Royal Swedish Opera Complete Ring Cycle

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Das Rheingold [Preliminary Evening]:
Wotan – Terje Stensvold
Donner – Johan Edholm
Froh – Klas Hedlund
Loge – Thomas Sunnegårdh
Fricka – Martina Dike
Freia – Sara Olsson
Erda – Anna Larsson
Alberich – Ketil Hugaas
Mime – Niklas Björling Rygert
Fasolt – Hans-Peter König
Fafner – Lennart Forsén
Woglinde – Karin Ingebäck
Wellgunde – Susann Végh
Flosshilde – Karin Lovelius

Die Walküre [First Day]:
Siegmund – Endrik Wottrich
Sieglinde – Nina Stemme
Hunding – Hans-Peter König
Wotan – Terje Stensvold
Fricka – Martina Dike
Brünnhilde – Caroline Whisnant
Gerhilde – Agneta Lundgren
Ortlinde – Lena Hoel
Waltraute – Martina Dike
Helmwige – Sara Olsson
Siegrune – Karin Lovelius
Gringerde – Eva Pilat
Schwertleite – Kristina Martling
Rossweisse – Marianne Eklöf

Siegfried [Second Day]:
Siegfried – Lars Cleveman
Mime – Niklas Björling Rygert
The Wanderer – Terje Stensvold
Alberich – Ketil Hugaas
Fafner – Lennart Forsén
Erda – Anna Larsson
Wood-Bird – Marianne Hellgren Staykov
Brünnhilde – Katarina Dalayman

Götterdämmerung [Third Day]:
Siegfried – Lars Cleveman
Gunther – Gabriel Suovanen
Gutrune – Lena Nordin
Hagen – Hans-Peter König
Alberich – Ketil Hugaas
Brünnhilde – Katarina Dalayman
Waltraute – Helene Ranada
Woglinde – Karin Ingebäck
Wellgunde – Susann Végh
Flosshilde – Karin Lovelius
First Norn – Helene Ranada
Second Norn – Marianne Eklöf
Third Norn – Annalena Persson

Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Stockholm
Gregor Bühl

Staffan Valdemar Holm – Director
Stefan Johansson – Dramaturg
Bente Lykke Møller – Design and costumes
Torben Lendorph – Lighting

[Performances: 23rd, 26th, 29th January and 2nd February 2008]

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 23 January, 2008
Venue: Royal Opera House, Stockholm

This was the second cycle in the first run of three complete cycles of Stockholm’s new Ring production that has been gradually built up over the past three years. The setting of this unusual production starts in the early-to-mid 19th century and moves gradually forward in time over the four operas to a culmination point around the start of the First World War, although the start of every act in the cycle was always initiated with the orchestral introduction being played to a black front curtain with the names of the four operas in large Gothic script and the opera of the evening being more strongly lit. This provided a sense of continuity between acts and evenings.

After the “Rheingold” Prelude the curtain opens to reveal a large room with walls dominated by display cabinets in which various objects are mounted. These include many Wagner and Ring symbols and artefacts such as a golden ball, a bust of the composer, an anvil, a Wagner tuba, a horn, a sword, a spear, stuffed ravens, a bear, apples, a frog, winged helmets, a valkyrie breastplate and so on. Above the cabinets were framed pictures of recognisably Wagnerian scenes as might have been encountered on stages at the time of the work’s premiere. Thus described it probably sounds rather kitsch, but manages to avoid being so. At the back of the room were two windows, through which an animated underwater riverscape film/computer projection was visible with fish, river plants etc. Indeed, in all the settings for the various acts there were windows and doors from which this virtual, ever-changing outside world could be seen.

The Rhinemaidens (Karin Ingebäck, Karin Lovelius och Susann Végh) in 'Das Rheingold'. Photograph: Mats Bäcker Kungliga OperanThe Rhinemaidens were dressed as three adolescent girls of the period, with checked dresses and hair tied in ringlets. The watery setting was evoked by their swimming movements in play. Into this room stumbles Alberich, dressed as a schoolboy with Eton collar and three-quarter-length trousers; thus is the theme of loss of innocence introduced. Alberich is teased and repulsed by the maidens who become increasingly reckless and eventually steal the gold ball from one of the display cabinets.

