“TOLL CHARGE! Awwww, why do things cost things? I hope you’ve got money, cos I spent all mine on chocolate cigars!”
This is the happy refrain that greets and warns me whenever I put a new destination into my Sat-Nav these days. No, it’s not the sterile computer voice of “Kathy” or “Simon” but rather that of a portly, yellow faced and follicly challenged resident of fictional Springfield. Homer’s chocolate cigars wouldn’t last long in the heat on the south coast of France, even with my newly topped up air-conditioning working at full tilt!
It was the second of a handful of free days yesterday so with Homer in tow, I embarked on my own little Odyssey.
It has to be said that despite the tolls, or more likely because of them, driving anywhere on French roads, particularly the auto-routes, is an extremely pleasurable experience. They are smooth, uncluttered and have a distinct lack of of cones sectioning off huge stretches of, largely un-worked on, roadworks!
I was heading in the direction of St Tropez, east of Aix, but was sidetracked en-route by a lovely looking beach at a small town called Aguiebelle. With a name equating to “beautiful water” it would have been churlish not to stop and have a swim and even more so not to pop my head into a very friendly looking bar and restaurant right at the water’s edge.
A charming, ludicrously deep tanned gentleman was multi-tasking away, serving drinks one minute, kitting out young, intrepid adventurers with life jackets and canoes the next, then attending to guests on sun-beds shaded by simple but elegant white parasols.
I’ve noticed already how different it is to be an Englishman in Provence as opposed to, say, Paris. As you will already have read, my French speaking skills are rusty…to say the least. An alarming number of years have evaporated between my French “O” level B grade and now. However, I will always make an effort. In Paris, one can stumble over so many nouns and verbs and conjugations of verbs in order to avail one’s self of a single cafe-créme, only to have a surly waiter roll his eyes and complete my garbled sentence in perfect English. All one can do at that stage is smile apologetically and give a quiet, “Oui, oui…merci.” It all seems to be part of the sport.
My new found friend, Cedric, however was more than happy to take the time to give me a lesson in conversational French despite a very solid command of English himself. Over a glass or two of cold 1664s I managed to give him a fair idea of why I was in the South of France.
Pretty much verbatim, I promise.
“Your French is better than you think…here, have another beer and it will improve further!”
It was around 4.30 in the afternoon and I’d not eaten since breakfast. Inside the restaurant, I had spied a huge inglenook fireplace, with bags and of charcoal and wood chips stacked nearby and next to them, a list of fish, freshly caught that morning.
With my vocabulary steadily improving over the last two weeks, I wanted to find just the right words.
“Cedric, mon ami, a quelle heure la grille le feu de bois commence, s’il vous plait?”
Not too shabby I thought…the beer had helped.
He looked at me and burst into laughter.
“La Grille de feu de bois? Ha ha ha! Non, Le Bar-B-Q…il commence a sept heures et demi!”
Sometimes it’s just easier to go with your instincts where language is concerned.
I had another beer…and stayed for dinner.
We’ve now reached the halfway point in our stay here in Aix. I have to say that it’s going remarkably quickly. The performances of La Traviata have, so far, been warmly received. Tickets are like gold dust and every evening is packed with eager opera lovers keen to experience the music and drama in the unique setting of the Théâtre de l’Archevêché.
I was surprised to learn that the capacity of the auditorium numbers some 1600; it feels like a remarkably intimate space for such a large audience. Indeed the numbers occasionally swell further, especially at the beginning of each performance when, as the last rays of daylight fade into the blackness of night, swallows can be seen…and heard swooping across the pit.
I was prompted to inquire (being your typical Englishman, concerned, as ever, about the weather) as to what contingency plans might be in place in the event of rain. I am reliably informed that only once in it’s illustrious 63 year history has the Festival postponed a performance due to a deluge from above. That is quite some track record and testament to the predictably fine weather that you experience here.
Can we please move London a little (LOT!) further South?
Having said all that, the performance last evening almost fell foul of the elements. Clouds had been building for most of the afternoon and the air had felt heavy and sticky. My walk through the town, up the hill where last week I had done my bit for Anglo/French relations, preceded by a gentle jog(!), was uncomfortable to say the least; like wading through a pool of warm treacle. By the time I sat down in the pit at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, and I’m sorry to be graphic ladies and gentlemen, I was unpleasantly moist.
The pit itself has an odd dual climate. Those lucky enough to be at the front have the advantage of a lack of stage above them and therefore benefit from what little breeze flows around the auditorium of an evening. Those of us at the back, on the other hand, endure near sauna like conditions where the roof seems to act like a saucepan lid and we in the percussion, brass and basses gently steam until tender.
There is a certain etiquette involved at the end of an opera performance regarding curtain calls for the performers. As the last thunderous chord of La Traviata is silenced abruptly by the conductor, the entire theatre, orchestra pit lit music stands included, is plunged into total blackout. The audience erupts in it’s ovation, whilst on stage the Chorus are assembled first, to receive their applause. Lights up again and our conductor, M. Langrée is already hot-footing it out of the pit (via the sauna of course) to the stage.
With each successive principal singer making their way into the limelight, the audience reaction crecendos, culminating, naturally, with the biggest roar of the evening for Ms. Natalie Dessay, the extraordinary French soprano singing Violetta.
Whilst all this is happening, the orchestra sits patiently adding to the applause for the cast and waiting for M. Langrée to appear on stage to take his bow.
(Where is he? Perhaps he and I should go on training runs together, to improve my short sprint time for chasing bicycles and his for reaching the stage, pronto!)
It was at this moment that the climatic pressure cooker finally let off steam and huge droplets of rain started falling on the uncovered audience…and also into the pit. Messers Amati, Stradivarius, Testore and their numerous disciples knew a great deal about preparing the varnish for their creations, but as far as I know, they knew little about water-proofing agents. The resulting stampede of string players, anxious to protect their precious instruments from harm, from their pleasant breezy situ at the front of the pit into the steamer at the back coincided perfectly with the arrival of Maestro onto the stage.
He bent forward to stand the orchestra for our bow only to see empty chairs, save for a couple of stoic viola players, ever professional, gallantly staying at their posts (a la, ‘that scene in Titanic’.)
I hope he and the audience were not too alarmed or offended that the orchestra had mostly vanished.
So the performance survived…just….keeping the statistics on an even keel.
As I write today though, there may be a new twist to the saga. The skies above me are currently black with thunder clouds. There are distant rumbles from the surrounding Massif and following an assessment of the weather forecast, rumours abounded last night of this evening’s La Clemenza being moved, lock, stock and barrel..well almost…to the indoor venue of the Grand Théâtre de Provence on the other side of town for a concert performance.
No small undertaking, I assure you.
The show must go on…
and at this Festival, with it’s track record, I’ve little doubt that it will.