Thursday night at the Royal Albert Hall featured three firsts: the commencement of the first Proms Ring Cycle, Simon Rattle's first performance of Das Rheingold, and the first performance in modern times of Wagner on period instruments. Happily, the event turned out to be a great success, with few disappointments.
Compared with the dismal ENO staging earlier in the year, this concert performance (which was nevertheless dramatically engaging) was a welcome opportunity to savour the details of Wagner's score, free of a director's concepts.
It was joyful to witness Rattle's attempt to emulate the performance practices of Wagner's day, with the strings using minimal vibrato, the wind parts played on wooden instruments and the earthier brass sound created by the use of the atmospheric Wagner tubas, invented by the composer for his own works. The detail of Wagner's string writing was particularly pronounced; and the excellent ensemble playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment permitted the generation of excitement and dramatic tension in the correct measures. They were also brilliant accompanists, with almost every word of the libretto reaching the audience.
The casting was also without flaw. As Wotan, head of the gods, Willard White gave a solid, distinguished, ageless performance. I haven't enjoyed him so much since the ENO Flying Dutchman several years ago. The young bass-baritone James Rutherford gave as impressive a performance of Donner as you will hear today, and Froh was the veteran tenor Timothy Robinson, as insightful as always.
Kim Begley was one of the evening's biggest stars in the role of Loge, who controls much of the action in this part of the Ring. This was a tremendously confident performance from memory, and his vocal reserves were remarkable. The female gods were played by Yvonne Naef (Fricka, Wotan's wife), Geraldine McGreevy (Freia, her sister) and Anna Larson (Erda), all of whom upheld the evening's strong ensemble values.
The Nibelungs nearly stole the show, however. Oleg Bryjak was superb as Alberich, whether craftily stealing the gold from the Rhinemaidens in the opening scene or writhing in mental anguish when he realises that Wotan has tricked him. The renunciation of love was especially convincing.
As his brother, Mime, Robin Leggate was superb, more so than one could have anticipated. He has an excellent tenor voice for Wagner, and conveyed the frustrations of being forced into subservience by his brother much more believably than is normally the case with this character.
Robert Lloyd made a welcome return to the Proms out of his semi-retirement to play the giant Fafner, and Peter Rose played Fasolt, his brother. Both gave solid renditions of their roles.
The Rhinemaidens were perhaps a little disappointing, never really riding the wave of Wagner's orchestral palette. However, they were nowhere near bad enough to ruin the performance.
It's a shame that the rest of the Proms Ring will not be performed by these forces, because this was an often enlightening experience, not to be quickly forgotten.