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Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Der Ring des Nibelungen:

Das Rheingold (1869)
Johan Reuter (bass-baritone) – Wotan; Hans Lawaetz (baritone) – Donner; Johnny van Hal (tenor) – Froh; Michael Kristensen (tenor) – Loge; Stephen Milling (bass) – Fasolt; Christian Christiansen (bass) – Fafner; Sten Byriel (bass) – Alberich; Bengt-Ola Morgny (tenor) – Mime; Randi Stene (mezzo) – Fricka; Anne Margrethe Dahl (soprano) – Freia; Susanne Resmark (mezzo) – Erda; Djina Mai-Mai (soprano) – Woglinde; Ylva Kihlberg (soprano) – Wellgunde; Hanne Fischer (contralto) – Flosshilde; Iréne Theorin – Brünnhilde; Danny Olsen – Das Rheingold
Die Walküre (1870)
Stig Andersen (tenor) – Siegmund; Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (soprano) – Sieglinde; James Johnson (bass) – Wotan; Iréne Theorin (soprano) – Brünnhilde; Stephen Milling (bass) – Hunding; Randi Stene (mezzo) – Fricka; Emma Vetter (soprano) – Helmwige; Ylva Kihlberg (soprano) – Gerhilde; Carolina Sandgren (soprano) – Ortlinde; Hanne Fischer (mezzo) – Waltraute; Anna Rydberg (mezzo) – Siegrune; Elisabeth Jansson (contralto) – Rossweisse; Elisabeth Halling (contralto) – Grimgerde; Ulla Kudsk Jensen (contralto) - Schwertleite
Siegfried (1876)
Stig Andersen (tenor) – Siegfried; Bengt-Ola Morgny (tenor) – Mime; James Johnson (bass) – Der Wanderer; Sten Byriel (bass) – Alberich; Christian Christiansen (bass) – Fafner; Susanne Resmark (mezzo) – Erda; Iréne Theorin (soprano) – Brünnhilde; Gisela Stille (soprano) - Waldvogel
Götterdämmerung (1876)
Stig Andersen (tenor) – Siegfried; Guido Paevatalu (baritone) – Gunther; Peter Klaveness (bass) – Hagen; Sten Byriel (bass) – Alberich; Iréne Theorin (soprano) – Brünnhilde; Ylva Kihlberg (soprano) – Gutrune; Anette Bod (mezzo) – Waltraute; Susanne Resmark (mezzo) – 1st Norn; Hanne Fischer (mezzo) – 2nd Norn; Anne Margrethe Dahl (soprano) – 3rd Norn; Djina Mai-Mai (soprano) – Woglinde; Elisabeth Meyer-Topsøe (soprano) – Wellgunde; Ulla Kudsk Jensen (contralto) – Flosshilde
Royal Danish Opera Chorus (Götterdämmerung) and Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
Production by Kasper Bech Holten; Set and Costume Designers: Marie í Dali and Steffen Aarfing; Lighting Designer: Jesper Kongshaug; Dramaturgy: Henrik Engelbrecht
Director of Photography: Uffe Borgwardt; Producer: Peter Borgwardt
rec. live, Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen, May 2006
Bonus Feature: HM Queen Margrethe II of Denmark meets Kasper Bech Holten
Picture Format: 16:9; Anamorphic Widescreen; Sound LPCM Stereo; DTS 5.1 Surround
DECCA 074 3264 [7 DVDs: 920:00 + Bonus: 36:00]
Experience Classicsonline

When Bill Kenny, Regional Editor of MusicWeb’s Seen and Heard, visited the new opera house in Copenhagen in late December 2005 he waxed lyrical about the house itself review . It’s a view I endorse as is clear from my review of Nielsen’s Maskarade, which I saw in January this year (2008). He was also deeply impressed and fascinated by Die Walküre in the new production by Kasper Bech Holten (His review is here). Now the full Ring appears on DVD. Having spent some intensive days in its company I feel a bit exhausted – especially since I listened through the reissue of Haitink’s Ring less than a week before – but I am just as fascinated as Bill.

