Das Rheingold

Simon Rattle
Berliner Philharmoniker
8 July 2006
Théâtre de l’Archevêché Aix-en-Provence
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanWillard White
DonnerDetlef Roth
FrohJoseph Kaiser
LogeRobert Gambill
FasoltEvgeny Nikitin
FafnerAlfred Reiter
AlberichDale Duesing
MimeBurkhard Ulrich
FrickaLilli Paasikivi
FreiaMirelle Delunsch
ErdaAnna Larsson
WoglindeSarah Fox
WellgundeVictoria Simmonds
FloßhildeEkaterina Gubanova
Financial Times

Rattle’s Romantic weakness

The sustained double-bass hum that starts Das Rheingold, welling out of the pit as if from the bowels of the earth, can rarely have resonated as wholesomely as it did on Sunday beneath the night sky at Aix-en- Provence. This was simultaneously the start of Simon Rattle’s first staged Ring and the opening of the 2006 Aix festival – and pretty seductive it was. The performance did not start till 10.00pm so that those subterranean sounds, evoking the primal throb of life, could be appreciated in comparative darkness – and this being the south of France, the air was balmy enough to make everyone relax.

But the key ingredient was not the Provençal ambience or the 18th-century features of Aix’s open-air theatre. No, it was the presence of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit. The Berliners’ masculine but ultra-sensitive sound distinguished every bar, giving the performance a wonderfully robust and articulate foundation. And here they were in shirt-sleeves, a thou

sand miles from home, addressing Wagner with the freshness and fervour of a lovers’ embrace.You may wonder why Rattle chose Aix to launch such a grand German project. Well, his relationship with Stéphane Lissner, the Aix festival director, goes back several years, to the time when Lissner ran the Châtelet in Paris. The French impresario paired Rattle with the director Stéphane Braunschweig, and the relationship flourished. Lissner, who leaves Aix this summer after a decade of achievement, needed a grand projet to inaugurate the festival’s new indoor theatre (now delayed till next year) – and what better than a Rattle Ring, staged by Braunschweig?

Rattle, meanwhile, needed a partner to share the costs of the Ring he was planning for Salzburg’s Easter festival, where 40 years ago his predecessor Herbert von Karajan hatched a similar project with the Berlin Philharmonic. The result is that the four Ring operas will be performed at successive Aix festivals in summer, before being restaged in Salzburg the following Easter.

Everything hunky-dory? Not quite. It just so happens that this Ring – a work few of the current generation of Berliners can have played before – has come to life at the very moment when Rattle’s German repertoire is facing its first serious scrutiny. His honeymoon in Berlin has been longer than anyone predicted – he became the orchestra’s music director four years ago – and there is still a nucleus of diehard supporters who see him as the saviour of classical music. He has certainly modernised the Berliners’ repertoire and image. But doubts always lingered among those of us who questioned his kinship with the core 19th-century repertoire – which Rattle never got to grips with during his apprentice years but remains the lifeblood of every great orchestra, especially one with the Berlin Philharmonic’s tradition.

It has taken until now for those doubts to be properly aired. In recent weeks the German press has published a series of stinging criticisms, homing in on what was always Rattle’s weakest point – his lack of authority in the Romantic repertoire, of which Wagner’s Ring is the apex. Why this music should be Rattle’s Achilles heel is a long story, but it has to do with temperament, education and influences, including the anti-German attitudes of his father’s generation. The more his career has flourished, the more he has tried to cover up by approaching the music from the point of view of style, often testing the water with the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; but it was a smokescreen.

Nothing clarifies the argument as blatantly as this Rheingold. It sounds beautiful, to be sure: every string run is crisply articulated, every crescendo cleanly textured, with a sonic vibrancy that is handsomely profiled by the Aix acoustic. But to what purpose? Rattle’s Rheingold turns out to be a succession of “exciting” incidents, so loosely held together that the performance pans out for a good 15 minutes beyond normal running time. I have never heard Wagner sound so slow and self-regarding. Rattle crosses every “t” and dots every “i” – most damagingly in the altercations before the entry into Valhalla – so that even the performance’s beauties eventually fall victim to its short-term vision.

Matters are not helped by a production that amounts to little more than a mise en espace, with singers standing and singing in a cell-like chamber. In the programme Branschweig summarises The Ring as an “adventure of [the composer’s] subjectivity in its relationship with reality” – a pseudo-intellectual way of saying nothing. He and his designer, Thibault Vancraenenbroeck, try to cover up their lack of ideas by clothing the protagonists in chic business couture and projecting video images of nature’s elements. At one point the face of Wotan (the lethargic Willard White) is superimposed on that of Alberich (Dale Duesing, vocally weak) – an allusion to their “alter ego” relationship. The idea is no more developed than the initial picture of Wotan asleep: could this be just a “subjective” dream? The staging can’t even distinguish one scene from another, and glosses over moments of natural theatre, such as the tricks Alberich plays with the Tarnhelm.

