Rhapsody in Orange
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Rhapsody in Orange

France’s Chorégies d’Orange celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.
By Sylvia L’Écuyer 

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The full arena for a 2017 performance of Rigoletto
© Philippe Gromelle/Orange
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Orange's Théâtre Antique, c. 1861
Age Fotostock/Alamy
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Erwin Schrott as Boito’s Mefistofele, 2017
© Philippe Gromelle/Orange

IN THE LATE 1970S, when I was on a research trip to the rich musical archives of Avignon, Carpentras and Aix, I made a side trip to the nearby festival town of Orange to see its spectacular Roman-era amphitheater, the Théâtre Antique. This magnificent reminder of Roman Gaul, completed in 1 a.d. under the Emperor Augustus, can hold 10,000 spectators. Miraculously preserved for more than two thousand years, the theater features a three-story stage façade, 120 feet high and 338 feet long—and provides a unique acoustic experience. On my first visit, standing at the top of the seating rows against the steep slopes of the Saint-Eutrope hill, I could clearly hear our guide telling the story of the site from the stage, hundreds of feet below. Years later, when I attended a performance of Il Trovatore in this magical site, I was mesmerized by the powerful natural amplification of the voices and how convincingly the great wall became the fortress Castellor, with the fires of the gypsy camp glowing under the starry night.  

For centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, only the cicadas had performed in this sun-bathed theatrical venue—until the amphitheater reverted to its original purpose in 1869, in keeping with the cultural policies of Emperor Napoleon III, a sovereign eager to imprint his reign with the imperial grandeur of Roman culture. The Chorégies d’Orange have been held here each summer since.

The Festival’s location next to the renowned vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas provides another incentive for visiting the region, but Provence boasts a long, fascinating music history. The operatic pedigree of the Chorégies d’Orange is particularly impressive. “People are still talking about Jon Vickers and Birgit Nilsson’s Tristan und Isolde or Montserrat Caballé’s Norma from the 1970s,” says Jean-Louis Grinda, director of the Chorégies since May 2016. Grinda first worked at the Chorégies as artistic secretary in the 1980s. Today, armed with an extensive background in opera management, Grinda describes his plans for upcoming seasons in Orange by telephone from his office at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, where he has been the director since 2007. Grinda is determined to bring more diversity to the festival’s programming.

“Because of misguided economic reasoning,” he says, “the repertoire was limited to blockbusters. Fifty percent of our audience is from the region, including long-time owners of holiday homes in Provence. People are very attached to their Chorégies, but there is a limit to the number of Carmen, Butterfly and Bohème productions they can bear. I believe that works like last summer’s Mefistofele and this summer’s Guillaume Tell, which has never been performed in Orange, lend themselves to the scale of the Théâtre Antique.” 

Grinda attributes the success of Mefistofele in great part to the performance of Erwin Schrott, who will be back this summer as Don Giovanni. “He is an incredible showman,” says Grinda. “Standing alone, he dominates this 200-foot-long stage.” Frédéric Chaslin will conduct the two Giovanni performances on August 2 and 6, with Karine Deshayes and Nadine Sierra as Donna Elvira and Donna Anna, respectively. Guillaume Tell, staged by Grinda himself, will have one performance, on July 11, with baritone Nicola Alaimo in the title role, Celso Albelo and Annick Massis as Arnold and Mathilde and Belgian soprano Jodie Devos as Tell’s son, Jemmy. Because the audience will be sitting on stone seats, the five-hour score will be “sparingly and meticulously cut,” says Grinda.

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Montserrat Caballé’s legendary 1974 Norma at Orange
© Claude James/INA via Getty Images
 

Grinda is committed to making the Chorégies democratic as well as diverse. Free dress rehearsals for schools and retirement homes, comparatively low ticket prices and a convivial atmosphere will draw in a local audience. Grinda believes a new segment of the public will come to Orange on July 11, when American D.J., record producer and composer Jeff Mills will present his orchestra-accompanied techno work Light from the Outside World in concert with the Avignon Provence Symphony Orchestra. On July 29, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony will be heard in Orange for the first time, with the combined forces of the National and Philharmonic orchestras and the senior and youth choirs of Radio France. In August, pianist Jean-François Zygel will improvise a soundtrack to F. W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film Faust, projected onto the ancient stone façade of the Roman Theater. 

More traditionally starry offerings at the 2019 Chorégies include Plácido Domingo with Ana María Martínez, Arturo Chacón-Cruz and the Antonio Gades ballet company in a zarzuela-flavored Spanish Night at the Théâtre Antique and a concert of arias and duets by Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, which will be televised. 

Grinda is confident that the Chorégies will establish themselves as a mandatory stop on the European festival circuit. “We have a powerful and magical venue,” he says, “a place for innovation and adventure. One never forgets a performance in the Roman Theater.”

Judging by my own experience, he’s right. spacer 

Sylvia L’Écuyer, a musicologist and broadcaster, is host and producer of Radio-Canada’s IciMusique.



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