Putting on a Ring cycle is normally considered a major undertaking for any opera company. For a mid-sized provincial opera company, the idea of staging the whole cycle in a weekend seems barely short of insane. But that’s what Opéra de Dijon are doing – Das Rheingold and Die Walküre last night, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung tonight, and it just had to be seen.

© Gilles Abegg, Opéra de Dijon
© Gilles Abegg, Opéra de Dijon

The words “provincial opera company” may have given the wrong idea. The auditorium in Dijon is a wonderful space for seeing opera: wide stage, clean lines, comfortable seats and a superb acoustic. A deep orchestra pit helps to ensure that the orchestral sound remains rich while not swamping the singers. And under the baton of Daniel Kawka, the “Richard Wagner European Orchestra” turned in a performance fit to grace any opera house on the planet. The orchestral textures were sumptuous and there was a constant sense of forward impulse from beginning to end.

Much of the singing came up to a similarly high standard. Manuela Bress’s Fricka was outstanding. For me, the scene between Fricka and Wotan in Act II of Walküre is the philosophical heart of the whole cycle, and Bress produced a sweet-toned implacability that totally dominated proceedings, leaving Thomas E. Bauer’s Wotan flailing. Bauer was a shade tentative in Rheingold - perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the amount of singing required of him doing both operas in an evening – but grew in strength as the evening progressed, becoming magnificently authoritative by the last scene of Walküre, where the tenderness between him and Sabine Hogrefe’s Brünnhilde was heartbreaking.

Earlier this year, I loved the dark fullness of Katarina Dalayman’s Brünnhilde at the Met; Hogrefe has the same sort of dark soprano voice which thrilled me throughout. In Act II scene II of Die Walküre, Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund, sung by Daniel Brenna, intending to facilitate his death and spirit him away to Valhalla to join the fallen heroes; but this is subverted as Siegmund shows her the meaning of true love. The scene was simply sensational, with Brenna and Hogrefe’s voices blending above that gorgeous tuba-laden brass to provide an intravenous injection of passion. Wotan’s entry that followed it was simply magnificent, with the orchestra whipping up the most violent of storms, and Bauer matching it in pomp and fury. Generally, there really wasn’t any weak singing in the whole evening. I don’t have space to mention everybody, so I’ll just mention one smaller role that stood out: Florian Samson, who made an unusually clear-toned and sympathetic Mime.

I have to point out that we are not watching a 100% complete cycle, because substantial cuts are being made in order to fit everything into the time and cast limitations available, with Rheingold down to 90 minutes of music and Walküre at 2 hours 50 (the cuts to Götterdämmerung promise to be severe, but more about that tomorrow). A number of the cuts have quite serious impact: for example, we miss Fasolt’s murder, which is crucial in demonstrating the impact of Alberich’s curse on the ring, and we miss the lovely music which surrounds Sieglinde’s first meeting with Siegmund. It would all have been fair enough, in my view (far be it from me to question the pragmatic decisions that directors are forced to make), but for the fact that director Laurent Joyeux chose to precede Das Rheingold with Die Alte Frau, a newly composed 30-minute piece by Brice Pauset, whose intent was to provide a framing story for Joyeux’s overarching concept for this production. Neither Pauset’s music nor the choreography did anything to persuade me that we would not have been better served by sticking to the Ring itself and restoring some of the cuts.

My reactions are rather mixed with regard to Joyeux’s overarching concept, which is that of power being knowledge and knowledge being embedded in books. Valhalla is a giant library with shades of Borges’s Library of Babel; the ring itself is pulled from a book; Siegmund’s broken weapons are books in a knapsack; the trees in the forest are leaves from a book. On the one hand, the concept was applied attractively and gave a good level of visual consistency. But I wasn’t persuaded that the concept really matches the themes in the Ring – or, at least, that this production did enough to make it really ring true. Many details of the staging worked well: Wotan and Loge are dressed as top-hatted 19th-century mill owners – precisely the class of people who were the butt of Wagner’s satire; picturing the Rhinemaidens as posh girls frolicking in the snow suited the playful mood without the need for the unstageable swimming between the river bed and rocks; video projections of animals great and small were effective at depicting the Tarnhelm. Other aspects were weaker; the ride of the Valkyries was very static, and much of the acting through the evening could have done with more emphasis.

But overall, this first half of Joyeux’s Ring has been impressive, most of all musically. The melodies ring in my head, there were singing performances to savour and all the grandeur of Wagner’s orchestration came through with full force. Most of all, the music told the story – even to non German speakers struggling with French surtitles – and in a Ring cycle, that’s the most important thing you can ask for. Siegfried and Götterdämerung to follow this evening. I can’t wait.

****1