Wagner's Die Walküre was split into two concert performances over two days, the first on one evening and the second on an afternoon and an evening. This review is for both.

© Joel Chester Fildes
© Joel Chester Fildes

A spot picks out a man in the Bridgewater Hall’s front row, who steps up to stand by a table in front of the Hallé Orchestra, which is ready to begin. He puts on a braided coat to become Richard Wagner. Played by Roger Allam, his lines are taken from the master’s theoretical writings, letters to the likes of Franz Liszt and King Ludwig II of Bavaria and quotations from reported conversations. He is joined by two choruses, spectral women in white - the excellent Deborah Findlay and Sara Kestelman - who provide background and pass comment. We are watching The Madness of an Extraordinary Plan, written by Gerard McBurney and directed by Neil Bartlett as a contextualising prologue which draws wittily on sources from Bakunin to Dickens and from Nietzsche to Wagner’s first wife. It is a concept pioneered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with its Beyond The Score programme.

Illustrated by music extracts, it outlines Wagner’s journey towards his greatest masterpiece, and works well as a way in to this much-anticipated concert performance of Die Walküre, the second part of the Ring Cycle, presented over two days, Act One on Friday and Acts Two and Three on Saturday, led by Sir Mark Elder, who is well-remembered for his stunning Götterdämmerung in 2009. He does not disappoint. This concert is also stunning.

Addressing the audience before starting Act One, he dedicated the performance to his recently-departed old friend and collaborator Lord Harewood. “It was his favourite,” he told us. “He knew every note.”

Yvonne Howard was obliged to take on the role of Sieglinde at the last moment. Score in hands, she copes wonderfully, conveying the wild ecstasy of the incestuous love for her brother Siegmund, and her misery later on in the opera, with a refined intensity, all of which emphasises her great versatility, because she is currently ruling with top notch elegance as Fricka in Opera North’s Das Rheingold. Her match is Stig Andersen, a veteran Siegmund.

He builds to his climaxes with a fascinating relentlessness, every word soaked with significance. In Act One, as spring enters the house with the ash tree growing through it, he delivers a beautifully soaring Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond, which is followed in Act Two by a powerfully-delivered refusal to give up his beloved sister, when he would rather go to Hell than join the heroes in Valhalla.

Hunding, Sieglinde’s husband, is not just a brute when played by Clive Bayley. He is more than that. Bayley can assume the face of a nasty belligerent, with all the right sneering side-glances, but he gives his rich bass voice a little harsh lyricism, which adds an extra dimension. Without all the movement and histrionics of a full staging of a Wagner opera, which would be impossible without the vast funds of a mad monarch or the New York Met, faces and eyes have obvious importance in line-ups at stage front, especially eyes.

Egils Silins as Wotan is prone to looking down his nose, which goes with his appearance as a smartly besuited headmaster. We were told there might be problems with his voice on the Saturday, and that an emergency substitute “dressed in casual clothes” was hurrying up the M6 in case the vocal cords failed, but everything went well: Silins excelled, with special attention paid to quieter deliveries. His biggest triumph is in Act Three with the famous Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind! when he renounces his love for his disobedient daughter Brünnhilde in an attempt to preserve the stability of the gods.

Wagner commentators tend to make an issue of the amount of ‘humanity’ bestowed on the character of Wotan: my opinion is that Silins brings just the right amount, the emotion reined in, with a slight hint of eroticism, because Wotan could not be ‘latinised’ with anything too overt. The result is deeply moving. His reaction to his upbraiding by Fricka (a briskly bossy Susan Bickley) is similarly restrained.

Susan Bullock has an enormous dramatic presence as Brünnhilde, surging between extremes of emotion like an elemental force, but always in absolute control, fully engaged with every line's meaning. It’s there in her eyes as well as her voice. Her eight Valkyrie sisters are dynamically effective, straight from a rumbustuous night out in Manchester it seems. In Hojotoho! they prove they were born to deal with octave-leaps: every high C made me flinch with pleasure.