Monday 7 July 2008

The Copenhagen Ring on DVD: Review

The Copenhagen Ring DVD

The Copenhagen Ring DVD (Der Ring des Nibelungen). Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen 2006. Production: Kasper Bech Holten. Cast includes: Stig Andersen (Siegfried), Irene Théorin (Brünnhilde), Stephen Milling (Hunding), James Johnson (Wotan). Conductor: Michael Schønwandt. Further information here.

Overview and general comments

This 7 DVD set contains "The Copenhagen Ring" - the complete Nibelungen Ring, recorded from the three live Ring cycles performed by the Royal Danish Opera in 2006 in the new opera house located directly on the Copenhagen waterfront. The bonus material consists of a 30-minutes conversation between director Kasper Bech Holten and the Queen of Denmark (see below). The accompanying booklets include sections by Kasper Bech Holten on the production concept as well as background information on the cycle. Subtitles are available in English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Danish.

"The Copenhagen Ring" is described in details here with plenty photographs.

In brief, this was labeled The Feminine Ring, as the story is told in flash-backs from Brünnhilde´s point of view, spanning the 20th Century. While the Feminine viewpoint does not seem central in the final concept as it appears on DVD, the history-telling of the 20th Century does indeed: From the roaring 20´s of Rheingold to the hermetically closed and conservative 50´s via the liberation of the 60´s in Siegfried to the cruel Balkan-like partisan war of the 90´s in Götterdämmerung.

First of all, The Copenhagen Ring this is a very theatrical Ring. The tempi are high. Myriads of things take place simultaneously on stage. No one just hangs around passively in a corner. That the impression of this Ring indeed was stronger on DVD than live, may perhaps be attributed to the very close-up camera shots revealing the extraordinary detailed stage direction.

In brief, the musical side was an unequivocal success: Michael Schønwandt´s Royal Danish Orchestra sound was gloriously transferred to DVD, with even greater power and more lucidity than I remembered it from the live performances.

The singers were all excellent actors and looked their parts. Furthermore, the singing was never less than average and casting of many of the crucial characters were on the highest international level (Stephen Milling, Stig Andersen, Irene Théorin etc.).

However, the most controversial aspect of this Copenhagen Ring DVD release undoubtedly will be the actual filming, as The Copenhagen Ring approximates a film in its own right rather than a recording of a live operatic performance:

18 cameras were used, several providing views not accessible for the audience (from the prompters box, from above, from the side-stage, from under the tables, from the bottom of Mime´s sink etc). Everything was filmed very close up, closer than in any other operatic DVD I have encountered. And a tremendous amount of clips were applied - especially in Rheingold, I gather the camera angles were changed at least once every 5 seconds, providing a very flickering image. Furthermore several of the close-ups were shaky and initially off-focus, distinctly reminding of the works of Dogme-film directors such as Lars von Trier applying very close-up shots with hand-held cameras at odd angles.

Several of the singers turned out even better actors on the DVD than I remembered them in the theater, and on DVD nuances in the stage direction I never noticed before suddenly became apparent. Even the smallest wrinkle is seen, not always desirable though, and singers like Stig Andersen actually look older with the stage make-up. There is a distinct in-your-face effect to all this, which I suspect potential audiences will disagree wildly about.

Did I like the filmic aspect then? I am not sure, which, however mainly is of interest to myself. The question is, may the potential/actual buyers like it? Some undoubtedly will not. I´d especially predict younger audiences to find this high-tempo story-telling fascinating. For sure, it is never boring and will make a great introduction for those unfamiliar with the work.

I must admit to finding these quick camera shifts quite stressful making it almost impossible to focus on the music. By far the worst in Rheingold. But then I suppose it´s better being irritated than bored... Finally, one has to realize this is virtually a film on its own right and does not give an impression of how it was to be in the audience (as an audience member when this DVD was recorded, I should know).

