Jack Leo

The Ring in Helsinki 2001

The Finnish National Opera performed the complete Ring cycle for the first time in its history in May-June 2000. It was now performed again twice, in August and early September. I saw the second of these cycles, which was the more compact of the two, taking place over the course of nine days.

I have brought out my views on the late Götz Friedrich's excellent production on many occasions. Suffice it here to say that, apart from a few, very minor details, this is an absolutely fabulous production in every way, and one cannot help but admire Friedrich's vision and psychologically precise direction. Similarly, Gottfried Pilz's beautiful sets and Kimmo Ruskela's superb lighting deserve special praise.

Leif Segerstam was once again in the pit. Much admired in Finland, his conducting of the Ring has, however, not received favourable reviews from some international critics. This is not completely fair, as he has managed to coach the FNO orchestra to play this, arguably the most trying undertaking for an operatic orchestra, decently, which is no small feat. After all, Wagner is still fairly unfamiliar music here, and nothing like the Ring has been performed here before. Segerstam tends to start the evening rather timidly, only rising to the occasion in the second act. For instance, the first scene of Rheingold lacked the necessary lightness and swing. Also the orchestra made a muddle of the famous prelude. However, in the final scene both Segerstam and the orchestra were excellent, producing great excitement. Similarly, if Segerstam had managed to infuse the first act of Walküre with only a little of the energy he showed in the prelude to the second act, it would have achieved better results. Also the first act of Siegfried was rather lethargic, and the duet between Brünnhilde and Siegfried in the prelude of Götterdämmerung could have been somewhat faster. But in later acts Segerstam was in much better form, especially the final act of Götterdämmerung where he genuinely managed to highlight the epic scale of the events. The orchestra played fairly well, but a number of small mistakes and imprecisions couldn't be avoided.

The singers were, to a large extent, the same as a little more than a year ago, with some new additions. Susan Marie Pierson returned as Brünnhilde. Both her interpretation and singing have grown in confidence, and her performances in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung were much better than last year. She was particularly impressive in the last act of Götterdämmerung, where she gave a touching final monologue, and managed to really sing it, rather than screeching her top notes as last year. However, at the same time it must be said that what used to be a rather strong vibrato has now become a wobble.

Her Siegfried was Stig Andersen, repeating his sympathetic portrayal of this momentous role. Vocally he may fall somewhat short of what the role ideally requires, especially where volume is concerned, but he has the stamina to get through it. But it is his pleasing stage presence that makes his Siegfried so enjoyable - innocent and confused, rather than just arrogant and violent.

The third great role in the tetralogy, Wotan (and Wanderer), was taken by Esa Ruuttunen, last year's brilliant Alberich. Ruuttunen was in fine voice, and I must admit that Wotan's music lies in a more grateful area of his voice than Alberich. Ruuttunen's top notes did not ring out as metallically as Jukka Rasilainen's a year ago, but his lower notes have more resonance and he is capable of greater expressivity. In addition he seems to be one of these unusual creatures who just keeps getting better as the evening progresses.

The Alberich this year was Kalevi Olli. He lacks the vocal dimensions necessary for the role, but made a decent effort, and was fairly convincing on stage. As his brother Mime, Arild Helleland repeated his vivid if slightly exaggerated characterization. Anna-Liisa Jakobsson sang Fricka well enough, though her voice may be slightly too light for that role.

Once again, the basses were very good. Matti Salminen's untiring, sonorous, bear-like Hagen is the best around, but I still think he could start off seeming a little less nasty. Jaakko Ryhänen was also an imposing Hunding. The giants in Rheingold, Jyrki Korhonen and Sami Luttinen, were both fine, particularly Luttinen as the impassioned Fasolt. Johann Tilli was the gruff Fafner of Siegfried.

Taina Piira again showed great promise as Sieglinde. She has exactly the right kind of voice for the part, an essentially lyric voice bordering on the dramatic. Her singing was effortless and dramatically apt, and her final outburst in the third act immensely touching. As a very minor reproach, her German could be a bit more idiomatic, but this she will no doubt accomplish as she expands into this territory. Piira also sang an excellent Third Norn. Her Siegmund was Raimo Sirkiä, who was typically slightly hoarse in his middle register, but his top notes rang out handsomely. He made a couple of mistakes in the Todesverkündigung scene, missing a cue, which led to some overly audible prompting, but Placido Domingo had made a mistake at the very same point in St. Petersburg, so perhaps this could be overlooked.

This year's Loge was the veteran Heinz Zednik. He has been singing this part for over twenty years, and obviously knows it like the back of his hand. If ideally one might wish for a more heroic voice for this role, Zednik's exemplary diction, refined acting and musical and rythmic precision more than make up for that. Unfortunately, time is starting to take its toll on his voice, and the tone now sounds dry and less steady than it used to.

Erda was taken by the American mezzo Tichina Vaughn, who gave a powerful reading of the role, but whose voice lacked the solidity of the Danish contralto Mette Ejsing. Satu Vihavainen sang reliably as Freia and Gutrune. Waltraute was also sung reliably by Maria Kettunen, but her top notes lacked security. Juha Kotilainen was singing Gunther for the first time, and made a highly favourable impression with his robust baritone. The smaller roles in the Ring were all adequately cast, though no one made a lasting impression. The FNO chorus sang powerfully in the second act of Götterdämmerung.

Once again the FNO showed that it is capable of mounting an internationally comparable Ring with largely home-grown forces. The investments it has put into this production have surely been worth while, as the artistic level has been high and the audience very appreciative. This Ring returns in the early autumn of 2004, and I for one will certainly come to see it again.