A Beethoven cycle last year, The Ring this year: what will Daniel Barenboim bring to the 2014 Proms? Perhaps, given the recent success of extracts both at the Proms and at Lincoln Center Festival, the smart money is on Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 29-hour, seven-opera cycle Licht. Then again, perhaps not.

L-R: Ekaterina Gubanova, Daniel Barenboim and Iain Paterson in a performance of Wagner’s Das Rhein © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
L-R: Ekaterina Gubanova, Daniel Barenboim and Iain Paterson in a performance of Wagner’s Das Rhein
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Anyhow, this Ring cycle is more than enough to be getting on with, and Barenboim and his Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra gave it precisely the kind of high-quality opening that everyone had been hoping for since rumours of this Proms series emerged years ago. Though this was his first Wagner opera in the UK, this is a man who knows his way around The Ring, and his wealth of experience was put to ample use last night. The soloists were mostly taken from the casts he has had for his Ring cycles in Milan and Berlin, and it is hence no surprise that the result was supremely well-oiled. Are there inherent limitations in how far a concert performance of The Ring can ever make it? Perhaps, but this Rheingold was about as good as it could realistically have been.

Imagining a stronger collection of singers would be a tough ask. From the brilliant clarity of Aga Mikolaj’s opening strains as the Rhinemaiden Woglinde to the sepulchral depths reached by Erik Halfvarson’s Fafner, any of these singers would have stolen a lesser show. Iain Paterson brought a lyrical edge to Wotan though also had the power to command a scene where necessary, and though this cycle’s future Wotans (Bryn Terfel, Terje Stensvold) are nothing to complain about, I would have enjoyed hearing Paterson take the role through the next two operas. As his wife Fricka, Ekaterina Gubanova may not have had the busiest evening, but her strong, elegant tone was a marvel: the orchestra often comes right down for her lines, and as a team they achieved a magical stillness in such moments. I found Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich a little uneven across his range, and his renunciation of love was untidy, but he acted well, and had an excellent sparring partner in Peter Bronder, playing his brother Mime.

The most entertaining vocal part in Das Rheingold is that of the trickster-god Loge, whose tenor part contains some attractive melodic lines and comes as close as anything else in the vocal score to the opera of the past. Stephan Rügamer cut a dapper figure vocally, singing smoothly with an enthralling legato line. Contralto Anna Larsson reprised the role of Erda she also took for Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Rheingold in 2004, and her authority with the part was beyond doubt.

Erda’s abrupt appearance during a moment of panic for Wotan also made for this performance’s most dramatic moment, with her suddenly spotlit high above the stage, between the two choirstalls. Other effective lighting innovations included the obligatory rainbow for the final procession into Valhalla, and it was pleasing to see the the Albert Hall’s brightly lit strips just above the stage put to dramatic use here, rather than simply displaying an arbitrary colour or two as they are sometimes wont to do. The direction, on the other hand (such as it was) didn’t come across so convincingly: describing it as “semi-staged” is exaggerative. With no props, the singers moved about the stage a fair bit, but not always in ways that seemed immediately logical, amusing though it was to use the Proms arena as the “sulphurous cleft” through which Wotan and Loge descend to Nibelheim. Of course, it would be impossible to concoct a semi-staging that didn’t come across as disappointing when you’re meant to witness a dwarf turn into a toad in front of your eyes – but (slightly) disappointing it remains.

Even if one were to put down the (beautifully presented) libretto and shut one’s eyes, though, this was an evening that more than lived up to high expectations, musically speaking. The orchestra took a while to find its feet – the opening is hardly easy, after all, especially with so much soft writing for brass – but later on, it was staggering, the climaxes in the later scenes overwhelming. And Barenboim, naturally, shaped the whole thing like the master craftsman he is. Everything flowed together, forming the single, compelling thread of music that this unwieldy, monolithic entity can be in the right hands. There was even a sense at the end that we had only just begun. Listen keenly for the rest of this cycle.