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Opera on DVD

Der Ring des Nibelungen, Wagner

Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde), Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (Sieglinde), Ylva Kihlberg (Gutrune/Wellgunde/Gerhilde), Anne Margrethe Dahl (Freia/Third Norn), Giselle Stille (Woodbird), Dijna Mai-Mai (Woglinde), Elisabeth Meyer-Topsoe (Wellgunde), Randi Stene (Fricka), Anette Bod (Waltraute), Susanne Resmark (Erda/First Norn), Hanna Fischer (Flosshilde/Waltraute/Second Norn), Emma Vetter (Helmwige), Carolina Sandgren (Ortlinde), Anna Rydberg (Siegrune), Elisabeth Jansson (Rossweise), Elisabeth Halling (Grimgerde), Ulla Kudsk Jensen (Schwertleite/Flosshilde), Michael Kristensen (Loge), Bengt-Ola Morgny (Mime), Johnny van Hal (Froh), Stig Andersen (Siegmund/Siegfried), Hans Lewaetz (Donner), Guido Paevatalu (Gunther), Johan Reuter/James Johnson (Wotan), Sten Byriel (Alberich), Stephen Milling (Fasolt/Hunding), Christian Christiansen (Fafner), Peter Klaveness (Hagen). Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Danish Opera, c. Michael Schønwandt, p. Kasper Bech Holten, d. Marie í Dali and Steffen Aarfing, video director Uffe Borgwardt. Decca 074 3264 (920 minutes)

In a discussion with the opera enthusiast Queen Margrethe II of Denmark included on one of the Walküre DVDs, the director of the Copenhagen Ring, Kasper Bech Holten, reveals that its staging will not be repeated. So this intelligently filmed version, made live in May 2006, represents an enduring record of its remarkable achievement. Conducted with distinction by Michael Schønwandt, never less than finely sung and often outstandingly so, and acted with comprehensive commitment and insight, this landmark in Denmark’s operatic life—it was Copenhagen’s first Ring since 1912—will surely appeal widely in this format.

The production itself, naturally, has its controversial elements—any Ring of conviction by a contemporary director is bound to have. But while individual moments may seem perverse and are likely to provoke more than they persuade, and even the overall thesis has a modish tinge to it, the consistency with which the enterprise is carried through, together with the obvious thoughtfulness of the result, both fascinate.

The packaging is generally good, though Stewart Spencer’s English surtitles have been misattributed to Lionel Salter. As Holten explains in one of his booklet notes, this is essentially Brünnhilde’s Ring. The cycle opens with her searching Valhalla’s archive of documents and trophies for clues as to how things came to end up as they have, seen from her position near the end of Götterdämmerung. The very final image finds her still alive, having escaped the conflagration, and holding a newborn baby—Siegfried’s child—in her arms. Given a certain feminist outlook to the cycle as a whole—in Die Walküre, it is Sieglinde rather than Siegmund who pulls the sword from the tree—it’s presumably a girl.

Even if at first sight there’s a hint of the fashionable about this, the seriousness with which the female characters’ views are represented throughout adds to the cycle’s rich complex of meanings—certainly for a male viewer. That all of the singers have clearly understood Holten’s intentions and backed them to the hilt is also abundantly evident.

Some of Holten’s rewrites are more contentious, not only because they contradict Wagner, or at least add a heavy gloss to his original, but also because they limit rather than expand on what his work can signify. Wotan killing Loge with his spear at the end of Rheingold is one example, partly because it’s nonsensical, but also because it closes off the notion of the fire god abandoning his divine colleagues to become a freer agent. Hagen killing Alberich at the end of their scene in Götterdämmerung is another, because he’s the one major character whose fate is not clearly finished. Arguably, he’s a survivor of the catastrophe, with potentially further havoc to wreak. Maybe his possible continuance would have jarred with Holten’s optimistic mother-and-child end-image. If so, Wagner’s nagging doubt is surely preferable in its ambiguity.

Holten’s is a time-conscious production, with the characters visibly ageing between the first three operas. Johan Reuter’s young and impulsive Wotan in Das Rheingold is even replaced by the older and marvellously sung version offered by James Johnson in the later operas. The period progresses from the 1930s for Rheingold to the Cold War for Walküre, the emblematic year 1968 for Siegfried and the 1990s for Götterdämmerung, where Hagen and his vassals echo the Serb nationalist warlord Arkan and his genocidal paramilitaries in the Bosnian conflict. Little of the resulting imagery jars seriously, though exactly who the sophisticated and exotically fur-clad Erda is in what looks like an upmarket Agatha Christie Rheingold setting (Murder on the Rhine Express?) remains inscrutable.

The orchestral playing is of a very high standard—only in the hugely demanding prelude to Act 3 of Siegfried are there noticeable moments of uncultivated string tone—and if Schønwandt’s conducting needs a more vivid sense of character in Rheingold, his fast-tempo realization works extremely well elsewhere. Vocally, the main players are formidable, with Iréne Theorin’s accurate and tireless Brünnhilde an even match for Stig Andersen’s genuine Heldentenor contributions, which offer a sentient masculinity for Siegmund and a comprehensively commanding and physically youthful (except maybe in close-up) Siegfried. But he certainly looks nothing like 56, which was his actual age at the time, and his acting is as finely wrought as his singing. The Fricka, Loge, Alberich, Mime, Sieglinde, Hunding, Gunther and Gutrune would grace any production. Peter Klaveness does not supply an ideal bass gravitas for Hagen but he’s quite the nastiest exponent of the role one could encounter. This is a wonderful Ring to watch as well as to listen to, a must-have for Wagnerians anywhere.

GEORGE HALL

 

Wexford Festival 2014
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine