Monday, May 29, 2017

The Insiders' Guide to the 2017 Festival d'Aix

The 2017 Festival d'Aix takes place July 3 to 22.  Can't wait? The program called "Aix en Juin" offers free or low-priced musical and cultural festivities throughout the month of June...a prelude to the main event. The guest post below--by my favorite opera aficionado in Aix--gives you all the info about both. 

Archevêché, where the opera season opens and closes

The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, photographed at home at the Bolshoi, by Damir Yusupov. They'll play Eugene Onegin in Aix in July.

Stravinski's "Le Rossignol" from 2010, with beautiful staging by Robert Lepage (they flooded the orchestra pit).

"Pelléas and Mélisande," staged by Katie Mitchell in 2016

A free Parade[s] concert on the Cours Mirabeau. 

"Written on Skin" made its world première in Aix in 2012.

A Master Class Concert 

"The Abduction from the Seraglio," staged in 2015.

"Iolanta," staged by Peter Sellars in 2015

Concert on the Cours Mirabeau in June 2015, as part of  
the program called Parade[s].

Opera lover Anne-Marie Simons left her native Holland after college, headed to Paris for a year of intensive French and then to Brussels to work for the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) where she was offered an opportunity to work in the United States. There she spent the next 32 years, working as a translator, language teacher, journalist, sports writer covering Formula One races, and director of corporate communications. She retired in Europe and has been living in Aix-en-Provence since 1998 with her Argentine husband Oscar Rodriguez-Rozic, who left a career in international development banking to become an expert on Provençal cooking. As Oscar took over the kitchen, Anne-Marie began to record her experiences and impressions of France  its attractions, its quirks, its quality of life  which resulted in her delightful 2011 book Taking Root in Provence.  In her blog Provence Today, she reports on political and current events in and around France. Having attended the Festival d'Aix for many years, Anne-Marie knows all the ins and outs. So I asked her to give us the scoop on this year’s festival (July 3 to 22)…and this is what she sent. 

True opera lovers seem to have one thing in common: they won't let money or distance keep them from seeing their favorite singers or conductors. This may mean planning their summer vacations around some of the opera festivals in Europe, such as Bayreuth, Verona, Salzburg, Glyndebourne or Aix-en-Provence.

Wagnerians put up with a waiting list of five to ten years for the chance to get a seat in Wagner's very own Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, where they'll happily sit through five-hour afternoon performances, in formal dress, and have beer and sausages during intermission. Glyndebourne, an English country house in Sussex, is more relaxed and allows for picnic dinners on the lawns. And then there is Aix, perhaps most accessible of all, with three different venues in town. Unfortunately, the lovely Domaine du Grand St. Jean in nearby Rognes, where some of the smaller operas have been performed in a bucolic setting, closed last year for extensive renovations and is not expected to reopen until 2019. 

Founded in 1948 as an all-Mozart event, the Festival d'Aix still presents one Mozart opera every year but has long since widened its scope and today covers opera from its earliest beginnings (Monteverdi) to the present. (For the history of the festival, click here.)  It also has established an Académie Européenne de Musique, where young musicians get a chance to work with great teachers in Master Classes for Voice, String Instruments, Piano, Composition, etc. and perform before a live audience in evening concerts. The participation of these Academy students, winners of an international competition, adds an element of youthful enthusiasm to this opera festival. 

One of the most attractive aspects of the Aix festival is the rich menu of daily musical offerings throughout the city, with opera, concerts, Master Classes, conferences, interviews, and, at the end of the day, performances by the Academy singers or instrumentalists in the intimate setting of city squares and courtyards. 

As always, this year's festival program in Aix  (July 3 to 22) will feature five operas, including one commissioned work, performed in three different theaters:

Don Giovanni by Mozart 

Carmen by Georges Bizet

The Rake's Progress by Igor Stravinsky

Erismena by Francesco Cavalli

Pinocchio (commissioned) by Philippe Boesmans

Also, an orchestral version of Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky.

The “Preludes,” educational introductions to each opera, are held at the respective venues, one hour before the opera begins.

In addition, ‘’Aix en Juin,a lead-in to the operas in July, offers a program of free or low-priced musical and cultural festivities throughout June, culminating in ‘’Parade[s],”  a major free concert on the Cours Mirabeau, this year with the Orchestre de Paris and six soloists and a choir who will perform extracts from Carmen.

