Carl Nielsen’s operas don’t get performed much outside his native Denmark so it’s no surprise that the only video recording of his 1902 opera Saul og David was recorded in Copenhagen. The libretto is a fairly straightforward telling of the familiar story of Saul, David, Goliath, Samuel and so on. The music is very much of its time. It’s bold and lyrical; perhaps reminiscent of Strauss in a conventional mood or, perhaps, Elgar. There are some really good choruses and David and Michal get a gorgeous duet in Act 3.
Handel’s Giulio Cesare presents an interesting casting challenge. The piece has four high voiced male roles; Cesare, Nireno, Tolomeo and Sesto. The original production featured three castrati and a soprano en travesti. I have never seen Sesto cast as other than a trouser role and Nireno and Tolomeo are invariably sung by countertenors. Cesare himself though seems mostly to go to low mezzo/contralto types. Indeed it’s seen, I think, as something of a “plum” trouser role. (Which is interesting as in the production that i will get to describing in a minute, Cesare wears plum trousers). I’ve seen both Ewa Podleś and Sarah Connolly in the role. For their 2005 production Royal Danish Opera cast Andreas Scholl as Cesare. It’s a good choice. He’s a masculine looking and sounding counter tenor and at least he is taller than his Cleopatra. It also makes for an interesting set of countertenors. Tolomeo is sung by the much less masculine Christopher Robson and Nireno by the “more a male soprano than a countertenor” Michael Maniaci. Sesto goes, conventionally enough, to Tuva Semmingsen, who seems very much to specialize in these types of role. Apart from the countertenors the piece was cast from the considerable resources of the RDO ensemble with Inger Dam-Jensen as Cleopatra, Randi Stene as Cornelia, John Lundgren as Curio and Palle Knudsen as Achilla.
Handel’s Partenope is a bit unusual. It feels lighter than a lot of Handel’s Italian operas and it is basically a romcom, albeit one that still has a vaguely classical setting. Handel also plays with opera seria conventions by, for example, writing “heroic” arias for non-heroic texts and putting accompagnato in odd places. The number of potential match ups that need to be tracked is fairly staggering. Basically everybody is in love with, or pretending to be in love with, Partenope, queen of Partenope aka Naples. These include the invading prince of Cumae, Emilio; Arsace, prince of Corinth; Armindo, prince of Rhodes and Eurimene, an Armenia who is really Rosmira, princess of Cypress and formerly betrothed to Arsace. The only character who isn’t in love with Partenope is the philosophical captain of the guard, Ormonte, who is easy to spot as he’s a bass. At the start of the piece Partenope is in love with Arsace but Eurimene/Rosmira isn’t having that and engineers a duel with Arsace. This takes most of two acts but it’s the only essential bit of plot. In Act 3 Arsace, who really doesn’t want to fight his former fiancée finally comes up with the wizard wheeze of demanding that the duel be fought bare chested. Apparently this was perfectly normal under Neopolitan duelling conventions. maybe it’s what gave Patrick O’Brian the idea of having Stephen Maturin always duel bare chested? Anyway the modest Rosmira isn’t about to do any boob flashing (somewhat ironically as Inger Dam-Jensen, in the title role, has been bosom heaving with the best since the overture) so confesses to being, shock horror, female. Arsace and Rosmira are reunited and Partenope awards herself as a consolation prize to Armindo. Got that?
The concluding instalment of Kasper Holten’s Copenhagen Ring really does wrap it up as Brünnhilde’s story. It’s very effective in so doing too. Holten states that the central problem in interpreting the Ring is the ending and he points out that Wagner struggled with it for years before resorting to what Holten sees as a cop out; the tired, patriarchal device of wrapping things up by having the heroine sacrifice herself for her man. Holten rejects this and instead offers us a living Brünnhilde as a symbol of hope and renewal at the end of a century of terrible strife. I wish I were as optimistic.
So, onto Siegfried. Now we are in 1968 but it’s a rather laid back Danish 1968. It doesn’t reference any of the canonical events of that momentous year though there is a bit of a youth vs experience vibe. Holten doesn’t let us forget that Siegfried is 18 and Stig Anderson, at 60, manages to pull off the look very well. James Johnson’s Wotan, on the other hand, is shown in decline; the elder statesman who can’t retire gracefully, like a Berlusconi or Murdoch. Mime is an ageing nobody hunched over his typewriter and still yearning for some “success”.
In Kasper Holten’s production, recorded at Royal Danish Opera in 2009, Tannhäuser is a poet torn between family and the conventional world of the Landgraf’s court and his creative processes symbolized by Venus and Venusberg. There are numerous visual clues that perhaps we are even supposed to identify Tannhäuser with Wagner himself. Far from being a young man, this Tannhäuser is middle aged, married to Eizabeth and has a son. He has withdrawn into a psychological world of his own and Venus, his muse, and Venusberg are in his imagination. Only after death is he recognized as a genius. Of the rest, how much is supposed to be external and how much internal to Tannhäuser’s imagination is a bit hard to grasp. If nothing else it goes some way to making the sixty year old Stig Andersen as Tannhäuser and the equally mature Susanne Resmark as Venus almost believable. The 1900ish setting works quite well for the sexually repressed court of the Landgraf von Thüringen though a chorus of pilgrims returning from Rome in full evening dress is a bit of a jar. The concept is quite interesting but really probably stretches further than the libretto can accommodate. This Venus isn’t remotely credible as a goddess of love and the matronly Elisabeth singing about being a pure, young maiden is just odd.
The Copenhagen Ring has been dubbed the feminist Ring with good reason and we’ll come back to that in looking at the relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde. It might also be called the drinkers’ Ring. There’s an astonishing amount of boozing going on. It was there in Rheingold with Loge’s hangover and Alberich staggering drunkenly after the Rhinemaidens. It’s back in Die Walküre. Hunding and Siegmund knock off the best part of a bottle of Bushmill’s Malt (Add a few cigars and this scene would be perfect for Stuart Skelton and Iain Paterson), Wotan has a flask in his pocket and the Walkyries; Ride is like a sorority party. Actually it reminds me a lot of Denmark so maybe it just seemed natural.
This 2006 Copenhagen production of Wagner’s Ring has been written about a lot. It’s been dubbed “the feminist Ring” and a lot has been made of the frequent camera cuts and odd angles. Actually what struck me most about it was the comparative goriness. The video direction (by Uffe Borgwandt) didn’t strike me as particularly unusual. I’d say it was better edited than a typical Halvorson Met broadcast but not so terribly different in spirit. The main difference is that this is very much presented as a film rather than a documentary record of a live performance. Oddly it begins very much in live performance mode with footage of the Queen of Denmark taking her seat and of the conductor (Michael Schønwandt) complete with miniatures of his decorations on his tail coat going to the pit. From then on though we get anything but what the audience in the house saw.