A father condemns his beloved son to death; his usually bloodthirsty daughter baulks at carrying out the sentence; he exiles the daughter, never to see her again. Where Das Rheingold begins the Ring cycle with a rapid telling of events, Die Walküre explores the behaviour of people in extreme circumstances.

Circumstances don’t get much more extreme than Siegmund’s weaponless flight through the snow to collapse exhausted at Sieglinde’s hearth, only to find that this is the home of his pursuer Hunding. Adam Fischer conjured plenty of drive from the repeated figures in cellos and basses, with strident brass telling us of the hostile pursuers. It set the scene for an outstanding first act, with three vocal performances that will be hard to better. Anja Kampe was a meltingly desirable Sieglinde, moving from curiosity to rapture to terror. Her timbre was warm, every note was solid, but what impressed me most was her ability to accelerate into a phrase at critical times: her “So bleibe hier”, ordering Christian Franz’s Siegmund to stay rather than flee from Hunding, was electric.

Anya Kampe as Seglinde and Christian Franz as Siegmund © Palace of Arts, Budapest
Anya Kampe as Seglinde and Christian Franz as Siegmund
© Palace of Arts, Budapest
And indeed, sparks flew between the pair for the whole act. Franz was at his best when portraying rapture: he has a true heldentenor’s voice, rounded and strong, and is able to shape a phrase wonderfully. Or, for that matter, to shape a single note: the two famous cries of "Wälse" were not held for insane length, but the timbre developed steadily through the duration of each note. As Hunding, Walter Fink was an enormous presence: a man who is big, self-important, totally secure of his place in life vis-à-vis the subordinate position of everyone else, with a voice to match.

Hartmut Schörghofer’s semi-staging wasn’t quite as sure-footed as in Das Rheingold (see that review for the basic framework, which I won’t repeat here). The opening video was effective, shot hand-held from the viewpoint of the man staggering through snowy landscape, as was the closing video of the ring of fire. There was an amazing choreography of Hunding’s dogs lying by the fire of his dwelling. But there were some oddities in between, not least in the Valkyries scene and in the staging of Siegmund’s sword-drawing (he doesn’t touch the sword lying at his feet).

Judit Nemeth as Fricka and Egils Silins as Wotan © Palace of Arts, Budapest
Judit Nemeth as Fricka and Egils Silins as Wotan
© Palace of Arts, Budapest
But the singing continued to be uniformly excellent. Judit Németh excelled once more as Fricka, showing that it’s possible to be the imperious, self-righteous wife without being shrill. Egils Silins’ Wotan was authoritative throughout, but really shone in the closing scene with Brünnhilde: his shift from fury to tenderness was totally compelling. In the title role, Iréne Theorin was hobbling around the stage with the aid of a stick due to a leg injury, but her voice was undamaged – to the point where I thought she overdid the power and went a bit sharp in the Hojotohos of her initial entry. But she soon settled into a warm lyricism: the high point of the evening, for me, was her heartbreaking duet with Christian Franz’s Siegmund, where Brünnhilde's self-confidence in her warrior nature turns to an understanding (albeit a doomed one) of love.

Ride of the Valkyries © Palace of Arts, Budapest
Ride of the Valkyries
© Palace of Arts, Budapest
The Béla Bartók Hall is entirely filled with Ring nuts for these four days, and I want to illustrate some details that make us prize this music so. The first is Wagner's ability to make very short pieces of text count. So at a key point in Fricka’s demolition of Wotan’s trickery, a simple descending pair of notes on “nicht doch” (it is not so) carries extraordinary strength. When Wotan eventually submits with the words “Nimm den Eid” (take my oath), the words shock us. Next is the way Wagner weaves motifs into our consciousness. When Siegmund is describing how his mysterious father Wälse has disappeared, his words “fand ich nicht” (I found him nowhere) is immediately followed by Wotan’s leitmotif. Siegmund may not know who his father is or where he has gone, but it’s crystal clear to us in the audience without a word being sung. Similarly, at the very end of the opera, the music is portraying Loge’s fire springing up around Brünnhilde’s rock when the dancing of the flames is interrupted for a moment by two repeats of the “powerful destiny” motif. In just six notes, we’ve been clearly told that dark things are to come.

What makes the Ring so special is that to illustrate these points, I could have picked any of dozens of such moments. And what impresses about last night’s performance is that so many of those moments came out at the intensity level you would wish for, with clarity of diction allied to clarity of the orchestral reading. For me, top honours went to Act I, but I heard interval voices praising Théorin to the skies, and the ending was pretty stunning also. Roll on the rest of the cycle…

You can read reviews from the other operas in the cycle here: Das RheingoldSiegfried and Götterdämmerung.