Jaap van Zweden is a visionary not only because he sets challenging goals for the Hong Kong Philharmonic to spur them on to heights they never thought they were capable of, but also because he does so with keen insight into the limitations the environment places on what is possible. His project to mount concert performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle over four years has concluded with the final instalment – Götterdämmerung. To use a cliché, it was his crowning glory and, by most measures, a phenomenal success.

Jaap van Zweden conducts <i>Götterdämmerung</i> © Ramond Ho
Jaap van Zweden conducts Götterdämmerung
© Ramond Ho

With the exception of the Rhinemaidens and Michelle DeYoung (Fricka in Rheingold and Walküre) as Waltraute, all the key characters in Götterdämmerung were new faces. Yet the new cast seemed to work just as seamlessly as the more familiar faces in the past. Whether as individual vocalists or together, and with the help of three choirs, they undoubtedly set a high bar for future productions. Nearly five hours of musical drama flew by as if it was a fleeting moment.

Götterdämmerung is a dark tale of intrigue, betrayal and revenge. In effect, it’s the story of Hagen’s machinations to win back the ring which his father, Alberich, had fashioned and on which he had placed a curse. American bass Eric Haflvarson’s brawny tones added an edgy sense of menace. Sometimes whispering under his breath, at other times in controlled outbursts, he made it sound as if it was impossible to plumb the depths of Hagen’s malevolent defiance more than he did. Despite repeated appearances in all three acts, he was able to maintain an enviable consistency and purity of tone.

Siegfried, a dragon-slaying superhero, has turned into a hapless pawn in Hagen’s evil scheme to gain control of the ring. Drugged into becoming a matchmaker for Gunther with the very woman to whom he has pledged his love, he goes on to propose marriage to Hagen’s sister, Gutrune. Daniel Brenna cut a dashing figure of youthful energy as Siegfried, replete with a touch of naivety and occasional mockery. Howver, his refined voice struggled to stay above the intrusive brass at times.

Daniel Brenna (Siegfried) and Gun-Brit Barkmin (Brünnhilde) © Ka Lam
Daniel Brenna (Siegfried) and Gun-Brit Barkmin (Brünnhilde)
© Ka Lam

The star of the production was undoubtedly Gun-Brit Barkmin as Brünnhilde. She displayed an amazing range of emotional expression, from gentle lyrical beauty – as in her goose-pimple inducing lament for Siegfried upon his death – to high drama, as in her lashing out at the gods for their perverted cruelty. Svelte in the former and forceful in the latter, her voice displayed tremendous agility and malleability. Her voice was one of few which consistently projected above the orchestra throughout with impeccable diction. Unwavering intensity and clarity of purpose informed her character as a deity renounced by her father and jilted by the lover for whom she lost her divinity, but who nevertheless performs a final act of sacrifice.

Eric Halfvarson (Hagen) and Amanda Majeski (Gutrune) © Ka Lam
Eric Halfvarson (Hagen) and Amanda Majeski (Gutrune)
© Ka Lam

Michelle DeYoung assumed a darkness befitting the pitiful state of her father Wotan and the imminent disintegration of his empire, yet warmth and sympathy still enveloped her plea to Brünnhilde to give up the ring. The role of two-dimensional and somewhat gullible Gutrune didn’t give Amanda Majeski much scope to explore the full potential of her vocal prowess, but what we did hear was soothing and adroit handling of the material. Bass-baritone Shenyang, 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, exuded more confidence than one would have expected from Gunther, acquiescent accomplice to Hagen’s manipulation and full of self-doubt about his leadership of the Gibichungs. His earnest and full-bodied tone was a good counterbalance to Hagen’s brazen lack of decency.

The returning Rhinemaiden trio provided much needed relief to the hefty dramatic material. The rhythmic ensemble of Eri Nakamura, Aurhelia Varak and Hermione Haselböck was delightful in their ethereal and angelic delivery. By contrast, the combined choirs were a thunderously sonorous “third voice”.

Members of the Hong Kong Philharmonic © Ramond Ho
Members of the Hong Kong Philharmonic
© Ramond Ho

The orchestra carefully and skilfully unravelled the multiple strains of Wagner’s intricate score, always in tandem with the singers. The strings and brass, emotional underpinning to the drama, inevitably upbraided some members of the cast for the occasional lack of projection, but solo woodwinds, notably the oboe and the clarinet, shone with moments of supreme tenderness. As Wagner’s story completed a full circle with the restoration of the ring to the Rhinemaidens, Jaap van Zweden blazed a trail for the Hong Kong Philharmonic to join the international big league.