Tuesday 17 June 2008

The Copenhagen Ring

The Copenhagen Ring

This post is part of a series of posts on The Copenhagen Ring, consisting of:
The Copenhagen Ring - overview and concept (this post)
The Copenhagen Ring - Rheingold.
The Copenhagen Ring - Walküre.
The Copenhagen Ring - Siegfried.
The Copenhagen Ring - Götterdämmerung.

Review of The Copenhagen Ring DVD here.

The Copenhagen Ring Cycle 2003-6 culminated with three complete Ring cycles performed in 2006 by the Royal Danish Opera. These performances marked the first complete Ring Cycle in Copenhagen for more than 80 years as well as the transition from the Old Royal Danish Opera to the new Copenhagen Opera on the waterfront, inaugurated in 2005.

The Copenhagen Ring will be released on DVD in July 2008 by Universal (Decca).

I have seen the production around 20 times.

The Copenhagen Ring Concept

The director is the 1973-born artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera Kasper Bech Holten, in what I believe to be his first Wagner staging, though already an experienced operatic stage director with previous productions such as Nozze di Figaro, Le Grand Macabre and Rosenkavalier. Kasper Bech Holten allegedly was fascinated by the Nibelungen Ring from childhood, setting up a puppet version at home as a teenager...

Also labelled The Feminine Ring, the main concept of The Copenhagen Ring was to tell the story of a dysfunctional family from Brünnhilde´s point of view. A family saga played out over the entire 20th century where the timeless myths are replaced by the miniature perspective.
Director Kasper Bech Holten outlines The Copenhagen Ring production concept:

Along with Brünnhilde we journey through the 1920s and 1930s in Das Rheingold, in which the great ideological structures are raised, until we reach the 1950s in Die Walküre where the Cold War has frozen those structures into fortresses through which the great powers zealously guard each other in excruciating anticipation. Siegfried brings us to 1968 where the eponymous young hero naively rebels against his father’s rules and ideals until the fin-de-siècle joy he expresses in Götterdämmerung comes to an abrupt end in a clash with pure evil of the type seen in Bosnia or Rwanda.

The over-all style of the production is modern and the staging may perhaps best be described as moderately revisionistic (photographs may be seen in the posts on the individual operas).

Compared to the other DVD Rings available, The Copenhagen Ring may on the surface seem closest to the Stuttgart production, though still distinctly different in both concept and execution.

The main characteristics of Kasper Bech Holten´s work in this cycle is a keen sense of individual characterization as well as an attempt to de-mythologize the Nibelungen Ring without being overly deconstructive. Holten does not focus on social power struggles or the macrocosmos of the work and instead choses the family saga perspective as seen from Brünnhildes point of view. Aesthetic theater per se does not seem to be a major goal of Kasper Bech Holten, though the sets are generally simple, though not as simple as those usually applied by reknowned minimalist contemporaries such as Willy Decker.

The sets were by Marie í Dali and Steffen Aarfing and lights by Jesper Kongshaug. Dramaturgy by Henrik Engelbrecht. The entire team worked closely together to develop the entire production concept (an excellent book has been published in Danish by Henrik Engelbrecht on this), which by no means relies solely on Kasper Bech Holten but rather is a group effort, though the final responsibility for the overall outcome, being the director, obviously is his.

The most important question remains: Does the concept work? Is it exciting music theater of high quality? Without doubt, the answer is yes. Whether one approves wholeheartedly of the concept or not, it works within the reference frames applied and is consistent in both vision and execution throughout the Cycle, which by no means is a small accomplishment.
That said, obviously some aspects appealed more to me than others:

The strong points:
The direction of the singers is very engaging and many fine points are brought forward. Humour is often applied and as a whole the production is highly entertaining. Reading Kasper Bech Holten´s Feminine Ring intentions, in my opinion, was always quite depressing, since it reduces this vast work to the perspective of one person, but watching the actual production fold itself out on stage, was very uplifting.

The less strong points: Ideally, I´d wish for more mythology, more pathos and a more unifying approach to the work on a grander scale, regardless this has admittedly been done numerous times previously including the focus on the Wotan figure. Thus, I am not overly enthusiastic about the Feminine Staging concept per se, but it didn´t seem to dominate the production anyway. I was seldom truly moved by this Ring, though I was excellently entertained. In all fairness, I should add that I know of many fellow audience members that felt the exact absence of mythology and refraining from focusing on the Wotan figure to be one of the major strong points of this production. Another case of "you have to see and judge for yourself" I suppose...

The Copenhagen Ring Cast

From a local-patriotic viewpoint, The Copenhagen Ring was a tremendous achievement for the Royal Danish Opera, since all the major roles (with the exception of Walküre-Wotan and Hagen) at some point were cast from within the company and mainly with singers of high international quality.

Based on the live performances, I would expect the major standouts of the upcoming DVD release of The Copenhagen Ring to be:

Stephen Milling as Hunding. By all standards superb. I suspect he will turn out the best Hunding available on DVD. A major loss he didn´t take on Hagen as well.

Stig Fogh Andersen as both Siegfried and Siegmund. Due to sudden illness of Poul Elming, the originally scheduled Siegmund, Stig Andersen tackled both parts. His Siegfried was a major achievement by all standards.

Ylva Kihlberg as a superb Gutrune.

Iréne Theorin (Isolde in the upcoming Bayreuth Tristan) as a powerful Brünnhilde.

