Das Rheingold

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Finnish National Opera Orchestra
7 September 2019
Finnish National Opera Helsinki
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanTommi Hakala
DonnerTuomas Pursio
FrohMarkus Nykänen
LogeTuomas Katajala
FasoltKoit Soasepp
FafnerJyrki Korhonen
AlberichJukka Rasilainen
MimeDan Karlström
FrickaLilli Paasikivi
FreiaReetta Haavisto
ErdaSari Nordqvist
WoglindeMarjukka Tepponen
WellgundeMari Palo
FloßhildeJeni Packalen
Stage directorAnna Kelo (2019)
Set designerMikki Kunttu
TV directorTiina Siniketo

Salonen’s Helsinki Rheingold celebrates Finnish vocal talent as new Ring launches

For any opera house, the production of a new Ring cycle is a huge undertaking and in effect it becomes a mission statement. For Finnish National Opera, the planning must have already started when they decided to export their previous Götz Friedrich Ring to Tokyo a few years ago. Artistic Director Lilli Paasikivi made it clear from the outset that the mission of this new cycle, in four instalments over two years, was to stage an all-Finnish Ring – both the production team and cast. The biggest coup was to bring the coolest of Finnish conductors, Esa-Pekka Salonen, on board to conduct his first Ring.

Musically, Salonen put a strong stamp on this Rheingold with his trademark clarity and non-traditionalist approach. He doesn’t conduct a lot of staged opera in general, but he has always excelled in the productions he has taken on, including Tristan und Isolde in Paris and Elektra at Aix-en-Provence and the Metropolitan Opera. He relished the challenges and gave an undogmatic account of Rheingold. Is it his “Finnishness” or his composer mind that gives him the freedom of interpreting Wagner without the traditional Teutonic baggage? In that sense it may not always be “idiomatic” Wagner, but it felt refreshingly unpretentious, propelling the music with rhythmic buoyancy. The orchestra responded with energy and gravity, the low strings and low brass making a particularly strong contribution.

No production of a Ring cycle can expect to be totally trouble-free, and the hiccup in Helsinki happened when the artistic proposal of Kari Heiskanen, the original stage director, was rejected by the management. He was swiftly and discreetly replaced by Anna Kelo, a safe pair of hands who has come up from within the ranks of the FNO as assistant director. The team must have decided then that they were going to focus more on the musical side, and not to aim for a sensational, conceptual production. Kelo’s production stuck to straightforward storytelling: she set the world of Das Rheingold in Ancient Greece where the gods are indeed gods (she has hinted that the subsequent operas will be set in different eras). The statuesque Wotan and his fellow gods are seen in an opulent palace in colourful costumes, whereas Nibelheim, the realm of Alberich, is a world of slave labour and exploitation. All the characters look their part: the Rhinemaidens look like water nymphs, Alberich and Mime look like gnomes, Froh look like Orpheus with a lyre in his hand, and red-haired, youthful Loge has Puck-like agility. The giants Fasolt and Fafner were treated to some technological transformation: their faces were projected onto screens (pre-recorded video), while they sang from either side of the stage.

The sets, abstract and mobile constructions, were configured variously for each scene with the help of lighting and video screens, all designed by Mikki Kuntuu. The lighting was particularly eye-catching and high-spec (interesting to read his CV extends to designing lighting for Cirque de Soleil), and the highlighting of the gold in the Rhine in the opening scene with light beams and the atmospheric lighting of Nibelheim were particularly striking. In general, Kelo and her team portrayed every detail of the text visually which did feel too descriptive at times, but it also reminded one of details that one had forgotten.

The singing was indeed a celebration of current Finnish vocal talent (with the exception of one Estonian!). Apart from a couple of established names such as Lilli Paasikivi, a commanding Fricka, and Jukka Rasilainen, now singing Alberich after many years as Wotan, it was a freshly picked cast with many making role debuts. It was the first foray into Wotan for leading Finnish baritone Tommi Hakala, who sang the role with conviction and stamina. I’m sure more gravitas and emotional depth will certainly come in the forthcoming instalments. I was particularly impressed by Tuomas Katajala’s lithe Loge, also a role debut. He sang the role with Tamino-like lightness, and indeed he is a seasoned Tamino singer. Perhaps the size of the theatre makes it possible for him to sing in this way, but he was real charmer, with storytelling ability. Tenor Dan Karlström displayed great vocal acting as Mime, and Mari Palo (Wellgunde) was the pick of the Rhinemaidens.

