Forging the Ring with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Finnish National Opera

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For an opera house, mounting a production of Richard Wagner’s operatic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848-74) is always a special occasion. This Friday, the Finnish National Opera launches its new Ring production, to be performed over the next two seasons. 

With Esa-Pekka Salonen at the helm, conducting his first-ever Ring, the journey begins with six sold-out performances of Das Rheingold (1851-54). One of the key works of the Western arts, Der Ring des Nibelungen contains three three-act operas, Die Walküre (1854-56), Siegfried (1856-71) and Götterdämmerung (1869-74) as well as a one-act prologue or ”preliminary evening”, Das Rheingold.  

The Ring is based on a multi-layered libretto, crafted by Wagner himself within a four-year writing process (1848-52). In the libretto, various ingredients drawn from the Norse-Germanic mythology are distilled into a timeless story of love and greed, encompassing a vast arc from the dawn of time to the end of days. 

Interestingly, those very same sources would provide an inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien some eighty years later, as is evident in The Lord of the Rings (1937-49).   

The Ring is set in motion with Das Rheingold. Cast in four scenes and lasting two and a half hours, Das Rheingold is, in Wagnerian terms, a compact piece. Still, there is a huge amount of musical material in the score of Das Rheingold, including dozens of key musical subjects, or leitmotivs. Employed throughout the Ring cycle, these motives make their first appearance in Das Rheingold.

Leitmotifs are musical themes linked to a specific character, mood or event. In musical story-telling, they enhance the role of the orchestra as a narrator, adding new layers and commentary to the sung text. A method later adapted by film composers, most Hollywood film scores are based on these Wagnerian procedures. 

As a result, the score of Das Rheingold contains myriad of themes and their variations, sudden changes in mood, texture, dynamics, tempo and character, thus making it a specially challenging piece to conduct.

At the Finnish National Opera, the main rehearsal period was scheduled within a two-week timeframe, with morning and evening sessions. Starting with two days of orchestral rehearsals, Salonen and the FNO orchestra tackled the challenges of the score scene by scene in four three-hour sessions.

With the absence of vocal lines, the full craft and brilliance of Wagner’s orchestral writing is unraveled in full. Within its 3897 bars of music, there is a wealth of musical ideas layered upon each other in the score of  Das Rheingold. 

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The Prelude is maybe the most imaginative of all operatic openings. For four minutes, the orchestra plays an extended crescendo based on different voicings of a single E flat Major chord. Thanks to Wagner’s skillful orchestration, there are subtle shifts in colour, predating spectral music of the latter half of the 20th century.

For the Prelude, marvellously played by the FNO orchestra from the first rehearsal on, only some fine-tuning of dynamics were called for, as Salonen took great care in achieving that magical spectral effect of light on water. The music transports us to the bottom of the Rhein, where we meet the three Rhinemaidens, free spirits of an unspoiled world.        

The flowing, water-like music is contrasted by angular, rough-edged textures portraying the arrival of Alberich, a greedy gnome from Niebelheim. Throughout the first scene, the music is whisked back and forth between these two extremes, as the playful Rhinemaidens seduce Alberich, and thus make fun of him. 

Humiliated, Alberich curses love and seizes Rhinegold, the sacred hoard of the Rhinemaidens, and sets forth to his underground dwelling of Niebelheim. 

In the first scene, Wagner’s music bears striking similarities to classic Hollywood animated films and cartoons, both Disney and Warner Bros. Despite the tragic outcome of the scene, there is lots of comedy involved, as the stumbling Alberich’s and the teasing Rhinemaidens engage their surreal ballet. 

Salonen and the orchestra celebrated each and every instrumental detail of the scene, resulting in a rehearsal more akin to a film scoring session than traditional opera. Wagner would have been pleased with the day’s work. 

In addition to the comedy scored by Wagner, over the course of the rehearsals, Salonen introduced some excerpts from the folklore of the Finnish opera tradition. 

These included an anecdote of a Tristan who fell asleep onstage in the middle of a performance. After missing several lines, the poor tenor was finally kicked awake by Kurwenal, and the third act of Tristan und Isolde resumed in an orderly manner. 

In the second scene we enter into the realm of Gods. Wagner portrays their lofty dwellings with spacious horn calls and noble trumpet fanfares. This solemn mood is again swiftly transformed as the Gods awake from their delirium to a startling situation. 

Wotan, the chief-god has commissioned giants to build him a fortress by promising them the goddess Freia as a payment. With an intention to talk himself out of the deal, the scene turns into a conversation piece par excellence, as Wotan, with the help of Loge, the god of fire, negotiates with the two Giants, Fasolt and Fafner. 

Here, Wagner’s orchestra is again a veritable story-teller, mustering together a plethora of themes, as the plot thickens. For the entry of the Giants, Wagner unleashes a stupendous tutti passage with the rumor of their footsteps echoed by the orchestra. 

In contrast, there is the mercurial music for Loge and the subtle motives for the female deities, Fricka and Freia. In addition, there are two more Gods, the brothers Froh and Donner, whose virtues lie more in strength than wit, perhaps. 

With this proto-Marvel scene, Wagner sets high standards for his orchestra, as it carries the story onwards as the negotiations proceeds. Loge tells Wotan and the Giants about the Rhinegold Alberich has stolen. The Giants agree to give up Freia in return of the possession of the Rhinegold. 

