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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


"I saw the world end."

Words sung by Brünnhilde during the final minutes of "Götterdammerung" as she starts a fire to destroy the gods and everything we have known in the past sixteen hours of music drama. Well, no, they're not actually. They are words Wagner at one point intended her to sing but later cut. But they are worth bearing in mind when starting to watch this DVD set of the Royal Danish Opera production of the Ring because they turn a key that may have been in the mind of director Kasper Bech Holten when he arrived at his conception. "Das Rheingold" opens in silence. A caption tells us Brünnhilde has just betrayed the man she loves and now wants to find out how matters came to this. That she has gone to her father's attic to find family mementoes to recall how it all began. Which is what we first see when a pregnant blonde girl in night-clothes appears on a dark stage and lights a candle. No music. Just a stage with shelves of old books and ledgers high on both sides like walls of a prison. The feeling is of old and fusty records imprisoning whoever is unfortunate enough to find themselves trapped here. Get used to this because it will recur as a design motif - the past imprisoning us but offering chance of liberation if only we can decode it and so break it down and escape. The low E flat pedal begins in the pit at last and Brünnhilde begins to look in some of the books. She takes from a box a human arm preserved in glass with a double helix burned into it and the walls of books widen. She descends through a stage trap, the scene changes and a second caption appears: "Fifty years before." Keep in mind the word "just" that you read in the first caption, though. This is a clue which you only become aware of much later but which should make you aware that the opening scene is itself a flash forward to the third act of Götterdämmerung which, when the moment comes in the real-time of the drama, delivers a coup de théâtre which on first viewing left me stunned.

So this Ring is told in flashback through the perspective of Brünnhilde . We will move through the twentieth century with each opera, so her story is also the story of the world (as the Ring should be) and specifically our world and how it was formed standing in for Wagner's and the world of his myth characters. It makes this Ring merge concepts of political, social, psychological as well as personal history which modern "deconstructionist" productions can take singly. Wagner's myths are a springboard to see into our own lives through Brünnhilde's mind's eye view. So if you want your Ring to take the myths of Wagner's stage action at face value - episodes, characters and character traits set in some distant mythic past all on its own - go no further because this is not a Ring for you. But remember Wagner regarded all myths as the truth and our lives merely reflection of that truth with what goes on onstage an attempt to get back to the truth by acting out the myths. There will be ambiguities. There always are in these kinds of productions. But they give us interpretative wiggle room and food for more thought. The decision for the overarching concept of this production to be a "Brünnhilde perspective" also leads to the much talked of feminist perspective this production has garnered. The director is on record that this is one of his leading ideas. Whilst seeing what he means and having no problem with such an aim I would only add that there is an implication that The Ring might in some way be lacking feminine balance. But Wagner wrote wonderful parts for actresses: strong, well-drawn characters with major input into dramatic action. Therefore any further shift in the perspective towards their point of view only reinforces what is already there. The point at which a feminine view becomes a feminist view I leave to you to decide.

The use of captions at the start of "Das Rheingold" is also indicative of the fact that this DVD production, though filmed during "live" performances, is tailored to be seen like a feature film. A lot of cameras have been used for many different angles as well as a huge use of close-ups on the singers. This results in a large number of "jump cuts" and the experience of being intimately involved in the action. Fortunately the production boasts excellent actors and actresses who appear to have been directed to take this into account. In terms of its camera work it is a triumph. When Brian Large directed the TV recording of the Boulez/Chereau Bayreuth Ring (DG 00440 073 4057) he had the luxury of filming out of performance so could take cameras onstage and do retakes. Here in "live" performance some use has been made of miniature cameras in the scenery and no doubt there has been some patching between more than one performance. However, the sense of the "live event" has been preserved with all the tensions that engenders. There are no vocal disasters and the handful of stage business errors only adds to the experience. The stage machinery of the new Copenhagen opera house also behaves impeccably and even has claims to becoming an extra character. Seeing this stage set perform for the first time you begin to wonder what shocks and surprises the revolves, traps, lifts and gantries have for us next. Not to mention the fire machine. There are a lot of naked flames in this production. There is also a naked man, but we will come to him in a moment.

