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Wagner - The Copenhagen Ring

Copenhagen Ring / Various
Release Date: 08/12/2008 
Label:  Decca   Catalog #: 001165609  
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Performer:  Elisabeth Meyer-TopsoeAnette BodGuido PaëvataluDjina Mai-Mai,   ... 
Conductor:  Michael Schonwandt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Danish Opera ChorusRoyal Danish Opera Orchestra
Number of Discs: 7 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Low Stock: Currently 3 or fewer in stock. Usually ships in 24 hours, unless stock becomes depleted.  
DVD:  $133.99
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Wholly engrossing, fresh and perspective-building with deeply involving acting and several vocal achievements that compete with the best.

When Bill Kenny, Regional Editor of MusicWeb’s Seen and Heard, visited the new opera house in Copenhagen in late December 2005 he waxed lyrical about the house itself review. It’s a view I endorse as is clear from my review of Nielsen’s Maskarade, which I saw in January this year (2008). He was also deeply impressed and fascinated by Die Walküre in the new production by Kasper Bech Holten. Now the full Ring appears on DVD. Having spent some intensive days in its company I feel a bit exhausted – especially since I listened through the reissue of Haitink’s Ring less than a week
Read more before – but I am just as fascinated as Bill.

Transporting the action to other, often more recent times, is no novelty, rather the contrary: it seems to be the norm today and quite often the result is more strange and alienating than illuminating. The Amsterdam Ring, directed by Pierre Audi, was a minimalist production with hardly any sets at all and the orchestra centre-stage. One of its great merits was the timelessness. The new Stockholm Ring, directed by Staffan Valdemar Holm (not yet on DVD) placed Das Rheingold in Wagner’s own time and then moved gradually into the 20th century and ended during WW1.

The same principle is employed here but Holten begins where Holm stopped, during the roaring ’20s and into the ’30s when the ideologies were structured. In Die Walküre we have reached the aftermath of WW2 and the cold war is raging, the structures have frozen; Siegfried represents young rebellion against the older generation in 1968. In Götterdämmerung belief in the future is being erased by the evil of the turn of the century – Holten mentions Bosnia or Rwanda. The malicious military commander Hagen and his soldiers stand as representatives for the raw oppression of the civilian population. The victims are Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde also runs through the story, pictured in sequences in Das Rheingold reading in old tomes. Thus the whole Ring can be seen as flashbacks from the present day. In Götterdämmerung during orchestral interludes she is again seen turning over pages in filmed sequences. 20th century history is set in relation to old Norse mythology, or vice versa: a really intriguing concept – but does it work?

There are anomalies of course. Wotan’s spear and Siegfried’s Nothung do not belong in the 20th century – you need to see them as symbols for their power rather than realistic attributes. The Valkyries are dressed in 1950s bloodstained evening gowns when they gather fallen soldiers. They also have very realistic wings and when Wotan denounces Brünnhilde in the last act of Die Walküre he brutally tears off her wings, causing her great pain. Holten refrains from doing what many present-day directors do: disregarding the text and what is actually sung. He trusts the onlookers’ intelligence to be able to filter out the anachronisms.

On the other hand there is so much inventiveness in characterisation of the roles. This helps create a believable or witty spirit of the time. Fafner in a wheel-chair is still able to kill Fasolt – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Loge is a chain-smoking bureaucrat. Donner is there as the toughest of the gods, in leather-jacket and armed with a shotgun; his greatgrandson in our time would probably be a member of Hell’s Angels! Susanne Resmark in Das Rheingold is a spectacular Erda, Marlene Dietrich-like and seductive; no wonder Wotan got a nonet of Valkyries with her. He even kisses her in front of Fricka! When he visits her in Siegfried, dressed up in black suit with a bunch of roses and a bottle of champagne, she is old and sick, lying in bed and tended by a nurse.

Wotan himself, the leader who feels insufficient, his empire collapsing, has fallen into the same trap as many a business executive: he has taken to drinking and sips secretly from a hip-flask. His opposite pole, Alberich, is also a heavy drinker.