In this production the scenic changes were generally managed behind curtains and so were invisible to the audience. The “mountain top” scene where the gods are first encountered was played in a bare waiting room with five doorways at the back and further ones to the sides. The animated back-projections were of clouds and sky; at the end the rainbow bridge following Donner’s storm was clearly visible through the doors.

The gods themselves also wore the mid 18th century costumes of the bourgeoisie. This is obviously not the first time this has been done (one thinks of the Bayreuth Chereau production of the 1970s that was the first to be televised worldwide), but here it makes the point that the gods are bound by laws and conventions of their time. Since so much of the Ring is about the breaking of moral codes, this makes wonderful sense.

As the giants arrive they are dressed in brown worker’s garments, their size suggested by the fact that their clothes seemed undersized. The direction of “Rhinegold” and all the later operas, bar perhaps the second act of “Siegfried”, told the story straight and with admirable narrative clarity. After many of the over-complicated and sometimes over-directed modern setting productions, this comes as something of a shock. This in no way meant the production was unsatisfying dramatically; more that it was refreshingly direct.

There was much humour in this “Rhinegold” as well, one moment being when Fricka tries to prevent the abduction of Freia by blocking the doorway, only to be greeted with extreme mirth on the part of Fasolt. The Freia/Fasolt relationship was also very strongly delineated. He was obviously a gentle giant and absolutely besotted with her; she was evidently attracted to him physically, even if prevented by her status from acting on this. On her return after her being taken hostage it was immediately apparent that their relationship had deepened. He was devastated at having to give her up and she was distraught at his subsequent murder.

The youthful Fricka/Wotan relationship in “Rheingold” was also an unusually harmonious one. Loge was less the wily, sardonic schemer and more the agent provocateur in his dealings with gods, giants and nibelungs. There was a nice touch as he ignited a fire outside one of the side doors of the waiting room as the gods started to make their way to Valhalla – a strong inference that this was the start of the final conflagration to come. Alberich’s Nibelheim was a dark industrial setting with a fiery furnace visible through the window, the corrupted youth of the first scene now the unfeeling, power-obsessed industrial magnate. When invisible, his voice was transmitted through speakers into various pockets around the auditorium, sometimes sounding behind one – quite disturbing.

Terje Stensvold as Wotan in 'Das Rheingold'. Photograph: Mats Bäcker Kungliga Operan Throughout this Ring there were some impressive vocal and dramatic performances. “Rhinegold” was properly dominated by the first encounter with Terje Stensvold’s authoritative and handsomely sung Wotan. The voice is rich, powerful and even right throughout its range, with the high bass-baritone moments gloriously free-sounding, and it carries with apparently effortless ease and power into the auditorium. He also sings with a firm and lyrical sense of line and there is no evidence of “barking” whatsoever. It promised much for the following operas. Stensvold’s straightforward interpretation relies much on text and facial demeanour rather than physical dominance, though his height is an asset too.

Hans-Peter König as Fasolt in 'Das Rheingold'. Photograph: Mats BäckerAlso impressive was the warm, sonorous bass displayed by Hans-Peter König’s Fasolt. Martine Dike’s youthful and feisty Fricka revealed a warm and sizeable mezzo, while Anna Larsson’s lustrous mellow Erda was luxury casting indeed. Thomas Sunnegårdh’s big voiced Loge and Ketil Hugaas’s incisive Alberich made big impressions; Lennart Forsén’s heartless Fafner was strong too. Add to this a vocally delectable and harmonious trio of Rhinemaidens, strongly-sung minor gods and an extraordinarily physical performance from Niklas Björling Rygert as Mime and you have as good a “Rhinegold” cast as I think it would be hard to assemble anywhere in the world. That all bar König hail from Nordic/Scandinavian countries says something about the strengths of singers in this part of the world.

“Die Walküre” was preceded, again against the black curtain, by a blistering account of the Prelude. The staging of the first act was relatively conventional, set in a dark, soulless and claustrophobic dining hall, with racks of plates on all walls and glimpses of a forest beyond. The performance had a special charge in dramatic terms as Nina Stemme’s vocally resplendent Sieglinde became the focus. More immediately attracted to her Siegmund than is often the case, Stemme’s detailed acting made this entire act particularly memorable. She’s one of those artists you watch even when she’s not singing, so dramatically reactive and compelling is she. ‘Der Manne sippe’ was enthralling.