Rather than on the bed of the Rhine, the first scene of "Das Rheingold" opens on the deck of a cruise ship circa the 1920s. There is a chandelier the spitting image of one seen on film of the wrecked Titanic. So there is our first sign that all is not well. The Rhinemaidens are three flappers taking drinks on deck when they catch sight of Alberich watching them. There is a lot of alcohol consumed in this Ring, by the way. Alberich himself is a grey-haired petty-bourgeois out of Schnitzler's Vienna. He looks like a randy schoolteacher on a weekend off. Sten Byriel's interpretation is a plausible and subtle one with some depth and the capacity to make us feel a little sorry for him. After much teasing by the girls the "gold" is revealed, but it is not the Rhinegold as we normally know it. In the first radical departure for this production it is human. It is a naked young man swimming in a tank of water kept captive by the maidens, presumably to signify female control. When Alberich seizes the "gold" and sets the story in motion he actually reaches into the tank, cuts out the heart of the young man and proceeds to hold it up in triumph. It has been said that the Boulez/Chereau Ring established its radical credentials in this very scene and Kasper Bech Holten has certainly followed suit.

In the next scene change there are more images of Brünnhilde in the library and then we meet the gods contemplating the just-finished Valhalla. Those bookcases are high on either side of the stage again and there are tents and luggage piled high too. This is an early 20th century building site supervised by a David Brent look-alike as the young Wotan played, for "Das Rheingold" only, by Johan Reuter. Nagging and bothering him is the pretty but fading Fricka of Randi Steane with a wonderful knack of curling her lips in pent-up frustration and sarcasm. An intelligent portrayal of an intelligent woman. But giving Wotan even more grief are the giants. In this production Fasolt and Fafner really are different from each other. Fafner, played by Christian Christiansen, is a gross, wheelchair-bound, bewhiskered lump, though clearly the brains of the family. Stephen Milling's Fasolt is a huge dungareed dolt of a man, his soft-hearted, doe-eyed worship of the gorgeous blonde Freia of Ann Margrethe Dahl is allowed to come through to a greater extent than we may be used to, which is good to see. But the real star of this scene, perhaps of the whole opera, is the Loge of Michael Kristensen in a wonderful piece of character acting and direction. This Loge is an impatient, nervy, seedy little man with the mother of all comb-overs. Perhaps a struck-off lawyer or a defrocked accountant. He probably gropes the girls in his office and breaks wind in the lift. He takes out his camera and notebook at every opportunity so clearly wants to cover his rear with evidence. This cut-priced consiglieri has surely rescued his boss from trouble more times than he has had hot secretaries and is about to do so again. Just before he and Wotan descend into Nibelheim to go and steal the gold, there is one more sight of Brünnhilde in the attic and then we hear the anvils and the scene changes again.

Nibelheim itself is a mad laboratory like something out of a Roger Corman B-movie, all greens and greys with Alberich in his white coat and spectacles looking like Professor Brainstawm caught in headlamps. As his younger brother Mime, Bengt-Ola Morgny, also in white coat, does not wheedle or whine as so often is the case which is very refreshing in a Mime. The Tarnhelm transformations are made by the use of a pod reminiscent of "The Fly" and the Ring is both a ring and wristlet that makes the double helix whose mark we have previously glimpsed on the severed arm back at the start. Which should set alarm bells ringing as to what might be round the corner. Our fears are justified when an extra location is added for the humiliation scene of Alberich after he is kidnapped. Chained by either arm in a circular pit-like cell, Alberich is taunted and terrorised by Wotan while Loge, showing his moral cowardice, looks on in growing horror. The Nibelungs parade past the door to witness Alberich's captivity but the final horror comes when, like the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear, we see the severing of Alberich's arm to get the Ring coming a mile off. The arm is finally cut with horrifying realism and Wotan wins his prize, but also Alberich's curse. Here we see Johan Reuter complete a transformation of Wotan from urbane paterfamilias to cruel tormentor and it is very effective indeed. He is a fine actor and his choice as Wotan for this first opera only is justified. The fact that Loge then bandages Alberich's arm before leaving signifies a degree of disgust at what his boss has done and adds a depth of character that a more traditional production would not have come within miles of doing.