Salonen and his musicians succeeded in creating many dramatic climaxes; personally, the most captivating moment was Alberich’s curse on the ring in Scene 4. I haven’t experienced a more emphatic or bitter curse scene than Rasilainen here and it resonated with me until the end of the opera. All in all, Salonen and his singers created a powerful musical drama on stage, and the visuals didn’t distract, at times illuminating the music effectively. I am now curious how Kelo will develop the storytelling in Die Walküre next May.

Nahoko Gotoh | 22 September 2019


Das Rheingold is a good omen for the rest of Salonen’s Ring cycle

‘In the beginning darkness was over the face of the deep’, but while the orchestral prelude slowly grew in a hypnotic crescendo in E flat major over 136 bars, rays of light began to appear from underneath in a fascinating, spectacular display. Dim images of gold bars heralded the first scene, the bottom of the River Rhine with the three Rhinemaidens merrily playing. To the left in the barren landscape was an enormous egg, out of which a human being suddenly forced his way. Was this the birth of Alberich? His fervent attempts to entangle the maidens and his cunning theft of the gold was graphically choreographed and entertaining. With the ensuing shift of scenes to the world of the Gods, it was obvious that they hardly belonged in the chilly Norse mythology but rather in a mild Mediterranean landscape. The glimpse of Valhalla under construction was reminiscent of a magnificent Greek temple and the Gods were wearing elegant togas. But they had their usual attributes: Wotan’s spear was as Nordic as ever, Donner’s gigantic hammer seemed borrowed from the latest Finnish design exhibition and Froh wandered about with his lyre held high and played with sweeping gestures. Rather a parody – and why not? Wagner himself described Das Rheingold as a black comedy, as director Anna Kelo mentions in an interview in the programme notes. The giants, Fafner and Fasolt, are always difficult to interpret, since most deep basses are seldom of more than average size. Here they were represented more indirectly as grotesquely enlarged faces on screens, while the singers, dressed in black, stood by the side of the stage, and the distorted close-ups on the screens were certainly frightening. Even more frightening was the video image of the serpent that Alberich turns himself into in the Nibelheim scene: an enormous red writhing monster with a horrifying face. The video images were truly impressive and contributed greatly to making this production a feast for both eyes and ears.

I am not sure how much Wagner Esa-Pekka Salonen has conducted and this is in any case his first Ring cycle. Sensible tempos, slightly on the brisk side, and rhythmical precision made the performance come alive and the orchestra played with admirable stamina and power. And the standard of the singing was, with one or two exceptions, very high. Tommi Hakala, who may have sounded rather worn at times over the last few years, impressed greatly as Wotan, singing with steady tone and verbal acuity. Lilli Paasikivi’s Fricka was also excellent. Possibly the best singing of all was delivered by Tuomas Katajala as the red-haired Loge. Seemingly effortless beauty of tone and expressive acting characterised his performance. His tenor colleague Markus Nykänen as the gentle Froh also sported a beautiful voice, especially in the short scene where he creates a rainbow bridge to Valhalla. Tuomas Pursio’s Donner was perhaps having an off day, with a heavy wobble that disfigured his singing. Koit Koasepp and Jyrki Korhonen are reliable and their giants made lasting impressions. Moving on to the Nibelungen, both Jukka Rasilainen and Dan Karlström were excellent and the three Rhinemaidens did good jobs.

This Rheingold is a good omen for the rest of this Ring cycle, which will be completed in 2022. The previous Ring, directed by Götz Friedrich, was created twenty years ago and was among his last productions. I only saw Die Walküre, which was truly memorable. With a home-grown production team and Esa-Pekka Salonen at the helm, everything seems set for a worthy staging to follow Friedrich’s success.

Göran Forsling | Helsinki, 3.9.2019

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 2.0 Mbit/s, 2.2 GByte (MPEG-4)
Webstream (Yle Areena)
This recording is part of a complete Ring cycle.