Das Rheingold

Gregor Bühl
Kungliga Hovkapellet
10 September 2005
Kungliga Operan Stockholm
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanTerje Stensvold
DonnerJohan Edholm
FrohKlas Hedlund
LogeThomas Sunnegårdh
FasoltHans-Peter König
FafnerLennart Forsén
AlberichKetil Hugaas
MimeNiklas Björling Rygert
FrickaMartina Dike
FreiaSara Olsson
ErdaAnna Larsson
WoglindeHilde Leidland
WellgundeSusann Végh
FloßhildeKatarina N. Leoson

The last Ring cycle I saw in Stockholm, mounted more than 35 years ago, directed by Folke Abenius and designed by Jan Bradza, was a stylized, abstract production, fascinating in its then brave modernism, very much in the vein of Wieland Wagner’s work at Bayreuth: a minimum of props, based on evocative lighting. When the Royal Opera now are launching a new cycle they go in quite the opposite direction. The Rheingold, which was premiered last Saturday, is more or less a fairy-tale, the range of colours pastel warm (apart from the third scene in Nibelheim which is pitch black) and the action is set in Wagner’s own time with all the characters dressed as upper middle-class people would be – when Loge (Thomas Sunnegårdh) appears he looked like Wagner himself.

The first scene, played on the bottom of the Rhine, is here set in a room with glass-covered cupboards around the walls, filled with weapons and other things, and through the windows we can see fish swimming and the Rhine maidens also “swim” about, i.e. they move around gracefully, making swimming gestures, in wide chequered dresses (and I believe most of the audience at once associated them to the famous illustrated children’s book from the turn of the last century about “Aunt Green, Aunt Brown and Aunt Violet”). That Alberich is both lovesick and greedy for the gold doesn’t diminish the feeling of fairy-tale, quite the contrary, and since the director in this and also later scenes highlights many comical points, there is an atmosphere of lightheartedness, which doesn’t mean that he underplays the serious side of the story; rather it becomes even more exposed when contrasted with the humour.

The second and fourth scenes are set in an empty room – the gods ready to move out since the building of Valhalla has been completed. In the last scene they actually walk out with their filled suitcases. When we first meet Wotan and Fricka it is still early and they are in dressing-gowns. The other gods, Donner, Froh and Loge, and later also Wotan, are neatly dressed in light-grey morning-coats and top hats and the lovely Freia is, of course, in white, looking like a real fairy. In the midst of these references to the middle-to-late 19th century Wotan is still carrying his long spear, anachronistically reminding us that he and the others actually belong in a very distant past. Having read Wagner’s original stage directions it is indeed fascinating to notice how closely they have been observed in this production, without being too literal, and one can’t help feeling that much of what Wagner aimed at must have been very difficult, maybe impossible, to realize according to his vision in the 1860s. Much care has also been lavished on creating clearly chiselled individuals, making this a very human Rheingold. That Fasolt falls in love with Freia, while she is held hostage, is no secret, but in the end she also has fallen in love with him, a well-known fact from real-life experiences of this kind. Much else could be written about this production, not least how the team manage to give rounded portraits of the characters, warts and all. It was a deeply capturing and engrossing experience, making the two and a half hours pass in no time. This was one of the rare occasions where all the pieces fit together in the gigantic jig-saw puzzle that an opera production is.

One important piece, hitherto unmentioned, is of course the musical side. Stockholm has for long had a very strong Wagner tradition, and I need only mention last year’s successful Tristan und Isolde, glowingly reviewed by Bill Kenny (see review). The first Rheingold was staged as early as 1901 and this was the 133rd performance of the opera in the house.

Originally Neeme Järvi was scheduled to lead this Ring cycle but he had to withdraw due to failing health and in his place the young German Gregor Bühl sprang in. He is no newcomer to Wagner: in Hannover, where he has been principal conductor since 1996, he has performed most of the operas, including the complete Ring. It was also obvious from the outset that he knew his Wagner. The remarkable prelude, “the birth of minimalism”, with its repeated “wave” motif, was built up from the almost inaudible start towards ever greater intensity, the waters of the Rhine running fiercer and fiercer, and the Royal Orchestra responded willingly. Bühl kept things moving without rushing. A well-balanced reading, full of life.

To this can be added singing out of the top drawer. There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. The three Rhine maidens acted and sang with the utmost conviction and visibly enjoyed themselves, and their voices blended well in their ensembles. Especially Susann Végh impressed vocally. Martina Dike, who already has a long list of memorable role assumptions (see review of Don Carlos), was a splendid Fricka, her voice ringing out with magnificent ease and she is a good actor. As Freia Sara Olsson didn’t have much to sing but what little there was she did well and she acted movingly. Erda’s part is even smaller, but her “aria” Weiche, Wotan, weiche is on the other hand one of the sublime moments and Anna Larsson’s deep warm contralto was perfectly suited to it, just as artlessly affecting as when she sang the same part in a concert performance of Rheingold at the Stockholm Concert Hall a couple of years ago.

In the men’s department, the diminutive Klas Hedlund drew a finely etched Froh and his unforced lyrical tenor is always a joy to listen to, while Johan Edholm personified the choleric Donner with biting intensity. Thomas Sunnegårdh, excellent actor, found the right scheming tone for Loge, a part he has sung for many years around the world, his voice still in fine fettle. Fafner and Fasolt, bear-like in their brown costumes and with long hair and beard, were magnificently sung by Lennart Forsén and Hans-Peter König, the former with a roundness and beauty of tone that almost conflicted with the evil, while König has the most tremendously gigantic bass-voice one can ever expect to hear.

The black forces in Nibelheim were also well taken care of. Ketil Hugaas, the buffo bass par preference in Stockholm at the moment, adopted all his considerable skill to give a many-sided portrait of Alberich. A good actor with many colours in his not exactly beautiful but expressive voice. And young Niklas Björling Rygert, who is quickly claiming the role as the leading character tenor, was a perfect Mime, younger looking and younger sounding than most and a lithe actor.

On top of this Norwegian guest Terje Stensvold was a well-nigh ideal Wotan, physically imposing but showing all the different sides of Wotan’s many-faceted character. He sang with firm tone, blacker than most baritones, which is right for Wotan, but with impressively gleaming high notes – and he had a wonderful legato. Far from the speech-singing all to often heard in the role, this was a bel canto Wotan. It will be interesting to hear him in the forth-coming Walküre.

This was indeed an auspicious start of the new Ring cycle and a visit to the Royal Opera in Stockholm is wholeheartedly recommended. In February I hope to be able to review Die Walküre. With Stensvold, König and Dike, German tenor Endrik Wottrich and with Katarina Dalayman and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Sieglinde this seems an appetizing prospect indeed! Siegfried will follow next autumn and Götterdämmerung in the autumn of 2007. Keep an eye on this site for further reports.

Göran Forsling | Stockholm, 10 September, 2005 (Premiere)

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 48.0 kHz, 353 MByte (MP3)
A production by Staffan Valdemar Holm (premiere)
Also available as telecast
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.