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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


R.Wagner, Die Walküre: Soloists, Det Kongelige Kapel, Michael Schønwandt, Operaen, Copenhagen 26.12.2005 (BK)


The New Copenhagen Opera House


Siegmund: Poul Elming (shared role with Stig Fogh Andersen and Plácido Domingo)

Sieglinde: Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (shared role with Eva Johansson)

Wotan: James Johnson

Brünnhilde: Iréne Theorin (shared role with Tina Kiberg)

Hunding: Stephen Milling (shared role with Christian Christiansen)

Fricka: Susanna Resmark (shared role with Randi Stene)


Conductor: Michael Schønwandt

Direction: Kasper Bech Holten

Sets and Costumes: Marie i Dali and Steffen Aarfing

Lighting: Jesper Kongshaug

Dramaturgy: Henrik Engelbrecht.


Brunnhilde, Wotan and the Valkyries


Brisk winds and a heavy snowfall made the journey by water-taxi to Copenhagen's new opera house more suited to The Dutchman than Die Walküre, but Viking heritage held firm. And as it happened, having a 'Steerswoman' to take us through the harbour's choppy waters proved a particularly apt prelude to the first part of 'Brünnhilde's Ring,' as Kasper Bech Holten calls it.


Royal Danish Opera and Ballet's new home opened in January of this year and must rank as one of Denmark’s most innovative buildings. It was completed in only three years to a design by Henning Larsen and was a gift to the nation from the shipping magnate Maersk McKinney Møller. Thanks to this remarkable act - the overall cost was 430 million euros or 2.5 billion Danish Kroner - the company now has world-class facilities with 1700 seats in the main auditorium and an orchestra pit for 110 players.

Royal Danish Opera's history is long and honourable and dates back to 1770. This season's programme (details are here) is typically innovative with works by Schnittke, Rihm, Adès and Elvis Costello included as well as more standard fare. February's Götterdämmerung will also see the completion of Kasper Bech Holten's 'Ring' which began with this Walküre in 2003. To celebrate the new house and the 'Ring' jointly, four full cycles take place in April and May.


Kasper Bech Holten is a real phenomenon. At 33 he must be one of the youngest Artistic Directors of a major company anywhere in the world (his web site is here) and he has racked up an impressive list of achievements so far. His vision of the 'Ring' is summed up in these extracts from his web log:


"Along with Brünnhilde we journey through the 1920s and 1930s in Das Rheingold, in which the great ideological structures are raised, until we reach the 1950s in Die Walküre when the Cold War has frozen those structures into fortresses ... Siegfried brings us to 1968 when the eponymous young hero naively rebels against his father's rules and ideals until the fin-de-siècle joy he expresses in Götterdämmerung comes to an abrupt end in a clash with pure evil of the type seen in Bosnia or Rwanda ... "We also tell the story of a woman with such a powerful Electra complex that it prevents her from freeing herself from her father's influence until far too late."


Brünnhilde has the Electra complex of course. I understand that she appears briefly in Das Rheingold and as Holten puts it, "we start with the end rather than the beginning, and the entire Ring is experienced as one big flashback."



Stephen Milling as Hunding


There is certainly 'girl power' in this Walküre, but to definite purpose. In Act I, Sieglinde's advances to Siegmund are made very clear indeed and it is she who pulls the sword from the ash tree. Fricka holds her own strongly in Valhalla since her Nordic dignity and status is emphasised, rather than her more customary portrayal as a ranting harpy. Hunding does not die in Act II either, but is sent off to kneel before Fricka as Wotan commands. Kasper Holten has restored to this Walküre the the Norse (rather than Teutonic) sagas' emphasis on gender equality for Gods and humans alike. Brünnhilde gives up her godliness herself in Act III - in the form of a live pigeon that flies away backstage - rather than meekly submitting to Wotan's will. This may very well be her 'Ring.'



The Valkyries


From this Nordic context, Holten's presentation of the 'Ring' as a modern day history makes more sense than many productions and portrays the text's timeless relevance better than most. If Götterdämmerung for example, uses Bosnia and Rwanda as its models, then Ragnaròk, the sagas' description of the ending of all things, has happened for some people already and there is no more a guarantee now (than ever was or shall be) that the transition to a new order will be smoother, better or more wahnfrei than in the past. Human and godly folly - and human and godly nobility for that matter - may be equally everlasting.

So far as this Walküre goes, the modern setting is wholly justified by Holten's idea. There are oddities of course - the Valkyries wear blood stained ball gowns and have black 'victory ' wings - but even those may be justified by the sagas. The tailor's dummy warriors look are probably an error, but when everything else is said, the 1950s props and the period costumes fit Holten's vision perfectly and will probably make even greater sense when the whole cycle appears in April. The more I think about it, the more intelligent this production seems.

Act I: Siegmund and Sieglinde

To the best of my knowledge, Michael Schønwandt is the only Danish conductor ever to have appeared at Bayreuth and he clearly knows his Wagner. Apart from a slightly shaky prelude to Act I, the orchestral playing was excellent throughout and I have rarely heard Fricka's music in Act II sound so luminous or beautiful.

The acoustic is remarkable too and copes splendidly with changing sets - from the intimacy of the interior of Hunding's home for instance, through to the open 'Field of Poppies' standing outside it and revealed later in Act I as the stage rotates. There is a real sense here that the hall is built for singers as well as orchestra and the proof is that every syllable is audible, regardless of the dynamics involved; even from weaker soloists, of which there were fortunately few.


The only disappointments in fact, were Poul Elming (Siegmund) and Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (Sieglinde) neither of whom were in the best of voice on this occasion. Stephen Milling's bass was formidable (as was his physical presence) and James Johnson - a slightly lighter toned Wotan than many - acquitted himself with sufficient dignity and vocal flexibility to provide a convincing characterisation. Susanna Resmark's Fricka (sung with a fine controlled low mezzo) partnered him admirably.


Competent Brünnhildes are rarities these days but Iréne Theorin is one of them. Trained in Gothenburg and the Opera Academy in Copenhagen, she was tutored by Birgit Nilsson, Ingrid Bjoner and Geoffrey Parsons and the training shows. With a good deal of Wagner singing to her credit already, hers is a firm voiced, powerful hoch-dramatisch soprano soon to be heard for a second time at Bayreuth (3rd Norn and Helmwige in this year's new Ring.) She was the icing on the cake for this splendid production.


Bill Kenny

Production pictures © Martin Mydskov Rønne 2005

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