Whatever you may think about Wagner as a human being, his politics, his poetry or the length of his operas, there are two things that most people would agree on: (1) his usage of leitmotifs is incredibly effective and earworm-generative and (2) he writes wonderfully for brass. As the Royal Opera embarked on its six-yearly assault on that musical citadel that is Der Ring des Nibelungen, last night’s orchestral performance was blissful: Sir Antonio Pappano’s forces mesmerising you with each familiar motif. The brass – the horns in particular – were at the forefront on every one: from the gentle rise of the sun over the Rhine to the sinking alarm of the ring motif to the weighty tread of the giants to the soaring, shimmering heights of Valhalla. Only in the fire god Loge’s motif are they absent, giving the strings their moment of prominence: you could almost taste the flames licking into every corner.

Lauren Fagan, Angela Simkin, Christina Bock, Johannes Martin Kränzle
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

Given that Das Rheingold is such a male-dominated opera, it’s unusual to say that the female voices that will stay in the memory, none more so than Lise Davidsen, who lit up the stage with her Freia.

Davidsen achieves wonderful beauty of timbre at a power level that is simply immense: the continuing list of superlatives about her on these pages was amply justified once again. Three relatively small roles in this Ring cycle mark her Royal Opera débuts: she is surely bound for greater things. Dame Sarah Connolly was in fine form as Fricka, raising our anticipation for Act 2 of Wednesday’s Walküre, while Lauren Fagan, Christina Bock and Angela Simkin made for an exceptionally melodic and vicious trio of Rhinemaidens – their unrestrained, casual cruelty to Alberich being one of the more disturbingly vivid features of Keith Warner’s staging.

Lise Davidsen (Freia), Markus Eiche (Donner), Günther Groissböck (Fasolt)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

Male singing performances were mixed. John Lundgren was an impressive Wotan to look at, but he didn’t consistently stamp his vocal authority on the role: this was not a Wotan to make you sit up, hear and obey. Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich tended to veer between extremes of cringing and overpowering rawness, his acting tending rather too much towards the Bond villain (although I have to admit that the trope of “instead of killing you now, Mr Bond, I’m going to spend enough time telling you how clever I am to let you off the hook” comes straight out of this opera). Alan Oke was more impressive as Loge, a clear and rather acidic voice pulling the strings of events on stage. Günther Groissböck made a particularly appealing Fasolt: both he and Brindley Sherratt’s Fafner gave us vocal underpinning as solid as the flawless bricks and mortar that the giants have built into Valhalla.

Alan Oke (Loge), Gerhard Siegel (Mime)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

Warner’s staging is visually interesting throughout, with enough theatrical effects to make even the showman Wagner happy, from the swirling video projections that form the bed of the Rhine to the cleverness of Alberich’s Tarnhelm-powered transformation into massive, bigger-than-the-stage dragon or tiny fit-in-a-suitcase toad. Acting performances are generally good. But I don’t yet know where the dramaturgy is heading. There’s a general late Victorian/Edwardian feel to the costumes: Nibelheim is definitely a place of satanic mills with the Nibelungs cast as child labourers. The gods seem clothed almost as music hall magicians: is Warner casting them as nothing more than fading charlatans? There’s another Industrial Revolution political agenda, perhaps, when the top-hatted boss Fafner kills the cheerful workman Fasolt to grab the spoils. Some ideas are clear – the red rope of fate, the cubical Tarnhelm representing the intrusion of technology – but there are others which are striking but where I’m not sure of the point: a nasty burst of necrophilia from Alberich, or the fact that Freia’s body language shows her to be strangely attracted to the idea of going off with the giants even as she sings the opposite. Does the toy fighter aeroplane that so attracts Loge and Wotan simply incarnate technological prowess, or is there a deeper meaning to come?

The Rainbow Bridge
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

Of course, Warner may simply be spinning out any number of threads whose meaning will become clear as they are tied together in the course of the rest of the cycle. And with Pappano’s orchestra on the blistering form displayed last night, I can’t wait...