Meanwhile back at Valhalla, in front of a forest curtain the prematurely ageing gods watch as Fasolt and Fafner descend with Freia on a cherry-picker and Fasolt has already dressed her in her wedding dress. But he will be disappointed when Erda, freezing the action, emerges in some fashionable finery to persuade Wotan to give the gold and ring to the brothers to save Freia from the marriage from hell. When the forest curtain raises it is to reveal Valhalla and allow Wotan and his brothers to deliver platform speeches like smug Victorian entrepreneurs. Before joining the rest of the gods on a platform lift to enter the new house, Loge produces an ancient tape recorder to play the sound of the Rhinemaidens lamenting their loss. At this point Wotan, in another striking departure from the script, kills Loge with his spear. An interesting decision by the director which will have some consequences for the plot later on, but more of that at the end of "Die Walküre".

"Die Walküre" Act 1 opens on a small, box-like set in the centre of the stage. The house of Sieglinde and Hunding is 1950s suburban bijou but with a wallpaper motif that approximates to the Swastika. Sieglinde and Siegmund convey their strange attraction through careful glances that work well in this kind of filmed production making me wonder how well they worked in the theatre. The modernity of the setting does make Siegmund's admittance into the house a little credulity-stretching, but this is the kind of ambiguity I alluded to earlier. There is a prime example in this act of how well a modern-dress production can illuminate the action, though. When Sieglinde, having decided to run off with Siegmund, emerges from the bedroom after she has drugged Hunding she carries an already-packed suitcase which touchingly exposes the tragedy of women trapped in disastrous marriages. There is also an example of the stage machinery's ability to assist the production with striking effect. With the arrival of Spring, Siegmund breaks the window with a chair and climbs into the garden with Sieglinde, at which point the set revolves 360 degrees and the lovers can then act out the rest of the Act in the open air. There will be some mutterings among some Wagnerians that this production allows Sieglinde to pull the sword from the tree, but I think this is a small point. The sword is pulled, the lovers are committed and the story of the Ring moves on. Stig Andersen as Siegmund may not have the voice-power of the great heldentenors but he is a fine actor. As too is Gitta-Maria Sjoberg as Sieglinde who catches the downtrodden wife to perfection with her fear of Hunding more powerful because of its understatement. Contrasting beautifully is the stunning performance of Hunding by Stephen Milling. A towering physical presence, he fills the stage and screen with menace every time he is on and musically provides the sonorous bass-end spectrum to this trio of an act.

The full stage comes into use for Act 2 and the "ops centre" for Valhalla where Wotan moves his Valkyries around a vast board. But notice the shelves of books either side again. On a metal bridge the new Wotan played by James Johnson drinks from his hip flask to steel himself prior to another ear-bashing from Fricka, now a fifties a la mode in a fur stole but still spitting venom. This Wotan is a Robert Maxwell-like figure, all power and prestige but redolent too of the whiff of corruption. The confrontation of the steaming-mad Fricka of Randi Steane with her wayward husband is opera stage acting at its best. This couple really do hate each other. We have already seen Brünnhilde at the beginning of "Das Rheingold" but that was unofficial. Her first official appearance sees her with hair tightly held and with two huge black wings on her back. Iréne Theorin is a commanding presence, her Brünnhilde a big girl with a big heart and a voice to match. She can play soft, though, which she needs to in the Wotan narration which Johnson delivers with calm authority.

Even though the second scene of Act 2 takes place in a forest the bookcases remain a framing presence right through which, as with the Act 1 Wotan/Fricka confrontation, is opera stage acting that could not be bettered, this time in its sincerity and close focus on the words and the implications. The fight between Siegmund and Hunding is very short. Hunding has a gang with him and Nothung simply falls in half which does rather rob the fight of some of its power. What does not lack power, though, is the final confrontation between Wotan and Hunding. Wagner's script calls for Hunding to fall dead after Wotan dismisses him. In this production Hunding stays alive to sneer and spit on the dead body of Siegmund and then leave the stage. It is not what Wagner wrote, but it is mightily effective. I would like to think that the master would have approved.

