Das Rheingold [The Rhine Gold], opera in four scenes and introduction of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen [The Ring of the Nibelung]. Performed at the Wermland Opera in Karlstad, 27 June 2011.
The news that one of Sweden’s smaller opera companies had decided to perform the complete Ring Cycle was greeted with a mixture of scepticism and excitement (Wagner’s Ring performed as a cycle rather than spread out over a couple of seasons is a rarity in Sweden). Fortunately, the Wermland Opera’s gamble has paid off handsomely, resulting in a virtually united chorus of critical approval and an almost entirely sold-out theatre.
That said, when the house seats only 330 people selling out a Ring Cycle may not be difficult. In fact, there is a lot to be said for the intimacy of Karlstad’s delightful nineteenth-century theatre, the newly renovated home of the Wermland Opera. The small pit forced the Opera to move the orchestra to the upper circle, which brings the audience much closer the the action on stage and leads to an almost magical immersion in Wagner’s sound world. The orchestra played grippingly from the first bar, and conductor Henrik Schaefer (a former assistant to Claudio Abbado) showed a sensitive understanding of the score.
So far at least the Wermland Opera has assembled an ensemble of soloists who, almost without exception, did great credit to the opera. Marcus Jupither’s Alberich was terrific, both vocally and in his acting of this very demanding part. The dwarf who renounces love in favour of power by stealing the Rhine gold and forging the magic ring out of it shifts from fury at his rejection by the flirtatious Rhine maidens to vicious megalomania as the slave-driver of his fellow Nibelung dwarfs and eventually to caged fury as he is outwitted and captured by Wotan and Loge. With his shaven head, tattoo and barbaric black leather garments Alberich’s stage presence was terrifying, especially as he terrorised his brother Mime (a brilliant performance by Jonas Durán) and the Nibelungs (played by children).
The Rhine Maidens (Natalie Hernborg, Anneli Lindfors and Jeanette Goldstein) helped make the opening scene immediately gripping: they “swam” in a Rhine made by green lasers, which allowed them to disappear below the surface and so play a rather more realistic game of hide-and-seek with Alberich than is usual. All three sang beguilingly too.
Fredrik Zetterström, who I saw previously as Posa in Don Carlos, also played Wotan very well as he tried to extricate himself from the consequences bartering away the goddess Freia (Anne Bolstad) – who holds the key to the gods’ immortality – to the giants Fasolt and Fafner as their price for building him the fortress Valhalla.
Loge, Wotan’s rather slimy advisor, was given an almost Puckish interpretation by Rickard Söderberg. This worked very well, most of all in the scene where Loge tricks Alberich into using his ability to shape-shift to make him vulnerable to capture (by feigning disbelief he goads Alberich to turn himself into a toad, which he and Wotan promptly tie up). Mr Söderberg’s singing was also excellent.
Ivonne Fuchs’ Fricka was also very well sung, and she pulled no punches as she laid into Wotan for his cavalier decision to barter away her sister Freia without even deigning to consult any of the goddesses. (Does she realise that Wotan ends up using women as involuntary tools in his plans throughout the Ring Cycle?) In fact, all of the gods were excellent Wagnerian soloists, apart from Freia and Kaj Hagstrand’s Froh who while slightly overshadowed vocally by the other soloists were excellent actors. Freia’s reaction to Fasolt’s death was particularly moving.
So too were Fasolt and Fafner (Andreas Franzén and Johan Schinkler). They established a commanding presence immediately when they stalked on stage, their black leather working clothes in stark contrast to the gods’ white suits and dresses. The dynamic between the two brothers was already tense before the lure of gold and the Ring ignited Fafner’s greed so that he clubbed Fasolt to death to keep everything for himself.
In a recent production from Valencia that I saw on TV, the giants were put in mechanical walkers reminiscent of the AT-PT in Star Wars. Thanks to the giants’ stage presence that was not necessary here. In fact, the production was generally simple and without gimmicks or spectacle. A turntable on the stage was very effectively used in every scene. This production, as opera chief Ole Wiggo Bang explains in the programme, avoids over-interpretation and lets each member of the audience add whatever layers of interpretation they choose to the core of Wagner’s plot, which is the battle between love and power or greed.
The Wermland Opera Ring Cycle continues throughout this week. Please subscribe to my blog so that you don’t miss my reviews of the next three parts.