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Summer Opera 2006: Aix Ring

Das Rheingold, Aix-en-Provence Festival, 2006, directed by Stéphane BraunschweigMajor productions of Wagner's Ring cycle are almost always newsworthy. The fact that the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence has enlisted Simon Rattle to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic for their new staging, at the rate of one opera per summer beginning with Das Rheingold earlier this month, is extraordinary. Fortunately, for those of us who could not make it to southern France, it drew major press attention. While hopefully on her vacation, Marie-Aude Roux was there (Belle première pour le Ring à Aix, July 4) for Le Monde (my translation):

In 2005, the Aix-en-Provence Festival saw the return of Patrice Chéreau to opera with a disappointing Così Fan Tutte. In 2006, Stéphane Lissner, who is in his last season at the head of the festival, is opted this time on the first Wagnerian tetralogy in Aix history, with Das Rheingold, the prologues of a Ring cycle that will continue through 2009. It is also the third colloboration of the British conductor Simon Rattle with the French director Stéphane Braunschweig, after two Janáček operas, Jenůfa at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1996, and The Makropoulos Affair for Aix in 2000. [...] During the first performance of this Rheingold, on Sunday, July 2, the Berlin Philharmonic sounded with a singular luxury of color and nuance, like a chamber orchestra that has, like Alberich the shape-shifting dwarf, the power to take any possible musical shape. A fresh and unbound Wagner, luxuriant and iridescent, but also sober and magnificently transparent.

Stéphane Braunschweig has placed Das Rheingold somewhere between a fairy tale for children and a Bildungsroman. His deeply mined acting direction, paradoxically somewhat Proustian -- "Das Rheingold chez Mme. Verdurin" -- spoke of naive narcissism, frustrated orgasm, and destructive possession, that of the gold more than any other. The god Wotan will have to get used to a future that is disappointing, even dying. Love, by contrast, was taken very seriously, notably that of Wotan's wife, worried about her husband's "financial" and conjugal faithlessness. A nice idea to have transformed the usual argument scene between Fricka and Wotan into a real love duet. [...] In a magic lantern box projecting background videos (water, fire, a snake) characters appear and disappear on moving platforms. The costumes of Thibault Vancraenenbroeck have fun defining functions and identities: the light, striped suit of a dandy Wotan, Fricka in an executive secretary's pantsuit, the yuppie three-piece suits and ties of the lesser gods, and the giants with their attaché briefcases, the dwarf Alberich in his miniature dictator's uniform, and finally Loge, a flaming god in a blue and pink gown, with gold lamé, right out of La Cage aux folles.
Alan Riding was in Aix (At Aix festival, an ambitious 'Ring', July 4) for the New York Times:
Rattle chose an unusually slow pace - the performance lasted 15 minutes longer than usual - as if eager to dwell on the score's rich brass interludes and tellingly repetitive motifs. In this he was supported by a well-balanced cast of singers, including Willard White as Wotan, Dale Duesing as Alberich, Evgeny Nikitin as Fasolt, Robert Gambill as Loge, Lilli Paasikivi as Fricka and Anna Larsson as Erda [! -- Ed.]. Braunschweig's staging, however, was more controversial. The days when directors followed the Romantic staging first conceived by Wagner himself in 1876 have long since passed, yet new interpretations of the medieval epic rarely please all Wagner fans. And this was no exception. In the opera program Braunschweig said he set out "to bring the work closer to us so that it resonates within our contemplative and psychological worlds." He added, "The staging has to confront a virtual, mental world and naked reality," noting further that the announced collapse of the world of the gods means the inevitable intrusion of human reality.
Hugh Canning wrote a long review with a terrible headline pun (Aix and pains for Rattle’s Ring, July 9) for the London Sunday Times:
Alas, the new Rheingold confirms my worst fears: the most anodyne and dreariest staging I have seen of the Ring’s so-called satyr play, usually a gift to a resourceful director, with its action-packed plot. I had always thought that Rossini’s alleged joke about Wagner’s “mauvais quart d’heures” (bad quarter-hours) never applied to Das Rheingold, but Braunschweig and Rattle proved me wrong. The evening lasted nearly three hours, not much short of that famous Wagnerian slowcoach Reginald Goodall, but Rattle’s Wagner as yet lacks that veteran conductor’s inexorable sense of drama. The momentum started and stopped and frequently dragged. I was surprised, as I remember the OAE performance at the Proms being mercurial and fleet of foot.

