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 thousand 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.

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