When a big Wagnerian orchestra is in full cry, it makes a huge wall of sound. When a bass voice is able to smash through that wall – not soar above it, as a soprano does, but drive a battering ram through the middle – the thrill forces you into the back of your seat, pulse racing. That’s what Stephen Milling achieved in Hagen’s summoning of the Gibichung clan, with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House on blistering form to create the accompanying mayhem – and not without entertainment, since the normally humourless Hagen is actually winding them up by issuing an apparently bellicose summons which is really a wedding invitation.

Stephen Milling (Hagen) © ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper
Stephen Milling (Hagen)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

Earlier, it was Milling who provided the point of inflection at which the drama of this Götterdämmerung began to bite: his villain’s gloat “Hier sitz' ich zur Wacht” was delivered with icy resolve, the certainty of the words “you shall all serve me, the Nibelung’s son” driving fear into our hearts. Up to that point, the tension had been strangely muted compared to the fireworks of the preceding Walküre and Siegfried: the three Norns were melodious but resigned rather than redolent of angst, with the orchestra less secure in painting colour around their voices. Brünnhilde has clearly taught Siegfried some manners during their time on the rock, since the Stefan Vinke who sets off down the Rhine has gained a degree of gravitas and become almost cultured – I think I liked him better as a boisterous teenager. Markus Butter’s Gunther was urbane, Emily Magee’s Gutrune pleasantly charming: all enjoyable singing to listen to but little hint of the dark times to come.

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) © ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper
Stefan Vinke (Siegfried)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

The Ring is so long and episodic that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, there’s always the chance that some hitherto unnoticed scene will surprise you. The scene which follows Hagen’s declaration of intent, Waltraute’s arrival on Brünnhilde’s rock, has usually seemed like an incidental aside, but here, Karen Cargill and Nina Stemme turned it into a crisis point of the whole drama. It’s the point at which Brünnhilde is given the last opportunity to set everything to rights by returning the ring to the Rhinemaidens, but mulishly refuses: she is as susceptible to the ring’s powers as anyone else except the ignorant Siegfried, and the love gift is a fatal one. Cargill has the voice not to be overpowered by Stemme and the contrast between their registers made this one of those moments of high Wagnerian drama: you can’t believe that Brünnhilde will refuse Waltraute until it actually happens.

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Karen Cargill (Waltraute) © ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde), Karen Cargill (Waltraute)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

From then on, the drama tightened steadily, with a telling scene between Vinke’s Siegfried and the Rhinemaidens (hats off to Rachael Lloyd who was called up at the very last minute and slotted in seamlessly), a superbly sung confrontation and murder scene between Siegfried and Milling’s Hagen, a powerful if not always perfectly co-ordinated funeral march, and Stemme peerless in Brünnhilde’s immolation.

Claudia Huckle, Lise Davidsen, Irmgard Vilsmaier (Norns) © ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper
Claudia Huckle, Lise Davidsen, Irmgard Vilsmaier (Norns)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

Keith Warner’s staging continues to be as baffling as it is watchable. The cubes are elegant, but what do they purport? Why is one pane of glass in the cube broken? What is the significance of the pseudo-scientific wall of equations? What exactly is the not-quite-sexual relationship between Hagen and Gutrune? And who is the child in the ring at the very end, as Siegfried’s pyre (and presumably Valhalla) are consumed in flames?

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) © ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde)
© ROH 2018 | Bill Cooper

You can come to a Ring cycle looking for the philosophy of Feuerbach or Schopenhauer, the politics of race or revolution, to delve into Wagner’s choice of sources of Norse mythology or, if the director is like Warner here or Frank Castorf in Bayreuth, to apply your wits to decoding a veritable forest of symbols. In the end, I have found myself happiest doing none of these things, but to allow myself to be swept away on a magic carpet spun from Wagner’s orchestral and vocal textures and woven by Antonio Pappano and this magnificent cast, travelling over a landscape where every rock, river and forest has a story to tell and every one of the dozen main characters has their individual, personal tragedy to make us sympathise. The Royal Opera puts on Ring cycles reluctantly (CEO Alex Beard has described it publicly as “something we put ourselves through”), but for me, six years feels far too long to wait for the next one.

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