Excitement was palpable in the air as the performers took the stage for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Wagner Gala, part of their mini-Inkinen Festival celebrating their outgoing musical director, Pietari Inkinen. Three years after the magnificent concert performance of Die Walküre in the same hall, we were once again treated to two of the principal singers from that show. American dramatic soprano star Christine Goerke reprised her role of Brunnhilde and local Heldentenor Simon O'Neill took on Siegfried, this time in highlights from Siegfried and Gotterdämmerung, the final two operas for Wagner's Ring tetralogy. Given the quality of their Walküre, expectations were high for this Gala, expectations that were for the most part triumphantly fulfilled.

Selecting an hour or so of highlights from a Wagner opera is always going to be awkward, but here the Siegfried selection was less of a "bleeding chunk" than usual, consisting as it did of the Act Three Prelude and then an uninterrupted sequence from Siegfried's "Mit zerfocht'ner Waffe" to the end. Simon O'Neill had a formidable amount of singing here and he more than fulfilled the potential of his Siegmund three years ago. A suspicion of throatiness in the tone soon disappeared and while it is not the most mellifluous of sounds it is used with such confidence and nuance that one scarcely notices. For many tenors it is difficult enough to simply sing the notes; here, O'Neill gave us so much more in terms of phrasing and variations of dynamic. His confusion was touching as he approached his future wife, his passion thrilling as he accompanied her in the opera's final pages.

From her very first entrance (the heavenly "Heil dir, Sonne") to the gorgeous backdrop of the orchestra's wind and harps, Christine Goerke was her hero's equal. There is a healthy sheen of vibrato to her voice which is full and strong from thrilling top to rich bottom, especially strong in the upper middle register. She even gave us the rarely-attempted trills, and her climactic high notes rang out unstintingly. Both singers showed clear awareness of the text and they showed an easy rapport that made for a convincing love scene despite the concert format. Neither was either singer overwhelmed by the great tumults of orchestral sound Inkinen released. The music before Brünnhilde's awakening can easily drag but were here enlivened by the exquisitely realised orchestral detail as well as O'Neill's sensitive singing.

The Gotterdämmerung selection was more problematic in its skipping quickly between segments of different acts, though Inkinen did what he could to make the transitions as smooth and coherent as possible. From the superb opening duet and Siegfried's ensuing Rhine Journey we were transported to the brief interlude at the end of the second scene of Act One and the right through to Siegfried's "Brünnhilde, heilige Braut" before ending at Brünnhilde's Immolation. This is the type of music the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra seems designed to play as they brought an almost unbelievable nobility to tone to Wagner's various orchestral interludes. The strings painted with utmost clarity and descriptiveness during the Rhine Journey. How amazing, too, was the brass throughout, confident and golden in sound with a magnificent richness in the Funeral March - no overly wild blaring here. The hushed string and winds (with some noticeably glorious bassoon playing) had a palpable feeling of grief further enhanced by Inkinen's warm handling of the score. Inkinen's control over his orchestra is complete, allowing both for great flexibility and also for a magnificent buildup of tension through the successive vocal sections, including an absolutely shattering conclusion on the Immolation Scene. It is no wonder that he will be conducting the whole tetralogy in Melbourne once again next year. O'Neill was again on good form, with a most touching delicacy in his last moments of life.

If anything, Goerke was even finer here than in Siegfried, the marginally lower tessitura playing to her strengths though the final "Heil' in the great opening duet was a tremendously bright and youthful-sounding cry of joy. During the great Immolation Scene, the variety of moods was impressive. She was forthright in her command in the opening phrases and sounded utterly transfixed at the magical "Wie Sonne lauter". Her voice can be fined voice down to a delicious inwardness in the repeated murmurings of 'Ruhe' before rising to a magnificent outpouring of glorious tone in the climax. This was as magnificent a piece of singing as I have experienced. My only regret is that there wasn't even more from Goerke; one would love to experience how she would handle the ragings of the Second Act, for example.

One hardly thinks of New Zealand as a world centre for Wagner performance but under Inkinen the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has set a standard that is rarely surpassed even internationally. It is just a pity that they weren't willing or able to put on the entirety of either opera, but in the meantime this gala served as a superlative stopgap. The sincere hope must be that in his new position of NZSO Honorary Conductor Inkinen will continue to bring artists of this calibre to join him in achieving similar Wagnerian heights of music-making.