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They’re marching in like saints only they’re soldiers, sailors, starlings, fairies and fish; they’re ants, crickets, cowherds, can-can girls, kings, queens – the whole deck of cards. There are three tenors, 100 gymnasts, four Edwardian weddings, a deafening arsenal of fireworks, some skipping, bleating goats and cows, of course, cows – real beasts though, not pantomime Daisies – ringing their bells as they’re led, lowing and blinking in the limelight, to bring a tear to the eye of every Swiss in the house.

What house? A temporary arena for 20,000 people built for a festival in the Place du Marché in Vevey, a small town on Lake Geneva’s eastern banks, nestled placidly between the industry of Lausanne and the Riviera manner of Montreux. Vevey is only outwardly placid though: since 1867 it has been the Nestlé town. The food-and-drink megalith, along with Swiss International Air Lines, Tissot and other sponsors, helps foot the chf100m (€89m) festival bill. So there’s gold in those yonder hills, probably literally. The festival is the Fête des Vignerons, an irregular month-long celebration of the winegrowers, traditions and fecundity of the Canton of Vaud. Irregular in two ways: one because the thing’s been going for 222 years yet this is only the 12th edition (what? I know!); and two because it’s just plain strange. It’s Cleopatra and Ben Hur. It’s a Halley’s comet, a blue moon, a real rare vintage.

The fête consists of a month of performances, plays and boozy parties for which straight, bourgeois Vevey paints its face and plumps its décolletage to switch from sleepy ville to party animal and carnival central. The arena hosts 20 performances of a three-hour piece of allegorical musical theatre with a mostly amateur cast of thousands based on a year-in-the-life of the vineyard, the passing down of viticultural wisdom through the generations and a wide-eyed wonder at a benign sort of order imposed upon nature. Oh, and there’s a once-in-a-generation coronation of the best winegrowers of the region as the centrepiece of the grand opening, presided over by the Abbé-Président of the Confrérie des Vignerons, the head honcho of the brotherhood of winegrowers. It is a carnival; it is a storied Old European sacrament of pomp and circumstance, vassalage and privilege. It has the trappings of an ancient pagan feast day and is simultaneously a holy harvest festival and a Heavens-to-Betsy unholy piss-up. There is a lot to relay here; there is a lot going on. But of course there is a timetable – of course – so we’ll be OK.

“The festival has been here long before me and will happen long after me,” says this year’s lead dramatist and director Daniele Finzi Pasca. “So I feel like the manager of the national football team; I’m just looking after it for a little while.” Finzi Pasca is Swiss-Italian, crinkles his eyes like Woodstock from Peanuts when he smiles (as he does a lot) and has a theatrically 3D CV. Compagnia Finzi Pasca – players, producers, designers, costumiers and choreographers – created the closing ceremonies of the Turin and Sochi Winter Olympics and has notched up work for Cirque du Soleil and countless international operatic and theatrical productions. The next stop is Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, just down the road at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. Finzi Pasca is used to receiving acclaim for the pushing of envelopes – but what about staging a show for the Confrérie des Vignerons? Is the fraternity down with the experimental? “We’ve tried to push the Confrérie in some ways; they’re traditionalist, it’s not always been easy,” says Finzi Pasca, shrugging his shoulders in the hot Swiss sun. “Thirty years ago you could not refuse to do military service but I was one who did not want to do it. Traditionalists like to present these military shows but I’m asking them, ‘At the finale, maybe you can dance the samba?’ And they’re like, ‘No, no – more swords, more spears!’”

Outside it’s 33c and the town is swelling like fruit on the vine. Queues for galettes and rösti and wine and beer snake into crowds like the paddle steamer’s wake in the lake. Players and visitors mingle in squares and bars, sunbathe on lawns or shade themselves in the bits of cool that aren’t the bracing water itself. There are 5,600 stout Swiss yeomen and yeowomen in costume – mechanics as fishermen, accountants as suns, farmers as insects, secretaries as buds, teachers as brides and, of course, those favoured winemakers themselves, done out in velvet morning suits, all primped and primed and puffed up to parade through Vevey, ready for a whole lifetime of hat-doffing in a single afternoon and the tennis elbow that will surely follow. The pom-pom-pom of martial music shimmers above the heat haze, dizzy grenadiers pull at the necks of woollen tunics, a loose-cannon trumpeter rips a juicy Dixie lick to whoops from the crowd and a glare from his moustachioed drum major. What the blazes? Yes, it’s hot and hotting up.