We meet the Valkyries in Act 3 up on the roof while they enjoy a night on the tiles, literally. This is our first meeting with a stage set that will become familiar. It is a rooftop apartment on a sloping roof that revolves with the action. The Valkyries themselves are the ill-mannered girls of Fricka's description: champagne-quaffing ladettes who would not look out of place on a girls' night out in the smart part of town after a hard day on the trading floors were it not for the huge black wings on their backs. After they leave the stage and Brünnhilde faces Wotan's anger the set revolves and we enter the apartment for the climactic scene between father and daughter. James Johnson's performance as the angry father who finally melts is stunning as also is Iréne Theorin's in her fear of what he has in store for her. At the climax of their great scene the moment when Wotan tears Brünnhilde's wings from her back to signify her becoming mortal is breathtaking and an inspired addition, as too are the real flames he summons to surround her as she sleeps. His summoning of Loge to make the fire does strike an odd note since you will remember Wotan killed Loge at the end of "Das Rheingold". But that will just have to be another anomaly to go with the others. We don't actually see him, after all. Pay attention to the white dove that is released, though. You will see it again.

If any part of this Ring production could bring out the comment "Eurotrash" from the, usually American, detractors of director-led opera production in the modern era it will be the first act of this "Siegfried". It's now the 1960s, man, and Siegfried is living in Dullsville with his square foster dad Mime. In fact in the notes Holten tells us it is specifically 1968 and the "Year of Love." As someone conscious in the 1960s (not a state shared by everyone then, I assure you) permit me to point out that in fact 1967 was the Summer of Haight Ashbury, reefers the size of drainpipes, John and Yoko chucking flowers at the Maharishi and Scott Mackenzie crooning in his Kaftan. Not that there appears to be much "tuning in turning on and dropping out" in the Mime household. Though the poster of Jimi Hendrix on the lad's bedroom wall certainly signifies an aspiration. Someone once said the 1960s were supposed to be all about drugs, sex and rock n' roll but that we never saw much of it down our street. I'm sure the teenaged Siegfried would agree going on this evidence. The house itself is an impressive stage set in three levels that moves up and down with the changing action: a bedroom, what used to be called a "through lounge-kitchen" and a cellar that any 60s handyman would have been proud of. This is where Nothung is reforged on Mime's DIY equipment, of course. Mime himself is replete in a hideous orange nylon purple-neck and maths teacher specs, whilst Siegfried sports Levis and a parka. Siegfried is played by Stig Andersen who also played Siegmund and so, hair lighter, he is truly the spitting image of his father. His gauche slobbing about the house and teasing of Mime is suitably heavy-handed and it wasn't long before I was put in mind of a "Steptoe and Son" (or "Sanford and Son" if you are an American reader) relationship between the two. This kind of comparison is inevitable with such 1960s imagery but it's a positive comparison because the two are held in a relationship of attraction and repulsion. They cannot live with each other, but they cannot live without each other either. The entry of Wotan/Wanderer carrying what appears to be a Pizza is a witty comment on how far the poor old chap has fallen in the world, but his important scene with Mime is as penetrating and full of menace and tension as you ever could wish for. Maybe because of the modern surroundings their dealings with one another are thrown into a new relief that is mesmerising. Two touches that I did enjoy were the part played by the TV. When Mime has a vision of Fasolt the dragon coming for him, the TV flashes and sparks. Then, when Siegfried has fashioned the sword, to show its power it is the TV set rather than an anvil that is sliced in two by him. There is a 60s metaphor for you. Andersen tires somewhat in the forging scene, but most tenors do that. The Mime of Bengt-Ola Morgny now develops into a rounded study of frustration and pettifoggery and James Johnson's Wanderer has matured and decayed at the same time.