The production of this Copenhagen Ring DVD is a major achievement from a relatively minor opera house. And impressive to have this released on DECCA instead of the odd backyard company I had expected...But local-patriotism aside, The Copenhagen Ring more than holds it´s own on the relatively small Nibelungen Ring DVD market. First and foremost I am positively surprised of the high musical quality of this Ring.

With an eye on the DVD competition, the only other demythologizing Ring production on DVD is the Stuttgart Ring, which The Copenhagen Ring DVD exceeds in both production and musical quality.

The only true traditional Ring on the DVD market is the Schenk/Levine Metropolitan Ring, which I cannot recommend despite some fine moments.

Of Kupfer´s two DVD Rings, the Barcelona production has the superior staging (but with very disappointing musical quality), while both staging and orchestra is superb in the other Kupfer Ring conducted by Daniel Barenboim in Bayreuth, not to be touched musically.

However the Danish Royal Orchestra perform on such high level that those not caring to look at Harry Kupfer´s naked Bayreuth Festival stage for 14 hours, may prefer The Copenhagen Ring.

Audi´s futuristic Amsterdam production is extremely beautiful, but so different from Kasper Bech Holten´s approach, that comparisons do not make sense (The Copenhagen Ring singers in general are slightly better than the Amsterdam team, though Haenchen´s orchestra is fine). And lastly, Patrice Chéreau´s Bayreuth Centenary Ring with the superb stage direction, slightly disengaging conducting, unfortunately has a disastrous casting of Siegfried. Again, very different.

As I do not necessarily mind looking at an empty, dark stage for 14 hours, as well as being a huge admirer of Daniel Barenboim, the Kupfer/Barenboim Ring still takes first place on my shelf. But after that, the field is entirely open..

I´d strongly recommend The Copenhagen Ring for the theatrical approach and musical quality. Indeed, the musical quality is so high that for those preferring modern productions with high tempi and easy-to-follow storytelling, I wouldn´t hesitate to recommend this as a first choice Nibelungen Ring on DVD. It may serve as a great introduction to the Nibelungen Ring for those not familiar with the work or with Wagner, as well. A comprehensive review of all commercially available Nibelungen Ring DVDs may be found here.

The Copenhagen Ring may well hold it´s own on the DVD market, also for those "only" intending to own one DVD version of the Nibelungen Ring.

Promotional video from Decca:

The individual operas - Rheingold

The staging of the Rheingold is described in detail here.

A panoramic waterfront view of the new Copenhagen Opera House at dusk is shown before every performance. We then see Queen Margrethe of Denmark take her seat in the Royal Box just before the Rheingold begins (she attended cycle 2 as did I, but despite repeatedly freezing the screen, I didn´t manage to catch a glimpse of myself on row 14, when the cameras swept the floor section).

Irene Théorin now takes center stage. She is in the attick of her family´s mansion and she rummages through memorabilia in order to understand her past (in Götterdämmerung we learn that this takes place the exact moment Hagen and Gunther has left to kill Siegfried).
She starts remembering, disappears through the floor and the flash-back begin...

The Rheingold fits on one DVD. During the interludes, footage of Brünnhilde and her past is shown, probably attempting to highlight the Feminine story-telling aspect of the production.

Highlights from this Rheingold (with photos) include: The 1920´s Charleston-clad Rhinemaidens in the swimming-pool; Alberich tearing out the heart of the Rhinegold; Loge, the journalist, constantly looking for his lighter; Wotan cutting off Alberich´s arm to get the Ring in a torture-chamber; Wotan killing Loge, who knows too much; Lastly the impressive orchestra conducted by Michael Schønwandt.

The individual operas - Walküre

The staging of Walküre is described in detail with photographs here.

Highlights from the Walküre (with photos) include: The claustrophobic home of Sieglinde; Stephen Milling´s formidable Hunding; James Johnson´s cynical as well as charming Wotan; Brünnhilde appearing in the misty blue light to foretell Siegmunds death; the fine singing of Iréne Theorin; the fact that Hunding survives; and (again) the gloriously transferred orchestral sound..

