Simon Rattle
Berliner Philharmoniker
4 July 2008
Grand Théâtre de Provence Aix-en-Provence
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegfriedBen Heppner
MimeBurkhard Ulrich
WotanWillard White
AlberichDale Duesing
FafnerAlfred Reiter
ErdaAnna Larsson
BrünnhildeKatarina Dalayman
WaldvogelMojca Erdmann

I was at something of a disadvantage in seeing this, the third instalment of the Aix Ring, without having seen the first two parts. (The dramas are being staged in turn year by year, repeated at the following year’s Salzburg Easter Festival.) Siegfried is arguably the least well-suited of the four dramas to viewing in isolation. There may also have been visual references on which I failed to pick up, although I tried to do a bit of homework beforehand. However, I suspect that there were not many such references, given the minimalist quality of the staging.

Stéphane Braunschweig’s designs provided a stylish frame for the action, although little appeared to be said about the natural and (un-)social environment in which that action was taking place. This need not be portrayed naturalistically, but the forest is crucial to understanding of the drama in many ways. Siegfried’s home should remind the musician of Der Freischütz, the German Romantic opera par excellence. There is any number of broader cultural references, which might fruitfully here be played with. As Simon Schama has observed in his book, Landscape and memory, it is ‘virtually impossible … to think of the Grimm tales without immediately conjuring up a forest’. It was in 1813, the year of Wagner’s birth in Leipzig – and of that city’s eponymous battle, in which Napoleon was roundly defeated – that the Brothers Grimm had begun to publish their collection of tales, poetry, proverbs, songs, and so forth, entitled Altdeutsche Wälder (‘Old German forests’). Moreover, the forest, writes Schama, is a world in which ‘Roman rules do not apply’. In the aftermath of the Wars of Liberation, one might justly have substituted French for Roman, echoing Caspar David Friedrich’s celebrated painting of a French chasseur lost in the German forest. Wotan’s spear of (Roman) law has made little headway in this fearful, uncivilised, world. It is no coincidence that Fafner has settled in a forest cave in order to protect the Nibelung hoard, nor that the Brünnhilde in Die Walküre has had Sieglinde hurry eastward to the forest, that she and her child might escape Wotan’s wrath. It is certainly no coincidence either that Siegfried is thereby born and raised in the forest, a lawless and fearless child of Nature, unaffected by Mime’s attempts to ‘civilise’ him. Since Braunschweig, by his own testimony, wished to present a psychoanalytical fairy-tale, I should have expected him to pick up at least upon the aspect of the forest as a space of magic, menace, and primitive redress, even if the political implications were largely to be eschewed. Not that I think they should be: a Siegfried in which the importance of a charismatic hero coming from nowhere to strike down Wotan’s spear of law is minimised seems to me fundamentally flawed. It is no coincidence that the young Engels, would describe himself as a ‘first-class mythologist,’ and long for ‘Siegfried’s sons’ to be shown those ‘heroic deeds reserved for the nineteenth century’. The video-projection of fire worked very well; something along such lines for the forest – and perhaps its inhabitants too? – might have made an important contribution on many interpretative levels.

But what else of Braunschweig’s fairy-tale? If it declined to be political, as Wagner and many of his contemporaries – not to mention successors – would have wished, was it convincingly psychoanalytical? The Personenregie on its own terms seemed to work quite well; there were no embarrassments of inept acting here, although some of the cast undoubtedly impressed more than others. Yet, apart from presenting the drama as Brünnhilde’s dream – we witnessed her asleep at the opening, to be awakened in more than one sense by Siegfried at the end – there was not a huge amount to go on. Mime’s attempt to teach Siegfried fear with a toy dragon presumably fell into this category, but it did not really seem integrated into the greater Konzept. Indeed, this did not seem properly thought through on its own terms; even if it had been, it would probably have begged more questions than it answered. Notung’s shattering of the spear could doubtless work in terms of an attack upon a father figure’s authority, but some aspects of the drama – those involving Alberich, for example – would have been extremely difficult to integrate, and there was little success in that respect here. Whilst I appreciate that any one production must make choices, decide upon aspects to be emphasised and so forth, it seems to me that, on the whole, the more successful productions will highlight at least some of the tensions between various aspects of the drama, rather than press too single-mindedly upon a single idea. Patrice Chéreau remains a gold standard in this regard, without any sacrifice to the guiding line of his – or Pierre Boulez’s – interpretation.