In Act 2 Alberich is back and he has the young Hagen with him. I am not sure about the pistol shooting gestures that the young man keeps making, but he is a good dramatic addition at this point. To see the son learning from the father has implications for his proper appearance in the next drama. The set is an outdoor area around a hole in the ground. A kind of dystopic building site. Down the hole lurks Fafner and when he speaks it's through electric loudspeaker cones. Siegfried's descent into the hole for his confrontation is effected though another of those stage moments when the whole set is lifted to reveal Fafner's lair. Rather than a dragon, we see the debauched and deranged giant at a console of controls. In fact the whole of the subterranean set is reminiscent of the "Doctor Who" Tardis. Myth has here become Science Fiction but then SF is really myth retold too. The stabbing of Fafner through the back of the chair brings a death that is pitiful and not triumphant and I also liked the use of the white dove we saw at the end of "Die Walküre" to represent the Woodbird and Stig Andersen's poetic recall of his mother as the boy starts to become the hero.

For Act 3 Wotan dresses up to go and see Erda in her smart flat for their final meeting, knocking long and loud to make himself heard. But Erda has changed. Now she is old and ill and in need of care. The champagne and flowers he brings fail to revive her and he must go on his way. In his pivotal confrontation with Siegfried they meet beside a high fence but those bookcases loom either side of the stage again. Wotan breaks his own spear in a final act of contrition to the inevitable leaving Siegfried to pass through the impressive flames around the rooftop apartment familiar from the end of "Die Walküre". The awakening of Brünnhilde is a fine climax to the opera as too is the great love duet that follows. I am not sure that Iréne Theorin quite brings off the skittish girl as she contemplates the future, but this is a small point. In terms of voices both she and Stig Andersen are well up to the demands of this high point and the end of the drama is suitably optimistic and brave.

The Norns scene at the opening of "Götterdämmerung" Act 1 is one of the most memorable in the whole Ring. A scene for dramatic recap but also a dark and fascinating elegy on time and mutability. Unfortunately this is the moment where director Kasper Bech Holten's judgement fails him. I know what he is trying to do, but I think he should have thought again. The curtain stays down and three contemporary opera-fans in different parts of the audience deliver the scene as though they are discussing the opera they are watching, much to the amusement (bemusement?) of the rest of the audience who remain lit by the house lights. As a piece of Brechtian alienation it fails because it does not actually frame anything we are seeing. It tries to work on its own behalf and therefore it appears completely detached. It also tries to use humour and that is completely out of place at this point. Actually, it almost smacks of the production team saying: "Look at us, we're crazy iconoclasts !" Iconoclasts the production team may be, nothing wrong with that, but crazy they are not and it's a pity they may be giving that impression here. The Norns are not figures of mirth either. The Norns are serious women with a serious message. This scene does no favours to those of us who admire experimentation in opera production and only gives ammunition to those who will shout "Eurotrash" when they see it. But I find I do still admire Holten for trying it, all the same. You have to push the envelope, even if it sometimes splits because that way can lie real achievement. Shall we say Norn but the brave and leave it at that?

