Presenting Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in a single evening is audacious enough. To put on a Ring cycle in a week-end, you have to follow this by doing the same with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, which requires something even more radical. Opéra de Dijon’s director Laurent Joyeux and dramaturg Stephen Sazio set themselves the task of cutting eight hours of music down to five.

Sabine Hogrefe as Brünnhilde © Gilles Abegg, Opéra de Dijon
Sabine Hogrefe as Brünnhilde
© Gilles Abegg, Opéra de Dijon

Inevitably, there were casualties. Mime and Wotan’s riddle game in Siegfried was lost, along with nearly half of Götterdämerung, including the whole of Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s opening love scene (deemed unnecessary when it would have followed on immediately from the similar scene that closes Siegfried), Hagen’s gathering of the Gibichung clans (musically strong but peripheral to the story), Siegfried’s meeting with the Rhinemaidens, and many others. The intention was to preserve the narrative thread at all costs rather than to ensure the survival of a string of musical greatest hits, and while I mourn the loss of some much loved passages, I have to accept that Joyeux achieved this overall goal.

Many highlights remained. My own favourite, probably idiosyncratically, was the dying Fafner, changed from dragon to his original giant form, telling Siegfried the story of what has happened. Christian Hübner sung elegiacally, with true nobility and strength, contrasting with Fafner's noisy bluster when in dragon form.

But an even more remarkable piece of shape-shifting came from Daniel Brenna. The peerless hero Siegmund of yesterday was turned into the delinquent teenager Siegfried with aplomb, his entire demeanour transformed and his voice lighter and clearer. Very few tenors attempt both roles at all (I have heard one excellent Siegmund declare that he will definitely never sing Siegfried in his career); to pull off both roles in a week-end is extraordinary. The awakening and love scene in which Brenna’s Siegfried rouses Sabine Hogrefe’s sleeping Brünnhilde was sublime, Siegfried’s initial terror and gawkiness giving way to pure beauty in the blending of the two voices.

Brenna’s singing was equally fine in the long first act which (in this production) he shares only with Mime, and Florian Simson once more sang a fine Mime. The highlight was the sword forging scene, which Brenna sang with immense power and which the orchestra played to perfection, although here in particular, I remained unconvinced by Laurent Joyeux’s staging, with its overarching concept of the book. The manifestation of this was that rather than being at a forge, Siegfried is at a writing desk, presumably writing the tale of how the sword was forged: however interesting this may have been conceptually, it made for a scene whose staging was almost completely static while set against some of Wagner’s most thrilling and dynamic music. Other areas of the staging worked well, such as the massive white paper-based edifice of Brünnhilde's rock. A simple but effective device was the portrayal of the ring itself as an arm ring rather than a finger ring, which was authentically Nordic while avoiding the frequent problem of the audience not really being able to see the ring or what’s happening to it. The woodbird became a flock of woodbirds sung by members of a children's choir - a nice touch.

Christian Hübner was back demonstrating his versatility as Hagen in Götterdämmerung, completing a marathon effort of one role in each opera (Fafner, Hunding, Fafner again and Hagen). Hübner is a giant of a man whose physique is more suited to the giant Fafner than the dwarf-born Hagen, but both vocally and in acting, he proved a credible evil scheming genius. The story focused on the dramatic events within the Gibichung palace and at the scene of Siegfried’s death, with the only extraneous scene remaining being the duet between Brünnhilde and Waltraute, sung well by Manuela Bress (yesterday’s Fricka). As a whole, I found this Götterdämmerung less interesting musically than the three operas preceding it, but well acted and a compelling piece of drama. And in the end, Siegfried’s funeral march and Sabine Hogrefe’s singing of Brünnhilde’s immolation came through with as much potency as I might have wished for. The ending followed the directorial “book” concept: rather than being returned to the Rhinemaidens, the ring was returned to the book whence it came, in the hands of a young child. It was an elegant ending, albeit one that will have disappointed anyone expecting to see castles going up in spectacular flames at the end of the world.

Without question, to those of us who know the whole piece, Götterdämmerung suffered badly from the cuts. But we weren’t the target: Joyeux aimed this production not at experienced Wagnerians but as a way of attracting people new to his operas. Joyeux feels that it would not have been possible to persuade opera novices to buy tickets for four evenings worth of cycle and that the storytelling aspect of the Ring had to be preserved at all costs. I find his logic hard to fault, and the facts speak for themselves: with tickets for young people priced at €20 for the cycle, nearly a third of the tickets so far have been sold to people from the Dijon area coming to the opera for the first time.

But the last word in this cycle has to belong to Daniel Kawka and the “Richard Wagner European Orchestra”, who sounded fantastic throughout all four operas, giving both newcomers and veterans the full Wagnerian experience: heavy with brass, lushly textured, constantly propelling and propelled by the narrative. Remarkably, this was a scratch orchestra put together in just four months as a result of the intended orchestra having cancelled – a heroic feat indeed.