Webmaster: Len Mullenger
Seen and Heard International Opera Review
Wagner, Das Rheingold
at the Royal Opera in
Conductor: Gregor Bühl
Director: Staffan Valdemar Holm
Designer and Costumes: Bente Lykke Møller
Lighting: Torben Lendorph
Wotan: Terje Stenswold (baritone)
Donner: Johan Edholm (baritone)
Froh: Klas Hedlund (tenor)
Loge: Thomas Sunnegårdh (tenor)
Alberich: Ketil Hugaas (bass)
Mime: Niklas Björling Rygert (tenor)
Fasolt: Hans-Peter König (bass)
Fafner: Lennart Forsén (bass)
Fricka: Martina Dike (mezzo-soprano)
Freia: Sara Olsson (soprano)
Erda: Anna Larsson (contralto)
Woglinde: Hilde Leidland (soprano)
Wellgunde: Susann Végh (mezzo-soprano)
Flosshilde: Katarina N. Leoson (contralto)
The Royal Opera Orchestra
The last Ring cycle I saw in Stockholm, mounted more than 35 years ago, directed by Folke Abenius and designed by Jan Bradza, was a stylized, abstract production, fascinating in its then brave modernism, very much in the vein of Wieland Wagner’s work at Bayreuth: a minimum of props, based on evocative lighting. When the Royal Opera now are launching a new cycle they go in quite the opposite direction. The Rheingold, which was premiered last Saturday, is more or less a fairy-tale, the range of colours pastel warm (apart from the third scene in Nibelheim which is pitch black) and the action is set in Wagner’s own time with all the characters dressed as upper middle-class people would be – when Loge (Thomas Sunnegårdh) appears he looked like Wagner himself.
The second and fourth scenes are set in an empty room – the gods ready to move out since the building of Valhalla has been completed. In the last scene they actually walk out with their filled suitcases. When we first meet Wotan and Fricka it is still early and they are in dressing-gowns. The other gods, Donner, Froh and Loge, and later also Wotan, are neatly dressed in light-grey morning-coats and top hats and the lovely Freia is, of course, in white, looking like a real fairy. In the midst of these references to the middle-to-late 19th century Wotan is still carrying his long spear, anachronistically reminding us that he and the others actually belong in a very distant past. Having read Wagner’s original stage directions it is indeed fascinating to notice how closely they have been observed in this production, without being too literal, and one can’t help feeling that much of what Wagner aimed at must have been very difficult, maybe impossible, to realize according to his vision in the 1860s. Much care has also been lavished on creating clearly chiselled individuals, making this a very human Rheingold. That Fasolt falls in love with Freia, while she is held hostage, is no secret, but in the end she also has fallen in love with him, a well-known fact from real-life experiences of this kind. Much else could be written about this production, not least how the team manage to give rounded portraits of the characters, warts and all. It was a deeply capturing and engrossing experience, making the two and a half hours pass in no time. This was one of the rare occasions where all the pieces fit together in the gigantic jig-saw puzzle that an opera production is.
One important piece, hitherto unmentioned, is of course the musical side. Stockholm has for long had a very strong Wagner tradition, and I need only mention last year’s successful Tristan und Isolde, glowingly reviewed by Bill Kenny (see review). The first Rheingold was staged as early as 1901 and this was the 133rd performance of the opera in the house.
Originally Neeme Järvi was scheduled to lead this Ring cycle but he had to withdraw due to failing health and in his place the young German Gregor Bühl sprang in. He is no newcomer to Wagner: in Hannover, where he has been principal conductor since 1996, he has performed most of the operas, including the complete Ring. It was also obvious from the outset that he knew his Wagner. The remarkable prelude, “the birth of minimalism”, with its repeated “wave” motif, was built up from the almost inaudible start towards ever greater intensity, the waters of the Rhine running fiercer and fiercer, and the Royal Orchestra responded willingly. Bühl kept things moving without rushing. A well-balanced reading, full of life.
To this can be added singing out
of the top drawer. There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. The
three Rhine maidens acted and sang with the utmost conviction
and visibly enjoyed themselves, and their voices blended well
in their ensembles. Especially Susann
Végh impressed vocally. Martina Dike, who already has a long
list of memorable role assumptions (see
review of Don Carlos), was a splendid Fricka,
her voice ringing out with magnificent ease and she is a good
actor. As Freia Sara Olsson didn’t
have much to sing but what little there was she did well and
she acted movingly. Erda’s part is even smaller, but her “aria”
Weiche, Wotan, weiche
is on the other hand one of the sublime moments and Anna Larsson’s
deep warm contralto was perfectly suited to it, just as artlessly
affecting as when she sang the same part in a concert performance
of Rheingold at the Stockholm Concert Hall a couple of years ago.
In the men’s department, the diminutive Klas Hedlund drew a finely etched Froh and his unforced lyrical tenor is always a joy to listen to, while Johan Edholm personified the choleric Donner with biting intensity. Thomas Sunnegårdh, excellent actor, found the right scheming tone for Loge, a part he has sung for many years around the world, his voice still in fine fettle. Fafner and Fasolt, bear-like in their brown costumes and with long hair and beard, were magnificently sung by Lennart Forsén and Hans-Peter König, the former with a roundness and beauty of tone that almost conflicted with the evil, while König has the most tremendously gigantic bass-voice one can ever expect to hear.
The black forces in Nibelheim were also well taken care of. Ketil Hugaas, the buffo bass par preference in Stockholm at the moment, adopted all his considerable skill to give a many-sided portrait of Alberich. A good actor with many colours in his not exactly beautiful but expressive voice. And young Niklas Björling Rygert, who is quickly claiming the role as the leading character tenor, was a perfect Mime, younger looking and younger sounding than most and a lithe actor.
On top of this Norwegian guest Terje Stensvold was a well-nigh ideal Wotan, physically imposing but showing all the different sides of Wotan’s many-faceted character. He sang with firm tone, blacker than most baritones, which is right for Wotan, but with impressively gleaming high notes – and he had a wonderful legato. Far from the speech-singing all to often heard in the role, this was a bel canto Wotan. It will be interesting to hear him in the forth-coming Walküre.
This was indeed an auspicious start of the new Ring cycle and a visit to the Royal Opera in Stockholm is wholeheartedly recommended. In February I hope to be able to review Die Walküre. With Stensvold, König and Dike, German tenor Endrik Wottrich and with Katarina Dalayman and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Sieglinde this seems an appetizing prospect indeed! Siegfried will follow next autumn and Götterdämmerung in the autumn of 2007. Keep an eye on this site for further reports.
Photographs © Mats Bäcke