It is the 1980s when the curtains open. The rooftop apartment is bedecked with flowers and cute furnishings. A pregnant Brünnhilde in silk pyjamas is bidding farewell to a Siegfried in casuals. In his Rhine Journey we see another flashback of Brünnhilde working through the books so we are nearly up to date with the story. When the curtain opens again it's time to meet the Gibichungs. What a family! Nouveau riche trailer-trash Royalty high on "Hello" magazine photo shoots. They live luxuriously in a vast reality TV-style penthouse overlooking a harsh modern cityscape guarded by RayBan-hooded para-militaries with designer Kalashnikovs. Gunther is a Del-boy "Jack-The-Lad" replete with Saddam moustache and cocaine pallor. Guido Paevatalu performs him with a kind of rodent-caught-in-headlamps look that is both amusing and sinister all at once. His sister Gutrune is a media-savvy People's Princess, all Madonna attitude and Posh Spice bling. Image-conscious down to her catwalk combat pants and "Sex And The City" Jimmy Choo’s. Ylva Kihlberg is as slim as a willow and as sexy as a teenage girl band and she plays a very different Gutrune from what we are used to in a character usually overlooked as an incidental. Musically she is sweet and clear, a striking but apt contrast to the effortless sex pot we see in front of us. Peter Klaveness's Hagen is a paramilitary knife-fetishist with his father's grey hair and his own line in decadent sneer. Not the usual one-dimensional, black-hearted villain we know from other productions. This man thinks and waits and plots but is still one vassal short of a pillage party. In voice terms you will have heard stronger singers, but he is a superb actor and in a production like this that carries much. The arrival of Siegfried breaks the affluent boredom of these cut-priced Rodeo Drive Ruritanians wide open. Seeing her chance, Gutrune withdraws and returns in a slinky black number off the peg of Versace or Stella McCartney. Like the Angel of Death in Prada she pouts and tempts poor old Siegfried to drink the forget wine as he drools down her cleavage. But not before he uses his cell phone to leave a message on Brünnhilde's voicemail. ("Aw, bless !") While Gutrune proceeds to get jiggy with the Walsung, Hagen drinks only designer water and watches as his plans begin to take shape. Then while Siegfried and Gunther make off to fool and bring back Brünnhilde he sits down and waits, amusing himself by seeing how long he can hold his bare hand over the flame of his cigarette lighter. (As you do.) This whole scene is absolutely riveting. The ideas and imaginative touches that have gone into it are formidable. You will either love it or hate it, nothing in between, but I think as an exercise in making you rethink what you might think you know it fulfils that crucial criteria for a new opera production - it takes you deeper into the drama than you have been before. There's still more. Back at the flat Brünnhilde is visited by her Valkyrie sister, Waltraute. Here Waltraute is a Yuppie city girl, earnestly and intelligently sung by Annette Bod, with black Louis Vuitton case and a smart tailored suit under her wings. After she has gone, the transformation by Tarnhelm of Siegfried into Gunther is effected by Paevatalu miming to an off stage Andersen and then a quick switch behind a scenery wall for the final reveal. The whole of this difficult but crucial final scene is laced with menace and power and you won't forget it in a hurry. The taking of Brünnhilde is cruel, almost arbitrary, and all the more memorable for that. It brings the immense first act to a terrific conclusion. I was hardly aware that the time had passed and that is a great compliment in this huge span of music drama.

We are underground in a store room for Hagen's watch as Act 2 begins. He dreams, but we see him being coached by his father Alberich in what has gone and what will come. He stands at a blackboard where he has drawn a flowchart to show every event and character in the scheme for them both to rule the world. At the end of the scene Hagen kills Alberich and then wipes the blackboard. Again, this not in the script but it works because it accentuates the cruelty of Hagen and his all-or-nothing mentality that will carry him to his end. When the scene changes we are back high above the city. There are flash cars parked at the edge of the vista. Hagen calls his men by walkie-talkie. Then in a chorus of gratuitous violence based, the director tells us, on Bosnian paramilitaries, drink and cocaine-fuelled they murder and threaten rape of dragged-on hostages prior to the nuptials of Siegfried and Gutrune adding to the menace that surrounds the Gibichung "court". Brünnhilde's arrival in a cloak that covers her bump does nothing to stop the wedding from hell. Siegfried in a sharp dinner jacket and Gutrune in a white (!) wedding dress make merry with the bride's girlfriends and their flashbulbs while Hagen glowers. The principals then give an inspired account of the oath scene and by now the drama is hurtling towards its concluding act.

