Ragnarök: the Swedish title for Götterdämmerung resonates with Old Norse folk memories of universal inundation and overthow of the order of the gods. In Staffan Valdemar Holm's production, Wagner's mythic Der Ring des Nibelungen is set roughly in the period of its first Swedish performances, its imagery refracted through a 19th-century prism. Visit one of the private art collections of a wealthy Swedish industrialist of that era and you will see paintings of legendary happenings and just such a romanticised landscape as seen through the receding frames of the Gibichung Hall, furnished and staffed in a high bourgeois manner.

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) and Ola Eliasson (Gunther) © Markus Gårder
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) and Ola Eliasson (Gunther)
© Markus Gårder

With a naturalistic acting style, the dramatic conflicts and heightened emotions are best served by the experienced performers such as Nina Stemme and John Lundgren. Others are left with stock gestures and undermotivated characterisations. The well sung Gunther and Gutrune (Ola Eliasson and Sara Olsson) are depicted as the decadent descendents of a long noble line, quite distastefully symbolised by their being disabled, hobbling around the stage by means of silver-topped canes, aided by nurses. Rather than being protagonists they look marginalised and anxious. Their half-brother Hagen, in contrast, domineers in a performance of brutish massiveness by the gritty, baleful bass of Falk Struckmann, the only non-Swedish member of this entire Ring cast. Seemingly taking the production into his own hands, he stamps rhythmically and actually conducts the Gibichung vassals, stirring them into a semblance of war-like aggression, though, sober-suited and wearing Homburg hats, they resemble an assembly of family solicitors. Instead of hurtling towards an oath driven conclusion, Act 2 seems more like a society double wedding that goes horribly wrong.

Falk Struckmann (Hagen) © Markus Gårder
Falk Struckmann (Hagen)
© Markus Gårder

In the outer acts, the narrative is more convincingly handled. The Prologue opens with the Norns, in black skirts and white blouses in front of a screen, onto which is projected a flickering, grainy early cinema-like incantatory dance of the three weird sisters in traditional folk costumes. Brünnhilde's and Siegfried's dawn duet is sung amongst rows of rear facing seating, as an idealised version of the Siegfried love duet plays out on the screen, which she re-watches on his departure. The Rhine Journey uses vintage travelogue of a river trip, 'Viking Cruises' perhaps. With characters often narrating their back-histories the film does give a far perspective, beyond present events.

Narrative cogency and an inexorable momentum towards destruction is driven by the performances of the main characters. Katarina Dalayman as Waltraute employs her refulgent mezzo to urgent declamatory effect. Lars Cleveman's forthright, uncomprehending Siegfried hits every note with blade like thrust, only in his death was a sense of pathos and awareness missing. His untiring resilience is remarkable testament to his technique considering that he sang in the 1980s as a young Gibichung auxillary chorus member. John Edholm's black-voiced Alberich lacked a sense of disembodiment implicit in his brief dream-like scene with Hagen.

The peak and summation of The Ring Cycle is reached in Brünnhilde's Immolation and it is here that Nina Stemme sensationally binds the strands, like the ropes of fate, into a mighty ending, with the all-surmounting vocal amplitude and expressivity she has harnessed throughout, whether in ecstastic love, raging scorn, defiance and sadness. Without the metallic incisiveness of some Scandinavian dramatic sopranos, her unstinting power and generosity is tempered by the integrated warmth and depth of her chest tones. Hurling out the great oaths of Act 2, “Heilige Götter, himmlischer Lenker”, Stemme's Brünnhilde prowls the stage like a tigress, her blazing eyes cowering all.

Lars Cleveman (Siegfried) and Sara Olsson (Gutrune) © Markus Gårder
Lars Cleveman (Siegfried) and Sara Olsson (Gutrune)
© Markus Gårder

The producer banishes all extraneous action from the now bare stage for the cataclysmic final scene, with Gunther slain off-stage, Siegfried borne away and no funeral pyre. Stemme, dressed simply in black, sings a fiery, transcendent Immolation as flames, flood and the Rhinemaidens flicker on the screen. The Valhalla motif wells up in the orchestra and Wotan's tear-streamed face is beheld as Brünnhilde sings her moving benediction, “Ruhe, du Gott”. His eyes dim and close as the last reel runs out to a white screen, and Brünnhilde advances serenely towards the front of the stage as the final bars fade away.

The conducting and playing under Marko Letonja, scaled new heights in this conclusion to The Ring. The quite reverberant acoustic favoured a bass heavy saturated sound, yet Latonja achieved thematic clarity and a grasp of the long structure, particularly in a staggering Funeral March, which flowed seamlessly through to the final diminuendo.

To mount a Ring Cycle is a major task for any company, as the Kunlinga Operan well know as they staged a satirical re-working into Swedish of The Merry Widow along side this Cycle, where a cash-strapped company is compelled to mount operetta instead of Wagner to make ends meet. That they did so succesfully with a Swedish cast of established stars and newcomers is evidence of their enviable Wagnerian heritage.