This brings me to the music. I did not feel especially convinced that Sir Simon Rattle’s interpretation was closely allied to Braunschweig’s. Considered on its own terms, however, there was much to enjoy. The Berlin Philharmonic provided a richly upholstered, deluxe account of the score. One may regret – and I certainly do – the loss of what was once its characteristically ‘German’ sound; for that, one must visit the Staatskapelle Berlin or indeed Wagner’s own orchestra in Dresden. That said, the orchestra remains a truly virtuoso international ensemble. My only real cavil would have been the surprising harshness of the brass at some of the climaxes, especially at the end of the final act. One might have feared that from an American orchestra but one does not expect that from Berlin. The section’s contribution elsewhere, however, was magnificent, not least during the strange preludes to the first two acts. The combination of Wagner tuba, bassoons, and kettledrums at the very opening was never ugly but was certainly spooky, invoking a good deal of the atmosphere that the staging would lack. Rattle’s daringly slow yet controlled speed here – perhaps contravening Wagner’s marking, Mässig bewegt, yet if so, fruitfully – certainly contributed to the impression of Freischütz-meets-Schoenberg. The woodwind, not least in the ‘Forest Murmurs’, sounded truly delectable, whilst the warm, if less individual, strings rarely put a foot – or rather, finger – wrong. One would not necessarily expect a ‘great’ interpretation from a conductor tackling Siegfried for the first time. Rattle, however, has by now considerable experience in terms of Parsifal and Tristan and certainly knows his way around Mahler. He provided as good as account of the score I can recall hearing since Bernard Haitink for the Royal Opera, which is praise indeed. There was a compelling sense of line for most of the work and there was certainly none of the frustratingly unstructured, stop-go quality to Antonio Pappano’s Covent Garden Ring. (That said, Pappano seemed stronger the last time round in Siegfried than in the other dramas of the cycle.) Unsurprisingly for one expert in the music of Debussy, Rattle was alert to the colouristic potential of the score, for instance in the balance between orchestral blend and characteristic solo quality in the first act Prelude as cited above, likewise for the unrelieved lugubriousness of that to the second act.

The undoubted star on stage was Burkhard Ulrich’s Mime: perhaps the most complete portrayal I have heard, let alone seen. There was, as Wagner insisted, nothing of the caricature to him. His horizons were fatally limited but it was not difficult to imagine him as the master craftsman who had invented the Tarnhelm. He was mellifluous of line, expressing the tragedy of Mime’s position and the wickedness of his will to power through the text and through musical inflection, but not through exaggerated screaming. Indeed, Mime often sounded stronger than Siegfried during the first act. Ben Heppner’s first Siegfried appeared – understandably yet still disappointingly – to be saving himself for what was to come. He was certainly superior to the catastrophic assumptions of the role we must generally endure, but his vocal heft did not sound to be what it once was: a worrying sign. If his tone rarely sounded truly heroic, his stage presence was anything but. Suspension of belief only goes so far: one could not credit this Siegfried to be the bringer of revolution or the German Apollo. Sir Willard White proved an intermittently impressive Wanderer. Had I not recently been treated to Sir John Tomlinson’s towering portrayal at Covent Garden, I might have been more enthusiastic. White nevertheless paid considerable attention to word and line, although his diction was variable (and occasionally, as during his scene with Erda, just incorrect). He possessed a certain nobility, but the requisite impression of world-weary experience was not so apparent. Erdas rarely disappoint, yet Anna Larsson was outstanding in its imaginative attention to the score. Hers was a true contralto, of the kind one despairs of hearing nowadays. If her all-too-elegant costume somewhat detracted from a sense of the primæval, that was not her fault. Dale Duesing was a fine Alberich: ever alert to the possibilities of the text, malevolent yet once again never caricatured. I should like to hear him in the rest of the cycle. Alfred Reiter proved an excellent Fafner, stentorian in his possession and moving in his mortality. The Woodbird, Mojca Erdmann, was perfectly good, without making a great impression. Meanwhile, Katarina Dalayman sounded in good voice as Brünnhilde, despite her notoriously lengthy wait to appear on stage (bar her brief presence at the beginning, in this case). She evinced a brilliant yet flexible tone, which sadly overshadowed some of Heppner’s contribution. Musically then, this was as good a Siegfried as one is likely to hear today and I am sure that Rattle’s already commendable understanding will deepen.