Master classes, as well as concerts and recitals by the Académie students, will start on June 23 and run until July 20. The disciplines may vary from year to year but always include voice, chamber music and contemporary creations. The final details (teachers, venues for Academy performances, date of live televised opera in a public park, etc.) will be announced later on this month. All these events (more than 60 in total) are open to the public with a €15 Pass (€5 for a single event).

Tête-à-tête” with the artists of the Festival is held every day at 6pm in the presbytery courtyard on the Place de l’Archevêché.

So much for the programming. Now, let's take a peek behind the scenes.

Bernard Foccroulle, present Director of the Aix Opera Festival, will be leaving us at the end of the 2017 season, after ten years at the helm. A renowned organist, he wants to return to performing, teaching and composing organ music in his native Belgium. He will be succeeded by Pierre Audi, currently Director of the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam.

Foccroulle is credited with bringing the Aix Opera Festival into the 21st century, and it was under his leadership that in 2014 the Aix festival was named Best Opera Festival in the World at the International Opera Awards in London. He has rejuvenated the repertoire, favoring new creations, and brought opera to a wider public by introducing pedagogic programs in local schools and inviting students to some rehearsals.

His choices of "modernity" have not always been felicitous, however. In 2015, for instance, Austrian director Martin Kusej chose to politicize Mozart's lighthearted "Abduction from the Seraglio" by turning the 18th-century love-conquers-all story into an ISIS kidnapping of Konstanze, not by a love-struck pasha Selim who holds her captive in his palace, but by a bunch of black-clad, turbaned, machine-gun-toting jihadists who hold her in a tent in the Sahara and end up killing her in a simulated beheading on stage. When a shocked Foccroulle saw the rehearsal in Aix he told Kusej this was unacceptable and pleaded for a rewrite, but Kusej refused and claimed artistic license, granting no more than a final scene with a heap of bloody clothes on stage rather than a simulated beheading. The production was panned by critics (excepting the singers) and roundly booed by the audience.

Another misfortune befell Foccroulle when in 2014 he was faced with a strike by theatre temps (les intermittents du spectacle) who threatened to close down the festival in protest against the government's announced cutbacks. These temps work only when called upon but have year-round salaries covered by unemployment insurance. As always in France, public opinion was with the strikers and accommodations were found to keep the Festival open. As British mezzo soprano Sarah Connelly wrote in Limelight magazine, it was disheartening to be greeted by angry shouting and pot-banging by demonstrators who delayed the start of Haendel's Ariodante (in which she sings the title role), forced her and some colleagues to stay in their dressing rooms and then finally allowed her back on stage only to interrupt the performance two more times… and then to find her wallet stolen from her dressing room afterwards. She called the episode a frightening experience but says she "will try to remember the beautiful moments as well."

And so will we, because not only have we enjoyed some of the best summer opera anywhere here in Aix, but we feel confident that the new agreement reached between the government and theatre unions will hold. So whatever your plans are for the summer holidays, you can be reasonably sure that the cultural festivals will not be disturbed!

Tickets to the 2017 festival are now on sale online, by phone and at the box office (located at the Palais de l'Archevêché).  Priced from €30 to €270 they sell briskly, especially the less expensive ones. The website is now in English and very easy to navigate.

Until June 12 the box office will be open Tuesday thru Friday; after June 12 it’s open daily. And if all else fails, try your luck on the day of the performance when the box office sells same-day tickets at half price (usually the more expensive ones). Or go directly to the performance venue in hopes of finding people selling their tickets.

The €15 Pass can be purchased at any time, even just before the Master Classes or the Academy concerts, which you can attend on a space-available basis (expect long lines). Ever since the creation of the Académie Européenne in 1998, the Master Classes have been extremely popular since they provide a unique opportunity for a wide public to see established musicians teaching the finer points of their art to music school grads who are just beginning their professional careers as singers, instrumentalists and composers. It's the up close and personal observation of a master at work as he/she fine-tunes the technique and interpretation of a young artist. 

