By Patricia Boccadoro
SAINT-BRIS-DES-BOIS, FRANCE, 6 OCTOBER 2013 "Within minutes of
my arrival here two years ago, I fell completely in love with the place",
the French pianist, Philippe Cassard told me. "I was overwhelmed by the
beauty surrounding me, from the abbey itself, founded in 1111, to the
wonderful scenery around. Its the ideal setting for a music
Cassard, now the artistic director of the Festival de lAbbaye de
Fontdouce, explained that what he loved about summer festivals in France
was the discovery of places hed never been to before, places full of
history in magical settings.
"The whole idea of playing in music festivals is to take winding
country roads where you fall upon small, hidden villages one never dreamed
existed; I love it when there isnt even a railway station and I find
myself surrounded by glorious countryside in the middle of nowhere", he
told me. "And when I arrived here, after driving down the avenue of
centuries old oak trees and saw the French gardens full of roses on one
side and the old bell tower on the other, I was spellbound by the unique
atmosphere of calm and serenity. Even the colour of the stonework, warm
and golden, added to the charm."
Abbaye de Fontdouce
Cassard was first invited to play at Fontdouce by Thibault Boutinet,
the owner, whose family has lived there for over two centuries. In 1970,
he and his brother began to gradually restore the property which had been
badly damaged after the wars of religion in the 15th century and
practically destroyed during the French revolution.
Situated in a peaceful green valley, where eight pretty goats, family
pets, chomp the grass, the abbey combines the austere Romanesque in the
chapels, and the luminous Gothic in the chapter house and parlour. Outdoor
concerts are held in the immense park, a natural amphitheatre
protected by a majestic, high stone wall which can seat over 800
people, as well as in the Enclos Abbatial, the Gothic Salle Capitulaire,
or in the recently restored Salle des Moines, inaugurated in 2011, all
possessing exceptional acoustics.
For the inaugural concert on July 26th, the much-loved French soprano,
Natalie Dessay, one of the most beautiful sopranos of her
generation, told me that when Philippe Cassard, a close friend as well as
her accompanist, suggested she opened the festival for its 20th
anniversary, she immediately agreed although she had never been to
Philippe Cassard and Natalie Dessay
at the Festival de
lAbbaye de Fontdouce
"I love singing under a starlit sky when the weather permits", she
said. "My worst enemies are rain and cold, but tonight it is a perfect
evening, warm and mild with no wind, and Im singing in French which I
prefer because of the direct contact with the nuances of each word. I love
words, whether Debussys "Clair de Lune", by Paul Verlaine, "Apparition",
by Mallarmé, or "Coquetterie Posthume" by Théophile Gautier", part of the
programme we plan to give tonight."
"I used to give recitals before my career in opera took over, and since
recitals require an enormous amount of work, there didnt seem time ", she
said. "But then two years ago I began working with Philippe Cassard, and
it is a true collaboration. We try out different things, and experiment
until we find what we are both happy with, but fortunately we both always
agree; we both have very good taste!"
"I also want to continue with recitals as I cant go on forever singing
the roles of young heroines", the slender, youthful 48 year-old-star
explained, "roles that my light soprano condemns me to. Regretfully, I
might be ending my operatic career shortly and although Id love to sing
Donna Elvira, in Don Giovanni,
its not a role for me!
The recital given by Dessay and Cassard was sublime.* Time stood still as they interpreted melodies
full of sweetness and charm by Debussy, Chausson and Poulenc. Spectators
were captivated by the freshness and elegance of the verses and the
concert was pure enchantment, particularly in such a privileged
For Cassard, commenting afterwards, being with Dessay, exquisite in her
lagoon-coloured long satin dress, was nothing but sheer pleasure, a
sentiment shared by all who were there.
Their concert followed a recital by the jazz pianist, Frenchman
Baptiste Trotignon, who played several standard jazz pieces plus some of
his own compositions, finishing with a short series of improvisations on
themes from classical scores.
But however magical the festival, which continued throughout early
August, it is not the only attraction of the area, for the whole
region boasts small medieval villages, including that of Saint-Sauvant,
perched high on a hill. With the imposing fortified church of
Saint-Sylvain, its steep winding streets, the ancient Font-Bigot washing
house and the square tower which was used as a prison until 1870, it also
possesses a lovely little art design hotel, with an attractive small
restaurant opposite, itself specializing in the occasional concert of
Abbaye de Fontdouce
Moreover, and not least, Fontdouce is situated a mere 10 miles from the
legendary town of Cognac, in the midst of sloping vineyards. As far back
as Medieval times, the wines of the area were highly prized, and then,
after being distilled to make eau-de-vie in the 17th century, it was
discovered that the longer they spent in oak casks, the better they were.
(Visits can be made to the museum of cognac at Migron.)
Today, cognac is exported throughout the world, the finest, X.O. Cognac
having been aged at least 6 if not for 10 or 20 years. And as the jovial
Philippe Cassard, Chevalier du Tastevin de Clos-Vougeot, left the castle
of Plessis, residence of the Camus family, heading off to
home of the finest of French white wines, one cannot help suspecting that
the festivals proximity to Cognac might add just a mite to this
connoisseurs attachment to the region.
* While no recording of the
complete concert is available, a superb CD from Virgin Classics has
recently been released, Debussy, Clair de Lune, Natalie
Dessay/Philippe Cassard, a recording which includes four rare songs
written by Debussy when he was barely 20.
Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and
member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.
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