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Friday, November 11, 2011

DVD Review: We Ain't in Valhalla No More

The Copenhagen Ring concludes. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
(This is the fourth and final installment in our ongoing review of the Copenhagen Ring Cycle, directed by Kaspar Bech Holten. Featuring the Royal Danish Opera conducted by Michael Schønwandt. Read the reviews of Das RheingoldDie Walküre and Siegfried, also on Superconductor.)
Peter Klaveness, (Hagen) Guido Paevetalu (Gunther) and Stig Andersen (Siegfried)  in Act III of Götterdämmerung.
Photo by Martin Renne © 2006 Royal Danish Opera/Universal Classics.
In the final chapter of the Ring, director Kaspar Bech Holten updates this story of marriage, betrayal and murder on the banks of the Rhine to the 1990s. Mr. Holten poses modern problems for these heroes of German myth. Sometimes, he ignores the finer points of the libretto, but the result is worth seeing, a powerful operatic experience and an interesting spin on the whole saga. 

Siegfried (Stig Andersen) cruises down the Rhine at the wheel of a convertable. He and Gunther (Guido Paevatalu) drink whiskey to swear blood-brotherhood. They get hammered,  and their kidnapping of Brunnhilde (Iréne Theoren) is trivialized as a drunken fraternity prank. Hagen (Peter Klaveness) is a military type. He's also a sadomasochist, compulsively stopping to do push-ups and burning his flesh with a lighter during Hagen's Watch. Forced to sit through nightly chalkboard-classes in Wagnerism (maybe the best joke in the cycle) the anti-hero murders his father, the pedantic Alberich (Sten Byriel) even as the old dwarf implores his son to "be true, be true."
Conflagration: Valhalla and the library burn in Act III of Götterdämmerung.
Photo by Martin Renne © 2006 Royal Danish Opera/Universal Classics.
The chorus of Gibichungs are gun-toting paramilitary thugs, with ski-masks and heavy metal t-shirts. (I noticed the logo of the German metal band Accept. Interesting.) When called on by Hagen to sacrifice animals for the wedding, they trot out some blindfolded POWs and execute them onstage. It is a terrifying, cruel moment. Siegfried's murder takes place in front of a visibly pregnant Brunnhilde, bringing Ms. Theoren onstage early in the last act. And after the conflagration (an impressive mix of real and digitally projected fire) she emerges holding a newborn baby. This apotheosis ends in birth, not death.

Iréne Theoren is the anchor of this entire performance. Her Brunnhilde is radiant, played as an expectant mother (of Siegfried's child) which makes her series of heartbreaks all the more devastating. Ms. Theoren sings with radiant tone, lifting smoothly over the orchestra with a trace of vibrato and saving her best notes for the climactic phrases of the Immolation Scene. This is a smart, well-paced performance of a tough role.

In his third opera of the cycle (he was also Siegmund as well as both Siegfrieds) Stig Andersen can be forgiven for sounding a little tired. However, he does a commendable job in the part. Smart stage-blocking allows him to avoid the murderously difficult Tarnhelm scene where the tenor has to pretend to be a baritone for eight minutes. (Mr. Paevatulu sings the baritone part himself.) He does his best with the other "impossible" passages (the octave drop in Act II, the "Hai-hei!" in Act III) but sounds as if he's pushing by the time Hagen puts him out of his misery.

Peter Klaveness is a compelling dramatic presence as Hagen. His acting is top-notch, but his voice is too small for the part. A thin, reedy bass, it has to fight to be heard over Wagner's orchestra at full blast. He's drowned out in the Gibichung chorus. He's inaudible in the Vengeance trio, and barely manages "Zuruck vom Ring!" in the last scene. (He makes his exit with one arm on fire as he tries to grasp the Ring, an impressive effect.) Guido Paevatalu is better as Gunther, portrayed as a fascist fop with the usual hints of incest with his sister Gutrune (Ylva Kihlberg.) 

Michael Schønwandt's Wagner-lite conducting is serviceable. The conductor does an admirable job with the three Norns, who are planted in the audience. (One even holds up a sign with the words "Regie-theater" crossed out, an inside dig at the critics.) The Rhine Journey and Hagen's Watch interludes are mini-films depicting Brunnhilde's quest for enlightenment in Wotan's library, a theme that has recurred throughout the cycle. However, the Funeral Music is taken at a fast jog, ruining its dramatic effect. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.