Family Trouble: Die Walküre at the Finnish National Opera

Wagner – Die Walküre

Siegmund – Joachim Bäckström
Hunding – Matti Turunen
Wotan – Tommi Hakala
Sieglinde – Miina-Liisa Värelä
Fricka – Niina Keitel
Brünnhilde – Johanna Rusanen
Helmwige – Reetta Haavisto
Gerhilde – Jenni Hietala
Ortlinde – My Johansson
Waltraute – Maria Turunen
Siegrune – Monika-Evelin Liiv
Rossweisse – Merja Mäkelä
Grimgerde – Ida Wallén
Schwertleite – Anna Danik

Suomen kansallisoopperan orkesteri – Finlands Nationaloperas orkester / Hannu Lintu.
Stage director – Anna Kelo.

Suomen kansallisooppera ja -baletti – Finlands nationalopera och -balett, Helsinki, Finland.  Saturday, September 10th, 2022.

Anna Kelo’s new production of Die Walküre should have premiered back in May 2020.  But, of course, we all know what intervened.  Now that we are hopefully out of the acute phase of a pandemic that sadly continues to rage, the premiere of Kelo’s staging took place at the end of last month.  There was a festive atmosphere in this beautiful house for this, the fifth performance of the run.  Ushers wore Ring t-shirts and the cameras of YLE were present to stream today’s show, available to view on demand through May 2024. 

Photo: © Finnish National Opera

Reading back my review of Rheingold, it feels like this Walküre was the work of a completely different director.  Perhaps the intervening two years have meant that Kelo and her cast have been able to produce a piece of work that is fundamentally more thought-through and considered.  Whereas in Rheingold, I noted that the personenregie felt prosaic, with characters who barely engaged with each other; here, Kelo gives us a staging of recognizably human emotion, the burgeoning incestual love between Sieglinde and Siegmund, or the father-daughter relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde, brought to life with tremendous immediacy and, indeed, tenderness. 

Photo: © Finnish National Opera

There are, however, a number of non sequiturs as we go through the evening.  Hunding appears to be some kind of crucifix-bedecked priest.  The suggestions of sexual abuse between Hunding, one of his henchmen, and Sieglinde, are made present and are certainly also conceivable in a closed religious society.  Yet, I don’t see how Hunding would then appeal to Fricka to avenge his marriage – the jump between a Christian and a pagan god seeming too far.  Similarly, as the Valkyries appeared dragging warriors, they gleefully exposed their mammary glands for all to see as soon as they dropped off the bodies.  Perhaps it was a statement of girl power, but the effect felt more risible than heroic. 

Photo: © Finnish National Opera

Kelo sets the action in what appears to be the early twentieth century.  In addition to the aforementioned religious house for Hunding, Wotan is dressed in miliary uniform and operates from what appears to be a bunker.  Mikki Kunttu’s sets can look rather flimsy – the shaking house as soon as someone moved, and the seemingly plastic rocks and ash tree feel a bit economically challenged, but clearly the budget had been blown on a proscenium-high ring of fire that provided a very impressive vista for the final scene.  That said, Kunttu produced some really impressive tableaux through his light designs, particularly at the end of Act 2 and in Act 3, which led me to wish that he and Kelo had instead used the power of the light design to create and maintain atmosphere more, particularly as the use of video here, providing additional perspectives to the stage and enhancing the music, made more of a potent impression than the plastic rocks.  That said, I left the theatre tonight with a much more positive impression of the direction and design than I did in Rheingold.  It really felt that Kelo had managed to bring out the depth of the relationships within.

