Dipping my toes into the murky waters of the Wagner-fest at the Proms this year for the first time, I found myself confronted with the monumental second installment of the Ring cycle, Die Walküre. Of the four “music dramas” in the cycle, being given as a whole for the first time at the Proms, Die Walküre is probably the work that stands most comfortably on its own, and the most easily approachable. It balances Wagner’s earlier, more traditionally “operatic” style with his later, more intense and harmonically complex manner. There are very few longueurs, and it is bookended by two of the strangest and most rapturous love duets in the whole of opera – firstly that between twin brother and sister and then at the end between father and daughter.

L-R: Bryn Terfel and Daniel Barenboim in Wagner’s Die Walküre at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
L-R: Bryn Terfel and Daniel Barenboim in Wagner’s Die Walküre at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

And what a ride it proved to be! At the reins was the legend that is Daniel Barenboim – boy-wonder pianist, once husband to an even bigger legend (Jacqueline du Pré), and more recently a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Behind all this upfront celebrity, however, sits one of the most extraordinary musical minds of his, or any other, generation. Partnered by his well-schooled orchestra, the excellent Staatskapelle Berlin, this was a performance which put the orchestral part on an equal footing to the singing at all times.

From the scurrying strings that open the Act I prelude onwards, there was an electricity about the music-making that quickly led one into the red-blooded Wagnerian world. This single-scene act should ideally have a sweep from the first to last, that feels as natural as the action on the stage is unnatural. Barenboim adopted mainly swift tempi to help create the necessary urgency. Both Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) and Anja Kampe (Sieglinde) found a wide range of colours and the necessary power in their voices to carry off this extended tease. The lack of staging in this act seemed to matter little, as the acting between the two singers carried its own innate theatricality – testament to their previous experience of singing the roles together in a recent stage performance. Eric Halfvarson, whose big-voiced, brutish, two-dimensional portrayal of the spurned husband Hunding, seemed just right for a mere pawn in the monumental drama that leads to end of the world.

In Act II we find ourselves in the midst of the drama, with several of its major protagonists. The scene introduces the character Brünnhilde, plotting to save the lives of the offending twins with her father Wotan, who also happen to be their father. Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde threw herself into the opening Valkyrie greeting with strength and steadiness of tone, qualities that she maintained throughout her performance – lacking only that heroic edge of danger to be found in a Birgit Nilsson or Gwyneth Jones. At this stage of her journey, this is a level-headed and capricious Brunnhilde. Hopefully, by the end of Götterdämmerung, when she is burning on the pyre that destroys the world, she will be a little less self-contained.

The Wotan of Bryn Terfel has a familiar quality; his strong/weak character is thoroughly recognizable as being humanly flawed. One senses that Terfel will carry this performance with him wherever he sings the role, and who could argue with it? Particularly impressive in this act was the performance of Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka, often a thankless role, with her nagging and whining. However, there was a strength and nobility about Gubanova’s performance that made the part – rightly, one feels – more sympathetic. The swift battle at the end of the act, with the fate of the twins and of Brünnhilde settled in a muddle of good intentions, was powerful pulled together by Barenboim and the furious final bars were thrilling indeed.

In the final act we find ourselves immersed in some of the most exalted music penned by Wagner, or indeed any other composer. The glorious set piece entrance of the Valkyries always impresses musically, while it often disappoints visually when performed on stage. Therefore, this semi-staged performance by Justin Way seemed more than adequate, leaving the legendary settings to be conjured up by the listener’s imagination. Barenboim carefully balanced the lusty crew of Valkyries with the massive orchestra at full force. With the entrance of Brünnhilde and the angry approach of Wotan in pursuit of her, the drama seemed at its most striking.

This led seamlessly to the moving final scenes of the act that seals Brünnhilde’s fate and breaks Wotan’s heart. This is Stemme and Terfel’s big moment, and they largely proved equal to the task. Again, Stemme sang exquisitely, but lacked the last edge of passion one could have wished for. Likewise, Terfel’s performance was polished and at its best, very moving, but there was a nagging sense of the routine – he’d seen it all before and knew what he was doing.

Overall, this was a beautifully judged and sung performance, which never dragged or felt overly pushed. When we arrived at the last few minutes with its fabulous orchestral tapestry, so melodically rich and potent it would surely melt the hardest of hearts, the whole, wonderful performance came to a sublime end.