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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. It’s the ideal setting for a music festival".

Cassard, now the artistic director of the Festival de l’Abbaye de Fontdouce, explained that what he loved about summer festivals in France was the discovery of places he’d 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 isn’t 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 Fontdouce before.

Philippe Cassard and Natalie Dessay
at the Festival de l’Abbaye 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 I’m singing in French which I prefer because of the direct contact with the nuances of each word. I love words, whether Debussy’s "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 didn’t 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 can’t 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 I’d love to sing Donna Elvira, in Don Giovanni, it’s 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 setting.

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 jazz.

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 … Meursault, home of the finest of French white wines, one cannot help suspecting that the festival’s proximity to Cognac might add just a mite to this connoisseur’s 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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