Mark Berry | Aix en Provence 7.7.2008

Financial Times

Stéphane Braunschweig’s Siegfried exhibits the same uneasy mix of assured acting and embarrassment at Wagner’s epic elements that characterised his Rheingold and Walküre. The scenes of tender emotion between Siegfried and Mime, the dwarf he mostly loathes, nicely capture the ambiguity in the hero’s personality and Braunschweig is as ever proficient at confrontational theatre. But his attempts to vary the mood hit the wrong note – as when Mime illustrates Fafner’s ferocity by producing a giant stuffed snake from nowhere that Siegfried can practice his sword movements on. This is a throwback to Braunschweig’s Magic Flute production for this same festival and it’s a childlike, naive touch that undermines the depth of the story. The pint-sized props don’t help: a chest that doubles as a coffee table and a toy anvil that makes Siegfried’s forging of Nothung look like an extra-curricular metalwork project.

The staging’s own Leitmotiven – the high window, Brünnhilde defying lumbago by slumbering across three red dining room chairs – are purely decorative facades. The video projections, a potential source of radical effect in a work dominated by narrative, are still tame and unimaginative. The grey panels that lock the action into an unvarying huis clos provide no vistas or chances for dramatic entries. Wotan’s arrival at chez Mime has the impact of a neighbour popping in for a cup of tea.

Braunschweig’s achievement is his work with Ben Heppner, never a stage natural. Heppner may lack the ideal heroic persona but his lovable, IQ-challenged dolt has an appeal. It’s his first stab at Siegfried’s gruelling marathon and though he tires towards the end, this is superbly stylish singing, not always a huge sound but a timbre of peerless, clean-cut beauty.

His Brünnhilde, Katarina Dalayman, awakes, extricates herself from the chairs as the audience bites its nails, and then sails into generous, full-voiced tone. Admirable. Sir Willard White’s richly sung Wanderer is a magical improvement on his pale Wotan in Walküre, Dale Duesing’s Alberich has all the malice but a threadbare top, Anna Larsson’s Erda has breeding and distinction, and Mojca Erdmann’s Wood bird is destined for greater things. The most remarkable contribution comes from Burkhard Ulrich’s projection-packed Mime, a world-beater.

Sir Simon Rattle’s magnifying glass approach to orchestral detail works impressionistic wonders in the first two acts but he reverts to Après moi le déluge decibels in Act III, oblivious to singers battling with fierce hurdles. The Berlin Philharmonic is arguably the best orchestra in the world, but Rattle should prove it with mezzo voce pyrotechnics rather than gratuitous virtuosity that drowns out the singers and disrupts the music’s flow.

Francis Carlin | JULY 1, 2008

Le héros est fatigué

En 2006 au festival d’Aix-en-Provence, L’or du Rhin ( selon Stéphane Braunschweig nous projetait dans le rêve de Wotan, au cœur de son inconscient. Il fallait au dieu à son réveil, l’année suivante dans La Walkyrie, assumer les conséquences de ce rêve, punir sa fille Brünnhilde de sa désobéissance en la plongeant dans un sommeil sans fin. Le troisième volet du cycle, Siegfried, nous invite maintenant à pénétrer les songes de Brünnhilde, endormie sur les trois chaises qui servaient déjà de lit à son père. C’est pourquoi la matière des murs qui enserrent la scène prend un reflet métallique : nous sommes à l’intérieur du casque de la guerrière, là, juste sous sa visière. Une fois que l’on a dit cela, l’on a tout dit, ou presque.

Tout dit parce que la lecture de Stéphane Braunschweig se limite, pour le moment, à cette approche onirique. On lui reproche de manquer d’envergure ; dans sa clarté fidèle cependant, elle offre au spectateur l’avantage de pouvoir prendre le récit en route. Forge, ours, épée, oiseau, dragon, elle suit pas à pas les indications du livret avec quelques jolies trouvailles – l’utilisation de la vidéo pour traduire le flamboiement de la forge ou le cauchemar de Mime – et d’autres moins concluantes – le lit d’Erda qui encombre le 3e acte, la représentation de Fafner soigneusement évitée.