Rattle has been taking some flak in the Berlin press — mostly for not being the late Herbert von Karajan, which you might think would be something of a blessing — but he sounded in danger of “Karajanising” his Wagner here, luxuriating in the wondrous sounds he coaxes from the Berliners and almost loving the music to death. There were exceptional moments — the rasp of the lower brass heralding the giants’ entrance suggested terrifying menace — but the overall effect was soporific.

Perhaps Rattle was as bored as the rest of us by what he saw on stage. Braunschweig, with his regular stage designer, Thibault Vancraenenbroek, offered what the French call a “mise en espace”, the espace here being three white walls onto which projections of water (the Rhine), fire (Loge) and close-ups of snakeskin (Alberich’s transformation into a “dragon”) were lamely projected, while a lot of men in suits (the gods and giants), Fricka in a power-dresser’s two-piece, and a dishevelled Freia in her nightie stood around the stage when they weren’t singing, looking like extras who had been given nothing to do. A few rising and falling platforms staved off total catatonia and formed a neat little staircase for the Gods to... stand in front of projected clouds on the back wall.

There was one performance to make you sit up and take notice: when Robert Gambill’s Loge shimmied on in an iridescent frock, you wondered if he was an escapee from La Cage aux Folles who had forgotten to put on his wig and make-up. Mildly amusing, I suppose, especially in a desperate situation like this, where the flimsiest of straws is greedily clutched. And Gambill was the outstanding singer on stage.
Other Reviews:

Rupert Christiansen, The rocky road to Valhalla (The Telegraph, July 12)

Andrew Clark, Rattle’s Romantic weakness (Financial Times, July 3)

Shirley Apthorp, Rattle's `Rheingold' Shows Promise -- and Male God in Lipstick (Bloomberg News, July 4)
Jean-Louis Validire also reviewed the production (Sous le choc de Simon Rattle, July 4) for Le Figaro (my translation):
Despite the heat that has been beating down on Provence for three days, or perhaps thanks to it, it is hard to imagine better conditions for hearing Das Rheingold on Sunday night. In the pit, the Berlin Philharmonic under the guiding hand of Simon Rattle, the demiurge with silvered curls, stretched out, from the first note rumbling in the basses, the musical arc by delivering an interpretation of such fluidity and smoothness that it held the audience breathless for the two hours and fifty minutes of the drama. [...] On this musical framework, Stéphane Braunschweig constructed a very psychological Rheingold. It was the dream, or perhaps nightmare, of Wotan that was unfolding, an internal battle between his desire for power, for youth, and reality. The intelligent and therefore convincing use of video allowed us to follow the wandering thoughts and the internal battle of the god, whose twilight is foretold.
The day before the review, Validire published an interview with Stéphane Lissner (Stéphane Lissner : « Aix restera un phare », July 3) in Le Figaro (my translation):
This diversification of music, in particular opening with Wagner, is it really the right thing for Aix?

Ten years ago, when I came to Aix, I explained clearly to the Minister of Culture, at the time Douste-Blazy, and to the mayor, Picheral, that we were five years away from the 21st century, when the question of repertory would become important for Aix as for other festivals. An international festival like this one cannot simply get stuck in one style but must be able to open itself to many parts of the repertory of the 19th and 20th centuries. Otherwise, it will be condemned in comparison to other festivals and other cultural institutions that will defend those works.

What operas are you thinking of, in particular?

For example, Strauss's Salome and Elektra, which will remain among the most important operas of the 20th century, but I could also add Alban Berg's Wozzeck or Lulu and, later, Zimmermann's Die Soldaten and many others. Aix-en-Provence is not able to mount these works. Then, and this is the most important thing, the technology that directors and stage designers would need to create the spectacles of the future will not be able to located in small theaters like the Archevêché here. The new hall [begun by Lissner] is fundamental. It was made to give the players, the singers, the directors the means to perform a broad range of repertory, in particular, works yet to come. There are important composers beginning right now to write for opera with a large orchestra, with choruses. If Aix wants to play a central international role and be one of the three or four great festivals in the world, it must be able to invite them here. Those who do not like Wagner can take comfort, since they do not have to come. But having seen the work of Simon Rattle and Stéphane Braunschweig, they will probably be proven wrong.
In Das Rheingold, the singers generally received about the same reviews: Anna Larsson excelled as Erda, as did Mireille Delunsch as Freia, but Willard White (Wotan) and Dale Duesing (Alberich) were vocally weak. This production will also be given at the Salzburg Easter Festival, beginning next spring.

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