I could relate many more instances of finely observed everyday detail but I won’t deprive readers of the pleasure of finding out for themselves. Let me just mention another two: The appearance of the three Norns at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, not on stage but in the audience. It is an unforgettable moment when an onlooker in the first row, just behind the conductor, gets irritated by the lights, directed towards her, and suddenly stands up, seemingly to leave, pats Michael Schønwandt’s shoulder, points to the lights and starts singing: Welch Licht leuchtet dort? (What light shines up there?). The other is when we return to the cave on Brünnhilde’s rock. In this production it is on top of a roof, a lovely cosy, romantic, married-bliss balcony with flowers a-plenty and Siegfried carrying in the obligatory breakfast tray while Brünnhilde, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, is watering the geraniums.

This brings me back to the everyday detail that makes this Ring so easy to accept, to identify with. With all due deference to gods and heroes and giants, here they are humanized, brought down to a level where they are tangible and we feel that they are of flesh and blood. In spite of the evil that permeates so much of this drama, the impression that lingers most is the warmth and humanity. I have several times lately complained about the alienation that seems to be the order of the day in many opera productions; Kasper Bech Holten places human relations in the foreground. Rarely has there been so much closeness, so much bodily contact, so many warm looks – and hateful for that matter – and such close interplay between characters. Every word or gesture generates a realistic response; small reactions, hardly noticeable sometimes, but in the close-up filming of most scenes they are registered. Holten worked with this production from 2001 and obviously devoted himself to close reading of a kind that is rarely encountered. With a responsive cast of actors he has chiselled out completely believable characters and situations. Take the meeting between Brünnhilde and Waltraute in the last scene of act I. Brünnhilde is overjoyed when her old Valkyrie colleague appears but after some time, when Waltraute begins her soliloquy, relating the sad state in Valhalla, Brünnhilde is mildly interested and after some time she shows very clearly that ‘Oh, no! Why do I have to listen to this?’ Her eyes wander, her face becomes blank, her body is slightly turned away. Suddenly some words of Waltraute catch her, the body stiffens, the eyes look fixedly at Waltraute and her lips part slightly. This is again just one isolated instance of intelligent psychological direction and superb acting. There is plenty of it.

There are also some interesting and, possibly, controversial turns. The Rhinegold is a physical person, a young man swimming about in the Rhine - Alberich cuts out his heart. It is Sieglinde, not Siegmund, who pulls Nothung out of the ash-tree. Bill Kenny called it ‘girl-power’ and there is a good deal in that: she also takes the initiatives in the relation between them. Gutrune is a sexy seducer who wraps Siegfried around her little finger and Fricka is uncommonly strong-willed - actually more dignified than bitchy.

Hunding is not killed by Wotan; he is sent away to kneel before Fricka – a worse punishment than death for a brute like him. And, talking of humiliation, Wotan, in his ultimate degradation when meeting Siegfried, breaks the spear himself – no ‘girl power’ here but perhaps lack of ‘male power’. Finally a parallel to ponder upon: the siblings Gunther and Gutrune also seem to have a relation much more intimate than pure affection. There is room for various interpretations.

The production for DVD is extremely detailed and evocative - camera angles discriminatingly chosen to provide information in the subtext, often in short glimpses. Here the DVD viewer is at an advantage compared to the theatre audience. We don’t need to search for the focus of the action. I can’t find it said explicitly anywhere in the notes but I suspect that Holten has had a finger in the pie here too. The superb theatre machinery is innovatively employed and when the action takes place in two or even more storeys – sometimes simultaneously – the home-viewer is again a step ahead of the live onlookers. The plentiful use of close-ups also facilitates the understanding and experience of this complex drama. Here also lies the singular problem with this DVD production. When the cameras creep straight into the faces of the singers there can sometimes be an almost embarrassing closeness, comparable to the feeling when someone comes within my personal territory at a conversation. Moreover, and that’s the most troublesome point, a singer in close-up at fortissimo, velum fluttering, face distorted, isn’t a very flattering sight. Don’t let this deter you from acquiring this Ring, however; it’s worth some embarrassment.

