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Festival d’Aix en Provence (4): Wagner, Siegfried: Soloists, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Sir Simon Rattle. Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix en Provence. 7.7.2008 (MB)

Siegfried – Ben Heppner
Mime – Burkhard Ulrich
The Wanderer – Sir Willard White
Alberich – Dale Duesing
Fafner – Alfred Reiter
Erda – Anna Larsson
Brünnhilde – Katarina Dalayman
Woodbird – Mojca Erdmann

Stéphane Braunschweig (director, designs, and video)
Thibault Vancraenenbroeck (costumes)
Marion Hewlett (lighting)

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

Pictures © Aix en Provence Festival 2008

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