In reflecting on the many attractions of world-class opera on my doorstep, so to speak, I do not only remember my favorite music or singer, but some of the great artists who have conducted master classes. Imagine seeing star violinist Isaac Stern teaching a class, or Pierre Boulez (composition and percussion), or meeting Pina Bausch and Tina Brown, masters of modern dance, and Patrice Chéreau, film maker and stage director -- all gone now. Their art will live on in those they taught and new stars will rise, because, as Nietzsche said: "Without music, life would be a mistake."

For all the info: festival-aix.com. For more in-depth info about the festival, the artists and performances, along with day-by-day schedule, the press kit (in French) is here.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Old Roses and New Life at Amarine

 

This weekend at Mas de l' Amarine in St. Remy, owners Alice Monnier and Bernard Coloma are hosting a Salon of Ancient Roses, with three full days of rose-themed activities open to the public. More details and a link to the schedule appear below. 

The salon will give you a great chance to see all the changes just unveiled at this unique and very-beautiful boutique hotel in St. Remy. Well...former hotel. Yep, the big news is that Alice and Bernard have closed both the hotel and restaurant, transforming the property into a venue for private rentals, retreats and special events. They're calling it "an authentic experiential hideaway... the ultimate private getaway...a refined, creative refuge celebrating the art of positive luxury." Whether you book Amarine for a family reunion, special celebration, wedding, wellness retreat, corporate getaway or the vacation of your dreams, the property will be entirely yours and completely private...with Alice and Bernard available to organize every aspect of your stay.

Since it opened in 2011, Mas de l' Amarine has been one of my favorite hotels in St. Remy: an 18th-century Provencal farmhouse decorated with quirky colors and fine mosaics by painter Roger Bezombes in the 1950s...purchased by Alice's Uncle in 2005...and then transformed by Alice and Bernard into a small, very-unique art-filled hotel.

"The style suggests the Bohemian life beloved by many artists, hinting at freedom and a touch of talented craziness," Alice says.

With Alice in the the front of the house and Bernard running the kitchen, Amarine received rave reviews for the warmth of the welcome, the lush beauty of the setting, the blending of contemporary and traditional design, the quality of the Bernard's superb cooking and the luxurious but laid-back vibe...elegant and edgy at once.

And none of that will change, they tell me, now that they've taken this new direction.

Located on the Voie Aurélia, the old Roman road that runs along the northern foothills of the Alpilles Mountains, Amarine is just a five-minute drive or a 20 to 25-minute walk to the heart of the village. It's a quiet residential and agricultural area, with horses grazing in large fields, roads that wind through olive groves and vineyards, wonderful hiking and biking just out the door...and some of the most popular sites in Provence less than an hour away. 

The main house, built on several levels, offers:

*Six large en suite bedrooms.

*A large lounge with an imposing fireplace, fronted by a chimney breast that came from the Palais de Papes in Avignon.

* Another large lounge with windows opening onto a terrace, the gardens and the Alpilles. 

*A 36-square-meter open kitchen, loaded with high-end professional equipment.

* A rock-walled dining room with flexible seating and wine storage carved out of the rock. 

* Terraces for outdoor dining and lounging.

* A 5000-square-meter "park" with flower and herb gardens, a fish pond with water lilies and spouting sculptures...shaded by generations of nettle trees, pine and mature oak.

*An indoor/outdoor "well being space" (aka The Dreamcatcher) for beauty, fitness and more.

*A 15-by-7-meter heated pool with pool house and outdoor kitchen.

* A Petanque court.

* A small (66-square-meter) detached house called The Bergerie, with an open kitchen, two bedrooms, bathroom, laundry room and pantry. The Bergerie has heating, A/C, WiFi and direct garden access.

For guests who rent the whole property, there are a wide range of "bespoke services" available on an à la carte basis. These include culinary experiences (shopping and delivery of fresh, high-quality produce, breakfast prep, chef throughout the stay or on occasion, stocking of wine and spirits, cooking classes, etc.); chauffeurs and transfers; additional staff such as housekeeping and major-domo; rental of cars and vintage convertibles; massages, beauty treatments, yoga and pilates; and a wide range of local experiences and tours.

"Our philosophy is simple," Alice says. "We believe in sustainable, organic and local; in wellness and luxury; in the inspirational, experiential and fun. And the overall experience is magical!"