So far I have focused only on the staging and some interpretative points of interest to give readers an idea of what kind of performance this is. But opera is also music and however fascinating a production is from a theatrical or conceptual point of view there also have to be musical merits. They are, luckily, abundant but there are also some less attractive features. Michael Schønwandt is, as Bill Kenny also pointed out in his review, the only Danish conductor to have appeared at Bayreuth and he knows his Wagner. There isn’t a tempo that I would question and his reading is very much kept together organically as one piece. The playing of the Royal Danish Orchestra is also first class, impressively so considering that these are live recordings.

Among the soloists there are some tremendously fine achievements. Johan Reuter as the young Wotan in Das Rheingold is vigorous and steady of tone, while James Johnson as the mature and ageing Wotan/Wanderer in the two following parts is admirably detailed and expressive in these demanding roles. Once or twice he overtaxes his voice but generally this is a superb portrait and in Siegfried his Wanderer is charmingly relaxed and humorous. Sten Byriel as the malevolent Alberich is also a splendid singing-actor and Stephen Milling, singing Fasolt’s role in Das Rheingold with melting bel canto tone, is a formidably nasty Hunding in Die Walküre. He is certainly one of the great present-day basses.

I found Stig Andersen’s Siegfried a bit uneven when I reviewed the Amsterdam Götterdämmerung on CD a while ago. On the other hand I admired his willingness to soften his voice and find nuances that too often elude Heldentenöre. Here he sings both Siegfrieds in addition to Siegmund and his is one of the liveliest and most likeable of interpretations of these taxing roles. Even though his tone can be strained and a bit dryish he sings with great attention to the words. As the mean and abominable Mime Bengt-Ola Morgny makes a memorably vivid portrait – on a par with the best I have seen – but his voice is today a far cry from what it once was. Both Christian Christiansen and Peter Klaveness create frightening characters of Fafner and Hagen. Guido Paevatalu, a mainstay at the Royal Danish Opera, is a lively play-boy type Gunther and his voice is still in good shape.

On the distaff side Iréne Theorin is so touchingly human a Brünnhilde that one forgets she is the daughter of a god. This is plainly the cosiest and warmest reading of the role I have encountered and she is a glorious singer. Today she is Bayreuth’s Isolde and she certainly has the stamina for that role too. At times she has a slight beat in the voice but when she lets loose at the climaxes she is brilliant. Gitta-Maria Sjöberg, whose recital disc with Verdi and Puccini arias I made a Recording of the Month less than a year ago (see review), has all the lyrical beauty and warmth one wants from Sieglinde. Du bist der Lenz has rarely been so gloriously sung. There are splendid contributions from Susanne Resmark (Erda and 1st Norn) and Randi Stene – a noble but grieved Fricka with Hilary Clinton looks. Ylva Kihlberg in several guises, not least her alluring Gutrune, should also be mentioned, and Gisela Stille is a deliciously twittering Woodbird.

While there may be other DVD Rings that are more consistently well sung, notably Barenboim-Kupfer’s Bayreuth set, this Copenhagen Schønwandt-Holten production is certainly wholly engrossing, fresh and perspective-building with deeply involving acting and several vocal achievements that compete with the best.

-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International [8/2008 DVD Recording of the Month]

Format: NTSC
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Region: 0 (all)
Sound: LPCM Stereo / DTS 5.1 Surround
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese
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Works on This Recording

