As the famous E flat chords in the low strings open Das Rheingold, we gaze at the waters of the Rhine, projected in cross section onto glass panels which span the stage. The waves ebb and flow bearing flotsam on the surface; as the orchestra swells, the water level rises until we are totally immersed in the start of the action. And what a start it is, with outstanding singing from the three Rhinemaidens. Polina Pasztircsák as Woglinde charms from the very first notes, with a voice of unusual strength and clarity, seductive rather than skittish. By the time Zsófia Kálnay’s Flosshilde has come closest of all to Alberich in pretending to seduce him, we feel every ounce of the maidens’ watery eroticism and of the dwarf’s pain: the critical point at which Alberich shifts from wooer to vengeful robber hits us like a truck.

June in Budapest is Ring time: devotees from around the world converge on the Palace of Arts (known locally by the abbreviation “MüPa”) to see the four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen performed in four days, in a semi-staged production by designer/director Hartmut Schörghofer. In fact, the production was described to me as “more like three quarters staged”, which turned out to be pretty accurate.

The staging is very effective. The action is set on a two level stage, with steps in a translucent slope between the levels, raised above an orchestra set lower than usual to give a fair simulation of the pit of an opera house. As well as being used extensively for video projection, the panels behind can be made transparent to see dancers in silhouette, or can serve as doors for entrances and exits.

The singers are in conventional concert dress, but they still act their roles. Several have alter egos on stage: the fire god Loge is danced by a man in bright scarlet; the giants are represented by filmed cranes and huge heads, a trio of alluring dancers accompanies the Rhinemaidens, either on stage or projected on film swimming underwater. Most effective of all is the extraordinary choreography for the dancers who show the Nibelungs; we alternate between seeing dancers in the flesh and seeing projections of them apparently crawling vertically up the glass walls, in movements reminiscent of Andy Serkis’s Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies. The video effect which accompanies Alberich’s fatal transformation into a toad is superb.

The cast was a mixture of internationally known stars and singers less known outside Hungary. Almost everyone impressed. Rheingold works best when Loge bosses the show, and Christian Franz’s delivery was marvellously clear-spoken and sarcastic, not lacking in melody when the occasion permits. Judit Németh sang Fricka to perfection: remarkably, her voice was full and strong without ever going shrill, even on the highest notes at the top of her range. This was a strong woman alternately frightened and furious, not a tedious harridan.

Géza Gábor sung Fasolt with particular depth and nobility; Egils Silins was always melodious and sweet-toned, often with a slightly other-worldly feel as if Wotan is faintly disconnected from reality.  An even more other-worldly feel came with Erika Gál’s magnificent intervention as Erda: she sang behind the glass screens, giving the illusion of great distance without losing any potency. As Alberich, Hartmut Welker was totally credible in portraying the gamut of emotions from desire to frustration to vainglory to despair, albeit a touch under-powered: the discussions after his capture by Loge and Wotan were the only part of the opera that dragged slightly.

But to a fair extent, the star of the show was MüPa’s Béla Bartók Hall, with its extraordinary acoustic. I’m willing to bet a strong contributor to the singers sounding so good was that they weren’t having to strain – and yet we were hearing them clearly as well as hearing every note of a magnificent orchestral performance by MR Symphonics, conducted by Adam Fischer. It struck me most close to the very end of the opera, in the Rhinemaidens’ lament: I could hear gentle notes on the harps with bell-like clarity in amongst three strong voices and a multitude of other instruments. I’ve never heard every individual note in a Wagner performance to the extent I did last night. And there was much to savour in those notes, with balance, tons of energy and great individual musicianship as the orchestra continually propelled the story forward.

To succeed, first and foremost, a performance of Das Rheingold has to tell the story: where the rest of the cycle is more about intention, reaction and emotion, Das Rheingold is about spinning the yarn. The elements of this production came together to illustrate the story brilliantly. As Fasolt’s death was accompanied by a torrent of blood and the rainbow bridge faded into a panorama of Budapest as Valhalla, I had to ask myself “who needs full staging?”

You can read reviews from the other operas in the cycle here: 

Die WalküreSiegfried and Götterdämmerung.