In July and August,  Mas de l'Amarine is available for weekly rental only. In May, June and September, the minimum stay is three nights. The rest of the year, day and evening rentals are welcomed. 

A full description of the property is hereFor rental inquiries, rates and more info: contact@mas-amarine.com.

Now what's happening at the rose salon this weekend? You'll find activities grouped into four separate themes:

Côté Fleurs, every day from 11 am to 7:30 pm: immerse yourself in the beauty and aroma of a wide range of heirloom roses. Buy custom-made bouquets, rose bushes to plant at home, books and more. And meet expert Provencal rose grower Benoit Hochart.

Côté Beauté, every day from 11 am to 7:30: learn about and sample rose-based products for skin and body.

Côté Art de la Table, every day from 11 am to 12:30, by appointment only. Alice will lead a workshop on setting a beautiful table, making napkin rings from roses and creating a beautiful floral centerpiece.

Côté Gourmand, every day from 11 am to 7 pm: enjoy cheese, charcuterie, pastries, ice cream and sorbet, plus wine and other drinks. 

To see the Rose Salon schedule in French, click here.

Mas de l'Amarine
517 Ancienne Voie Aurélia
13210 St Rémy de Provence
France
Tel: +33 (0)6 37 22 51 08

Photos: Public and private spaces at the "new" Mas de l'Amarine, interspersed with gorgeous spring roses like the many varieties you'll see at the rose salon this weekend. Alice and Bernard (pictured between the curtains and clowning in the garden with drinks) treat the whole property like a work of art. They love jolts of bright color against creamy stone walls and backdrops of lush greenery. They love modern art and sculpture, colorful textiles and fluttery fabrics, the whimsical and the theatrical. They're constantly editing the decor, bringing the outdoors in and vice versa...creating spaces both stimulating and soothing. The bottom shots show the property overview and The Bergerie, the two-bedroom detached house that's offered alongside the main house.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Fresh From the Flower Farm Near You...



There's no shortage of beautiful flowers in Provence...or places to buy them. Just about every outdoor market has a vendor selling brilliant blooms at reasonable prices. But there's something very special about buying them at the farm where they were grown...and meeting the people who grew them. And wholesale prices don’t hurt either!

Ferme Fleurie, located halfway between Tarascon and Graveson, is a large flower farm that exports 95 percent of its harvest to Holland. Yep, a big truck comes anywhere from two to seven times a week and carries away massive containers of flowers, all of them measured, clipped, bunched, refrigerated...and ready to be sold at auction. But a certain number of stems are always held back for local sale...and anyone who wants to can pop in to shop.  For export the flowers are cut "green," which means the buds have yet to open, but for local sale the flowers are ready to be enjoyed tout suite!

The flowers available each day are scribbled in chalk on a sign out on the road...just like the flavor of the day at your favorite ice cream stand. Many top hotels and restaurants in the region buy direct from the farm regularly.

Back in the day, you just pulled into the parking lot and if no one came out to greet you, you honked. But now that Marcel and Debbie van Eenennaam have opened their sweet new boutique on the property, there are convenient set hours...and a Facebook page where you can see what’s in season before you head over. The shop opened in early April.

So how is it that this charming Englishwoman and her Dutch husband came to be among the largest flower producers in Provence?

Born in a small town near Amsterdam, Marcel and his late wife Julie came down to Provence and established the farm in 1999. Julie lost her battle with cancer in 2013.

The following year, Debbie—who comes originally from Whitstable in Kent, England but was living in Istanbul at the time—arrived in Provence to visit friends. Among their guests at dinner one night was the charming flower farmer who lived just next door. And over that long, laughter-filled meal, Marcel and Debbie connected.  They stayed in touch and before too long, Debbie had chucked her life in Turkey, moved to France and moved in. The couple married on the farm in September 2015.

Ferme Fleurie operates year round. What can't be grown reliably in the ground is raised in one of 27 greenhouses, some of which are climate and humidity controlled.  To help get everything picked, packaged and shipped off on time, Debbie and Marcel have a fantastic team of Moroccan workers, a group that swells to 35 people in the height of the “short and intense” six-week peony season.