Endrik Wottrich (Siegmund) in 'Die Walküre'. Photograph: Mats BäckerAs Siegmund, Endrik Wottrich was virile in appearance but less alluring vocally – he sometimes sounds a little constricted and nasal, as if the voice is not resonating as it should. Hans-Peter König made another appearance as Hunding, surrounded by henchmen, and if his voice here was too “warm” sounding and his general demeanour rather genial for the character it was certainly a pleasure to listen to.

Act Two was set in a painting bedecked red-walled study with a billiard table and French windows revealing a mountain landscape in the distance. Once again we met the assured and confident Wotan of Stensvold, meeting his match in the now forceful Fricka of Martina Dike. Costume had now moved to late 19th century. The dramatic interplay of the pair’s pivotal duet was very compelling and Fricka’s breaking of Wotan’s billiard cue an interesting presage of the breaking of his spear that is the ultimate result of his complying with her demands. There was also a frisson as she gave him a very aggressive and forthright kiss on the lips on her departure, having just been arguing about the sanctity and beauty of marriage.

Brünnhilde was sung by the American soprano Caroline Whisnant, standing in for a possibly indisposed Katarina Dalayman (no announcement was made). Having sung at several earlier performances of the production, Whisnant was dramatically at ease and presented a credible character that interacted well with Stensvold, during his long narration, and later with Wottrich during the Todesverkundigung. Her initial ‘Ho-jo-to-ho’’s were splendidly loud and reassuring, although at certain times her vibrato was a little distracting. Stensvold’s majestic account of the narration was sung with ease and with a dynamic range that was breathtaking. Similarly, Stemme was absolutely riveting when reacting to the battle of Hunding and Siegmund. Unusually, this entire confrontation occurred off-stage, the surviving characters reappearing in the room to make their several departures.

Terje Stensvold (Wotan) with the Valkyries. Photograph: Mats Bäcker Kungliga Operan Act Three gave us the valkyries, all dressed in black, turn-of-the-century riding costumes, with little top hats and riding crops instead of spears. What a pleasant change from the black leather clad necrophiliacs that have almost become de rigueur. To actually see all the horses running across the plain outside through the window was another wonderful touch. In addition, the rivalries between the various heroes (Sintold and Wittig) had evidently continued into their afterlife – another example of the director’s adherence to the text. The valkyries were a strong-voiced bunch and the remaining three protagonists reached top form. Whisnant seemed more relaxed, and her unaccompanied ‘War es so schmälich’ was sung really piano and with simplicity. The staging of the farewell was unusually different. Once Brünnhilde was asleep the other gods seen in “Rhinegold”, Donner and Froh, brought in the armour, helmet and spear with which she is protected. Apparently those used here were the same the late Birgit Nilsson wore in her first production at this opera house. Fricka is also on hand to lead Wotan away and only Loge is left standing over the sleeping warrior protecting her in fire. This performance was greeted ecstatically with a long lasting standing ovation and rhythmic hand clapping for both cast and orchestra.

Which brings us to mention those in the pit. The young German conductor Gregor Bühl led his players through a fleet and exciting account of the entire score. “Rhinegold” had the pace and variety it needs, and the prelude and the final entry of the gods in Valhalla were the exciting start and climax they should be. The string sound was light and transparent yet only rarely lacking lushness. Some of the woodwind playing was simply staggering. The oboe in “Rhinegold” had a wonderfully mellow and sonorous quality that made one realise how crucial that part is, and in the first act of “Die Walküre” the clarinet and lower string playing as Siegmund and Sieglinde first become silently attracted to one another was beautifully judged. Just occasionally in Act 2 of “Die Walküre”, Bühl’s tempi seemed slightly deliberate and inflexible. This affected Wottrich slightly in the Todesverkundigung. Overall, voices could always be heard.

