Thursday, July 05, 2007

A new Walküre at Aix-en-Provence

A new production of Die Walküre is now playing at the new Grand Théâtre de Provence, a 1,350 seat new opera house that will house the yearly summer festival at this bucolic Provençal town. Here is an excerpt from Alan Riding's New York Times review of the opera.

In what is both conductor Simon Rattle’s and Aix’s first Ring Cycle, Das Rheingold, the opening episode in Wagner’s monumental four-opera work, was presented last year at the former Archbishop’s Palace to mixed reviews. But this year Die Walküre, the Ring’s second chapter, was magically transformed by the enclosed space and lively acoustics of the Grand Théâtre de Provence.

From the first bars of the overture, the orchestra’s rich string and booming brass instruments filled the hall, creating the tension and stirring the excitement so often associated with Die Walküre. And if some of the soloists later struggled a tad to compete with the orchestra, this could reasonably be put down to the teething problems of any new opera house.

The décor of this production, like Das Rheingold directed by Stéphane Braunschweig, remains spare, a Modernist abstraction that suggests little of the mythical world of Der Ring des Nibelungen. The costumes too are modern, although the warrior maidens, Brünnhilde and the other Valkyries, are at least wearing helmets.

But where the new theater makes another significant difference is in Mr. Braunschweig’s staging of the opera. Far more than in last year’s Rheingold, even the gods, notably Wotan and his twin children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, can now be felt to experience deeply human emotions. And the result is less dark fairy tale than intense lyrical voyage.

As Wotan, the bass-baritone Willard White presides over the narrative like a worried patriarch, who nonetheless bends to the demands of his domineering wife, Fricka (Lilli Paasikivi). Robert Gambill’s Siegmund and Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde seem no less vulnerably human as they dominate the first two acts with the passion and fatality of their incestuous love.

The final curtain brought a standing ovation for both orchestra and singers, with Ms. Westbroek singled out for her “extraordinary power and lyricism,” as Jean-Louis Validire, Le Figaro’s music critic, put it. And he added: “She demonstrates once again exceptional qualities in the ‘Der Männer Sippe’ monologue, maintaining perfect musicality as it mounts in strength toward exaltation.”

The Ring Cycle continues here with Siegfried in 2008 and Götterdammerüng in 2009 and, as with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, they will be presented afresh at the Salzburg Easter Festival the following year.

For Aix, though, the mere presence of Mr. Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic is a major coup, one of the legacies of Stéphane Lissner, who ran the festival until last year and is now the superintendent and artistic director of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

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