Fading Helsinki Ring revival polished up by Salminen, Hakala and some world-class fire

FinlandFinland  Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Finnish National Opera , Leif Segerstam (conductor) Finnish National Opera, Helsinki, 5-11.9.2011 (BK)

Musical Director: Leif Segerstam
Original Production and Direction: Götz Friedrich
Revival Directors: Anna Kelo, Jeremias Erkkilä, Kirsi Talvela, Kim Amberla
Set Design and Costumes: Gottfried Pilz
Lighting: Kimmo Ruskela

Selected Cast List

Wotan / Wanderer: Terje Stensvold
Loge: Jorma Silvasti
Erda: Sari Nordqvist
Sieglinde: Kirsi Tiihonen
Siegmund: Jyrki Anttila
Mime (Rheingold): Aki Alamikkotervo
Mime (Siegfried): Colin Judson
Hagen:Matti Salminen
Hunding/Fafner: Jyrki Korhonen
Alberich: Esa Ruuttunen
Brünnhilde: Catherine Foster
Siegfried: Jurgen Müller
Fricka / Waltraute (Götterdämmerung): Lilli Paasikivi
Gunter: Tommi Hakala
Gutrune: Jenni Lättilä


Terje Stensvold as Wotan. Picture © Heikki Tuuli

Even though Götz Friedrich and Gottfried Pilz’s Helsinki production of Der Ring des Nibelungen is almost fifteen years old now, Finnish National Opera’s decision to revive it again to launch the conclusion of the company’s centenary celebrations was clearly a sound idea commercially and symbolically. Both cycles sold out very quickly, and once again the huge production could be launched almost entirely by the company’s own singers and musicians – a fine signal to the operatic world that Finnish National Opera deserves greater recognition than it sometimes receives.

Only four of the  principal  singers  needed ‘importing’, in fact – no mean feat for any opera company these days and something made all the more remarkable by having Hagen sung once again by none other than Matti Salminen  and by having another distinguished Finn singing Gunther – Tommi Hakala one of Finland’s many former Cardiff Singer of the World prizewinners. It is hard to imagine any other national company from a similarly sized country managing such a coup these days.

As well as having seen the Siegfried first time around way back in 1997, I reviewed the last revival of the complete production in 2004 when the principals included both Nina Stemme as Sieglinde and Juha Uusitalo as  Wotan / The Wanderer. Then I called it a ‘world-class’ Ring, and since many of the other principals were the same for this reprise I was looking forward to it enormously – especially as it would also be conducted by Leif Segerstam who had brought all four original productions to life so effectively. As it turned out, I was to be rather badly disappointed.

To deal with the stronger points first. The set design is exactly the same as ever, characterised by elegant and effective use of Finnish National Opera’s remarkable stage resources. When combined with Kimmo Ruskela’s extraordinary lighting plot, the results are often of epic proportions and, in fact, might well rival the Metropolitan Opera’s forthcoming cycles for 2012 in terms of sheer spectacle, even though they lack the Met’s modern video resources or the technical resources offered by La Fura dels Baus in their ‘Valencia Ring’. I still hold the view that the sheer scale of the real flames shielding Brünnhilde’s rock in this production and those shown in the final scene of Götterdämmerung are genuinely world-class effects which may never actually be bettered. Similarly, Ruskela’s lighting effects for the depths of theRhine, for the descent into Nibelheim, for the completion of theRainbowBridge and for the destruction ofValhalla also remain – to use a much overused expression these days – literally awesome.

The production itself retains all the quirkiness that caused earlier controversy. The gods still look ridiculous with Donner shown as a punch-drunk boxer wielding an enormous boxing glove instead of a hammer and with Froh dressed up in something like a clown’s costume complete with frilly neck ruff. We still have Hunding return to his hearth accompanied by an anachronistic squad of cowboys carrying rifles for no good reason and we see the Valkyries writhing sensuously over the bodies of naked dead heroes while performing their ‘ride.’ If we add in the four forest birds that we meet in Siegfried – one of them a dancer – dressed, if that’s the word, only in body stockings and a few strategically placed feathers, and the randomly placed horses’ heads that seem to turn up everywhere without explanation, we realise quickly that this is a concept-free production in which Götz Friedrich was simply having fun with ideas about sex and death rather than anything more ‘significant’ or modern. ‘So it goes,’ as Kurt Vonnegut said so frequently in Slaughterhouse Five, and perhaps that’s what Herr Friedrich had in mind.