Photo: © Finnish National Opera

Of course, this would not have been achieved without the individual performances that took us through the five-hour running time.  There was a palpable chemistry between Joachim Bäckström’s Siegmund and Miina-Liisa Värelä’s Sieglinde, right from the very start.  Bäckström was very impressive.  His isn’t the biggest tenor to have essayed this music, but he sang throughout with great sensitivity.  He found a poetry in his music that I found extremely convincing, everything founded on an admirable legato with the tone firm and muscular.  Värelä gave us a plush-voiced Sieglinde.  The voice has wonderful amplitude, she’s in total command of the passaggio, the registers always perfectly integrated, making use of a generous chest register.  She soared gloriously in her ‘hehrstes Wunder’, the voice taking wing magnificently over the orchestral torrent below.  Värelä is without doubt a major talent, if perhaps still a work in progress.  The voice doesn’t always sit ideally in the centre of the note and she doesn’t yet have the ability to truly make the text live and use it for meaning.  I was impressed by her fabulous instrument, but also wish she had done more with the words.  Matti Turunen gave us a seriously impressive Hunding.  The voice is huge, with admirable depth and a resonance that almost felt that it was making the floor vibrate.  Yet the tone was also firm, no wobble here.

Photo: © Finnish National Opera

Tommi Hakala returned to the role of Wotan.  This is one of the most challenging assignments in the repertoire and Hakala gave all of himself to us tonight.  Indeed, he looked completely exhausted at the curtain calls.  He sang the role off the text, searching for meaning, making his Wotan deeply flawed from the beginning.  There was an impotence to his physical reading, already prostrate on the floor in his encounter with Fricka, bringing home Wotan’s awareness that there was nothing he could do to counter the events that he himself had put in train.  Hakala used his tone intelligently, whether pulling back to a whisper, yet always perfectly audible, or riding the orchestra with ease.  For the most part, his coffee-toned bass-baritone sounded in good health, but it did sound as we reached the end of the evening that tiredness was setting in, with intonation drooping and dryness entering the tone.  Still, it was an impressively determined and vivid account of the role, both musically and dramatically. 

Photo: © Finnish National Opera

Johanna Rusanen was a positive and warm stage presence as Brünnhilde.  Hers was a spunky and boyish account of the role in Act 2, full of wide-eyed enthusiasm, bringing out her rebellious nature and willingness to go against Wotan’s ruling.  Rusanen also used the text fully to bring her interpretation to life.  Her soprano is rather chalky in tone, lacking in the kind of refulgent resonance that Värelä has in spades, for instance.  The very top emerged through sheer determination, her opening ‘hojotoho’s were undeniably exciting as one was rooting for her to get through them – she did.  In her encounter with Siegmund, Rusanen found a genuine tenderness that was sensitive and full of feeling.  In the remainder of the cast, Niina Keitel was a youthful-sounding Fricka, while the troupe of Valkyries was certainly enthusiastic. 

Photo: © Finnish National Opera

House Music Director, Hannu Lintu, led an orchestra on magisterial form.  The quality of the playing was simply world-class, enhanced by the immediate and warm acoustic of the house.  Lintu’s reading was phrased in long paragraphs, giving Act 1 a wonderfully lyric sweep.  That said, this did sometimes feel to the detriment of short-term dramatic tension, which did have a tendency to sag, particularly in those long dialogues between Wotan and Brünnhilde.  Some of the transitions also felt rather perfunctory, Siegmund’s cries of ‘Wälse’ appeared to come from nowhere, rather than having been moulded and built up to, and the close of Act 1 felt lacking in the ultimate degree of irresistible release.  Yet, the sheer beauty of line Lintu elicited, with the focus on bringing out a cantabile sweep, was very much appreciated.  He was also a sensitive accompanist, always letting the principals through.  He was fortunate to have a string section that played with both body and delicacy, the four harps tinkling agreeably through the texture, while the brass playing was outstanding – despite the length of the evening, I was aware of one single slip all night.

Photo: © Finnish National Opera

With this Walküre, the Helsinki Ring appears to be moving into another gear.  Whereas in Rheingold, the personenregie felt perfunctory and staging prosaic, here we were given a vivid family drama of high emotion.  As in that previous instalment, musically here there was so much to admire, the vocal offerings of an extremely high standard.  This all raises expectations further for Siegfried next year.  The audience gave the cast a generous ovation, with massive roars of approval for Lintu and his orchestra.

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