With information provided by Loge, Wotan sets forth into Nibelheim with the fire-god. As the scene changes, we encounter one of Wagner’s most striking musical ideas. 

For the entry to Niebelheim, Wagner wrote a splendid passage of musique concrète, with eighteen anvils, with different pitches, performing a rhythmic motive, resulting in an industrial counterpoint, a signature sound of the industrial revolution of Wagner’s age. 

In the score, Wagner instructs the anvils to be placed onstage in three groups, left, middle and right, to create a surround effect. Now in real life, keeping the ensemble in sync in this setting is somewhat challenging. 

With Salonen, the anvil parts are performed on a sampler, and projected onstage with a surround speaker system. Though not, strictly speaking, a case in point in historically informed practice, the effect is precisely what Wagner sought after in the score. 

As always with Wagner, his theatrical and musical ideas yielded way beyond the technical realities of his own age. Only now there are sufficient tools available for satisfactory realizations of Wagner’s ideas.

With magical items forged out of Rhinedold, Alberich now reigns Nibelheim as a tyrant. Alongside the Great Ring, he now possesses also the Tarnhelm, forged by his brother Mime. With Tarnhelm, Alberich is able to take any physical form. 

Taking advantage of Alberich’s vanity, Loge lures him to demonstrate his new abilities. First, Alberich transforms himself into a dragon, then into a tiny frog. Wotan and Loge then catch the frog-Alberich, and they leave Niebelheim with their hostage. 

For this scene, another sequence of brilliant music is composed by Wagner. The rhythmic pattern set by the anvils is further developed by the orchestra to depict the grim slave realm of Niebelheim. In addition, ominous brass writing is called for as the orchestra turns itself into a dragon. 

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Salonen took again some time to summon the full menacing powers from his brass players to get the sonic image of the Great Worm on the next level. The result was fabulously bone-chilling, providing the drama with a glimpse of downright horror. 

In the final scene, Alberich gives up all his possessions, including the Great Ring, as ransom, and is set free. Though with the lust for the Ring ever set into his heart, there is no freedom for Alberich. 

Wotan and Loge return to the other Gods, and deliver the Giants with Alberich’s gold and the Tarnhelm. However, Wotan is reluctant to give up the Ring. Suddenly, the goddess Erda arrives and warns Wotan of the curse of the Ring, the seeds of destruction woven into it. 

Following Erda’s advice Wotan turns the Ring over to the Giants, who start to fight with themselves for the possession of it. As a result, Fafner slays Fasolt and leaves with his hoard. Freia is set free.

Troubled by the turn of events, the Gods seek solace in Wotan’s stronghold. As they are about to enter Valhalla, lamentations of the Rhinemaidens over their lost gold is heard. Wotan turns his back unto them and sets foot into his fortress. With a soaring climax of the Valhalla music for full orchestra, Das Rheingold is brought into its conclusion. 

Some of the most spellbinding sounds in the final scene arise from the dazzling music for four harps, accompanying the Rhinemaidens and the entry of Gods into Valhalla. A total of seven harps, six in the pit and one onstage, are called for in the score, but with modern instruments, four harps are sufficient. 

Again, great care was taken by Salonen to make his ensemble sound solid and transparent, in order to celebrate Wagner’s exquisite orchestration and counterpoint. 

With the orchestra in shape, two rehearsals with singers ensued. Here, the dynamics and phrasing were further polished, first in the rehearsal hall and then in the auditorium. 

All the dramatic elements are put together in four dress rehearsals on consecutive evenings. In each of these three-hour sessions, instead of a complete run-through, Salonen rehearses two scenes, either the first or the second half of the opera, twice, with a twenty-minute break in between. 

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In this way, the orchestra and the singers, and probably the conductor too, get a more focused grasp of the music. Integrated into Anna Kelo’s staging, the singers and the orchestra get to work out final acoustical details before the premiere. 

In the stage rehearsals, further modifications to dynamics and the timings of crescendos and diminuendos are made in order to ensure ideal balance between the singers and the huge orchestra. In addition, some tempo changes are fine-tuned. 

Onstage, there is a wonderful cast of both first-timers and seasoned Wagner veterans, including Tommi Hakala as Wotan, Jukka Rasilainen as Alberich, Lilli Paasikivi as Fricka, Tuomas Katajala as Loge and Jyrki Korhonen as Fafner.  

For Dan Karlström, cast as Mime, the first stage rehearsals included a splendid impromptu dual role, as he stepped in for Loge to cover Tuomas Katajala, who joined the rehearsals later.   

In addition to weaving the vocal and orchestral parts together seamlessly, there is some sound engineering carried out as well. At Bayreuth, Wagner called for a low E flat pedal point on an organ to create a resonating ambience within the auditorium, paving the way for the Prelude.

At the FNO, a pre-recorded sample of the first four bars of the opera, scored for double basses alone, is used to provide the audiences with a pre-echo of the Prelude. In the auditorium, the effect of being merged into the sonics of the underwater realm of the Rhinemaidens is a riveting one.         

With all the vocal and orchestral mastery, combined with the enhancements provided by technology, Salonen and the whole FNO crew are set upon a thrilling journey into the Wagner realm. With Anna Kelo’s imaginative vision, this will be a Ring to remember. 

Text © Jari Kallio

Photos © Jari Kallio (orchestra) and Ralph Larmann (staging)

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