Both Johan Reuter (Rheingold-Wotan) and James Johnson (Walküre-Wotan and Wanderer) should be fine on the DVDs. Both were very good in the theatre, with convincing stage presence and vocal command of the role, though none of them have particularly large voices.

Susanne Resmark as Erda had a remarkable command of the stage, particularly in Siegfried.

The major joker is Michael Schönwandt´s orchestra, or rather: How the orchestral sound will be transferred to the DVDs. Schönwandt´s Ring (and general Wagner) conducting style, borders on the passive, creating an exquisite, transparent sound. In the house I perceived it as being orchestra playing of the highest international quality, though I personally would have preferred a more powerful orchestra sound with more brass and heavy string playing. How the orchestra sound will be transferred to the DVD will doubtless be a major determinant of the DVD-success of the production.
Best case scenario, the quality of orchestra playing will be at the level of Haenchen´s performance with the Concertgebouw in the Audi Amsterdam Ring Cycle DVD, which I rate above the orchestral quality of the Kupfer Barcelona (disappointing) and Stuttgart (very good) productions. Worst case scenario I do not want to think about....

The Copenhagen Ring Sources and general impressions

The Copenhagen Ring as a whole was generally very well received by the Danish press: Universal praise for Michael Schönwandt and the orchestra and for almost all singers, Stig Andersen, Stephen Milling, James Johnson and Iréne Théorin in particular.
As always of directors, opinions on Kasper Bech Holten´s staging were varied, though firmly rooted in the positive camp. The most common criticisms have been concerning the wealth of details, the lack of mythology and the whole Feminine Ring concept. By others, these exact issues were counted among the highlights..

Reviews in English of The Copenhagen Ring:
New Statesman
Financial Times (Götterdämmerung)
The Confidential Attachées

Other sources on The Copenhagen Ring in English:
The Copenhagen Ring webpage

Kasper Bech Holten´s blog on The Copenhagen Ring


Anonymous said...

I have pre-ordered my copy from Amazon and can't wait to see it on the strengths of your comments and others I have read on the net. The last Ring I saw was the Adelaide one in 2004 and, given the huge investment made in what was a highly regarded production, Australia's first of the complete cycle, I still can't work out why that investment wasn't stretched a little to capture it for broadcast/DVD. In the meantime, the local cinema is going to screen the recent La Scala Tristan, so I should have some fine viewing coming up on big and little screens!

mostly opera... said...

I suppose the economic considerations behind these DVD releases are impenetrable.
The release of the Copenhagen Ring has been postponed several times, and it is my impression it was not easy to get it released..

Anonymous said...

Yes the actual act of filming is expensive and intricate to get right, and the rights and royalties to release are labyrinthine and expensive, so I am grateful that the Copenhagen Ring was recorded and released despite the delays. I also think the cinema screenings of the La Scala, Met etc. productions are a great idea, especially since they are relatively recent productions which would be almost impossible for us that live so far away to see. Good value too, compared to what Bayreuth is charging for the live streaming of their Meistersinger - that is a scandal!!

mostly opera... said...

"Good value too, compared to what Bayreuth is charging for the live streaming of their Meistersinger - that is a scandal!!"

I suppose they charge what they believe they can get away with...

Anonymous said...

I finally have a moment to write down my impressions after viewing the whole cycle. It is a magnificent achievement and I think Holten did a marvellous job of putting together a cohesive, compelling and sometimes extremely moving conception of the whole cycle. Rheingold and Seigfried were especially successful for me dramaturgically, with Seigfried, which can be sometimes so turgid on stage, just whizzing past, especially with all those fine performances. And you're right about those moments of violence in Rheingold - the stealing of the gold and then the ring were chilling! I didn't mind the rooftop set for Walkuere Act 3 etc (perhaps because I don't have the local association with it?). In fact I thought this act was one of the most memorable and Wotan's farewell had me blubbering in tears. Wonderful singing throughout too, though I have to agree with some other posts about the Hagen - the voice was very poor. All in all I am very glad to have seen and heard it.

mostly opera... said...

"though I have to agree with some other posts about the Hagen - the voice was very poor"

I completely agree. The point is, however, that Hagen is very hard to cast. Who is a convincing Hagen on stage today, both vocally and dramatically? Matti Salminen used to be, Stephen Milling will be in the future, but right now I don´t know.

John Tomlinson will be Hagen at the MET next season (while dramatically superb he is vocally far far from his prime), Hans Peter König sang in Bayreuth (while vocally fine, dramatically he is very uninteresting)- most of the others are both vocally and dramatically uninteresting. At least Peter Klaveness is a superb actor.

Ursula Hahn said...

I just saw and heard the Copenhagen Walkuere and Goetterdaemmerung as part of a two-day Ring marathon organized by the Wagner Society of New York (Rheingold and Siegfried were from the Amsterdam Ring), so we got to see and hear only one half of each Ring. There was discussion about Peter Klaveness's Hagen; he may not have been distinguished vocally , but the director's concept of the character as a cold-blooded enforcer proved effective, particularly in close-ups.

Wagnerians who attended the Met's Ring and heard and saw Hans-Peter Koenig as Hagen considered themselves lucky having heard his extraordinary bass and witnessed his sparse (non-existing?) body language, which could be discerned only with binoculars or in the HD transmission of the opera, because Koenig directed the proceedings with his eyes.

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