Transporting the action to other, often more recent times, is no novelty, rather the contrary: it seems to be the norm today and quite often the result is more strange and alienating than illuminating. The Amsterdam Ring, directed by Pierre Audi, was a minimalist production with hardly any sets at all and the orchestra centre-stage. One of its great merits was the timelessness. The new Stockholm Ring, directed by Staffan Valdemar Holm (not yet on DVD) placed Das Rheingold in Wagner’s own time and then moved gradually into the 20th century and ended during WW1.

The same principle is employed here but Holten begins where Holm stopped, during the roaring ’20s and into the ’30s when the ideologies were structured. In Die Walküre we have reached the aftermath of WW2 and the cold war is raging, the structures have frozen; Siegfried represents young rebellion against the older generation in 1968. In Götterdämmerung belief in the future is being erased by the evil of the turn of the century – Holten mentions Bosnia or Rwanda. The malicious military commander Hagen and his soldiers stand as representatives for the raw oppression of the civilian population. The victims are Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde also runs through the story, pictured in sequences in Das Rheingold reading in old tomes. Thus the whole Ring can be seen as flashbacks from the present day. In Götterdämmerung during orchestral interludes she is again seen turning over pages in filmed sequences. 20th century history is set in relation to old Norse mythology, or vice versa: a really intriguing concept – but does it work?

There are anomalies of course. Wotan’s spear and Siegfried’s Nothung do not belong in the 20th century – you need to see them as symbols for their power rather than realistic attributes. The Valkyries are dressed in 1950s bloodstained evening gowns when they gather fallen soldiers. They also have very realistic wings and when Wotan denounces Brünnhilde in the last act of Die Walküre he brutally tears off her wings, causing her great pain. Holten refrains from doing what many present-day directors do: disregarding the text and what is actually sung. He trusts the onlookers’ intelligence to be able to filter out the anachronisms.

On the other hand there is so much inventiveness in characterisation of the roles. This helps create a believable or witty spirit of the time. Fafner in a wheel-chair is still able to kill Fasolt – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Loge is a chain-smoking bureaucrat. Donner is there as the toughest of the gods, in leather-jacket and armed with a shotgun; his greatgrandson in our time would probably be a member of Hell’s Angels! Susanne Resmark in Das Rheingold is a spectacular Erda, Marlene Dietrich-like and seductive; no wonder Wotan got a nonet of Valkyries with her. He even kisses her in front of Fricka! When he visits her in Siegfried, dressed up in black suit with a bunch of roses and a bottle of champagne, she is old and sick, lying in bed and tended by a nurse.

Wotan himself, the leader who feels insufficient, his empire collapsing, has fallen into the same trap as many a business executive: he has taken to drinking and sips secretly from a hip-flask. His opposite pole, Alberich, is also a heavy drinker.

I could relate many more instances of finely observed everyday detail but I won’t deprive readers of the pleasure of finding out for themselves. Let me just mention another two: The appearance of the three Norns at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, not on stage but in the audience. It is an unforgettable moment when an onlooker in the first row, just behind the conductor, gets irritated by the lights, directed towards her, and suddenly stands up, seemingly to leave, pats Michael Schønwandt’s shoulder, points to the lights and starts singing: Welch Licht leuchtet dort? (What light shines up there?). The other is when we return to the cave on Brünnhilde’s rock. In this production it is on top of a roof, a lovely cosy, romantic, married-bliss balcony with flowers a-plenty and Siegfried carrying in the obligatory breakfast tray while Brünnhilde, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, is watering the geraniums.

