The first thing I saw was groups of soldiers. Aix-en-Provence, a wealthy tourist resort and college town, is not their primary target, and France is only the latest in a long series of countries to be occupied by the French military. But they were everywhere: at the airport in baggage claim, flanking the exit to the bus station. Each night, they stood in clusters near the doors of the theaters of the Festival D’Aix-en-Provence, celebrating its 70th anniversary of presenting opera this summer. Each identically dressed in camo shirts and pants and carrying an assault rifle, finger cocked on the trigger, the soldiers stared inscrutably from behind mirrored sunglasses. Some of them looked painfully young, most were skinny and seemed to be straining to hold their massive weapons across their chests. They watched as crowds came and went, lining up to go through perfunctory security checks at the entrances to the venues. They must have heard snatches of Purcell and Strauss echoing out of the courtyard of the Archevêché palace where many performances took place.

In a world flush with armed guards, a world at war with itself, what is the role of an opera festival? For the past 11 years, Bernard Foccroulle has been applying himself to that question with as much artistic seriousness and expertise as exists in opera’s troubled world. “For my first brochure as the director of a theater in Brussels, I chose a poem by Rilke,” he says across the table of his office in the Archevêché as technicians change scenery in the courtyard. The poem, “Apollo’s Archaic Torso,” describes a crumbling Greek statue whose remains still “burst right through its confines.” Its last line: “You must change your life. How is art inviting us to change our life.” Throughout the Aix Festival’s administration and operation, one sees an admirable commitment to this optimistic, change-making view of art. Emilie Delorme, director of the festival’s Academy, describes invited workshops for women directors, composers, and conductors; a youth orchestra and improvisatory world-music ensemble made up of young artists from each of the 21 countries with a coast on the Mediterranean sea. Foccroulle himself focuses more on new music than most “traditional” artistic directors, a fact he attributes to his background as a composer and organist, work to which he will return after giving up the reins of the festival this summer. “Too often,” he says, “pieces are commissioned without paying attention to the conditions where they will be written and performed. Or what will come after. We need to collectively take care of these pieces in a completely new way, to pay attention to the process of creation and how to accompany the work into its life.” The Aix Festival incubated “Written on Skin,” by George Benjamin, one of a vanishingly small number of contemporary operas that have entered the repertoire.

“Seven Stones” Photo © Vincent Pontet

“Seven Stones,” a world premiere and the first of Aix’s five productions I saw over three days in the city (disclosure: the festival paid for my travel expenses), demonstrated both the potential and the pitfalls of Foccroulle’s intensive approach to developing new work. I very much wanted to like the piece, written for a cappella vocal ensemble and the instruments they themselves play by Ondřej Adámek. The work’s fatal flaw is a deadly self-serious libretto by the Icelandic poet Sjón; a mawkish stew of sad-boy magic realism featuring a Blind Poet, a Young Girl, and many other Annoying Archetypes. The full text was provided in the program, presumably so the audience could learn from the stage directions that “THE CHOIR represent the murmur of THE STONE COLLECTOR’s desire.” Trips to “exotic” locales like Buenos Aires and Kyoto were accompanied by grating world-music pastiche. Adámek workshopped the piece across several years, with most of his cast returning year upon year to develop and perfect their roles. In the performance, this showed: the choral singing, not to mention the playing of flower pots, glassware, saws, gongs, and sometimes even instruments, was brilliantly brought off. The piece has many beautiful moments; the final bars, the chorus hypnotically chanting that “a stone thrown in anger can never return to the hand,” hung in my head. Without repeated workshops and incubation, it could never have been created. But even years of intensive work can be betrayed if one part doesn’t live up to the others. I hope Adámek, apparently initially reluctant to create opera, continues to write in this form.

Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Æneas,” outdoors later that night at the Archevêché also began, unconventionally, with voice and drums. The festival’s approach to incubating new work extends into its approach to presenting the repertoire. Perhaps most famously, the festival originated Patrice Chereau’s quietly shattering “Elektra” in 2013, a production since seen in Berlin, New York, Milan, Helsinki, and Barcelona. Director Vincent Huguet, Chereau’s assistant on that staging, approached Dido as a complicated figure, a woman with contradictions. In the opera’s compressed plot, the queen of Carthage falls in love with Aeneas, who has landed on her shores fleeing the Trojan War. Called by witches to leave and found the imperial city of Rome, he abandons her. She sings a lament, one of the most quietly devastating arias in the operatic repertoire, and kills herself. The piece, only an hour long, was always supposed to be preceded by a prologue, which has been lost. Huguet commissioned a new one from the French novelist Maylis de Kerangal, rivetingly interpreted by the Malian singer and actress Rokia Traore. Rising from a line of women wrapped in cloth in front of Aurélie Maestre’s imposing, austere set, she spoke and sang of Dido’s lies and tricks. It was impossible to see these women wrapped in blankets on an unknown shore without thinking of the hundreds of refugees currently drowning in the Mediterranean as European newspapers debate whether their lives deserve saving. Dido, the prologue explains, brought these temple virgins to her new city under false pretenses and married them off to the sailors who had enabled her escape from her birthplace in Tyre. Accompanying this complication of Dido’s character was an enhanced role for the witches, most notably the contralto Lucile Richardot, who sang the part of the Sorceress with fiery, brilliant accuracy. The production’s main flaw was an emptiness at its center: the original Dido, who had rehearsed and performed on the opening night, fell ill and was replaced at the last minute. It is almost an impossible task to step into a new production at the last minute with virtually no rehearsal time. The young French mezzo Anaïk Morel did not make much of these difficult circumstances. Vaclav Luks, directing the period Pygmalion Ensemble, delivered a warm, precise, authentic reading of Purcell’s harmonically advanced score.

“Dido and Æneas” Photo © Vincent Pontet

I’ve always wondered what “The Magic Flute” would look like with a sympathetic take on the Queen of the Night and her witchy sistren. The supposedly-evil Queen, deposed from rule so that rational men could get on with the business of racializing and banishing the unworthy, gets some of the best music. A gimlet-eyed reading of the libretto, full of praise for wise patriarchy, hatred for female illogic, and the early modern transformation of the body into capitalism’s first machine, gives no reason to believe the slave-owning Sarastro when he tells us his temple is devoted to the search for love and light. In this summer’s revival of the action-packed production by Simon McBurney that opened at Aix in 2014, the dramatic coloratura Kathryn Lewek tore up the stage as the Queen. Confined by McBurney to a wheelchair, Lewek sang her two arias with fearless commitment and ironclad intonation. Her voice hit you somewhere just behind the solar plexus. Grand opera buzz all around. Certainly she was more compelling than Dimitry Ivaschchenko’s pinched Sarastro and his cultish clan of business-clad priests, assembling and dissembling at fluorescent-lit conference tables. As Papageno, the bird-catcher whose earthy humor provides welcome antidote to the temple’s endless bourgeois seriousness, Thomas Oliemans sang with a warm, generous, creamy baritone. One moment in “Flute” gets me every time; right at the end, when Papageno is finally united with his bride-to be. The music is pristine as can be: two cadences, dominant-tonic, the singers mirrored by chirpy violins. The triumph of simplicity. Conductor Raphaël Pichon found just the right tempi for this and many other moments of Mozart’s redeeming score. The Ensemble Pygmalion, called upon in this production to flutter paper birds and clamber on stage to play Tamino’s flute and Papageno’s magic bells, played with responsive, fresh energy.