Its one original creation is Loge – a camp opera queen (Robert Gambill, excellent) in glistening evening gown with plunging neckline, who floats around the stage like a fairy godmother. Vocal honours are shared between Gambill and Lilli Paasikivi’s Fricka, whose lovely lyric timbre matches her gentle stage personality. Burkhard Ulrich’s Mime barely registers. The well-balanced Rhinemaidens are clad in featureless white, and the giants are just another pair of suits.

This was a cast with huge potential, but Braunschweig leaves them to their own devices. In a BBC interview before the first night, Rattle described his Wagner as “work in progress . . . You have to find the way the current is moving in the water and take that way”. As a way of characterising his wishy-washy Rhinegold, he could not have done better.

Andrew Clark | JULY 3, 2006

New York Times

Aix-en-Provence Festival Begins Its First Ring Cycle

Given the dizzying number of arts festivals around Europe every summer, opera festivals need to offer something special — perhaps a world premiere or a new theater or a display of star power — that can stir excitement and justify the scramble for (and price of) tickets.

This year Aix-en-Provence has done just that. Founded in 1948 as an essentially Mozartian festival, the Aix festival is for the first time presenting Wagner. And, as they say, not any old Wagner: Sir Simon Rattle is conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in his first stage version of Wagner’s four-opera masterpiece, “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”

What began Sunday with “Das Rheingold,” the so-called “preliminary evening” to the Ring, is actually a five-year adventure. In 2007 the festival will offer “Die Walküre”; in 2008 “Siegfried”; and in 2009 the entire cycle, including the final work, “Götterdämmerung.” Each program will then be presented the following spring at the Salzburg Easter Festival.

Not that Europe is short of Ring cycles these days. Robert Wilson took his Ring to the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris last fall and winter; the Royal Danish Opera offered its version in Copenhagen earlier this year; Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theater cycle keeps touring; and this year’s Bayreuth Festival will offer a new cycle conducted by Christian Thielemann and directed by Tankred Dorst.

Aix’s first Ring cycle, though, is a measure of Stéphane Lissner’s determination to raise the festival’s profile since becoming its director in 1997. Along with introducing an eclectic program, he has overseen renovation of the open-air theater at the former Archbishop’s Palace, restoration of the small Jeu de Paume theater, adaptation of a second open-air stage at a mansion outside Aix and construction of a large new theater, which opens in 2007.

Now, by chance, he is presiding over his first Wagner during his final season at Aix. Having been named superintendent and artistic director of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan last year, Mr. Lissner is stepping down here three years earlier than planned and is passing the reins to Bernard Foccroulle, the former director of the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels.

When Mr. Lissner moved here from the Théâtre du Châtelet almost a decade ago, he took what he calls his family of conductors and directors. And these included Sir Simon and the French stage director Stéphane Braunschweig, who worked together here on Janacek’s “Makropulos Affair.” Then, in 2000, when Sir Simon suggested doing his first Ring cycle here, he wanted Mr. Braunschweig as his partner.

As it happens, in 2004 Sir Simon conducted a concert version of “Das Rheingold” with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. But on Sunday it was also the Berlin Philharmonic’s first appearance here that stirred anticipation. And from the opening bars of “Das Rheingold,” it was apparent that the acoustics in the former Archbishop’s Palace would not let the orchestra down. (From 2007, the rest of the cycle will be presented in the new theater.)

Sir Simon 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 Sir 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. Braunschweig has dressed the cast in modern clothes, with Wotan resembling a chief executive; his wife, Fricka, a stern personal assistant; and the giants Fasolt and Fafner in the dark suits of debt collectors. Alberich reappears as a uniformed general after he has stolen the gold from the Rhinemaidens, while only Loge’s sparkling lamé gown suggests some of the otherworldliness of the story.

Décor is minimal, with videos and lighting variously used to evoke the Rhine, the underworld, fire, clouds and rainbows. And in that sense, what Mr. Braunschweig called “a virtual, mental world” seems to dominate “naked reality.” “Das Rheingold,” after all, is not without action, but here the richness of this mythical epic is hardly mirrored onstage.