Many, including director Kasper Bech Holten, has named the moment Wotan tears off Brünnhilde´s wings the greatest of the Ring. I must confess to the minority view of never have thought anything particular of that scene...

Walküre, in my opinion, is the least successful of the four stagings, mainly due to the fact that the drama between Siegmund and Sieglinde vs. Wotan and Brünnhilde never seemed to function at quite the same level as the core political dramas in the other installments.

A 30-minute bonus feature included director Kasper Bech Holten in conversation with Queen Margrethe of Denmark (an avid Ring follower and very enthusiastic about this Ring) on the production, which the Queen has seen numerous times. Kasper Bech Holten appears very enthusiastic and engaging, hilariously interrupting the Queen, who doesn´t seem to take offense, numerous times....Kasper Bech Holten once again confirms that the sets for this Ring have indeed been thrown away, so there will definitely not be a revival.

The individual operas - Siegfried

The staging of Siegfried is described in detail here.

Highlights from Siegfried (with photos) include: The orchestra; Mime´s doll-house; Stig Andersen´s formidable Siegfried; Bengt-Ola Morgny´s pathetic Mime; Wotan as a tourist at Neidhöhle; Wotan realizing that time has indeed passed when visiting the decaying Erda of Susanne Resmark in a nursing home.

The individual operas - Götterdämmerung

The staging of Siegfried is described in details here.

Highlights of Götterdämmerung (with photos) include: The prologue with the Norns as frustrated opera-goers located in the audience (and spotting my previous boss on the DVD in a front-row seat); the formidable ice-cold and psychopathic acting of Peter Klaveness as Hagen; the shocking murder of hostages during Hagen´s call; Hagen´s murder of Alberich; Brünnhilde breaking down in Siegfried´s death scene; Ylva Kihlberg´s Gutrune; Michael Schønwandt´s orchestra; Stig Andersen´s world-class Siegfried.

The singers

Generel comments: There are no truly weak links among the singers, not even wearing international (as opposed to local-patriotic) glasses. All singers futhermore were excellent actors.

Wotan: Johan Reuter, despite a beautiful voice and convincing acting he seemed almost too naive as the young Wotan and somehow didn´t quite make the impression I´d expected him to.
James Johnson does not have a particularly large voice, which furthermore is almost approaching a true barytone. An excellent actor with a considerable talent for comedy and irony as well as vocal characterization. A very convincing portrait.

Brünnhilde: Irene Théorin´s Brünnhilde was even more convincing on DVD than live, the close-up shots revealing her as a vastly more convincing stage actress than I was aware of from sitting in the audience. And in her absolutely best voice, with a glowing middle register and a reasonable vibrato, she hits all the notes, most on pitch as well. Only in Götterdämmerung did she occasionally seem to tire vocally. Clearly among the best on DVD.

Siegfried: Superb performance from Stig Andersen. Truly a world-class Siegfried. He may be slightly strained on the top, which however does not detract from his performance as he is a formidable stage actor as well. Unfortunately the make-up makes him look even older than he (and Siegfried) is. Also fine as Siegmund (taking over the role from the originally scheduled Poul Elming).

Sieglinde: Solid performance from a Gitta-Maria Sjöberg with a distinguished golden glow in her middle voice. Not a large voice, and essentially lyrical, but capable of conveying the necessary drama.

Hunding: Stephen Milling´s truly evil and menacing Hunding was one of the highlights of the entire cycle and is beyond competition on on DVD (as well as on stage).

Hagen: Dramatically, Peter Klaveness is a splendidly terrifying and psychopathic Hagen. Unfortunately he is vocally underpowered and shaky. But this is clearly to be preferred to the opposite combination.

