When the Semperoper Dresden announced the return of Willy Decker’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen conducted by Christian Thielemann, it was sold out in one day. Expectations were certainly high, with the principal attraction being the Staatskapelle Dresden's conductor on the podium. While there was never much doubt that musically things would be in good hands, Decker’s production of Das Rheingold which was first seen seventeen years ago was another matter.

Unless Ariadne auf Naxos or A Midsummer Night’s Dream is being performed, the directional conceit of “a play within a play” became trite long before 2001. Wolfgang Gussmann’s stage setting of rows and rows of curving theatre seats surrounding the cramped action space was not only intrusive but put considerable physical demands on the singers who were forced to climb over them on multiple occasions. As if Wagner’s musical exigencies were not enough, expertise in hurdling became a further prerequisite for Gods and dwarves alike.

Similar to his boxy mise-en-scène of Eugene Onegin for the Paris Opéra, Gussmann frames the action in a Hobbiton-esque version of Johan Otto von Spreckelsen's Grande Arche de la Défense, but without the minimalist aesthetic. A see-through box does not make the most likely setting for the River Rhine and there was nothing even vaguely aqueous in sight. The shaven-headed Rhinemaidens made lots of hand gestures but they were more like classic Manipuri movements than aquatic medleys. Alberich arrives with a coterie of Nibelungen who sit in the seats watching the alpha dwarf try his seduction skills. The Rheingold is an enormous auric ball. Instead of snoozing at the opening of the second scene, Wotan is wandering around carrying a model of his future alpine Schloss which uncannily resembles the Valhalla Hall of Fame built by Ludwig I outside Regensburg in 1842.

In pursuit of “die Holde Freia”, giants Fafner and Fasolt looked like a pair of overstuffed Oliver Hardys, complete with bowler hats.  Alberich has turned the enormous Rheingold globe into hundreds of gold bars which he stores in an enormous safe. Mime’s mystical Tarnhelm becomes a comical golden bowler hat. The entire décor of theatre seats is put into wavy motion to represent Alberich’s dragon transformation in repudiation of Loge’s calculated taunting. The Gods must have had post-graduate degrees in mechanical engineering for when the stolen gold is handed over by Alberich to secure his freedom, it is in the form of numerous building block shapes and pieces which need to be skillfully reassembled to make another giant globe, upon which the Tarnhelm bowler hat is plopped. For the rainbow bridge to Valhalla, a dreary cement ramp materializes over the theatre seats which matches the humdrum and unmystical nature of the whole production.

Things got off to a slightly shaky start with the extended E flat major arpeggio on horns sounding thin and tentative. Thielemann quickly upped the quality and the rest of the labyrinthine score was played with poetry, power and panache, horns included. Wagner’s enormous orchestration was almost fulfilled, including six harps. There were only 12 anvils instead of 18, but nothing to quibble about. Strings were particularly luxuriant and there was fine playing from the woodwinds, one example being the poignant oboe solo which accompanies Fasolt’s “ein Weib zu gewinnen”. Thielemann’s tempi were uncontroversial with the frequent heftig markings enthusiastically observed.

For such an important revival, the singers were surprisingly variable. The Rhinemaidens sang better than they shimmied, with an impressive Woglinde from Christiane Kohl. As the somnolent subterranean savant, Janina Baechle was a formidable Erda with some killer low C sharps. Christa Mayer sang an excellent Fricka, a more quietly cunning than hysterical nagging Schlossfrau. Regine Hangler’s Freia was not quite as lyrical as one might like and Karl-Heinz Lehner’s Fafner more resonant than Georg Zeppenfeld’s Fasolt.

Kurt Streit was an understated Loge. Tansel Akzeybek sang a dulcet Froh but had sub-optimal projection. Derek Welton made the most of Donner’s  “Heda! Heda! Hedo!” with impressive declamatory diction. Gerhard Siegel was a wonderfully obsequious, snivelling Mime. Albert Dohmen has been singing Alberich for years and the voice is starting to wear. His characterization was also surprisingly passive and his curse anything but scary. Repeating his success from the 2010 staging, Vitalij Kowaljow was again an impressive Wotan. The characterization seems to have mellowed and there was more anguish than arrogance, more fatalism than ferocity. Vocally there were many splendid moments and “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” was moving and mellifluous.

Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden seemed to relish playing Wagner’s captivating, kaleidoscopic score. One wonders how many of Decker’s surfeit of seats would have been empty without them.