La Fête des Vignerons – Switzerland’s Greatest Wine Party

The Fête des Vignerons, held approximately every twenty-five years in Vevey, is a festival of superlatives, providing a convincing riposte to those who claim that the Swiss don’t know how to party. And the next Fête? It opens tomorrow, 18th July, on the market square in Vevey and will continue with daily performances till 11th August. For an account of the 2019 Fête, which we plan to attend shortly, watch this space. It will certainly be very different from the 1999 show, and promises to be every bit as spectacular. Meanwhile, here’s a piece I wrote on the 1999 edition, which first appeared in Ticking Along with the Swiss, published by Bergli Books.

Picture, if you will, a vast, wedge-shaped arena resembling the deck of an aircraft carrier set smack in the middle of the small town of Vevey beside Lake Geneva. Rising up dramatically from the two longest sides of the arena are steeply banked seats, enough for about 16,000 fellow spectators. The town hall and the small streets thronged with people can be seen to one end; at the other is the lake, shimmering and winking at dusk, and beyond it, distant views of snow-capped mountains.

Imagine, then, a performance featuring a cast of 4,500, several choirs, three orchestras, a brass band, pipes and drums, 310 sheep, 68 horses, 46 cows, six oxen, three goats, three geese, a mule and a donkey. Weave around these a libretto only a little crazier than that of the Magic Flute and throw in a musical score which is more modern opera than folklore festival. Add a handful of helicopters, six parachutists and fireworks galore, some sophisticated sound technology involving 64 moving microphones and seven mobile closed circuit television screens – and you have some idea of the sheer variety, scale and scope of Vevey’s famous Fête des Vignerons in its 1999 incarnation.

The performance opened with a flourish as percussionists, a brass band and guest pipes and drums from Basel swept into the arena from the town side flanked by red-uniformed Swiss guards, horsemen of honour and members of the Confrérie des Vignerons, the patrons of the Fête. The vineyard workers (les tâcherons) honoured by the Confrérie for their labours in the vineyards assembled proudly to take a bow. We were introduced to Arlevin, the festival’s harlequin-clad mascot king, who was invited to enjoy the show from the comfort of the Box of Honour.

Nubile girls careered about crazily on mountain bikes, narrowly avoiding the marching Swiss guards. The girls’ fuchsia pink tutus and matching wigs clashed deliciously with the guards’ scarlet uniforms. Suddenly half a dozen Swiss Army helicopters arose from behind the parapet as if emerging straight from the lake and clattered over the scene trailing red smoke, to thunderous applause from the spectators. This introductory prelude gave way to the first scene, representing the start of the winegrowers’ year. From beneath a huge draping cover emerged a set piece of the traditional November Martinmas Fair. Rows of market stalls appeared, richly furnished with bread, sausages, chestnuts, wine, pumpkins, herbs. The arena swarmed with elegantly costumed merchants, basket-makers, onion-sellers, knife-grinders and children driving geese.

In striking contrast to this traditional tableau, state-of-the-art vineyard tractors and machinery motored busily onto the scene. Meanwhile the red choir, drawing its inspiration from a Greek chorus, wove its way in and out of the milling market crowds commenting on proceedings and singing the glory of St Martin who – legend will have us believe – passed through Vevey on his way from Italy to Touraine. We rubbed our eyes disbelievingly at the sheer beauty of this gorgeous pageant. Right on cue St Martin clattered across the parapet on his horse, silhouetted against the lake. He divided his cloak in legendary tradition and gave half to a beggar, who cavorted with it across the stage, followed – Peter Pan-like – by dancing, skipping, chanting children. Arlevin meanwhile was becoming restive in his Box of Honour, resentful of all the attention focused elsewhere and proclaiming petulantly: ‘C’est MOI le roi!’ (‘I am the king!!). He descended to the stage, caused havoc in the market, flirted with all the girls, got royally drunk and fell into a stupor. The market melted away, the stallholders and the red choir tiptoed off leaving him to sleep, alone in this vast space.

The second scene representing Arlevin’s dream was one of extraordinary ghostly beauty as Orpheus, accompanied by myriad mythical figures, appeared to guide Arlevin through the year ahead. Once again the extravagantly beautiful costumes, this time in electric blue and gold, drew a round of applause. A giant turtle lumbered in, its shell opening up to reveal a throne for Orpheus. Dreams and nightmares intermingled in exotic fashion. A flock of blue-dyed sheep surged onto the stage, neatly marshalled by barking, nipping sheepdogs. They heralded the arrival of Pales, goddess of spring. The music suddenly switched from ultra-modern and atonal (à la Bartok) to a lilting waltz in which elegantly costumed couples with top hats, bustles and parasols twirled around in a scene straight out of My Fair Lady.

Hot summer colours succeeded the cool blues of spring. Ceres was drawn in on her golden chariot and there were more gasps of approbation at her (Lacroix-designed) costume. Suddenly a hailstorm threatened. Dramatic drumbeats and shivering cymbals from the orchestra vividly evoked the fear of hail, ever-present for wine-growers. Silver-costumed warrior-winegrowers stormed the stage, loosing off a barrage of gunfire at the oncoming helicopter-borne ‘hailstorm’ in a spectacular pyrotechnic display. The whole stadium erupted in a cacophony of sound and light and the audience once again thundered its approval.

Suddenly the party broke abruptly into a lively jive session at which even the sombre Swiss Guards tapped their feet. As the 1851 brass band marched smartly in, Arlevin bade goodbye to Orpheus and the summer garden. The scene culminated in the arrival of a herd of cows, their bells sounding sonorously as they made their way down into the arena accompanied by alphorns and twirling Swiss flags. The haunting cowherds’ song Lyoba rang out from all four corners of the arena. Described in respectful detail by Rousseau in his Musical Dictionary, the song was formally forbidden in former times anywhere near expatriate Swiss troops, for fear of evoking such acute nostalgia that they might bolt for home. It has been an obligatory and much loved feature of all Fêtes des Vignerons for at least a century, and provides the cue for wholehearted, moist-eyed audience participation.

Finally it was autumn, time for the grape harvest. Throngs of children dressed in brilliant lime-green costumes representing vines arranged themselves in neat rows up the inclined stage. Arlevin brandished his giant secateur and the grape-pickers in saffron-yellow dresses and purple turbans swarmed and mingled up and down the rows. A complete stainless steel winery was wheeled in on a vast float to the centre of the arena, orange plastic picking buckets were distributed, inspectors checked the vines and the vats. A bacchanalian scene ensued, the grape-pickers dissolved into a wine-induced frenzy and Bacchus himself took a headlong dive into the vat. The mythical figure of Silène (played in 1999 by the Préfet of the nearby town of Rolle) provoked general hilarity as he rode around on his donkey, scantily draped in gold mini-toga and crowned with gilded grapes, toasting the assembled company from his golden goblet.

The harvest was over, the vineyards quiet. The grand finale was the festival of the living and the dead: at the far end of the stage, trapdoors popped open and cadaverous figures with lime green and shocking pink top hats emerged to arrange themselves in a ghostly tableau amidst the bare vines. All 4,500 participants assembled in all their gaudy splendour for the final chorus amid shouts of amour et joie! Arlevin’s crown took flight into the night.

For more on the Fête des Vignerons 2019, for which some tickets are still available, go to https://www.fetedesvignerons.ch/en/ 

Fête des Vignerons, Vevey. Affiche de l’année 1999.

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