The final opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle, G‹tterd‹mmerung, at the 61st annual edition of the Festival of Aix-en-Provence at the Grand Th_ê¢tre de Provence, has been sold out for some months. And no wonder. With Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in the pit, a smart and lean staging by St_phane Braunschweig with no less than Ben Heppner singing Siegfried, it has been a top destination for the well-healed music lover (with ticket prices approaching those of Salzburg) for the four years of the cycle.
Heppner, appearing on the world's stages rarely and singing his first staged Siegfrieds, joined Swedish powerhouse Katerina Dalayman as Br‹nnhilde - a pair evoking memories of legendary Wagnerian couples like Nilsson and Hotter, Flagstad and Melchoir.
Some critics have questioned St_phane Braunschweig's staging of The Ring, and its lack of "epic status." His staging is minimal, to be sure: a few chairs, lone high windows, and a grand staircase. But what he does do well is lead his cast to focus on the characters and their interaction.
One is not likely to forget Siegfried's tender kiss to awake Br‹nnhilde at the start of Act I or the fearsome figure of Hagen smoking a cigar in his overstuffed leather chair. In modern dress, Gunther does the obligatory line of coke before Siegfried arrives and the Gibisch warriors arrive with polo mallets and tennis rackets. Brunnhilde's dignity in the face of disaster and her unwavering love of Siegfried, a key to understanding the Ring, was never so clearly demonstrated. The belief by Braunschweig that the story is worth telling is actually a revolutionary idea; if only Bayreuth had such confidence in Wagner's dramatic vision. An overweight new production of Mozart's Idomeneo, running at Aix concurrently, is clear evidence that more is not always better.
The Berlin Philharmonic brings their unfailing perfection and involvement to elevate this event to heights seldom achieved. Contrary to the Herbert von Karajan, the Berlin Phil's former music director - Wagner loud and louder - Rattle's reflective reading has almost a chamber-music feel. Fat sounds are heard when called for but new details are heard in the score that might be unfamiliar to even the most devoted Wagnerites. The appearance of multi-faceted mezzo Anne Sophie von Otter as Waltraute was an unexpected success. Known for her Baroque repertory and art songs, her scene with fellow Swede Dalayman crackled with electricity. Gerd Grochowski was impressive as Gunther as was Emma Vetter as his sister, Gutrune. Dale Duesing repeated his fine Alberich with Mikhail Petrenko's memorable portrayal of Hagen a high-point.
The chorus of Berlin Radio contributed strongly as did the Norns (Maria Radner, Lilli Pasikivi and Miranda Keys). The strong cast complimented the excellence in the pit and the orchestra, appearing for the last time of a four year residency, received the most cheers of the night. A standing ovation, very rare with French audiences, rewarded the entire effort.
In addition to the Idomeneo at Aix this year, there is a high-energy production of Jacques Offenbach's Orph_e aux Enfers featuring the talented young artists from the Aix Festival's academy which also runs at the same time.
While the Berlin forces return home there are other events of note for the rest of July. Opening, for example, on 25 July is a new production of Mozart's Die Zauberflote with Ren_ Jacobs conducting the Akademie F‹r Alte Musik and staged by William Kentridge.
There is no information yet available about the 2010 season but preliminary information has the London Symphony Orchestra taking up a multi-year residency.
For more on the festival visit www.festival-aix.com.
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All photos by Elizabeth Carecchio.