Their Ring journey together is “one big adventure”, according to both conductor Hartmut Haenchen and director Pierre Audi. From the première in 1997 through to the present production repeats of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, in the correct order and within one week, twice, the two have indeed been adventurous. The 1996 production engaged three Dutch ensembles; Haenchen called on “his” Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra to accompany the entirety of this final stretch of the journey.

The Amsterdam Ring production for De Nederlandse Opera had already been repeated in the 2005–06 season. This had been meant to be the last, but significant cuts in government arts funding inspired Audi and his business manager Truze Lodder to save the sets in anticipation of Wagner Year 2013. Happily for us, this exemplary team retained sets, costumes, light and video designs and, most significantly, the energy and determination to (re)cast and undertake it all one last time.

A live performance of Wagner’s Ring should be an inevitable, once-in-a-lifetime experience, like a march to Mecca or a visit to the Vatican. For most, this remains a pipe dream. For the majority, the only way to experience the Ring is from a CD, which, when compared to the real thing, is quite frankly the equivalent of cold, day-old pizza. The progression from the introductory Rheingold through to the daring, indeed adventurous harmonies and instrumentation of the final Götterdämmerung is an organic, natural and rich synthesis of sounds and sights. Once experienced live, you are hooked for life. The Ring is more than 15 hours of magnificent music, drama, humanity: the chance for every director, conductor and cast to touch us deeply.

What makes the Amsterdam Ring especially noteworthy is its ideal, and the near-ideal execution. In several interviews, Haenchen expressed his personal ambition to stage an “intimate” Wagner, in an acoustic that Haenchen believes should be far less deafeningly loud than tradition would have us believe. The Amsterdam production also emphasizes what Audi is very, very good at: startling design and truly theatrical direction. Audi also explained his goal of intimacy yet proceeded to set the stakes extremely high for himself by expanding the stage beyond its normal limit, adding suspended “adventure” seats to replace the front few rows now gobbled up by an enlarged playing area. In this Ring, larger-than-life characters are only spitting distance from the first row of the audience; effective lighting design pulls the public further into the fore of the narrative. All is not only intimate – it is inescapable.

Both Haenchen and Audi attained their expressed goals in this wonderful production, where accuracy and good acting lead the way. The alert richness of the orchestra is superhuman: such a large ensemble performing at chamber-music intensity, even at the end of five hours’ playing. The human dimension is also a constant: the characters are not only close at hand, they are real people, not fairy-tale cardboard cutouts.

The deep and high stage is set with a deconstructed architectural decor of glass, wood and iron worthy of Coop Himmelb(l)au or Frank Gehry. Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim stairway was clearly an inspiration. The sets have not aged a day since 1996, with the noted exception of the video projections – a blinking eye in a TV screen no longer has real purpose. Shadows, on the other hand, were clear and convincing on the momumental backdrops. And Audi would not be Audi without extensive use of his favorite toy: fire! Breathtaking pyrotechnics cause the adventurous seats to be true hot-seats.

The costumes by Eiko Ishioki, the only opera work she was able to undertake in her too-short life, combine Japanese Kabuki elegance with 19th-century top hats and low necklines, wonderful latex body-fitting suits flown in directly from a far-flung planet from Star Trek. Mime as an oversized wasp, the Valkyries with silver wings reminiscent of New York’s Chrysler Building, a black-and-white Erda that could have been from Yves Saint Laurent. The mix is rich and fascinating, in a variation unknown in most opera productions, where one statement usually clothes the entire cast.

Pierre Audi’s use of abstraction in portraying physical struggle is perfectly balanced. Hissing industrial snakes and stylized sword-fights complement the true pain of domestic violence and despair. Movements are expressly timed to the musical beat in a way which is very effective.

In setting the musical and directorial stakes so high, there are bound to be a few disappointments. Some vocal casting is less than ideal; some singers clearly could not fathom the desired intimacy and fell back on traditional Wagnerian sound and movement: loud and awkward.

But first, to focus on the sublime: Catherine Foster. Her Brünnhilde has extreme temperament, of course, but cloaked in such a beautiful, flexible and musical performance, her fate is all the more wrenching. What a magnificent artist! Catherine Naglestad and Christopher Ventris brought the audience to tears in their erotic and exquisite duet as Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke is a supremely cunning Mime: every movement and every utterance is so detailed. Stefan Margita is a clear, articulate Loge and Stephen Milling’s Fasolt was glorious despite being covered from head to toe in thick, synthetic mud. Last but certainly not least, mention is due to the anonymous boy soprano as Waldvogel: we were as thrilled with him throughout, and just as joyous as he was, with his fast and furious cable ride from far stage left all the way across into the right stage wings.

