In just over six weeks, the Aix festival, 20 minutes’ drive from Marseilles, will be staging its own Walküre with the prestigious Berlin Philharmonic in the pit. It was hard not to reflect on this as the house orchestra in Marseilles, even much improved over recent years, floundered in a score beyond its reach. After all, the orchestra in Wagner’s music dramas is the main role. Outside Paris, only Toulouse and Lyons can feel comfortable with Wagner and Richard Strauss, but Marseilles is France’s second city and deserves better. Miraculously, between the squeaks and the cracked notes, it was still possible to enjoy Friedrich Pleyer’s solid Kapellmeister conducting when it all came together.
Marseilles puts up with its orchestra because of its meridional focus on voices. It has been well served with stars in the past by intendants with fat address books and Reneé Auphan, currently in charge, proves it once again with this Walküre.
Gabriele Fontana’s heart-rending Sieglinde and Sally Burgess’s shrewish Fricka are vocally beyond their best but both prove the power of fine acting in live opera. Janice Baird’s glamorous but icy Brünnhilde is a more controversial choice. She cuts a fine figure in the strapless, cleavage-enhancing bodices which all the Valkyries wear but too often sacrifices acting by manoeuvring for the best position to unleash a shattering soprano broadside.
Auphan really strikes gold with Torsten Kerl’s first Siegmund and Albert Dohmen’s stupendous, world-beating Wotan. Kerl sings with ringing tone and still makes his music into an exquisite art song. Dohmen’s armour-plated voice naturally oozes authority but digs deep into Wotan’s vulnerability, and articulates stage whispers that ping to the back of the stalls.
He effortlessly upstages Charles Roubaud’s lucid staging, more a mise en espace that sometimes looks like the poor man’s Robert Wilson – but with movement. After a cheap and nasty first act, Gilles Papain’s over-polite video projections settle down to good French taste with a mineral accent. You won’t remember them in few months’ time – but you won’t ever forget Dohmen. And he won’t be singing Wotan in Aix. Tel +33 4 9155 1110