Lars Cleveman in 'Siegfried'. Photograph: Mats Bäcker Kungliga OperanThe orchestra was at its ebullient best in “Siegfried”, particularly in the first two acts. Indeed here it was the star of the show, with all the complex interplay of themes being realised with great clarity. The forest murmurs had tenderness and a richness that was coupled with a sense of underlying tension and danger. The woodwind playing during Alberich and Mime’s interplay was pin-point accurate too. Mention should be made of the horncall playing of Annamia Eriksson. The instrumentalists’ exceptional playing was a godsend, as sadly the first two acts of “Siegfried” found the director evidently struggling. The setting for Mime’s forest hut was a dark room within the forest dominated by a huge long table that straddled the stage and prevented much movement from the singers. Rarely did they venture in front of it, although they inevitably sounded rather better when they did so. Much of the light and shade disappeared and the act emerged as three long and rather similarly paced duets. The arrival of Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer, together with two ravens and, later, wolves outside, brought some focus, but one felt rather sorry for Lars Cleveman and Niklas Björling Rygert, both evidently accomplished performers, who struggled to bring much variety to their interplay. Whilst they fared better once in the forest of Act Two, the director here had a large group of extras seated on chairs in front of Fafner’s lair. Sometimes they provided a sort of commentary by movement, fluttering hands to depict birds or twiddling flowers during the murmurs, but it was distracting rather than helpful. The appearance of one meandering pregnant lady was totally baffling to this reviewer.

Ketil Hugaas and Niklas Björling Rygert in 'Siegfried'. Photograph: Mats Bäcker Kungliga OperanPoor Lennart Forsén had to play Fafner as a sort of vaudeville performer, confined to a stage at the back and singing through an old fashioned voice megaphone. He was too far back to make the vocal impact he was undoubtedly capable of. Niklas Björling Rygert’s Mime was superb in this act with his bright character tenor and vivid enacting of the dwarf’s duplicitous nature coming humorously to the fore. He deserved his ovation at the end of the evening. Lars Cleveman found more vocal light and shade as Siegfried than he had in the first act, and even if his voice is on the light side he coped admirably. His Siegfried could perhaps be more smiling and relaxed in the forest, but that is a small cavil.

Cleveman got to the end of the long evening remarkably unscathed, no mean feat since, in the last act, the musical and dramatic temperature suddenly rose, leaving a stunned audience giving the cast and orchestra another standing ovation. The setting of the first scene of this final act was outside a theatre, with a representation of the Royal Opera’s Golden Hall being visible through the window. The movement group became rich audience members entering the building to emerge inside the hall at a society function but totally ignoring Wotan and Erda in passing.Anna Larsson as Erda in 'Das Rheingold'. Photograph: Mats BäckerPresumably this was meant to depict the growing irrelevance of the gods to the human race. We could not ignore them though, as the magnificent and impassioned singing of Anna Larsson and Terje Stensvold in this scene was extraordinary. Stensvold ended his vocal participation in the cycle with the apparent ease and tirelessness he had throughout. It is hard to recall a Wotan who had made the entire role sound so beautiful and so effortless. Given that this is reportedly his first assumption of the part and that he has taken it on rather late in his career, one could not help feeling privileged to be hearing perhaps one of the greatest and most underrated Wotans of our time.

Staffan Valdemar Holm seemed to have recovered his directorial touch in this act and the Siegfried/ Wotan encounter, observed by Erda alone within the Golden Hall. Her emergence into the projected hall had made the other people leave, the film gradually turning from colour to black and white as she did so. This scene was very strong, with the defeated Wanderer actually embracing his grandson as he sends him on his way. Brünnhilde, sung by the recovered Katarina Dalayman, was awoken by Siegfried in a room that was now contaminated by fumes and dirt from the industrial landscape that had replaced the green prairie of the end of “Die Walküre”. It was a nice touch to have Siegfried encounter Loge still guarding the sleeping valkyrie, who bowed and doffed his hat to him before he departed. Dalayman, with her velvety lower register and bright top captured all the anxieties and relief of her character most believably and affectingly and her final duet with Cleveman was very intense. If her voice does not have the amplitude and glittering brilliance of more traditional Brünnhildes she brings a femininity and emotional range that is very apposite to this particular part of the role.

A scene from Götterdämmerung. Photograph: Mats Bäcker And so to “Götterdämmerung”. To say that this performance ended the cycle in style is an understatement. Some of the director’s unclear intentions in the earlier operas were here fully realised, and some aspects of the story were emphasised afresh. The use of the projections was greater in this work, and they were generally there to remind one of events in the past operas or events that were described in the text. All these filmic episodes were in black and white, with the fuzziness of cinematic images of the early 20th century, the period where the costuming and designs told us we now were. Watched by characters still living, it seemed to be saying that the exploits of gods and monsters are aspects of the past and irrelevant to the human present and future.

