Fantasy Waiting: Siegfried at Finnish National Opera

Wagner – Siegfried

Siegfried – Daniel Brenna
Brünnhilde – Johanna Rusanen
Mime – Dan Karlström
Der Wanderer – Tommi Hakala
Alberich – Jukka Rasilainen
Fafner – Matti Turunen
Erda – Sari Nordqvist
Stimme des Waldvogels – Krista Kujala

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

Suomen kansallisooppera ja -baletti – Finlands nationalopera och -balett, Helsinki, Finland.  Friday, March 24th, 2023.

This Siegfried, the latest instalment of Anna Kelo’s Ring production at the Finnish National Opera, came around a bit more quickly than the Walküre that I saw here last fall.  Due to the plague, the Walküre had a much longer gestation, with the cast having rehearsed back in 2020 and then resumed their work last year.  The delay was perhaps most evident in extremely detailed personenregie, combined with realistic and believable assumptions of each role.  My impressions of the Rheingold, seen in 2019, were much more equivocal – I found it visually interesting, but prosaically directed.  Tonight, I was eager to see how this Ring would proceed.

Photo: © Ralph Larmann

Kelo’s Siegfried certainly looks good.  She takes the libretto at face value, illustrating the story through some striking visuals.  The trailer for Mime in Act 1 reminded me of Francesca Zambello’s staging in San Francisco, incidentally the previous occasion on which I saw Daniel Brenna in the title role.  Act 2, saw large columns upon which video, by Mikki Kunttu, was projected, showing Fafner’s face, while the Waldvogel appeared from within one of these columns to oversee the scene.  In the closing scene of Act 2, we saw flames appear on the videos, nicely portending what was to follow in Act 3.  Indeed, Brünnhilde’s rock was most impressive – the projections at the back of the stage showing a fantasy world high up in the skies, while the way that Siegfried penetrated the ring of fire was imaginatively done.  Kelo also highlighted the change of regime in the way that we saw Tommi Hakala’s Wanderer walk away, hunched over, as broken as his spear.  Kelo gives us a succession of varied images that are seriously impressive to look at, the staging has been fluently rehearsed and looks great. 

Photo: © Ralph Larmann

And yet, I found Kelo’s staging never to be anything more than skin deep.  I’m conflicted in the way that I feel about it.  Yes, it tells the story logically and transparently.  It gives much to look at.  However, I longed for something deeper, something to interrogate the work, to engage with the themes of the loss of power, of what being a hero involves, to deepen my understanding of this universe.  This isn’t to say that Kelo’s staging lacks ideas – seeing Act 1’s Siegfried on a hospital bed linked up to an IV machine or working out lifting weights, suggests a hero who may have been clinically altered.  Similarly, Siegfried’s initial engagement with Brünnhilde and his forcing himself on her, was harrowing to watch.  Yet, in both cases these ideas felt added on and then discarded, not engaged with on a deeper level – particularly the latter, with Brünnhilde’s journey to ecstatic abandon rendered rather problematic.  Personenregie was also prosaic, characters addressed the front far more than they addressed each other.  It was only in the latter part of the Siegfried/Wanderer confrontation that both characters actually seemed to engage with each other, although the Siegfried/Brünnhilde scene did feel much more rehearsed and directed.  Incidentally, the sightlines for the battle between Fafner and Siegfried were problematic from my seat on the centre-right of the orchestra section – the view obscured by a rock. 

Photo: © Mikki Kunttu

Musically, tonight reflected the excellent standards we’ve been treated to during this cycle to date.  Hannu Lintu led an orchestra on thrilling form.  The quality of the orchestral playing was undeniable and, as a result, Lintu was able to elicit a seemingly unlimited tonal palette from his musicians.  The tuning in the strings was impeccable throughout, even in those treacherous pages high up in the violins as we approached Brünnhilde’s rock.  There was a very small number of split notes and ragged entries in the brass towards the end, but these were forgivable given the length of the evening and their achievements elsewhere.  There was so much character in the wind playing – again, the range of colour was impressive.  Lintu’s conducting confirmed the impressions I had in Walküre.  He focused very much on creating atmosphere, on pulling back to allow each page to proceed in an unhurried, leisurely way.  The downside of this approach is that it frequently lacked tension and forward momentum.  Yes, it was ravishing to listen to, but it did feel that Lintu could afford to keep things moving more.  The close of Act 1, felt reined in and too tightly controlled – rather than letting this magnificent orchestra off the leash, it felt that Lintu was unwilling to push ahead and revel in the exuberance of the moment, the forging song also felt rather heavy on its feet.