None of which matters a jot of course if Wagner’s music and drama are brought to life with fine singing, stage direction and orchestral playing – but here we had a very mixed bag. The first culprit (much to my surprise, I should add) was conductor Leif Segerstam. After setting off on completely the wrong foot with Das Rheingold in which there were some very odd noises indeed from the orchestra during the Prelude, he gave the unnerving impression that hardly any of the music had been properly rehearsed throughout all of the four operas. Esa Ruutunen for example as Alberich had some difficulty finding his notes for a minute or two immediately after the Prelude, although happily was back to his fine usual form quite quickly, matching the generally high quality of the other performances. In Die Walküre however, Jyrki Anttila (Siegmund) whom I described in 2004 as a ‘hero in the making’ seemed positively uncomfortable losing his place and having to be prompted at least once. An additional problem was that the orchestral playing was often incredibly loud, so much so that the singers had to battle with the orchestra to be heard. The volume was actually staggeringly effective for moments like the completion of the rainbow bridge and the gods’ entry into Valhalla but otherwise was almost wholly inappropriate. Quite what all this was about is impossible to specify, but this performance was nowhere near the standard of those that I have admired so greatly from this conductor in the past. I would never have believed that a Ring (or any Ring) could ever sound boring but this one did for far too much of the time.

The second problem with this cycle was that the stage direction also seemed to be under-rehearsed with very little attempt to show characterisation by means of stage deportment. As one example of many, Norwegian baritone Terje Stensvold’s Wotan was extremely powerful, with a voice easily displaying the beauty and majesty needed for this role. Sadly however, there were times when the sheer volume of the orchestral playing forced him to turn up his own volume to compensate, thus losing most of the subtlety of this part. And as a double jeopardy, the unfortunately minimalist stage direction to which he was subject seemed to have invested in a profound belief that staggering about and falling down a lot of the time was the most suitable way of expressing any emotion at all –  no help whatever to the full and proper realisation of a complex and commanding character who is, after all, top god in the pantheon.

British soprano Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde was also vocally commanding throughout. She has a delicacy to some parts of her voice which belie the strength that she brings to the role and which adds to the sensitivity of her interpretation. If she is able to keep the amount of work she does under control – she is likely to be in great demand – and can preserve her voice, she should be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. She was partnered well enough by the veteran German tenor Jurgen Müller who managed the Forging Song in Siegfried extremely strongly but lapsed into fairly consistent swooping upwards to deal with the admittedly desperately taxing tessitura with which he is always presented.

Of the other principals, Sieglinde was beautifully sung by Kirsi Tiihonen and Esa Ruuttunen, after the shaky start already mentioned, quickly warmed up through the Rheingold to his usual powerful and expressive abilities. Aki Alamikkotervo as Mime in the Rheingold was very impressive although Colin Judson, another British singer, who followed him in the role when it came to Siegfried was not disappointing in this difficult and in some ways pivotal role.

Tommi Hakala was excellently cast as Gunther, not only for his great voice, but also for bringing some much needed warmth and reality to a character who is too often one dimensional. Needless to say however, Matti Salminen was the star of the show, lifting the whole thing to a new level by the continuing depth, beauty and power of his voice and by his absolutely effortless command of the role. Regardless of what might be going on around him, Salminen plays Hagen as the ultimate outsider, a character who can manipulate but never really engage with anyone else. Oddly, in a production where the only noticeable directorial emphasis seems to be on a post-modern disengagement with the opera’s text, this portrayal became a huge advantage, which paradoxically actually had the effect of galvanising everyone else in the cast for the rest of the production. Salminen and Hakala could be said to have saved this Ring from mediocrity by defying all odds to portray real characters – and by providing the impetus needed to allow their colleagues to give of their (much needed) bests. That’s ironic of course, considering that they were playing the two least engaging roles in Götterdämmerung, but it is also a tremendous demonstration of the sheer power of real artistry in action.

Bill Kenny