Gail Eichenthal traveled to France to attend the Festival International d’Aix-en-Provence and writing about it for the KUSC blog. Click here to read her first Letter from Aix. Click here to read her second Letter from Aix.

KALILA WA DIMNA (Olivier Letellier 29-06- 2016)

The international cast of Kalîla wa Dimna includes the opera’s composer, Moneim Adwan, second from left.

If you kill a poet, he’ll come back to life in a thousand songs.

So begins Kalîla wa Dimna, a poetic new work in its own right that blazes a new trail: it’s believed to be the first opera in Arabic with French narration and is receiving its world premiere performances at the 2016 Festival d’Aix. Inspired by ancient animal fables and a once secret book of advice for kings, this strangely static piece for five musicians and five singers has been packing in crowds at a little jewel of an opera house, the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, just above the sparkling main boulevard in Aix-en-Provence, the Cours Mirabeau.

Both the opera’s Palestinian composer Moneim Adwan and French director Olivier Letellier have been associated with the festival for a number of years, Letellier as an alum of L’Académie du Festival d’Aix, the festival’s extensive training program for young artists. The opera was, in fact, commissioned by the festival, in a co-production with Opéra de Lille and Opéra de Dijon. It will travel to those cities and elsewhere after the final performance in Aix this coming Sunday.  In May 2017, it receives its Paris premiere.

Emilie Delorme, who directs the Festival Académie and its musician networks tells me the opera bears as much resemblance to traditional Arabic music as it does to Mozart and Handel. It’s a true hybrid. But the constant quick repetition of dialogue (Mama! Mama Mama Mama Mama Mama, etc.) and fairly slow-moving plot makes it a bit of a challenge for these Western ears. To me the opera, with its eloquent libretto by Fady Jomar and Catherine Verlaguet, feels like a work in progress. I would love to see the plot thicken, the 98-minute length stretch out even longer. Adwan saves the most complex music for the end of the opera. I think greater variety of texture could be introduced sooner.


KALILA WA DIMNA (Olivier Letellier 29-06- 2016)

World-renowned Lebanese singer Ranine Chaar plays Kalîla; composer Moneim Adwan takes the role of her power-hungry brother Dimna.

The story revolves around a singer of the people whose growing closeness to the king arouses murderous jealousy in Dimna, the king’s closest confidante. Kalîla, Dimna’s sister, sees a train wreck about to happen and tries to distract her brother from the lure of power. The music is very beautiful. The performers, all famous in their native lands, nail this astoundingly difficult score, full of quarter-tones (notes between conventional notes on a Western diatonic scale) and florid melismas. Particularly forceful in the role of Dimna is the composer himself. Adwan is a living emblem of multiple cultures. Though he lives in Paris, he says he will probably always feel like an exile; his eight brothers, eight sisters, and his mother all remain in Gaza, where he dares not return for fear of being unable to leave. To write, to compose, to sing, he says, are his only therapies for this great sorrow.

Kalîla wa Dimna is only one of the Festival’s ambitious multi-cultural initiatives, which since 2008 have included the creation of the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra, the Ibn Zaydoun choir, numerous recitals, residencies, and workshops, and several artistic networks, including MEDINEA, the Mediterranean Incubator of Emerging Artists.

As we ponder the meaning of art in a world of escalating violence, Kalîla wa Dimna would seem to address the question with surprising directness. We must tell our stories in order to learn how to be better human beings.

The Festival d’Aix has done much to bring the world in. All the operas are videotaped, some broadcast live. Some are offered for weeks on demand on the festival’s excellent website. Here, for example, is a video of the entire world premiere opera, Kalîla wa Dimna

Academie singers at the 2016 Festival d'Aix

My final night in Aix was a dream: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in Stravinsky’s Trumpet Fanfares, Symphonies of Winds, and the ballet Agon, with choreography by Karole Armitage. Painfully, I missed the second half, the Rite of Spring, to high-tail it across town to a beautiful outdoor concert under lofty plane trees in an ancient hotel courtyard: young professional singers from the Académie (pictured above and below) interspersing arias from Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress with excerpts from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte. Having just heard Symphonies of Winds, Stravinsky’s neo-classicism was fresh in my ears, and this juxtaposition worked magically.

Academie singers at the 2016 Festival d’Aix

At this final presentation of the Académie’s voice program, I ran into the Festival’s brilliant Don Alfonso from the mainstage production of Cosi, American baritone Rod Gilfry, who had coached some of the singers in a master class. Gilfry says for him this constantly inventive festival is a manifestation of Provence itself: casual, often taking place outdoors, yet above all steeped in cultural depth. From the stage, he says, you sense the seriousness of the audience. For example, they almost never clap for individual arias. They respect the flow of the music. And at the curtain calls, in lieu of our now almost meaningless standing ovations comes the dramatic rhythmic clapping: an intense signal they’ve connected with the music and with the passion of these presentations. Gilfry, who teaches both here and at the USC Thornton School of Music, enjoys a rich history at the Festival, and is still recognized at cheese shops, wineries, and restaurants. He performed the title role in Don Giovanni two previous Aix seasons. Here’s hoping the Festival brings him back for many seasons to come.

Bernard Foccroulle (2010)

General Director of the Festival d’Aix, organist and composer Bernard Foccroulle 

Meanwhile, the Festival itself faces a major turning point. Its revered general director, organist and composer Bernard Foccroulle, departs after just two more summers. He told a small group of us North American journalists gathered in his office a few days ago that he wants to compose more, to delve into organ works of Girolamo Frescobaldi, and ultimately would love to write his own opera. For all of the festival’s Mediterranean initiatives, Foccroulle admits the herculean task of diversifying audiences is still at an early stage. The Middle Eastern connections will be emphasized his next two years. But populating the Aix theaters with young people, with many people of color? “It’s ultimately a 25-year plan,” he says ruefully.

Foccroulle’s replacement has already been named: Pierre Audi, Director of the Dutch National Opera.  Audi, a veteran of that renowned company for 30 years, doesn’t shy away from the new: his last project in Amsterdam will reportedly be a Karlheinz Stockhausen cycle.  Nonetheless, Foccroulle has always aimed high, as high as the double rows of plane trees on the majestic Cours Mirabeau. His will be a hard act to follow. 

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