The world ended again last night. It ends fairly frequently in performances and in recordings, and that schedule tends to innoculate us against Richard Wagner’s political and philosophical messages. If ever there were to be a performance to transcend that, it would come at the Proms, at the conclusion of its first full performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen. This, after all, is a festival at which – as our conductor put it in his now traditional speech – “the communion between us musicians and you [the] public” is heightened by an intensity of listening that belies the size of the audience.

Daniel Barenboim addresses the audience at the end of the performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerun © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Daniel Barenboim addresses the audience at the end of the performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerun
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Götterdämmerung is a work that warns against idols even as it lauds heroes so insistently that we in the 21st century might find it hard to believe in them, but the potential always remains that any amount of dull routine might still be redeemed. If anyone could usher the world to its end and make it work for those of us left behind, Daniel Barenboim could. He and the frankly astonishing Staatskapelle Berlin opened with a sound full of sorrow for the plight of a history under Alberich’s curse, and concluded with final bars that for once were strong enough to redeem it. Barenboim kept our destination firmly in view even six hours from its arrival, gently underlining the promise of a new world with a glistening crescendo as Third Norn Anna Samuil told of the coming fires. By the end, with the body count topped out, he still managed to make that inevitable conclusion sound miraculous, Siegfried’s theme lingered over through its crashing cymbal crown, Brünnhilde’s stealing in so tenderly on high violins that it felt as if it could never possibly triumph – and yet it did.

Barenboim’s Wagnerian credentials have never been in doubt. Throughout this series of performances what has struck most has been the restraint of his mature interpretations, the way in which he tailored this trilogy to the specifics of the Royal Albert Hall. From his orchestra he extracted playing so quiet and so light that singers were able to whisper from the front of the stage and penetrate the sounds with ease even from the organ loft. At minuscule volume a rare clarity allowed this music’s rigorous development to emerge anew, and newly vital.

Were it in some senses not so patently un-Wagnerian, one could almost say that Justin Way’s lightly-staged approach was preferable to yet another execrable production, whether “radical” or “conservative”. It made the orchestra the star without lessening the contributions of the singers. Nowhere is that more important than in Götterdämmerung, for here, with Tristan and Die Meistersinger already under his belt and armed with a more exalted theoretical view of the orchestra’s role than he had sketched when he composed Das Rheingold, Wagner expands its import still further from earlier in the Ring. Perhaps only Barenboim could have imparted such swagger to Siegfried’s music, swagger enough to convince us of the necessity of the hero’s deeds regardless of how repulsive the character remains, and perhaps only he could invest such cumulative power to the drama that the funeral march seemed deserved. Few other conductors could hope to bring such translucence and twinkle to the clouds around Brünnhilde’s rock or a distant Valhalla, or adequately capture the chintz of the Gibichungs’ bourgeois hall, or the inherent vapidity of Gutrune’s approach to love, or the nigh-on Schoenbergian horrors of the second act’s thematic ruptures, or the fury of this drama’s multiple betrayals. Few orchestras, too, could bring out such tiny but important details, like the different timbres found by flautist Thomas Beyer for Brünnhilde, Hagen, and Gutrune, or the way the horns – Siegfried’s own instrument – mocked the hero when Gunther gave Gutrune to him. The orchestra almost became the drama in itself, and rightly so.

That would be unduly to diminish the efforts of a fine cast, though. Nina Stemme could scarcely improve on her Brünnhilde, a role she now inhabits with all the power she has brought to her Isolde, rightly leaving us in no doubt that while Siegfried gets the funeral march, it is Brünnhilde who is the true hero here. In Andreas Schager, she might also have found a Siegfried worthy of the name. Blithe, arrogant, even crass at times, and yet with voice and stamina to spare, Schager possesses a rare combination of acting prowess and musical depth, and deployed both convincingly. Mikhail Petrenko as Hagen seemed rather one-dimensional an artist in comparison, scheming in voice and dark in demeanour, yet oddly underpowered vocally. Anna Samuil and Gerd Grochowski fully grasped that Gutrune and Gunther are merely useful idiots in Wagner’s scheme, and Samuil was deliciously fake as Gutrune, the epitome of a trophy wife. Johannes Martin Kränzle reprised his Alberich with the requisite nastiness, while our three Rhinemaidens sang with a blend so sumptuous that it was easy to understand why first Alberich and later Siegfried would be interested in them. The Chorus of the Royal Opera House was, as ever under Renato Balsadonna’s leadership, beyond criticism. And what is left to say of Waltraud Meier? As Waltraute, her attention to the text was, as ever, unrivalled, conveying her shame at Wotan’s plight and yet the mysterious glory of his renunciation of the world.

So the world ended, again, in a gust of hot, red light that blazed over audience and stage alike. The rest was silence, a silence held by Barenboim for so long and observed so profoundly that the world may well have ended for real and few present would have noticed. Wagner leaves us with so many questions at the end of Götterdämmerung, not the least of which is what happens after Siegfried and Brünnhilde redeem the corrupt bargains Alberich and Wotan made. After fire and water purify the earth, what next?

To answer that, we need Wagner’s music as much as ever. Too often we hide this music’s political consequences behind professions of its technical challenge. That is understandable, given our collective history, but it is not enough. It might be the highest praise one could give this Götterdämmerung that it finally made one understand that.