Ce serait assez cependant pour Siegfried qui se soucie moins de symboles que les autres opéras de La Tétralogie, dont le discours se veut plus épique, optimiste presque dans l’extase amoureuse de son duo final, l’instant le plus heureux du cycle des Nibelungen, son « scherzo » selon certains. Ce serait assez donc si le metteur en scène n’avait oublié les moments de poésie qui irisent la partition – les murmures de la forêt devenue ici poignée de troncs calcinés qu’une vague lumière verte peine à ranimer, l’aurore embrasée du réveil de Brünnhilde rendue banale par la violence de l’éclairage – et si la direction d’acteurs ne s’en remettait pas autant à la personnalité des interprètes.

Ben Heppner, très attendu pour cette prise de rôle, a du mal à jouer les jeunes hommes – ce n’est pas une surprise – on l’aurait aimé un peu mieux guidé dans ses gestes pour qu’en dépit de son âge et de sa silhouette, l’incarnation semble moins maladroite. A vrai dire, on craignait surtout que le tempérament du ténor canadien ne se heurte à l’héroïsme du personnage, le chant à gorge déployée des scènes les plus vaillantes, l’ivresse du duo final… On avait tort puis hélas raison.

Au premier acte, la voix une fois chauffée laisse oublier son manque d’éclat pour faire valoir la science de l’expression et même un certain rayonnement (l’air de la forge). Sans abuser de puissance, elle parvient à franchir la barrière d’un orchestre que Simon Rattle, attentif, s’applique à contenir afin de ne pas épuiser les forces du chanteur. En vain, le rôle, surhumain, le pousse dans ses retranchements. Au deuxième acte, la fatigue du timbre convient encore à la rêverie de « Dass er mein Vater nicht ist » mais au troisième, l’affrontement avec Wotan puis le duo avec Brünnhilde mettent Siegfried sur le carreau. Méforme à l’issue de l’avant-dernière représentation d’un opéra éprouvant entre tous ou inadéquation aujourd’hui de la voix au rôle?

Le contraste avec Katarina Dalayman, d’une fraîcheur impitoyable, n’en est que plus cruel. D’un côté, le chanvre effilé du héros harassé par quatre heures de combat, de l’autre le fruit sonore et pulpeux, la chair offerte d’une Walkyrie reposée qui, à l’opposé de Birgitt Nilson dont elle partage pourtant les origines suédoises, offre un chant voluptueux, à l’aigu parfois un peu bas mais au pigment nourri, annonciateur des Isolde et des Kundry à venir.

Le déséquilibre entre Ben Heppner et ses partenaires n’a pas attendu le réveil de Brünnhilde pour devenir évident. Il est présent dès le début, dès la confrontation de Siegfried avec Mime, Burkhard Ulrich, lui aussi éclatant de santé vocale. Trop d’ailleurs. Trop sain, trop limpide, trop franc pour les circonvolutions de l’albe. Du caractère assurément, mais pas assez de piailleries, de borborygmes, de geignements verdâtres. Et puis le volume, le poids n’ont rien à envier à ceux de Ben Heppner ; paradoxe pour Siegfried, les deux ténors jouent à armes égales.

Même constat avec le Wotan de Willard White. Le grand-père en remontre au petit-fils et s’impose très vite, plus encore que dans La Walkyrie où l’on percevait une sorte de lassitude derrière l’ampleur et l’autorité. Magnétique, la présence culmine dans la première scène du troisième acte où le chanteur, face au déchainement de l’orchestre, accomplit des prodiges. Le duel avec l’Erda stupéfiante d’Anna Larsson, authentique contralto aux couleurs incroyables, est un sommet.

Le dragon canonique d’Alfred Reiter, l’oiseau lyrique, d’une délicieuse fraicheur, de Mojca Erdmann rendent eux aussi plus sensible, le temps de leur intervention, la faiblesse du héros.

Seul Dale Duesing laisse paraître une usure comparable, supérieure même car irrémédiable, mais là où le chanteur s’incline, l’interprète vient à la rescousse ; Alberich, privé de ses noirceurs, garde sa part d’ombre maléfique.

Des deux nécessités qui président à toute représentation de Siegfried, l’heldenténor et l’orchestre, il ne reste à part entière que la seconde, mais d’une qualité et d’une intensité suffisantes pour porter à elle seule le spectacle. Machine impressionnante à produire des sons, du piano le plus subtil au forte le plus fracassant, le Berliner Philharmoniker se contient deux actes durant afin d’épargner les interprètes. Les passages symphoniques et quelques interventions solistes – le cor et les cuivres d’une manière générale – donnent seuls l’idée de sa mesure. L’orchestre se libère vraiment au troisième acte dans l’orage du prélude et sur sa lancée, dans un éveil de Brünnhilde aveuglant de lumière. Tout au long de la soirée, la direction de Simon Rattle, inspirée et respirée, l’aide à dépasser la simple virtuosité pour toucher à l’essence même de Siegfried : le merveilleux.