The three middle-aged norns sang their narrations to cinematic representations of their younger selves dancing in folk costumes. All three sang well, though Marianne Eklöf’s Second Norn really stood out, making one realise that this particular norn has the most dramatic narrations of the trio. Annalena Persson’s Third Norn had all the notes but lacked the beauty of tone the part really needs.

Then the scene moved to Brünnhilde’s rock where we found Siegfried and Brünnhilde in a cinema-type auditorium almost reviewing their past relationship (as they do in the text) on screen in black-and-white. Both were in good voice, though again Cleveman’s hero was periodically rather unsmiling. The orchestra gave an exciting and extremely propulsive account of the Siegfried’s journey down the Rhine. When we got to the Gibichung’s hall we encountered the huge Hagen of Hans-Peter König, acted with apparent bonhomie but with a chilling malevolence lurking beneath. His interpretation was truly sung and not barked throughout, while his brooding watch and his Act Two summoning of the vassals were demonstrative of his superb dynamic control – a thrilling performance.

Gunther and Gutrune were portrayed as emotionally retarded as well as physically afflicted – both walked with sticks, and she occasionally needed support from nurses or the assistance of a wheelchair. This emphasised their weakness of character and purpose as well. Gabriel Suovanen was an attractively voiced Gunther and Lena Nordin displayed a fine and colourful voice that captured all the varying emotions of this generally rather musically uninteresting character. She managed also to make Gutrune’s lines more lyrical than is usually the case – one actually had some sympathy for the character, particularly when her Act 2 wedding plans were so thoroughly disrupted by Brünnhilde’s arrival. Indeed her relief as Siegfried swore his oath on Hagen’s spear and her subsequent shock when Brünnhilde followed suit were nice touches, as was Dalayman’s “hands over ears” reaction to the cheers of the Gibichungs when Brünnhilde first appeared within their hall. Cleveman and Dalayman sang their respective oaths thrillingly. On the return to Brünnhilde’s rock we encountered the vivid Waltraute of Helene Ranada, who had also sung the First Norn. The black-and-white films showed the past events she referred to as well as providing pictorial images of Wotan awaiting his doom. The direction here allowed one to really focus on the text and the narrative.

It was the final act that really impressed. The Rhinemaidens cajoling of Siegfried mirrored their treatment of Alberich in “Das Rhinegold”. This was very vividly emphasised and was a worrying indication that they might not have learned their lesson. Siegfried’s narration of his past life at the end of the hunt was enacted on a stage at the back of the cinema auditorium setting. It felt like an uncanny reprise of the death of Fafner in “Siegfried”, the last protagonist to succumb to the curse. Cleveman sang his final moments with a lyricism that capped his performance overall. The orchestra responded with an extraordinarily pacy yet serious account of the funeral march, with vivid interplay of all the thematic material it contains. The final scene in the Gibichung Hall was also fast moving, with Hagen’s murder of Gunther very nasty, Hagen wiping his dagger in a manner reminiscent of the way that Hunding had done when Siegmund was killed in “Die Walküre”. Brünnhilde’s immolation was beautifully and rather quietly voiced by Katarina Dalayman – and how often can one say that this whole passage is so sung? Rarely! She still has the necessary reserves for the climaxes but never blasts these either – they are perfectly integrated into the performance as a whole. She is a natural performer with a strong and appealing stage presence. For the most part she was alone on stage, although on her command various important props such as the spear, horn and helmet were carried across the stage (perhaps to be put back in the display cases in the museum?). The projections brought all the strands of the story together. Initially there was a projection of the Rhine, but the scene transformed to the initial setting of the start of the cycle and Brünnhilde handed the Ring back to the Rhinemaidens on screen who placed it back in the display case it was originally taken from. Then, and most movingly of all, we saw Wotan’s face on the screen as Brünnhilde bade farewell to him, a tear trickling down his face before the image burst into flames, leaving Brünnhilde alone in front of the now calm Rhine and walking slowly towards the audience as the curtain fell.

The performance was greeted with a long standing ovation once more, with the entire orchestra also joining cast and chorus and conductor on stage as well – a true gesture of company and ensemble. Many aspects remain in the memory but the refreshing interpretation, Hans-Peter König’s Fasolt and Hagen, Stemme’s Sieglinde, Dalayman’s Brünnhilde, Buhl’s conducting, and above all Stensvold’s pivotal Wotan remain strong in recall. The production was being filmed at these performances and so will be widely seen by those not able to attend performances.

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