The Rhinemaidens have aged considerably when they appear at the start of Act 3. Now they are bag ladies living in urban squalor beneath a cold underpass. But the real drama awaits with the death of Siegfried. Stig Andersen's telling of his own story to Hagen's men is moving and lyrical and so his death is suitably sudden and shocking. However, the real innovation is that his dying speech to Brünnhilde is delivered directly to her as she appears before him as if in a vision. So Holten interprets literally what is in the words rather than what is in the stage directions and so he makes sense of Brünnhilde's later knowledge that he was faithful to her all the time. It is during the funeral march, when we see Brünnhilde still on stage alone with the body of Siegfried, that we then realise we are up to date with the action. We have now reached the exact moment where "Das Rheingold" began with Brünnhilde in the library trying to make sense of the past. A cyclorama projection has jet aircraft flying in formation as she screams realising the truth of what has brought her here. The books have delivered the truth at last. In the short scene that follows where Gutrune waits for Siegfried's return, the people's princess is in a silk dressing gown on a sofa clutching her mobile phone. You want her to sing about there being three people in her marriage, but all she hears is Brünnhilde going out. When the party returns, Hagen shoots Gunther dead but Brünnhilde takes the gun and causes Hagen to flee in turn. Then, like Prospero, it is her books that Brünnhilde now burns as her pyre. To liberate herself from her past she has to destroy it first. She holds her father's hand as he dies, she reconciles with Gutrune and a terrific feat of pyrotechnics is then staged which sees Hagen falling through a trap ablaze, the lift that we saw the gods ascend to Valhalla in "Das Rheingold" descending with their silhouettes like torches and, most important of all, the survival of Brünnhilde. Maybe this is the most controversial change from the script in the whole of this Ring production. Leaving Brünnhilde to live, after the fire has gone seeing her all alone on a clear, white-light stage holding her new-born baby (a real baby!) is the final piece of "framing" that makes this Ring Brünnhilde's story. As a statement pinning the production's central idea it is breathtaking in its audacity, in its sheer arrogance even. In its own terms it works triumphantly. As a representation of Wagner's written intentions it is, of course, controversial. My opinion ? I'll take controversy this time. Next time, she dies. Iréne Theorin's singing of the Immolation scene is the crowning glory it needs to be. Hers is one of the great Brünnhildes of the present time and I was deeply moved by her performance as I was by the whole staging of the final scenes. Kasper Bech Holten and his team succeeded in binding together the whole four operas with a unifying idea which, controversial and challenging it may be, succeeds. Not the only solution, but a formidable one to be treasured.

The setting of each opera in a different twentieth century decade also succeeds triumphantly in giving the impression of time passing, which can often be a problem with Rings seen in one performance. It also does what all good modern dress productions do and that is relate the basic truths of what is being enacted onstage to us the audience, to our own lives and our own times and so assists in understanding and involvement. There really is also a sense of fascination to see what will happen next that holds the attention through the longest spans. With a cast of actors so clearly ready to go with the production and who have also obviously been prepared to work hard with their director you have a 20th century morality play to return to. Then, of course, there is also still the music.

Michael Schønwandt is a fine, dramatic Wagnerian conductor. Tempi are faster than some, but not too fast and suit the way that the action unfolds onstage. It is a reading of the score clearly tailored to its production: something that is not always the case. He knows when to surge and when to hold back within the parameters he has set himself. His orchestra, whilst not in the Bayreuth Festival class for Barenboim and Boulez, have some excellent soloists and a string section that can ride pretty well everything the brass has behind them. They do the raw, dirty end of the music well also.

The sound recording is rich and detailed. I was only able to listen to the LPCM stereo track not the DTS Surround Sound, but the balance between orchestra and singers seemed ideal with just enough air around the rich overall sound. I did not feel the need to intervene with any of the effects my DVD player has in its sound menu. There are inevitably some problems from time to time. With such a radically action-packed production being recorded "live" singers do sometimes fail to get caught completely by the sound engineers before order is restored. The Ride of the Valkyries, for example, suffers from some overload problems as the engineers fight to keep control, but these are only short patches and in a way they add to the feeling of "being there" which counts a lot for me. The video picture is a wonder to behold. Even though there are many close-ups of the singers there are enough wide shots to take in the spectacle, so watch on as big a screen as you can for the sharpest of images. There are excellent notes to each opera by Henrik Engelbrecht and Kasper Bech-Holten and all the usual subtitles are available on the discs.

This is the Wagnerian ride of your life. Take it.

Tony Duggan

see also review by Goran Forsling August RECORDING Of THE MONTH


 


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