This brings me back to the everyday detail that makes this Ring so easy to accept, to identify with. With all due deference to gods and heroes and giants, here they are humanized, brought down to a level where they are tangible and we feel that they are of flesh and blood. In spite of the evil that permeates so much of this drama, the impression that lingers most is the warmth and humanity. I have several times lately complained about the alienation that seems to be the order of the day in many opera productions; Kasper Bech Holten places human relations in the foreground. Rarely has there been so much closeness, so much bodily contact, so many warm looks – and hateful for that matter – and such close interplay between characters. Every word or gesture generates a realistic response; small reactions, hardly noticeable sometimes, but in the close-up filming of most scenes they are registered. Holten worked with this production from 2001 and obviously devoted himself to close reading of a kind that is rarely encountered. With a responsive cast of actors he has chiselled out completely believable characters and situations. Take the meeting between Brünnhilde and Waltraute in the last scene of act I. Brünnhilde is overjoyed when her old Valkyrie colleague appears but after some time, when Waltraute begins her soliloquy, relating the sad state in Valhalla, Brünnhilde is mildly interested and after some time she shows very clearly that ‘Oh, no! Why do I have to listen to this?’ Her eyes wander, her face becomes blank, her body is slightly turned away. Suddenly some words of Waltraute catch her, the body stiffens, the eyes look fixedly at Waltraute and her lips part slightly. This is again just one isolated instance of intelligent psychological direction and superb acting. There is plenty of it.

There are also some interesting and, possibly, controversial turns. The Rhinegold is a physical person, a young man swimming about in the Rhine - Alberich cuts out his heart. It is Sieglinde, not Siegmund, who pulls Nothung out of the ash-tree. Bill Kenny called it ‘girl-power’ and there is a good deal in that: she also takes the initiatives in the relation between them. Gutrune is a sexy seducer who wraps Siegfried around her little finger and Fricka is uncommonly strong-willed - actually more dignified than bitchy.

Hunding is not killed by Wotan; he is sent away to kneel before Fricka – a worse punishment than death for a brute like him. And, talking of humiliation, Wotan, in his ultimate degradation when meeting Siegfried, breaks the spear himself – no ‘girl power’ here but perhaps lack of ‘male power’. Finally a parallel to ponder upon: the siblings Gunther and Gutrune also seem to have a relation much more intimate than pure affection. There is room for various interpretations.

The production for DVD is extremely detailed and evocative - camera angles discriminatingly chosen to provide information in the subtext, often in short glimpses. Here the DVD viewer is at an advantage compared to the theatre audience. We don’t need to search for the focus of the action. I can’t find it said explicitly anywhere in the notes but I suspect that Holten has had a finger in the pie here too. The superb theatre machinery is innovatively employed and when the action takes place in two or even more storeys – sometimes simultaneously – the home-viewer is again a step ahead of the live onlookers. The plentiful use of close-ups also facilitates the understanding and experience of this complex drama. Here also lies the singular problem with this DVD production. When the cameras creep straight into the faces of the singers there can sometimes be an almost embarrassing closeness, comparable to the feeling when someone comes within my personal territory at a conversation. Moreover, and that’s the most troublesome point, a singer in close-up at fortissimo, velum fluttering, face distorted, isn’t a very flattering sight. Don’t let this deter you from acquiring this Ring, however; it’s worth some embarrassment.

So far I have focused only on the staging and some interpretative points of interest to give readers an idea of what kind of performance this is. But opera is also music and however fascinating a production is from a theatrical or conceptual point of view there also have to be musical merits. They are, luckily, abundant but there are also some less attractive features. Michael Schønwandt is, as Bill Kenny also pointed out in his review, the only Danish conductor to have appeared at Bayreuth and he knows his Wagner. There isn’t a tempo that I would question and his reading is very much kept together organically as one piece. The playing of the Royal Danish Orchestra is also first class, impressively so considering that these are live recordings.

