At the macro level, a director of Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen must forge a cohesive theatrical framework. At the micro level, the job is to provide frequent flashes of brilliant illumination. Kasper Bech Holten, artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera, comes through on both counts. His Copenhagen Ring (the first in that city in nearly a century, completed in 2006, performed in its entirety nine times that year and then destroyed) unfolds as an epic flashback in the mind of Brünnhilde. As the lights dim, a caption spells out that she has just betrayed the man she loved more than all the world. Now she wants to understand how this could have come to be. The first low E-flat of Das Rheingold has yet to sound, and there she stands, surrounded by shelves groaning with scrapbooks and memorabilia. She lights a candle, begins feverishly to research, and the saga unfolds. At the far end of the story, in Götterdämmerung, Siegfried's corpse is laid out in this very archive, now in disarray. Brünnhilde, nine months pregnant, sets stacks of books alight and escapes into the wings, returning in time for the final bars, radiant, a newborn babe in her arms. Redemption in this Ring is not cosmic but personal. The world is reborn one child at a time.
Flappers, rising skyscrapers, and the trappings of industrial fortunes in Das Rheingold evoke the jazz age. Thenceforward, generation succeeds generation in something like real time. The historic arc has a built-in logic, but the production's greater distinction dwells in a cascade of magic-realist details. In the immolation scene, the ravens addressed by Brünnhilde take the form of Valkyries — elegant debutantes outfitted with the same ravens' wings she, too, wore until the punishing Wotan tore them off. The Norns, seated in the auditorium, are reactionary Wagner mavens fed up after three evenings of Eurotrash. Siegfried's scene as the false Gunther is performed by the real Gunther instead, a persuasive response to the pushed-down tessitura. Arbitrary as a given image or gesture may seem, virtually all of them spring from microscopic attention to Wagner's words and music. The governing intelligence is as playful as it is probing, pensive yet seldom solemn.
Holten's most haunting invention is his Rheingold — an angelic youth (Danny Olsen) undulating naked in an aquarium. Crazy? Maybe not. The fellow makes swims into view precisely as the Rhinemaidens describe the treasure they guard as "den wonnigen Schläfer," or "beautiful sleeper" (gender: masculine), just now "awakening" to the light. Thus the erotic power supposedly inherent in the gold becomes a living presence, and a spurned lover has more reason than ever to renounce it. The theft of the gold is outright murder. Legs thrash in the tank, and the water runs red. To cap the horror, Alberich brandishes a bleeding heart.
Expect no panoramas of Nature Primeval. Siegfried's bear is an empty pelt, the Forest Bird, implausibly, a live white dove. The haut-bourgeois household of Hunding and Sieglinde, the two-story bungalow (with cellar) of Mime and Siegfried, Erda's mansion and the sky-lit loft Brünnhilde shares with Siegfried are urban or even suburban, realistic to a fault and lived-in to the point of absurdity. The social-climbing Gibichungs hang out in a glassed-in penthouse. Fafner is holed up in a bunker, aglow with computer screens. Books to read, plants to water, a fully equipped kitchen — the prop list must run to a thousand pages. The cast is a thirsty bunch; beverages are consumed incessantly, from water and coffee to beer, hard liquor and champagne (glasses optional). The Wanderer shows up chez Mime with some flaky Danish pastry, the model guest.
For the most part, Holten offers family drama that Ibsen, Ingmar Bergman, even Brecht would recognize. The Norse fantasy trappings are ignored. Sten Byriel's Alberich belongs to no despised race of trolls; he is a presentable gent disfigured by a scar on his cheek, drowning his sorrows in liquor. Wotan — shared by Johan Reuter (Das Rheingold) and James Johnson — is the master builder of a twentieth-century metropolis. Despite the brave fight he puts up against Randi Stene's commanding Fricka, his real conflict is within, leading him from callow self-confidence through an existential midlife crisis to ironic self-knowledge and despair. The abusive wrangling between Stig Andersen's Siegfried and Bengt-Ola Morgny's Mime betrays touching reminders of reluctant love. In the oblique power games played by the feckless Gunther (Guido Paevatalu) and the glamorous Gutrune (Ylva Kihlberg, a powerhouse), the sister is by no means her brother's passive pawn. Feminist inflections abound. In Die Walküre, it is Sieglinde (the blazing Gitta-Maria Sjöberg) who wrests the sword from the tree.
As for Holten's designated protagonist, has there ever been a friendlier Brünnhilde than the sweet-faced Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin? Her tone is gleaming, her phrasing noble. Her matronly physique works against her, but less than the tacky velveteen wrap that transforms her into a blowsy hausfrau. Her girlish habit of biting her lip at every tiniest crisis seems off. And whatever one may think of Holten's ending, Brünnhilde's way of presenting her swollen belly to friend and foe all through Götterdämmerung makes too much of motherhood as the defining aspect of her identity.
Vocally, the entire ensemble performs to a high international standard, while delivering dialogue with the crackle of fine stage actors. The workhorse of the show is Stig Andersen, cast as Siegmund as well as Siegfried. One might wish he went lighter on the greasepaint and eyeliner, which age him, and the faces he makes as he telegraphs emotion can look clownish. But he never tires, his timbre is cultivated, and there is poetry in his singing as well as power. Susanne Resmark's Erda is an arresting creation, amorous and seductive in Das Rheingold, at death's door in Siegfried. Old age is cruel in this Ring, to anyone who lives to see it. Stephen Milling, a bass of golden-age stature, offers a Fasolt of poignant naïveté, then a Hunding whose casual brutality chills the blood. A rougher singer and a stagier actor, Peter Klaveness portrays Hagen as an ascetic, self-loathing psychopath whose veins pump liquid nitrogen.
No brooding intellectual, Michael Schønwandt cruises through the score like a buccaneer, rousing the Royal Danish Orchestra to a pitch of rhapsodic adventure. The brass section, in particular, covers itself in glory. There are readings of the Ring that make a greater point of profundity, but Holten and Schønwandt's unabashedly theatrical approach achieves it, too.
Theorin, Sjöberg, Stene, Resmark, Kihlberg; J. Johnson, Anderson, Reuter, Byriel, Morgny, Milling; Orchestra of the Royal Danish Opera, Schønwandt. Production: Holten. Decca 074 3264 8, 920 mins., subtitled