Christophe Rizoud | 04 Juillet 2008

Der Standard

Schlafbann und Spiel mit dem Feuer

Die Premiere des Siegfried begann mit einem tosenden Vorschusslorbeeren-Applaus für die Berliner Philharmoniker unter ihrem Dirigenten Sir Simon Rattle: Obwohl das Orchester voriges Jahr aufgrund der noch mangelhaften Akustik des neuen, von Stéphane Lissner gewollten Aixer Festspielhauses, dem Grand Théâtre de Provence, wegen seiner alles überdröhnenden Bläser kritisiert wurde, stellte sich das französische Nobelpublikum anlässlich des 60. Geburtstags des Opernfestivals in Aix auf eine – effektiv gelieferte – subtile Interpretation des Siegfried ein. Bei Preisen von 128 Euro bis 263 Euro sollte man das eigentlich auch erwarten können. Die Akustik ist heuer verbessert, und der Siegfried, wie das Rheingold ein sehr narrativer Teil von Richard Wagners Ring-Tetralogie, ordnet dem Orchester den motivischen Gefühlswegweiser-Part zu. Wenn Wotan (Sir Williard White), der namen- und machtlos gewordene Gott, nur noch als “Wanderer” bezeichnet, dem Nibelungenzwerg Mime (herausragend Burkhard Ulrich) drei Rätselfragen stellt, sitzen die beiden auf Feldbetten einander ziemlich immobil gegenüber. Das Orchester und die Stimmen kompensieren das szenische Manko. Nur in der Schlussszene, wo Siegfried (Ben Heppner) seine Tante Brünnhilde (Katarina Dalayman) inzestuös überwältigen will, übertönt das Orchester wieder das Liebesduo. Was die Vision des Regisseurs Stéphane Braunschweig betrifft, bleibt man eher ratlos. Er spielt mit dem Feuer: Via Video an die Bühnenwände projiziert, sollen die Feuer- und sprühenden Funken-Bilder die kalten Metallmauern aufheizen. Mit seiner psychoanalytischen Deutung des Ring des Nibelungen rennt der 44-jährige Braunschweig meist offene Türen ein. Er schuf (sich) einen romantischen Erzählstrang à la Heinrich von Kleist, den er konsequent durchzieht, dessen Sinn sich aber dem Gros des Publikums (und der Kritiker) entzieht. Das erste Bild des Rheingolds zeigte den schlafenden Göttervater Wotan, der auf drei rot gepolsterten Empire-Sesseln liegt. Er träumte die Handlung, die Braunschweig uns zeigte. So weit, so gut. Am Ende des nicht gerade begnadeten Walküre-Abends lag Brünnhilde auf Order Wotans auf den gleichen drei Sesseln, von Feuerbildern umringt. Wie Dornröschen schlief sie, bis Siegfried, von Mime aufgezogen, groß genug war, um sie vom Schlafbann zu befreien und das Fürchten und Lieben zu lernen. Zu Beginn des Siegfried liegt Brünnhilde, mit Helm und Rüstung, wie ein Fakir (seit Jahren) auf den gleichen anachronistischen Sesseln. Braunschweig macht eine szenische Schleife zum dritten Akt: wenn Siegfried die Schlafende erweckt und sie sich erhebt, trägt sie ein weißes langes Kleid zur blauen Militärjacke. Ein Bild, das eindeutig Kleists Marquise von O (und deren Vergewaltigung im Schlaf) evoziert. Auch an die kämpferische Penthesilea denkt Braunschweig. Es gelingt ihm aber nicht, diese Literatur- und Film-Bilder aus dem deutschen Fundus mit den zeitgenössischen, grau-khakifarbigen Kostümen (bzw. dem Karohemd für den rundlichen Tölpel Siegfried) auf einen interpretativen Bühnennenner zu bringen. Seine Personenführung ist jedoch sehr feinfühlig, und die sehr guten Sänger spielen (trotz 40 Grad Hitze draußen vor dem Grand Théâtre de Provence) überzeugend.

Olga Grimm-Weissert | 2. 7. 2008

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Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 555 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast from the Aix-en-Provence festival
A production by Stéphane Braunschweig (2008)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.