That said, the production was applauded by French music critics, with Marie-Aude Roux in Le Monde praising both conductor and director for “their concern for jubilant clarity and tragic legibility.” Writing in Le Figaro, Jean-Louis Validire waxed poetic about the Berlin Philharmonic, while Libération’s Eric Dahan said Mr. Braunschweig interpreted the libretto “with impressive integrity.”

But these views were not shared by Andrew Clark of The Financial Times, who wrote of Sir Simon’s conducting that “I have never heard Wagner sound so slow and self-regarding” and who dismissed the staging as “little more than a ‘mise en espace,’ with singers standing and singing in a cell-like chamber.”



De l’or en barres

Autant le dire tout de suite : le Ring d’Aix-en-Provence démarre sous les meilleurs auspices avec cet Or du Rhin. Dans la fosse, Simon Rattle accomplit dès le prélude un petit miracle. Ces déliés de cordes d’une légèreté toute… minérale, ces rythmes bondissants se succédant, se croisant, se superposant avec une virtuosité inouïe, ce Wagner éminemment mélodieux, dansant, subtil et nuancé était donc compatible avec la masse imposante et les (exceptionnelles) couleurs sombres du Philharmonique de Berlin. Si on pouvait auparavant s’interroger sur la légitimité de ce Wagner « dégraissé », ce que nous propose le grand chef britannique, sorte de réconciliation entre « anciens » et « modernes », balaie tous nos doutes.

Cette lecture aide également la distribution. Dénuée de « grandes voix », celle-ci nous aurait en effet moins convaincu en compagnie d’un chef attaché, davantage que Rattle, à la grande tradition wagnérienne. Alors qu’ici… le trio de rêve formé par Sarah Fox (Woglinde), Victoria Simmonds (Wellgunde) et Ekaterina Gubanova (Flosshilde), les admirables prestation de Burkhard Ulrich (Mime), Detlef Roth (Donner) et Joseph Kaiser (Froh) et surtout la fratrie de géants, campée par deux des plus talentueuses basses de la jeune génération, Evgeny Nikitin (il était Boris en décembre dernier au Châtelet) et Alfred Reiter (Genève a déjà entendu son Marke et son Gurnemanz), valaient presque à eux seuls le détour. En dépit d’une voix défaite et d’une intonation hasardeuse, Dale Duesing réussit un Alberich pathétique dans son humiliation « viscérale ». Les cinq petites minutes que durent l’incantation d’Erda suffisent à Anna Larsson : la voix, presque inhumaine, glace le sang, tandis que la haute et noble silhouette de la dame donne le frisson. Quant à Mireille Delunsch, on devine bien qu’elle fait, avec conviction et intelligence, le tour des angoisses de Freia. Robert Gambill enfin est bluffant de truculence et d’ambiguïté : ce Loge est peut-être l’incarnation la plus aboutie de cette soirée, tant vocalement que scéniquement. Restent donc Wotan et Fricka : sa voix à lui accuse une nette fatigue vers la fin de la dernière scène, mais on admire la prestance de l’acteur. Le regard flegmatique d’un aristocrate insouciant, car trop gâté par la vie, que confère le baryton-basse jamaïcain au Dieu des dieux tranche magnifiquement avec les emportements enragés de la véhémente Lilli Paasikivi, et on comprend rapidement pourquoi tout ne va plus pour le mieux, chez le couple céleste.

Même jouant la carte de la sobriété, le spectacle de Stéphane Braunschweig frappe par la justesse de son propos. Aidé par un sol qui peut se transformer à vue en escalier, en mur ou en vagues, le metteur en scène nous propose tout d’abord un œil neutre sur la trame de ce Prologue : ainsi Alberich ne semble pas, a priori, plus petit que les autres, et les géants ne se déplacent pas non plus sur des échasses pour paraître plus grands. En plaçant les personnages sur un semblant de pied d’égalité, Braunschweig fait prendre conscience, magistralement, que le mépris avec lequel les Dieux traitent les Nibelungen ou les géants dépasse les simples critères visibles à l’œil nu. Il est ici question d’Histoire, de gênes (rendant ainsi bouleversante la douleur d’Alberich). Et l’anneau n’arrangera rien, qui rendra Wotan méprisant à l’égard même des siens, les Dieux.

En bref une merveilleuse soirée, et en sortant de l’Archevêché, à 1 heure du matin, on ne peut que se souvenir des mots de Mariss Jansons* : « Rien n’est plus beau qu’un opéra réunissant de bons chanteurs, un excellent orchestre et une mise en scène intelligente ».

Clément TAILLIA | Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, le 6 juillet

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 375 MByte (MP3)
A production by Stéphane Braunschweig (2006)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.