Embarking on an Epic: Das Rheingold at the Finnish National Opera

Wagner – Das Rheingold

Wotan – Tommi Hakala
Loge – Tuomas Katajala
Alberich – Jukka Rasilainen
Fricka – Lilli Paasikivi
Erda – Sari Nordqvist
Mime – Dan Karlström
Fasolt – Koit Soasepp
Fafner – Jyrki Korhonen
Donner – Tuomas Pursio
Froh – Markus Nykänen
Freia – Reetta Haavisto
Woglinde – Marjukka Tepponen
Wellgunde – Mari Palo
Flosshilde – Jeni Packalen

Suomen kansallisoopperan orkesteri – Finlands Nationaloperas orkester / Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Stage director – Anna Kelo.

Suomen kansallisooppera ja -baletti – Finlands nationalopera och -balett, Helsinki, Finland.  Saturday, September 7th, 2019. 

The Ring is the ultimate statement of intent for any opera company.  And a statement is precisely what this new production at the Finnish National Opera is.  This is very much a Finnish Ring, with local singers; a stage director, Anna Kelo, with extensive ties to the house; and arguably the most prominent conductor, in a country that produces so much great conducting talent, in the pit – Esa-Pekka Salonen.  This Ring will develop over two seasons, with Walküre in May 2020, Siegfried next fall, and Götterdämmerung in May 2021.

Photo: © Stefan Bremer.

In an illuminating note in the program book, Kelo asserts her belief that the music should guide the action, in that the leitmotifs guide the events on stage.  What she gives us, then, is a staging that is logical and fluent.  Costumes (Erika Turunen) seem to belong in an age of antiquity, reinforced by prominent Grecian columns whenever the gods appear.  Kelo makes extensive use of video (Mikki Kunttu, who also designed the sets) to illustrate the scene changes, providing images of swirling clouds, as well as making some starting visual effects – the serpent, for instance, menacingly appearing at the back of the stage.

Photo: © Ralph Larmann.

Indeed, the visual aspect is very much a strength of Kalo’s staging, starting with an arresting opening.  The initial E-flat emerged from darkness, perceptible initially through vibrations in the floor before it became audible, and with it, images of water projected onto the ceiling of the handsome auditorium.  Craggy sets reflecting the bottom of the Rhine emerged from under the stage into view.  All of this gave the impression of an epic starting from nothingness, an impression I found quite convincing.  Later, as the giants appeared, Kelo had Fasolt and Fafner sing from the wings, while projections of their faces, seemingly having gone through one of those Instagram filters that distort one’s visage, were projected on large columns that were wheeled on and off.

Photo: © Ralph Larmann.

While Kelo’s staging certainly looked good, I left with a feeling that it was somewhat prosaic.  The Ring, especially Rheingold, is a work that is so completely relevant to us today.  That evil sex pest willing to sacrifice all in the search for ultimate power, has so many parallels in our contemporary existence.  The production had clearly been well rehearsed, the action was fluid, although personenregie felt perfunctory – there was a considerable amount of standing and delivering to the front and often, characters barely looked at each other.  Similarly, I missed an overarching idea, or concept.  Something that held up a mirror, to provoke us to think and feel, to reflect on how powerful and pertinent this piece is.  There is, of course, a danger in commenting on a Rheingold as one isn’t aware of which direction the cycle will take.  Certainly, it’ll be interesting to see how Kelo takes the cycle further.

Photo: © Ralph Larmann.

That impression of a work in progress was also, to an extent, reflected in Salonen’s conducting.  Salonen has a phenomenal ear for texture, and this was most apparent tonight.  The string sound was quite lean – no thick pile carpet of sound here – which meant that the intricate wind writing was able to emerge and register tellingly.  His conducting was exceptionally singer-friendly, always allowing the cast through and also allowing the text, essential in such a wordy piece as this, to be heard.  Yet the downside to this approach was that his conducting felt illustrative, rather than driving the drama forward.  As with the staging, there was a sense that detail was being brought to the fore; but at the same time, that this approach seemed to lack an overall sense of a dramatic span driving towards a conclusion – accompanying the action rather than driving or guiding it.  That isn’t to say that Salonen’s conducting wasn’t revelatory in many ways – so many details registered thanks to the transparency of the textures, revealed in a way that I hadn’t heard before.  He obtained some very fine playing from the house band – string intonation was true, though the brass were occasionally accident-prone.  The closing pages blazed gloriously.

Photo: © Stefan Bremer.

What really distinguished tonight’s performance was the quality of the singing.  The cast was uniformly excellent.  From a trio of Rhinemaidens, that could frankly be singing principal roles at any leading lyric theatre, to Tommi Hakala’s noble Wotan.  Hakala sang his music with a regal sense of line and immaculate diction.  Thanks to Salonen’s conducting, he was able to bring out so many colours in the voice, pointing the words with relish.  His bass-baritone is in excellent shape – the top firm, descending to a wonderfully resonant bottom.  It was such a pleasure to hear this role truly sung after hearing so many dry barkers in the part of the years.  Tuomas Katajala’s Loge sang his part as if it were bel canto, bringing a liquid lyricism that gave his singing easy mellifluousness.  Again, the text was nicely forward, always insinuating.  His youthful tenor, with a distinctive fast vibrato, gave much pleasure.  Jukka Rasilainen’s Alberich was sung in a narrow yet resonant, and never acidic, bass-baritone – again absolutely firm in emission.  Both Koit Soasepp and Jyrki Korhonen as Fasolt and Fafner were large of voice, both booming magnificently from the wings.  Lilli Paasikivi’s Fricka was sung in a silky yet slightly soft-grained mezzo, the registers absolutely integrated.  Dan Karlström’s Mime was sung in a sappy, characterful tenor, the words nicely focused.

Photo: © Stefan Bremer

In the remainder of the cast, Markus Nykänen sang Froh in a lyrical, handsome and easily produced tenor.  Tuomas Pursio’s Donner hectored effectively, while Reetta Haavisto’s Freia dispatched her music in a pearly soprano with a metallic core.  Sari Nordqvist’s Erda made a striking entrance, emerging from the floor to be hoisted high above the stage, with images projected onto her seemingly endlessly flowing dress.  She dispatched her music in a massive, warm and fruity contralto, singing with hieratic command.  Wotan was most definitely warned and we most definitely heard it.

Photo: © Stefan Bremer

Tonight was all about the singing – and what singing!  The quality was consistently excellent throughout the cast, raising expectations for the remainder of this Ring.  In a number of respects, with regards to the conducting and the staging, this Rheingold does feel like a work in progress; but as always, we’ve just started on this journey and there is so much left to come.  Salonen’s conducing was impressive in its almost forensic insight of the score’s architecture.  Kelo’s staging was visually striking, but felt illustrative in a work where there is an almost unending seam of richness to mine.  Still, if the quality of the singing stays as good as this for the rest of the cycle, it really does promise much.

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