1.
Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Elisabeth Meyer-Topsoe (Soprano), Anette Bod (Mezzo Soprano), Guido Paëvatalu (Baritone),
Djina Mai-Mai (Soprano), Anne Margrethe Dahl (Soprano), Bengt-Ola Morgny (Tenor),
Hans Lawaetz (Bass), Johan Reuter (Baritone), Hanne Fischer (Mezzo Soprano),
Emma Vetter (Soprano), Stig Andersen (Tenor), Elisabeth Halling (Alto),
Elisabeth Jansson (Alto), Anna Rydberg (Mezzo Soprano), Ylva Kihlberg (Soprano),
Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (Soprano), Carolina Sandgren (Soprano), Iréne Theorin (Soprano),
James Johnson (Bass), Randi Stene (Mezzo Soprano), Stephen Milling (Bass),
Ulla Kudsk Jensen (Alto), Michael Kristensen (Tenor), Sten Byriel (Bass Baritone),
Christian Christiansen (Bass), Susanne Resmark (Alto), Peter Klaveness (Bass),
Gisela Stille (Soprano)
Conductor:  Michael Schonwandt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Danish Opera Chorus,  Royal Danish Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1853-1874; Germany 
2.
Das Rheingold by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Iréne Theorin (Soprano), Hanne Fischer (Mezzo Soprano), Ylva Kihlberg (Soprano),
Johnny Van Hal (Tenor), Hans Lawaetz (Bass), Stephen Milling (Bass),
Sten Byriel (Bass Baritone), Michael Kristensen (Tenor), Randi Stene (Mezzo Soprano),
Johan Reuter (Baritone), Bengt-Ola Morgny (Tenor), Christian Christiansen (Bass),
Anne Margrethe Dahl (Soprano), Susanne Resmark (Alto), Djina Mai-Mai (Soprano)
Conductor:  Michael Schonwandt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Danish Opera Chorus,  Royal Danish Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854; Germany 
3.
Die Walküre by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Elisabeth Halling (Alto), Elisabeth Jansson (Alto), Anna Rydberg (Mezzo Soprano),
Carolina Sandgren (Soprano), Ylva Kihlberg (Soprano), Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (Soprano),
James Johnson (Bass), Iréne Theorin (Soprano), Stephen Milling (Bass),
Randi Stene (Mezzo Soprano), Stig Andersen (Tenor), Emma Vetter (Soprano),
Hanne Fischer (Mezzo Soprano), Ulla Kudsk Jensen (Alto)
Conductor:  Michael Schonwandt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Danish Opera Chorus,  Royal Danish Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1856; Germany 
4.
Siegfried by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Stig Andersen (Tenor), Sten Byriel (Bass Baritone), Bengt-Ola Morgny (Tenor),
Christian Christiansen (Bass), Susanne Resmark (Alto), Iréne Theorin (Soprano),
James Johnson (Bass), Gisela Stille (Soprano)
Conductor:  Michael Schonwandt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Danish Opera Chorus,  Royal Danish Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1871; Germany 
5.
Götterdämmerung by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Anne Margrethe Dahl (Soprano), Peter Klaveness (Bass), Hanne Fischer (Mezzo Soprano),
Anette Bod (Mezzo Soprano), Guido Paëvatalu (Baritone), Stig Andersen (Tenor),
Sten Byriel (Bass Baritone), Ylva Kihlberg (Soprano), Iréne Theorin (Soprano),
Susanne Resmark (Alto), Djina Mai-Mai (Soprano), Elisabeth Meyer-Topsoe (Soprano),
Ulla Kudsk Jensen (Alto)
Conductor:  Michael Schonwandt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Royal Danish Opera Chorus,  Royal Danish Opera Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1861-1874; Germany 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Simply awful February 11, 2014 By Stephen Marmer (Los Angeles, CA) See All My Reviews "I hate to write negative reviews but I feel I must in order to save others from wasting their money on this ugly performance. Musically it is not horrible, just mediocre. But the production is one that I find to be disgusting and that demeans the majesty of the work. For recordings one cannot go wrong with Solti, but if you prefer orchestral lushness then turn to the Karajan. For DVD's I recommend the old Levine, or Boulez, or the Barenboim/Kupfer, or the Haenchen. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. I keep going back to Boulez and Barenboim. For Bly-ray you can try the new Levine and even the Mehta. But steer clear of the Copenhagen Ring. (Of course, this is my strong personal opinion. Your milage may differ.)" Report Abuse
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