For any opera house, the production of a new Ring cycle is a huge undertaking and in effect it becomes a mission statement. For Finnish National Opera, the planning must have already started when they decided to export their previous Götz Friedrich Ring to Tokyo a few years ago. Artistic Director Lilli Paasikivi made it clear from the outset that the mission of this new cycle, in four instalments over two years, was to stage an all-Finnish Ring – both the production team and cast. The biggest coup was to bring the coolest of Finnish conductors, Esa-Pekka Salonen, on board to conduct his first Ring.

Jukka Rasilainen (Alberich)
© Ralph Larmann

Musically, Salonen put a strong stamp on this Rheingold with his trademark clarity and non-traditionalist approach. He doesn’t conduct a lot of staged opera in general, but he has always excelled in the productions he has taken on, including Tristan und Isolde in Paris and Elektra at Aix-en-Provence and the Metropolitan Opera. He relished the challenges and gave an undogmatic account of Rheingold. Is it his “Finnishness” or his composer mind that gives him the freedom of interpreting Wagner without the traditional Teutonic baggage? In that sense it may not always be “idiomatic” Wagner, but it felt refreshingly unpretentious, propelling the music with rhythmic buoyancy. The orchestra responded with energy and gravity, the low strings and low brass making a particularly strong contribution.

Tommi Hakala (Wotan)
© Ralph Larmann

No production of a Ring cycle can expect to be totally trouble-free, and the hiccup in Helsinki happened when the artistic proposal of Kari Heiskanen, the original stage director, was rejected by the management. He was swiftly and discreetly replaced by Anna Kelo, a safe pair of hands who has come up from within the ranks of the FNO as assistant director. The team must have decided then that they were going to focus more on the musical side, and not to aim for a sensational, conceptual production. Kelo’s production stuck to straightforward storytelling: she set the world of Das Rheingold in Ancient Greece where the gods are indeed gods (she has hinted that the subsequent operas will be set in different eras). The statuesque Wotan and his fellow gods are seen in an opulent palace in colourful costumes, whereas Nibelheim, the realm of Alberich, is a world of slave labour and exploitation. All the characters look their part: the Rhinemaidens look like water nymphs, Alberich and Mime look like gnomes, Froh look like Orpheus with a lyre in his hand, and red-haired, youthful Loge has Puck-like agility. The giants Fasolt and Fafner were treated to some technological transformation: their faces were projected onto screens (pre-recorded video), while they sang from either side of the stage.

Das Rheingold
© Ralph Larmann

The sets, abstract and mobile constructions, were configured variously for each scene with the help of lighting and video screens, all designed by Mikki Kuntuu. The lighting was particularly eye-catching and high-spec (interesting to read his CV extends to designing lighting for Cirque de Soleil), and the highlighting of the gold in the Rhine in the opening scene with light beams and the atmospheric lighting of Nibelheim were particularly striking. In general, Kelo and her team portrayed every detail of the text visually which did feel too descriptive at times, but it also reminded one of details that one had forgotten.

The singing was indeed a celebration of current Finnish vocal talent (with the exception of one Estonian!). Apart from a couple of established names such as Lilli Paasikivi, a commanding Fricka, and Jukka Rasilainen, now singing Alberich after many years as Wotan, it was a freshly picked cast with many making role debuts. It was the first foray into Wotan for leading Finnish baritone Tommi Hakala, who sang the role with conviction and stamina. I’m sure more gravitas and emotional depth will certainly come in the forthcoming instalments. I was particularly impressed by Tuomas Katajala’s lithe Loge, also a role debut. He sang the role with Tamino-like lightness, and indeed he is a seasoned Tamino singer. Perhaps the size of the theatre makes it possible for him to sing in this way, but he was real charmer, with storytelling ability. Tenor Dan Karlström displayed great vocal acting as Mime, and Mari Palo (Wellgunde) was the pick of the Rhinemaidens.

Marjukka Tepponen, Mari Palo and Jeni Packalén (Rhinemaidens) and Jukka Rasilainen (Alberich)
© Ralph Larmann

Salonen and his musicians succeeded in creating many dramatic climaxes; personally, the most captivating moment was Alberich’s curse on the ring in Scene 4. I haven’t experienced a more emphatic or bitter curse scene than Rasilainen here and it resonated with me until the end of the opera. All in all, Salonen and his singers created a powerful musical drama on stage, and the visuals didn’t distract, at times illuminating the music effectively. I am now curious how Kelo will develop the storytelling in Die Walküre next May.