Alberich: Sten Byriel was dramatically convincing, but lacked some vocal power as well.

Fricka: Randi Stene was a stylish and elegant Fricka in all regards.

Erda: Vocally the part is slightly too low for Susanne Resmark´s maximal comfort. But she is a formidable as well as courageous stage actress and the scene from Siegfried showing her decay is unforgettable.

Mime: Bengt-Ola Morgny fits the image of Mime´s small and constricted mind exceedingly well.

Gutrune: Ylva Kihlberg has a very unique middle voice and is perfect as the white trash Gutrune.

Gunther: Guido Paevatalu is convincing as the white trash paramilitary Gunther, slightly more so dramatically than vocally.

Loge: Michael Kristensen was slick as Loge and vocally fine as well, though I missed some edge in the characterization.

Fasolt/Fafner: Stephen Milling demonstrated himself capable of an almost unbelievable dramatic change between his soft Fasolt and mesmerizing Hunding. Christian Christiansen, though not entirely on this level, was nevertheless a solid Fafner.

Waltraute - Fine performance from Anette Bod.

Others of note:

Both the Rhinemaidens, Valkyries and Norns were fine. Powerful performance from the choir in Götterdämmerung, revealing many of the choristers to be excellent stage actors as well.

The conductor and orchestra

Michael Schønwandt´s approach to Wagner does occasionally tend to be too passive for my taste. Just by observing him on the podium you immediately get an impression of a more light-hearted approach as opposed to watching the more heavy Wagnerians such as Daniel Barenboim.
With that in mind, I was positively surprised that Michael Schønwandt´s approach to the Nibelungen Ring stayed firmly away from Wagner light and instead he displayed some of the most forceful and pointedly conducting I have heard from him. And good to hear him apply the necessary force behind the brass section in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

Most importantly, Michael Schønwandt has an exceptional understanding of the structure of the work and manages to build up tension over long stretches of the score, instead of blowing out the fortissimos at every potential occasion. He creates a very detailed and balanced orchestral sound, where the wood-winds stood particularly out, sometimes even as audible as the brass section. More brass and density in the string section would still have been welcome, but these are artistical choices, obviously.

The tempi were firmly located in the middle (faster than Barenboim and Levine, slower than Haenchen and Boulez), occasionally verging on the fast side, particularly in the more grandiose sections (such as the prelude to Siegfried Act 3) where he keeps the tempo up. The sound was rather closely recorded (and in splendid sound quality as well), which helps create a dynamic sound image. Furthermore the coordination between the pit and the singers is virtually perfect and the sound is well balanced over-all.

Encouraged by all this, I then made the mistake to try some point-to-point comparisons with Daniel Barenboim in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung - and in that respect Michael Schønwandt´s reading does come out rather Wagner light, though...But so does everyone else´s. And though the Royal Danish Orchestra has become an international-level operatic orchestra, it really is quite unfair to compare them to the mighty Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Apart from the fact, that this is one of the competing Nibelungen Ring DVDs on the market, and potential buyers may be interested in a take on the different approaches to the score:

In this respect, Michael Schønwandt is: More engaging than Pierre Boulez (Bayreuth); much more engaging and dynamic than James Levine (MET); simply better than Bertrand de Billy (Barcelona); slower than Hartmut Haenchen who is too fast in an otherwise well-played performance (Amsterdam); more brilliant than Lothar Zagrosek (Stuttgart). That leaves Daniel Barenboim (Bayreuth), who is untouchable. But then Harry Kupfer´s accompanying staging is substantially different from Kasper Bech Holten´s.

In brief - The highlights and lowlights

The highlights: Stephen Milling´s Hunding. Stig Andersen´s Siegfried. Iréne Théorin as Brünnhilde. Ylva Kihlberg as Gutrune. Susanne Resmark´s Erda in Siegfried. Michael Schønwandts orchestra. The detailed stage direction and sense of drama applied by Kasper Bech Holten and the production team.

