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 were 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 was a strong year. Foccroulle continued the cycle of operas by Handel which began in 2014 with Ariodante. In 2015 another opera seria by Handel, Alcina, opened the Festival in the Grand Théâtre de Provence.
It was directed by the Aix and Avignon regular, Britain's Katie Mitchell. André Marcon was in charge of the musical direction and the French soprano Patricia Petibon sung the title role, a sorceress who puts warriors under her spell and holds them captive.
The central one, a brightly lit bedroom, is all luxury, fun and eroticism: it's here that Alcina and her sister (Anna Prohaska) entertain and seduce their visitors. Pictured: Petibon with the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Ruggiero.
But the surrounding rooms are grey and shabby in the glare of harsh fluorescent lights. This is the witches' sad lives behind the glittering illusion.
And the masterstroke: each time the glamorous singers pass through the connecting doors to the outer rooms, they are "magically" replaced by two older, dowdier actresses, representing the witches' real selves.
The production is full of energy and strange, disturbing ideas with more than a touch of feminism and kinky sex (French critics have been invoking "50 nuances de Grey"!) And the music is exquisite. If you don't catch it in Aix, watch out for Alcina when it starts its international tour.
Alternatively, if you live in Europe (and have a fast internet connection), you can watch Alcina for free online with a choice of subtitles in six different languages, on The Opera Platform. It's available until the end of 2015.
Reaching back, Robert Carsen's wildly acclaimed 1991 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Benjamin Britten returned to Aix in 2015. This time Sandrine Piau sang Titania and Lawrence Zazzo was Oberon. Kazushi Ono conducted the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon.
We also saw this stunning, surreal and enchanting show and thoroughly recommend it. It too is available online free at Culturebox until 13 January 2016.
Foccroulle has launched another, three-year cycle celebrating the work of Stravinsky. This began 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 premiered The Monster in the Maze, an opera for children based on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur by Jonathan Dove.
Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, joined by local musicians from the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra and a cast of 300 singers that mixed professionals with amateurs - children and adults - from the region. A joint commission, The Monster in the Maze was also performed in Berlin and London in each country's respective language.
Another new-ish opera was 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 was Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio).
The provocative Austrian Martin Kušej directed (it was his first original production to be staged in France) and reinterpreted Mozart's comedy about a European girl abducted into a Turkish harem to explores issues of east-west tensions and Islamic extremism.
Jérémie Rhorer took on the musical direction and the lead roles were sung by Jane Archibald and Daniel Behle. This was the black sheep of the Aix Festival, and the controversial production (though not the cast) was roundly booed.
The Freiburger Barockorchester remained 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, was a humorous piece for six dancers and a string quartet (whose musicians also danced), while Be With Me Now was a romantic "musical spectacle" inspired by Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Click here to read about what was performed at the Aix Music Festival in 2014.
Aix also has a packed programme of concerts. And, just to keep the music going all summer, the city has more mini music events in June and August: Aix en Juin, Les Nuits Pianistiques and Musique dans la Rue.
THE FESTIVAL D'AIX IN 2016
Early details have already been revealed for the 2016 Aix en Provence Music Festival. The British director Katie Mitchell will present Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, with Stéphane Degout and Barbara Hannigan in the title roles and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting.
Mitchell is a regular in Aix, having directed Handel's Alcina here in 2015, Vasco Mendonça's The House Taken Over in 2013 and George Benjamin's Written on Skin in 2012, pictured.
Peter Sellars, who in 2015 directed Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Stravinsky's Persephone, is also back in 2016 with Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms, conducted by Salonen.
And in 2017 the third and last Stravinsky production to be staged at the Festival will be The Rake's Progress.
The obligatory Mozart opera is entrusted to Christophe Honoré in 2016: it's Così fan tutte with Lenneke Ruiten, Kate Lindsey and Sandrine Piau. The conductors are Louis Langrée and Jérémie Rhorer and the opera will be set in "colonial Africa".
Aix's current cycle of operas by Handel continues with Il Trionfo del Tempo et del Disinganno, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski and sung by Sabine Devieilhe, Sarah Mingardo, Franco Fagioli and Michael Spyres. The conductor is Emmanuelle Haim.
Three new works have been commissioned. Gilbert Amy is creating a piece for a baritone and cello. Ondrej Adámek is writing Seven Stones from the Tower of Babel, based on a text by the Icelandic poet Sjón (one of Björk's regular collaborators). And Moneim Adwan is working on an opera called Kalila wa Dimna, which is based on Indian fables about animals and will be sung in French and Arabic.
The Festival d'Aix has a reputation of being aimed at a moneyed elite, and there's certainly some truth in this. Ticket prices for the flagship opera productions can easily run to several hundred €uros (though that didn't stop performances from playing to over 93% capacity in 2015).
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 outside the main Festival dates, 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 - and free - open-air promenade concert on the Cours Mirabeau, just before the start of the Festival d'Aix proper. Click here for the full programme.
Soon after the main Festival ends there's more music again. A programme of piano concerts by top international performers, Les Nuits Pianistiques, starts in early August. Modestly priced, they're at the city's brand new music academy building, the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud. Website for Les Nuits Pianistiques in Aix en Provence.
Also organised by the Conservatoire, Musique dans la rue (Music in the Street) is a series of over a hundred free open-air concerts all across town in the early evening at the very 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.
Under the artistic directorship of the violinist Renaud Capuçon, this new event, 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 iconic venue for the Festival d'Aix, but it also spills over to many other locations, from the Grand 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 and tickets go on sale online, by phone or at the Archevêché itself shortly afterwards.
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.