Kathryn Lewek in “The Magic Flute” at Aix in 2014

While Mariusz Treliński’s brilliant exploration of the complex Prokofiev masterpiece “The Fiery Angel” was the only one of Aix’s premieres this summer not to be broadcast (and webcast) on Arte, I saw cameras filming the night I attended, possibly for DVD release. Good. This was a landmark production, a feverish nightmare that redeemed the work’s central figure and provided haunting, provocative images to accompany the nervous, slithering score. Based on a novel by the Russian writer Valery Bryusov, the opera concerns Renata, a woman haunted in her childhood by visions of a fiery angel with whom she was in love. The angel told her it would return someday in human form, and it did (or so she thought), taking the form of a count named Heinrich, who promptly abandoned her. She asks an errant knight, Ruprecht, for help; together they visit a magician named Agrippa von Nettlesheim, run afoul of the inquisition after Ruprecht is defeated by Heinrich in a duel, abandon one another. Renata ends up in a convent, where she is exorcised of demons and sentenced to death for being the devil’s bride. Treliński, aided by a psychologically penetrating, sensitive, and riveting star turn from the singing actress Aušrinė Stundytė, revised the plot to cast Renata not as a crazy harpy wreaking havoc on the men she ensnares but as the survivor of abuse. The convent scene was reimagined as a prologue (though it still occurred last), Renata one of many schoolgirls abused by a priest figure who, earlier in the opera, has stood in for Heinrich. Instead of magic and occult manuscripts, there were drugs: Boris Kudlička’s set evoked sleazy hotel rooms and neon-lit red-light districts the world over. A parade of images—spangle-jumpsuited country singers, schoolgirls doing coordinated calisthenics in the basement, a drag queen in a blue sequined evening gown, an angel figure wrapped like a mummy posed like Christ on the cross, a child being eaten, the schoolgirls entering a state of advanced hysteria—somehow managed to resolve into a coherent, disturbing exploration of themes present in the work and its text. Conductor Kazushi Ono brought out the work’s visceral textures but presided over some spotty brass and wind playing from the Orchestre de Paris. Scott Hendricks as Ruprecht and Andreï Popov in the dual role of Nettelsheim and the devil deserve praise for ringing, well-supported singing. But the night belonged to Treliński and to Stundytė. On stage for virtually the entire performance, her stage presence, enormous and free dramatic soprano voice, demented commitment, and musical intelligence made her a natural for this kind of role.

When talking about what makes a great opera director, Foccroulle spoke of matching interpreters to pieces. Katie Mitchell has been highly praised for much of her work in Aix, including “Written on Skin” and Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande.” “Ariadne auf Naxos,” the last of Aix’s premieres this summer, was not the best fit. In the first half of Strauss and Hoffmansthal’s chamber opera, we see frenzied preparations for an evening of performances at the home of the richest man in Vienna. A self-serious composer will premiere a tragic opera on Greek themes, followed by a commedia dell’arte troupe headlined by the infamous Zerbinetta. The composer frets over final changes, the dancers rehearse, the soprano and tenor fight over lines. Chaos triumphs when a servant tells both groups of performers they must combine the two performances so the fireworks his master has scheduled can go off on time. Only a budding romance between Zerbinetta and the Composer keeps him from storming off. In the second half, the performances begin. We alternate wildly between comedy and tragedy as Ariadne bemoans her fate on a desert island, the commedia actors try to cheer her up, and Zerbinetta sings of the many lovers who have kept her cheerful. Finally, the god Bacchus arrives to rescue Ariadne from her lonely fate. The piece is an odd blend between slapstick and the sublime; I ended up feeling that Katie Mitchell’s peripatetic staging was opposed to the sublime and, ultimately, to music itself. Relentless action (slamming doors, endless backstage business, and even a mid-aria birth) stepped on all of Strauss’s big moments. This was a shame, as the Prologue was deftly handled (shout-out to Rupert Charlesworth’s delightfully queeny Dancing Master), there were many interesting moments of personal interaction, and Mitchell’s many gender interventions and inversions deserved better stagecraft to express them. The evening was redeemed by four truly golden-aged voices in the opera’s lead parts. Lise Davidsen, as Ariadne, released endless tidal waves of rounded legato sound into the theater. Sabine Deveilhe’s Zerbinetta, a more complex character than usual, spun out effortless roulades of coloratura, dynamics carefully graded and phrasing beautifully considered. No one bothered to tell Eric Cutler that the role of Bacchus is thankless and almost-unsingable: he sounded gorgeous. And Angela Brower, as the composer, sang with ardent sensitivity.

“The Fiery Angel” Photo © Pascal Victor / ArtComArt

One of Mitchell’s worst additions was some truly pointless added dialogue by Martin Crimp. Over and against Strauss’s hushed, mysterious final chords, the Richest Man says that the experiment he’s just witnessed was interesting, but unlikely to be the future of opera. Let’s hope he was right. Let’s hope opera’s future has more world premieres and more interventionist, innovative stagings that respond to the work’s text and spirit. Let’s hope it has more inexpensive tickets, more commitment to justice in the communities where it takes place, and more gorgeous voices. Let’s hope that when Foccroulle’s successor leaves his post, no soldiers need guard the theater’s doors. ¶

Ben Miller

Ben Miller is a writer and historian, an opera queen, a regular contributor to the New York Times, and, with Huw Lemmey, the author of Bad Gays: A Homosexual History (Verso, 2022).