The parade will end in hair-and-make-up and a last stop at the costume department to be briskly looked up and down by Giovanna Buzzi, the fête’s head costumier. Buzzi is tall and imposing in culottes and Birkenstocks, and her broad tattooed arms and fine, locket-like earrings speak of a woman who gets styles and how to mix them and knows what she likes. And she doesn’t like the word on the street. “Apparently there’s a dare going around town,” she says with a pin in her mouth as she adjusts the breeches of an atypically unkempt Swiss Guard. “A dare about who can steal the most parts of costumes from the festival.” Who would do such a thing? “Oh people, come on! A little thing here, a skirt there, a – what’s the word? – an ant’s head? Yes!” What bloody rogues! “I mean people, these people,” she waves her hand at a couple of female flower buds who have dropped in to have skirt hems shortened (it must be the sun, or maybe the wine). “They go off-stage and to a party in costume and then, who knows?”

Buzzi may be fussing, slightly archly, over costumes that she perhaps sadly feels must have to adorn fallible humans – and mostly amateur actors at that – but she is far from a mother hen. Buzzi, really, is a creative force of nature who has a steely grasp on the whole operation of designing and making costumes that, as she says, “are not just for one performance, like those at the Olympics, but for a month of wearing, wearing, wearing”. Man-sized starlings are to be seen waiting for trains; there are groups of Swiss Guards smoking cigars and ogling Tinder. I saw crickets removing their abdomens before piling into a Citroën.

Buzzi has an atelier in Rome where 400 seamstresses made the lion’s share of the 6,000 costumes (including spares) that will be seen on stage and around town. Each amateur performer funds their own regalia and the bills run to hundreds of francs per person, so at least they get to keep them; a visit to the wardrobe forever a reminder of Vevey 2019 and its attendant hangovers. The costumes are beautiful and beautifully made; not just suggestive of an animal or a king from high up in the arena but clever and alive with movement up close. As Buzzi says, “Really, they’re not costumes, they’re clothes.”

At 19.00 on the dot – we have a timetable, remember? – the band strikes up, the birds and ants and soldiers and sailors and fairies take one last deep breath before the curtain and then we march and bounce and tumble and leap and sail and sing through a very vinous year. It’s long but stunning, each tableau a sweet or witty take on the region, the country, the wine. Sometime near the end, the coronation of this generation’s vignerons – the official business of the day, of the epoch – takes place and it’s this part, perhaps ungoverned by Finzi Pasca and his team, that’s a little clunky and dull, not helped by an official from the Confrérie who delivers news with all the panache of a fax machine. A lot of names are called, a lot of medals are dished out and, by the time the crowns are laid upon the heads of the most special vignerons for years and miles around, palms ache from polite applause. Well done, though, messieurs: we shall certainly drink to your viticultural prowess as soon as it’s humanly possible.

Before that, though: the cows. The cows and the tears. The cows and the catch in the throat (not in that way, although a few beasts do possess the excitable bowels known to many a thespian come curtain call). “Le Ranz des Vaches” – the herdsmen’s call to their cattle to bring them back down the hill of an evening – has become a song, a sort of Swiss anthem. It suggests innocence unsullied by modernity, it is a thing of heart and soul and soil, a refrain that stirs in the breast of all gathered, some still sitting, many now standing, in this hi-tech, laser-lit, spellbound arena. Down on stage Les Armaillis, the cowmen, pat the necks of their Red Holsteins, their Hérens and Simmentals. Up above on jutting stages, introduced by the bassi profundi of massed Alpenhorns, sing the proud soloists, revivalists, keepers of the flame.

Afterwards, out on the tiles for weeks of celebrating nights that’ll be forgotten tomorrow yet somehow remembered forever, the tribes come and go like shoals on film, massing and dwindling, mixing and shimmering away. Le Caveau Des Cents-Suisses, named after that most dapper of Swiss Guards, is patronised almost entirely by gentlemen and now ladies (since Finzi Pasca’s intervention) in the patriotic red and white of this assumed order. It’s a sight. The uniforms change the men and women who wear them; for the men a sort of military escapism allows a specific straight-backed bonhomie to unfold. In daylight these Guards are in IT. For the women it’s power too, but worn differently, playfully, perhaps ironically. Buzzi’s cinching is expert: the girls look good in their doublet and hose. There is red wine spilt on the white of these uniforms and eau gazeuse halfheartedly called for. There is music until 3am and sword fights and shots (downed, not fired). This, then? This is a fête accomplished. And these civilians acting like soldiers, are they sinners? Only for a night. Again, tomorrow, they’ll come marching in like saints. Up above, bunched in the dark under hillside dew, are the vines and the fruit, plump and sleepy, ignorant of the party held in their name.

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