While anemones constitute a large part of their production, it’s the peonies for which the farm is best known: gorgeous fluffy blooms in colors including Bowl of Cream, Sara Bernhardt, Duchesse de Nemours, Pink Sunset and many more...in both “single” and “double” varieties. The farm’s 130,000 stabilized peony bushes will produce roughly one million pretty stems this year.  Normally available until the end of May, the peony harvest started two weeks early this year and the flowers are being picked, at a frantic pace, right now. So if you want ‘em, come and get ‘em...they’ll be gone, most likely, by mid May.

Debbie and Marcel also grow daffodils, lilies, roses (600 bushes), tulips (20 varieties), allium, glads, viburnum, sedum, lavender (6000 bushes) and more. 

“Marcel is Dutch and likes to plant things,” Debbie says with a laugh.

If you come for flowers, you’re welcome to stroll around the 14-hectare farm where you’re likely to be followed by two sweet, inseparable black dogs named Poppy and Zazoo.  Poppy likes to swim every day, year round, in a small pond out back, while Zazoo runs back and forth on the shore.

You’re also likely to see geese and chickens; on a recent visit I spied a funny looking chicken that Debbie explained was a bit of a breeding mistake.  “I wanted to buy Silkie chickens but they were €45 each!,” she says, “so I decided to make them myself.  But I bred a furry one with a regular one by mistake. He's ugly but we really love him." In the barn the day I visited, a huge pig named Adele was crashed out in the hay, snoring loudly. 

The Boutique at Ferme Fleurie is normally open from 10 am to 12:30 and 3 pm to 6 pm (weekdays) and from 9 am to 12:30 (Saturday).  

During peony (pivoine) season, the hours are extended, as shown in the photo above. As of Monday May 15, they'll be back on normal hours.

In summer, the boutique is likely to open just one morning and one afternoon a week...so check the Facebook page.

The farm is a bit tricky to find and you’re likely to miss it on your first try. You'll know you're on the right path when you see the large blackboard telling you the fleur du jour; turn right just before it or left just after. (If you’re coming from Graveson, you’ll turn left right after a small bridge; from Tarascon look for a cross on a pedestal on your left and then turn right immediately.) After the turn you’ll see a sign for the Mas d’Avieux...then just follow that road along the white fence, through three gentle curves, and you’re there. The farm and its GPS coordinates can also be found on Google Maps (as Ferme Fleurie SCEA Tarascon).

Ferme Fleurie, 4583 Route d'Avignon, 13150 Tarascon, France.

Photos: (1) Debbie and Marcel with just-picked peonies. The flowers are considered a symbol of good fortune and happy marriage..and they seem to have bunches of both. (2) The Boutique at Ferme Fleurie opened in early April and has been a huge hit. The prices are wholesale and the flowers are gorgeous. (3) Debbie and Marcel grow a wide range of varieties and colors, one more beautiful than the next. Peonies come in every color but blue...who knew?  (4, 5) The shop has been so busy Debbie has to re-stock multiple times throughout the day. (6) The daily-flower chalkboard is now a beloved local tradition. On this particular day, Marcel was rushing; he ran out of space for the 'e' in 'pivoine' and ran out of time to fix it! (7) In peony season, the farm employs 35 workers to get the flowers out of the fields and processed quickly for shipping to Holland. Marcel's brother receives them on the other end and does a final quality check before they go on to the Flora Holland Auction and world wide sales. (8) The Prince of Pivoines takes a much-needed break. Ok that's a lie, Marcel seems to never take a break. (9) A ready-to-be-harvested field; all but 5% of the flowers are picked "green," before the buds open, for export. The biggest crops are peonies and anemones but they grow lots of other flowers. Check their Facebook to see what's in season. (10) Beauty shot at sunset! (11) Another beauty shot! This field, one of many, shows the scope of the 14-hectare operation; the team will harvest roughly one million stems during the six-week peony season. (12) Marcel knows more about peonies than anyone. Many of his plants may very well outlive him...peonies can live to be 100 years old. (13-17) In an airplane-hangar-size building, the flowers are trimmed, bunched, wrapped, boxed and refrigerated. (18) Who wouldn't want to buy their flowers from this smiley farmer? (19) Hours are extended during peony season, which will mostly likely end in the next two to three weeks. 

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