Among the most powerful scenes: Wotan cutting off Alberich´s arm, Wotan visiting the frail Erda in Siegfried, the murder of civilians in Götterdämmerung

The lowlights: No element may be singled out as a lowlight. The controversial aspects, I´d predict to be:
The non-traditional staging (as always).
The non-traditional production of the DVD.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average)

The ratings are given in comparison to the other Ring DVDs available, and the superb acting skills of several of the singers weigh in heavily here. After all it is a visual medium:

Johan Reuter: 3-4
Michael Kristensen: 3-4
James Johnson: 4
Stig Andersen as Siegfried: 5
Stig Andersen as Siegmund: 4
Irene Théorin: 4
Gitta-Maria Sjöberg: 3-4
Stephen Milling: 5
Sten Byriel: 3-4
Randi Stene: 4
Ylva Kihlberg: 5
Peter Klaveness: 4
Guido Paevatalu: 3-4
Susanne Resmark: 4
Anette Bod: 4

Kasper Bech Holten´s staging: 4
Michael Schønwandt and the orchestra: 4.5

Overall impression: 4

Other reviews of The Copenhagen Ring DVD:

Politiken (in Danish)
Jyllandsposten (in Danish)


Unknown said...

Excellent review. Do you know if this was filmed in HD or not as hoping for an eventual blu-ray release.

mostly opera... said...

Thank you. Unfortunately I do not know. But I´ll try and ask around and if an answer comes up I will post it here.

Anonymous said...

This review is great. Really full of valuable information. Anyway, is this filming as horrible as [Tristan und Isolde] of Bel Air (Production of Geneva Opera), camera by Andy Sommer? Even though that was really awsome casting, orchestra and production, I was SO irritated by distracting camera work by Andy Sommers. If this ring is that bad, buying this DVD set is out of question.

Anyway, this is my first comment though, I have been helped a lot by your blog. Thank you. I'm in New York, annual subscriber to Metropolitan, and huge fan of Wagner. (planning to go to last performance of Ring in Met in coming April)

mostly opera... said...

Well, I thought of the Geneva Ring several times when watching this production. The camera work seems more focused in the Copehagen Ring, but it is among the same lines as in the Geneva Tristan. If I were you, I´d try and preview some of The Copenhagen Ring, if at all possible, before buying.

Anonymous said...

I just got this set two days ago. I have not watched the whole cycle, but I have watched Das Rheingold all the way through.

The camera work did not bother me. Yes, there are a lot of cuts to different cameras, but they are usually intelligently done. In the extended scenes I've watched in Walkure and Gotterdammerung, I didn't really notice it that much.

So, I would not hesitate to buy this because of the camera and editing work.* There is much to enjoy here!

Excellent blog, by the way!

*By far the worst I've camera/editing mess I've ever seen was the Met's HD-cast of Tristan this spring which used multiple split screens, sometimes as many as five screens as once. It resembled one of those cable news shows where they have four talking heads and a host. Audience members were audibly groaning and cursing!

Hairman said...

My first encounter with the Ring was a pretty dour affair with a live relay from the ROH a few years ago on television that turned me right off Wagner and the Ring.

Luckily the Copenhagen Ring came along and my opinion of the Ring, and Wagner's music in general, has changed immesurably.

The beauty of the production, in my eyes, is that the decision to house each segment in certain eras of the 20th Century not only gives it a cultural immediacy, but it is also a very effective way of portraying a believeable passing of time.

I wasn't at all put off by the camerawork, unlike in some productions I've seen - the recent live Werther relay on Arte being an irritating example of how to best scupper a great performance.

I will probably get other Ring's now that I've been converted, but I wouldn't hesitate in suggesting the Copenhagen Ring as an ideal introduction for the doubting viewer.

I'm hoping your Tannhauser reviews can unearth a gem for me as I unwisely bought the Zurich release...

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