Tradition is such that Wagnerian voices are focused on projection, getting it out there over the heads of so many musicians, often at the cost of the pure beauty of the triads that Wagner constructed so diligently. Varying the tempi of vocal vibrato within one chord distracts and muddies, and laborious pressing is often less effective than more relaxed projection. And in long, solo notes – and there are many long, solo notes in Wagner's Ring – a pronounced, regular vibrato within a note brings everything to an abrupt halt, a standstill. Wagnerian roles are extremely challenging; they are lengthy with extended registers and numerous jumps. The question does remain if we want to hear the effort, the sweat and technique it takes to perform this repetoire. Tastes on the matter differ.

I cannot help thinking of Broadway, and of early music or contemporary repertoire, where rhythm is king and voices have to be on time – anticipatory, even. Hartmut Haenchen’s ideal of a “Kammerspiel” for his Wagner clearly caught on with certain vocalists more than with others.

Thomas Johannes Meyer as Wotan often produced a laborious vibrato. He added an incessant extra, pulsing rhythm to single notes, and in so doing, broke up melodic lines and discolored harmonies. His vocal notes had no relationship to the orchestral; where his rightful place was in any given triad was a mystery. Yet in Wagner, the harmonies should be transparent: they are so divine!

Having pushed and pressed for so long, when the time came for Doris Soffel as Fricka to heighten her frustration and lament, there was nowhere further to go, in dynamic or in drama. Dosage is an important musical tool – if every note is the same color, there is no color. Once an embellishment, vibrato has become, for some, a habit.

It is not all about the vibrato in itself, though, but also what a singer does with it. Kurt Rydl has a tremendous vibrato – but what an actor! Every inch of his body was Hagen and the colors of his voice were in the service of the drama: varied, intense, even, in a very real way, intimate. As the king of domestic violence, later guilty and torn, he used his vocal chords and his body to propel the narrative, not just to pump up the volume. A marvelous thespian.

We should not care if our hero protagonist Siegfried plods like an elephant, but we inevitably do. More irritating is the fact that not one of Stig Andersen’s entrances was on time, despite Haenchen being visible from a circle of TV screens throughout the theatre. The affectation of following the beat (breaking up the harmonic line time and again) can be effective, but never when so consistently used. Here our hero was not stunning and human in his pride and ignorance – he was merely out of time with the music. Andersen also played the role for the laughs as opposed to the poignancy.

Granted, it is the presence of some truly wonderful timbres and actors in this cast that makes one greedy for perfection.

The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra consistently hit the mark throughout four evenings of unfailing trumpets, sonorous brass, alert woodwinds and warm strings with a special mention for a truly exquisite cello section. They enjoyed their freedom of sound, placed above the pit for two evenings, and were obviously engaged as the fundament of the production not as mere accompaniment. Time and again ovational applause burst out for them, and for Haenchen.

Harmut Hanechen and this orchestra have a long history of highs spotted with some lows; their now comfortable relationship was audible. His directions are precise and full of energy but not overly exaggerated or supranatural. He knows what effect they will have on these, his people.

The Netherlands Philharmonic is Amsterdam’s “other” orchestra, fated to be in the shadow of the Royal Concertgebouw. Yet it proved itself measure for measure as not only a competent technical machine, but as an inspired cast of instrumentalists, tutti as well as soli in this joyous, festive Ring. Long, narrative, operatic melodies were “sung” by all enemble sections.

Try before you die: there are lists of books one must read, places to visit, wines to drink and certainly music that must be heard before the final trumpet sounds. A live performance of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, complete and in the correct order, tops these lists. 130 years after Angelo Neumann first led Wagner’s Ring in the Amsterdam Crystal Palace (1883), Pierre Audi and Hartmut Haenchen have renewed a rich tradition.

A last note here must be reserved for Maestro Haenchen. Leading the cast in four evenings so jam-packed with musical bananaskins, physically jammed so close together in the name of intimacy, is in itself a noteworthy feat, near superhuman, certainly supra-musical. Details were alert, long lines were sumptuous and clear, drama was heightened, ever in the service of these immortal scores. Bravo Netherlands Philharmonic! Bravo Maestro!