If anyone doubted the quality of Keith Warner’s new production of Wagner’s Ring when Das Rheingold opened in December, they will surely be silenced by the arrival of the next part, Die Walküre. Every so often at Covent Garden along comes a performance that stands out from all the others, and Saturday’s utterly astounding premiere of the new Walküre was one such case. For sheer visceral excitement, nothing else in recent seasons comes close to this. The cast, direction, staging, orchestra and lighting, all crowned by the conducting of Antonio Pappano, were consistently world-class.
Die Walküre is perhaps the greatest part of Das Ring des Nibelungen, although the cycle as a whole is of course an astonishing achievement. Walküre is beautifully constructed: the first act bringing together the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde into incestuous love, the second act containing Wotan’s self-revelatory monologue (the turning point of the Ring), and the final act bidding farewell to Wotan as he has to turn his back on his favourite daughter, Brünnhilde, forever.
It’s both a grand tale of mythology and an intimate examination of human behaviour and suffering. Keith Warner has brought both grandeur and intimacy to the Royal Opera’s new production, and guess what? It works! The set designs by Stefanos Lazaridis are on a similar scale to those of his version of The Greek Passion, seen here in September, only they are even more breathtaking and do not constrict the action in the same way.
The first act had an isolated box on a rope for the interior of Hunding’s dwelling, with a table and chairs and chaise longue on the forestage. Act 2 featured a stunning video projection in the far background to allow changing weather patterns, while the final act cunningly divided Wotan from his daughter by using a large revolving wall between them. When he is disgusted at her disobedience, Wotan will not allow Brünnhilde through, but in the end he gives way and reduces her punishment by putting her to sleep in a ring of fire until Siegfried comes to awaken her in the next act. The creation of the fire is by far the most thrilling coup de theatre in recent times at the opera house, and well worth queuing for day tickets at 7am just to witness. (There is also a BBC TV broadcast later in the month.)
Almost every member of the cast was a knock-out, but Bryn Terfel’s performance as Wotan was the most outstanding. Here is one of the greatest singers of all time in the role of a lifetime. He has referred to it as his “Everest”, but he has climbed it to complete satisfaction on the first attempt. Every nuance of both text and music was explored with indescribable affection, and he was as emotionally engaging as one could ever hope. Surely this is the role for which he will always be remembered.
Lisa Gasteen was also impressive as Brünnhilde. On her first entrance the intonation and tuning were a little sketchy, but thereafter she surmounted the huge technical demands of the role with a Birgit Nilsson-like panache.
As the incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, Jorma Silvasti and Katarina Dalayman were both excellent. Perhaps Silvasti was sometimes unable to project the voice over Wagner’s colossal orchestra, but Dalayman was extremely refined and sang with conviction.
Rosalind Plowright as Fricka was wonderfully vibrant in her encounters with her husband Wotan, matching Terfel in stature both physically and vocally. The Valkyries sang with unusual ease, bringing a genuine thrill to the often weedy Ride of the Valkyries.
Antonio Pappano’s conducting went from strength to strength. The detail was all there in Act 1, but it really came alive in the second act, adding excitement and love for the music to an already detailed and controlled reading of the score.
One of the greatest nights at Covent Garden in recent times.