After the frightening fortissimo storm music, the curtain rose on Semperoper Dresden’s Die Walküre bringing an almost palpable sigh of relief from the audience in the theatre proper. The innumerable lines of Palladium size seating which had turned the stage of Das Rhinegold into an operatic IMAX were reduced to five relatively unobtrusive rows for the second installment of Wagner’s epic Stage Festival. Set designer Wolfgang Gussmann’s obsession with boxes was still evident and Hunding’s dwelling a cross between Alberto Campo Baeza minimalist chic and an oversized sauna. Admittedly, ash wood correctly predominates, but the furniture was limited to two uncomfortable children's stools. The only objets d’art were an enormous impaled Nothung and a framed wedding photo of the miserably unhappy couple, Hunding looking dapper in white tie and tails.

As the exhausted fugitive staggered over the remaining theatre seats to the dubious safety of Hunding's home, it was evident that this was a Siegmund far from his prime. Peter Seiffert has been singing the role since Wotan was a whippersnapper and is clearly aware of its peaks and pitfalls. Unfortunately, after 40 years on stage the voice has become constricted, raw in timbre, too often pushed and marred by uneven phrasing. His “Winterstürme” was far from lyrical, his breath control laboured. Even the F natural on “Aug” was strained. The fermata on “Nothung” however showed glimmers of past vocal glory but “Siegmund heiß' ich” was surprisingly unheroic. 

Siegmund’s incestuous twin sister was similarly vocally under-par. Perhaps just brow-beaten by heartless Hunding, Elena Pankratova was far from an ideal Sieglinde. There was too much vibrato and too little nuance although “Du bist der Lenz” showed more sensitive vocalism.  The Hunding of Georg Zeppenfeld was the most accomplished performance of Act 1. From his first “Heilig ist mein Herd” it was clear that this was a singer of vocal excellence and impressive dramatic conviction. The contempt with which Zeppenfeld snarled “Wölfing” was as terrifying as his low G sharps were refulgent.

Act 2 brought back more chairs onto the stage as well as the Valhalla bridge ramp, this time with models of future building projects as if Wotan was a Norse harbinger of Albert Speer. Christa Mayer was a much more subtle Schlossfrau than the usual fesity Fricka, perhaps due to an absence of rams. She was also emotionally convincing in “O was klag' ich um Ehe und Eid” and vocally resplendent in “Du schufst ihm die Noth”.

Vitalij Kowaljow’s Wotan was again a fascinating mixture of reluctant acceptance and ill-suppressed frustration. “Das Ende, das Ende!” was deeply moving. Petra Lang’s first “Hojotoho!” revealed the problems encountered by mezzos who move up to dramatic soprano roles, especially one as difficult as Brünnhilde. Admittedly the high B and C naturals are cruelly exposed, but a pushed technique leading to shrillness is no compromise. Lang is an intelligent singer who was an acclaimed Ortrud and Brangäne and her lower register is still her strongest vocal asset. Brünnhilde’s unwelcome message to Siegmund of his preordained demise was almost Erda-ish and low D flats in “Nur Todgeweihten taugt mein Anblick” pungent. 

The octet of valkyries in Act 3 appeared not on horseback, with dead soldiers in their saddle-bags, but descended from the heavens riding slightly phallic looking silver spears. Unfortunately the lancets descended onto even more seats which covered the entire stage and could have served as the parterre of a Baroque opera house. The polyphonic “Hojotohos!” were hefty but the terrified sisters’ stage movements limited to squeezing between the rows or climbing over the gratuitous seating. Wotan’s celebrated “Leb' wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!” was mellifluously sung by Vitalij Kowaljow and for once the stage setting created a positive impact with the seats turning to flames as Brünnhilde deftly climbed onto another giant ball for her eternal snooze.

Christian Thielemann is certainly no stranger to the Ring and at only 58 has already recorded it four times. He now tends to favour more spacious tempi and the overall orchestral colour was slightly darker than previous readings. Conversely, timpani and percussion were given a long leash with exciting results. The Staatskapelle Dresden woodwinds, especially clarinets and flutes, were both sonorant and rhapsodic. The solo cello before Siegmund’s “Kühlende Labung gab mir der Quell” was vintage Casals.

As for Willy Decker’s problematic production, many in the audience hoped that Loge’s torching of the superfluous seats would be end the of this irritating impediment.