Among the soloists there are some tremendously fine achievements. Johan Reuter as the young Wotan in Das Rheingold is vigorous and steady of tone, while James Johnson as the mature and ageing Wotan/Wanderer in the two following parts is admirably detailed and expressive in these demanding roles. Once or twice he overtaxes his voice but generally this is a superb portrait and in Siegfried his Wanderer is charmingly relaxed and humorous. Sten Byriel as the malevolent Alberich is also a splendid singing-actor and Stephen Milling, singing Fasolt’s role in Das Rheingold with melting bel canto tone, is a formidably nasty Hunding in Die Walküre. He is certainly one of the great present-day basses.

I found Stig Andersen’s Siegfried a bit uneven when I reviewed the Amsterdam Götterdämmerung on CD a while ago. On the other hand I admired his willingness to soften his voice and find nuances that too often elude Heldentenöre. Here he sings both Siegfrieds in addition to Siegmund and his is one of the liveliest and most likeable of interpretations of these taxing roles. Even though his tone can be strained and a bit dryish he sings with great attention to the words. As the mean and abominable Mime Bengt-Ola Morgny makes a memorably vivid portrait – on a par with the best I have seen – but his voice is today a far cry from what it once was. Both Christian Christiansen and Peter Klaveness create frightening characters of Fafner and Hagen. Guido Paevatalu, a mainstay at the Royal Danish Opera, is a lively play-boy type Gunther and his voice is still in good shape.

On the distaff side Iréne Theorin is so touchingly human a Brünnhilde that one forgets she is the daughter of a god. This is plainly the cosiest and warmest reading of the role I have encountered and she is a glorious singer. Today she is Bayreuth’s Isolde and she certainly has the stamina for that role too. At times she has a slight beat in the voice but when she lets loose at the climaxes she is brilliant. Gitta-Maria Sjöberg, whose recital disc with Verdi and Puccini arias I made a Recording of the Month less than a year ago (see review), has all the lyrical beauty and warmth one wants from Sieglinde. Du bist der Lenz has rarely been so gloriously sung. There are splendid contributions from Susanne Resmark (Erda and 1st Norn) and Randi Stene – a noble but grieved Fricka with Hilary Clinton looks. Ylva Kihlberg in several guises, not least her alluring Gutrune, should also be mentioned, and Gisela Stille is a deliciously twittering Woodbird.

While there may be other DVD Rings that are more consistently well sung, notably Barenboim-Kupfer’s Bayreuth set, this Copenhagen Schønwandt-Holten production is certainly wholly engrossing, fresh and perspective-building with deeply involving acting and several vocal achievements that compete with the best.

Göran Forsling

Having just read Göran Forsling's typically excellent review of The Copenhagen
Ring - in which he kindly mentions my own report on Copenhagen's Die Walküre on
Boxing Day 2004 - I should like to endorse his comments wholeheartedly and
would also like to express my continuing pleasure and satisfaction after seeing
the whole production on DVD.

This is an extraordinary achievement by Kasper Bech Holten to my mind. After
seeing Die Walküre live, I wrote : 'The more I think about it, the more
intelligent this production seems ' and now after watching the complete cycle,
I am relieved to discover that I was right. It's sadly a rare experience these
days to find a careful reading of Wagner's text matched by a Director's idea of
it and it's even rarer to find such close attention to personenregie in even
the best modern productions. Here, and without exception, the entire cast of
this Ring portrays real people with real emotions engaging attention so
convincingly that even the (often interminable) first Act of Götterdämmerung -
in which as Göran says, the Norns appear as members of the audience - seems to
fly by. I found myself needing to know 'what happens next' at every turn and
for that reason alone even the staunchest anti-Wagnerite watching this cycle
could find that The Ring has something going for it after all.

Perhaps the last couple of things to add to this shameless rave, is that the
stereo sound from these discs is spectacularly good, catching the marvellous
acoustic of the new Copenhagen opera house remarkably accurately, despite a
couple of short lasting lapses in orchestral balance here and there. And then
there's the set's modest price: it's currently available for under £50 in the
UK.

Bill Kenny

 


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