, this new festival, first launched in 2013, has very quickly gone from strength to strength, attracting artists of great calibre and is expanding its activities into a range of venues all across town.
The programme for the 2015 Easter Festival was once again an impressive one. It opened with a concert by the stellar Argentine pianist Martha Argerich, whose interpretation of Beethoven's Concerto no.1 was the stand-out hit in Aix in 2014.
For her return visit Argerlich teamed with the violinist Gidon Kremer to play Beethoven's Sonata no.8 for violin and piano, plus works by Richard Strauss and the Polish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg.
The closing event was a personal choice by Capuçon, who opted for Saint-Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals suite and Schubert's Trout quintet, which he performed with friends and fellow-musicians.
In between were concerts by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Andreas Ottensamer, Krystian Zimerman, Gianandrea Noseda and many more artists of international renown. Click here to view the 2015 Aix Easter Festival programme.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
The first Aix Festival took place in an extraordinary cultural landscape. On her knees in the aftermath of the Second World War, France was fighting to regain her identity and self-respect with a stream of prestigious new arts events.
The Cannes Film Festival was created in 1946; Avignon followed in 1947. And in 1948 Gabriel Dussurget, a music enthusiast from Paris, joined forces with Countess Lily Pastré, a remarkable woman who had sheltered dozens of dissident, mainly Jewish musicians and artists at the Château Pastré, her estate in Marseille, during the war.
After the war Dussurget persuaded the wealthy Countess to finance an opera and classical music festival in Aix, then a lovely but quiet backwater known as the region's Sleeping Beauty.
A minor scandal was created by the opening line-up on a pocket handkerchief stage in the great open-air courtyard of the former Archevêché (the mediaeval Archbishop's Palace, pictured ) next to the Cathedral in the Old Town of Aix en Provence.
It featured a German orchestra (Südwestfunk), an Austrian conductor (Hans Rosbaud) and an opera, Cosi fan tutte, by another of Hitler's countrymen, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
But there could be few more beautiful ways of celebrating the healing and unifying power of music, and WAM has been a cornerstone of the Festival ever since.
Sets and production designs from past festivals are on display in the Musée des Tapisseries within the Archbishop's Palace.
Today, for over three weeks each July, the Festival d'Aix still takes over virtually the whole city, forming a quartet of midsummer arts festivals in Provence alongside the Festival d'Avignon (theatre), the a-part Festival of Contemporary Art in the Alpilles, a relative newcomer, and the Rencontres d'Arles (photography).
The Archbishop's Palace remains the flagship venue for the Festival d'Aix, but it also spills over to many other locations, from the Théâtre de Provence, the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume and the Hôtel Maynier d'Oppède to the place des Quatre Dauphins in the Mazarin Quarter and even the Cours Mirabeau.
The beauty and variety of settings on offer are one of the Festival's most potent attractions. Added to that, the compactness of the inner city lends an intimacy to the event.
Numerous international figures have appeared at the Festival d'Aix, including Peter Brook - who directed a memorable Don Giovanni there in 1998 - the dance choreographer Pina Bausch and the conductor Simon Rattle.
Among the guests in recent years have been the Canadian Robert Lepage, whose remarkable, waterlogged production of Stravinsky's The Nightingale, pictured, was a highlight in 2010 and went on to tour venues worldwide. South Africa's William Kentridge was the guest of honour in 2011 and Britain's George Benjamin topped the bill in 2012.
The Festival d'Aix is based at the former Archevêché (Archbishop's Palace), place de l'Ancien Archevêché, 13100 Aix en Provence. Website for the Festival d'Aix. Telephone, if calling from abroad: (+33) 4 34 08 02 17. Telephone, if calling from within France: 08 20 92 29 23.
The full festival line-up is available to view online in late January: the 2015 programme is now on view. You can buy tickets online for the 2015 Aix Music Festival from noon on 2 February. Telephone bookings open at 5pm on 4 February, while the box-office at the Archevêché itself opens at noon on 7 February.
The Festival d'Aix offers several special packages, such as a free child's ticket for every accompanying adult at certain shows. Check the Festival website for details of what's on offer this year.
Click here to book a hotel in Aix en Provence
Accommodation is at an absolute premium during the Festival, especially if you are planning to be in Aix on or around Bastille Day (14 July), which is a public holiday in France. Be sure to reserve well in advance. Click here for tips on where to stay in Aix en Provence and here for tips on where to eat.