Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen

Royal Danish Opera/Michael Schonwandt (Decca 074 3265)

22 July 2009 4 stars

The RingGiven the spread of feminist literature on opera, and of feminist opera productions, it was probably only a matter of time before someone tackled Wagner's Ring Cycle from a feminist point of view.

And yet on second thoughts, Kasper Bech Holten's production of the Ring from the Royal Danish Opera, newly released on DVD in individual instalments after a complete release last year, seems incredibly daring and controversial. Though Wagner's women are obviously complex and important components of his music dramas, to present the composer's biggest project from the point of view of a woman requires a stretch of the imagination. Traditionally, Wagner has been seen as the most masculine of composers, metaphorically ‘killing off' his women by submerging them with his masculine orchestra, sacrificing his women to redeem the male characters' sexuality. More specifically, the Ring is usually portrayed as the story of Wotan, father of the gods; even in Götterdämmerung, when he's no longer present in the story, his music continues to linger and dominate.

But not in Holten's concept. Until the final scene, the cycle is staged as a flashback. At the start of Rheingold, Brünnhilde is seen tiptoeing through a dark attic by candlelight. According to the onscreen description of her actions, she has just betrayed her lover, Siegfried, and is in the attic to leaf through the photograph albums and discover the truth behind her family and her past, to help understand how she became the person she is now.

We're then taken back to the Rhinemaidens' scene. Kasper sets the cycle in the twentieth century, starting in the 1920s and moving on a generation for each opera so that the gods' family tree is explored right back to its origins. The Maidens are flappers, and the gold is represented by a naked male youth swimming around in a fish tank. When Alberich steals the gold, he rips out the boy's heart, and the purity of the ‘gold' is ‘tarnished' forever. The decadence of this period is ideal for the arrogance of Wotan in Rheingold and indeed the general atmosphere of self-indulgence. The scenes between the gods take place in the settlement of some kind of archaeological dig, a reference to the invasion of Tutankhamen's tomb in the 1920s. With its gripping Personenregie, the production is filmed cinematically, and moments such as Wotan's theft of the gold from Alberich in a torture chamber are intensely dark in conception.

Less convincing are Holten's ambiguously-motivated impositions on the text. Why does Wotan kill Loge at the end of Rheingold? Why does Hagen kill Alberich? It's one thing to add the prologue with Brünnhilde in the attic, but quite another to change the story completely. I was less than enchanted with the staging of the first act of Walküre, where Hunding's hut is a rather twee little house that revolves with Siegmund and Sieglindeas they go out into the garden. The feminist aspect of the production takes an eccentric direction when it's Sieglinde rather than Siegmund who removes Notung from the tree, thereby explicitly contradicting the text when Siegmund says that he is freeing the sword.

We're now in the Cold War of the 1950s, when everything has gone stale, and the ambience of a long, silent wait suits the style of monologue found in the second and third acts rather well. The feminist reading works better with Brünnhilde's intervention at the close of the act, and the intensity between her and Wotan in the third act highlights her Electra complex; the moment when Wotan removes Brünnhilde's wings and takes away her freedom is chilling.

The Year of Love, 1968, provides the setting for Holten's Siegfried. The idea here is to show Siegfried as a young man who's part of a new generation that rejects the controlling power of its forebears and instead impose its own beautiful dreams on the world. But of course, such dreams are flawed and naive, and Holten's nightmare vision ensures that we can see the weakness that lies behind Siegfried's strength. The claustrophobia of Mime's household is too much for him, and his need to break free is inexorable.

This gives way to a modern scene of corruption in Götterdämmerung, where the Gibichungs dwell in moral bankruptcy. One really does feel that the world is bound to collapse with such sinister figures in charge, and Holten makes allusions to the atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia to heighten the atmosphere. Another imposition on the text made in the final opera is that Brünnhilde is pregnant by Siegfried, in direct contradiction to Wagner's scheme. At the close, Brünnhilde is still in the attic and sets fire to all the diaries and photographs, before emerging during the final minute with a baby in her arms, the rising sun behind her symbolising the dawning of a new day on Brünnhilde's life, rather than the destruction of the gods. Hagen, meanwhile, tries to steal back the gold when he makes his last-minute appearance, but it causes his arm to set on fire.

Though the Ring is always an invitation for spectacle, I can't think of a more jaw-dropping staging of the piece on DVD. The sets are beyond lavish, with so many walls and winches and rooms and costumes and special effects that it's rather like watching a high-quality, long-running BBC drama. Acting takes precedence always, and even where Holten changes the story in ways that don't appeal or make sense (to me, at least), it's impossible to resist the vitality of his direction.

I confess that my reaction to the musical aspect to this Ring is slightly more muted, much to my surprise. Claims that this was the best-sung Ring on film are unfounded, in my view, because the performance is both strengthened and weakened by having a cast plucked largely from the opera company's ensemble. There are indeed some magnificent performances here, notably Stig Andersen's almost impeccable Siegmund and Siegfried (undoubtedly the best of recent interpreters) and Iréne Theorin's strong but feminine Brünnhilde. From both of them we get an unstinting level of emotion, expressivity and vocal beauty.

On the other hand, Gitta-Maria Sjöberg's Sieglinde seems very limited compared to Waltraud Meier's in other productions, while Peter Klaveness' Hagen comes nowhere near to Sir John Tomlinson's achievements in the role. Both act well but both sound provincial. Stephen Milling's Fasolt is excellent, and both James Johnson and Johan Reuter are in fine form as Wotan, but many of the smaller roles are adequately sung rather than anything more. Michael Schonwandt's conducting and the playing of the Royal Danish Orchestra are mostly very good and sometimes exciting, but I similarly have to temper the notion that the reading is special; to my ears, it's a well-executed conventional account.

Instead, the stars are set and costume designers Marie i Dali and Steffen Aarfind, lighting designer Jesper Kongshaug and director Holten. To me, this Ring is unmissable for anyone with an interest in the piece, since it's great to watch and has many arresting statements to say about the text, but those wanting higher musical standards will probably want to keep classic accounts by other conductors close at hand too.

By Dominic McHugh


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