iPod acoustics for the Aix crowd

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Did the Aix festival really need a €45m indoor theatre? As if to confound the sceptics, the first night of the new Nozze di Figaro in the Archbishop’s Palace courtyard, the traditional venue, was rained off, the second performance received a visit from a helicopter en route for fire surveillance in the countryside and the revival of Trisha Brown’s stunningly beautiful, ageless Orfeo had to fight off competition from a thudding disco beat. There is nothing like opera in the balmy Provence night but there can be drawbacks.

Vittorio Gregotti’s new 1,350-seat Grand Théâtre de Provence, set in a faceless modern residential area, is just a short walk from the centre. Clad in yellow and beige Rajasthan stone panels that might improve with age – enough perhaps to dispel notions of crazy paving – the building is a work in progress, with extensive terraces still to be opened to the public. The foyer, with stalactite neon lighting snaking up to and around the bar, has the charm of a mid-price international hotel but the redwood, classically Italian-shaped auditorium is warm and comfortable.

As usual, the acoustics are also a work in progress. Daniel Commins’ brief was to ensure optimal conditions for both concerts and opera, quite different requirements, and for the moment the concert sound has come off best. There is, inevitably, a contemporary bias in favour of bright sounds but the Berlin Philharmonic’s clarity and depth was spellbinding in a breathtaking concert of 20th-century masters conducted by the sprightly 82-year-old Pierre Boulez.

But in Die Walküre, the festival’s grand event, the voices seemed to ricochet off the side wood panelling and the Valkyries emitted a tinny iPod sound that wrongly suggested amplification. Every sharply enunciated “t” exploded, every “s” hissed out. This made it a very intelligible Walküre, but one that sounded like an elocution class with Professor Higgins.

And Sir Simon Rattle’s Wagner is equally didactic: every bar comes under his microscope, every detail is lovingly administered, every sforzando dug into with relish. It’s a very personal statement but like reading a book with too many footnotes. This does not stop enjoyment of crescendi, which are so brilliantly assembled that Rattle has no need of the slightest acceleration to maximise spine-tingling effects, but it does interrupt the flow.

Stéphane Braunschweig’s production is bolder than last year’s Rheingold but still misses out on epic bite. His characters are locked in intense interpersonal debates worthy of Chekhov or Strindberg. There’s no faulting the acting and it pays off in the genuinely moving scene when Brünnhilde submits to Wotan, especially as Eva Johansson’s girlish Brünnhilde sings with uncommon attention to nuance. But The Ring needs more than drawing-room drama and intense stares and Braunschweig makes nothing scenically of the arrival of spring. Getting the Valkryies to haul Action Man dummies up the stairs to Valhalla was a bid in the right, physical direction but it needed heavier corpses.

Sir Willard White’s already lightweight Wotan is undermined further by a mad dip into Feydeau when he hides under the table from nagging Fricka (Lilli Paasakivi, excellent). Mikhail Petrenko’s Hunding, a Putin lookalike, is suitably sinister but stuck in a tonal limbo. Robert Gambill’s valiant Siegmund is marred by consistently flat singing. The biggest ovation rightly goes to Eva Maria Westbroek’s exceptional Sieglinde, generously voiced and totally committed. She and the sensational Berlin Philharmonic sound give the enterprise its festival feel.
Festival runs until July 22.
Tel +33 4 42 17 34 34

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