Photo: © Mikki Kunttu

Brenna was a tireless Siegfried.  I recall my impression of him in San Francisco was rather mixed but here, in a more intimate house, Brenna was able to ping out on high with ringing volume and fresh, youthful tone, even five and a quarter hours later.  His tenor was in tremendous shape tonight, the vibrations even, the sound bright and penetrating, with easy amplitude.  Brenna’s stage presence, was similarly indefatigable, throwing himself into everything Kelo asked of him.

Photo: © Stefan Bremer

Brenna was the only visitor in the cast tonight, the remainder of which was made up entirely of Finnish singers – and what remarkable Wagnerians this country produces.  Moreover, the text was clear from every single singer on that stage.  There was a uniformity in the clarity of the text that rendered the trilingual Finnish, Swedish and English surtitles superfluous.  Johanna Rusanen’s Brünnhilde energized the stage as soon as she appeared.  She was such an engaging and generous stage presence.  The voice reminded me somewhat of Dame Jones, complete with swooping up to notes, though without the Celtic diva’s wide vibrations.  Whereas in Walküre Rusanen seemed taxed by the higher writing, here she rose to the challenge with considerable volume – and gave us excellent value with her closing high C.  Yes, the centre of gravity of the voice perhaps lies a little low and this is certainly an instrument that is lived in, but the sheer honesty of Rusanen’s vocalism and stage presence makes me most eager to hear her in Götterdämmerung

Photo: © Stefan Bremer

Hakala gave us a commanding Wanderer.  The voice is attractively dark in colour, but has dried out slightly in the middle, rendering his assumption of the role appropriately world weary.  Hakala most certainly held the stage tonight, both in his physical presence and in the way he dug deep into the text to find meaning.  He mapped the Wanderer’s journey throughout the course of the evening, from defiant to ultimately broken, bringing us fully into his character’s lived experience.  Dan Karlström sang Mime in a bright, well-placed tenor, absolutely healthy in tone throughout, truly sung off the text.  Jukka Rasilainen sang Alberich in a firm, yet slightly acidic, baritone, absolutely even from top to bottom – the higher reaches particularly big and penetrating.  Matti Turunen’s Fafner was sung in a pitch-black bass of seemingly unlimited resonance at the bottom.  Sari Nordqvist’s Erda seems to have two rather distinct registers, but she sang her music with such verbal acuity and richness in the depths that one could not help but listen.  Krista Kujala’s Waldvogel was sung in a crystalline soprano with a beguiling fast vibrato and an easy top.

Photo: © Stefan Bremer

Tonight’s Siegfried was, without doubt, a major success for the house and an important moment in this company’s history.  Musically, it was at the very highest level, with singing that any lyric theatre in the world would be proud to have.  The house orchestra was also on glorious form, giving us superlative playing.  Lintu’s conducting had much to enjoy, even if I found his pacing problematic and wished that he had allowed his orchestra loose more frequently.  As for Kelo’s staging, at its best one cannot deny that it illustrates the work with creativity, was fluently rehearsed, and gave much to look at.  And yet, I found it rarely delved beneath the surface of the work and personenregie was, for the most part, perfunctory.  The audience gave the singers, orchestra and Lintu an extremely generous ovation.  Other than a couple of extrovert ‘bravo’s, applause for Kelo and her team was polite.  For those unable to make it to Helsinki, YLE and the theatre’s website will be broadcasting and streaming the production on April 22nd. 

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