A festive air was palpable – the house was technically sold out – as the first of a set of three Ring cycles launched at the Wiener Staatsoper. Veteran Wagner conductor Peter Schneider led a focused and vibrant performance for the opening Das Rheingold, boding well for evenings to come. Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production, designed by Marianne and Rolf Glittenberg, reaches back to 2007. Spartan in its visual treatment, and mostly resistant to theatrical illusion, the production clears space for penetrating individual characterizations and interpersonal dynamics. That these aspects were only intermittently compelling on opening night makes one hopeful that the cast will quickly become more integrated.

Bechtolf presents Wotan and the rest of the gods as already strongly inclined toward indulgence and corruption as the story begins. Little is seemingly needed to tempt them, or even Alberich, along that path, so triggering impulses are given less emphasis than their tremendous aftershocks. Still, the resplendent trio of Rhinedaughters (Ileana Tonca, Stephanie Houtzeel, and Zoryana Kushpler) effectively alternated flirtatious and repelling behaviour in expressively winged gowns, while the use of physical vertical lifts thankfully indulged in a bit of stage machinery to enliven the stage action.

By contrast, the white, silver-accented world of the gods (reached via a dropped curtain) is utterly bloodless. Egils Silins was recently announced as Bryn Terfel's replacement for Wotan. He foregrounded the god's calculating mentality by making the most of conversational passages versus magisterial top-ended power. His strong stage presence cut a menacing figure from the outset. As Fricka, Mihoko Fujimura sounded authoritative yet glued her gaze on the conductor and her relationship to Wotan remained coolly undefined.

If much of the presentation is especially direct, the counterpoint lies in the realm behind the scrim at the back of the stage, where Valhalla is suggested in the vaguest of terms and the comings and goings of Freia (ably sung by Caroline Wenborne), the giants and gods are perceived through shadows. Norbert Ernst as Loge made a suitably slyer entry, and while a very pleasant if not gripping vocal presence, did much to energize the stage activity. A sense of depth or complexity in representation collapses when yet again the scene change is navigated with a closed curtain. But to great reward, Schneider and the Staatsoper Orchester stole the stage throughout much of the Nibelheim scene. Overall, Schneider was highly sensitive to matters of balance with singers, but here seized the opportunity to unleash the orchestra's full energy to thrilling effect. Seated above the woodwinds and horns, I gained a revelatory (if unbalanced) experience of the orchestral music. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's Mime was, for me, the most rewarding and nuanced vocal performance of the evening.

Dramatic intensity amongst the singers escalated substantially in the final scene, with Jochen Schmeckenbecher's solid Alberich commanding attention as he cautioned Wotan not to underestimate his influence. Loge, by this stage, is so embroiled in Wotan's quest that his disappearance in the next dramas seems almost inevitable. Ain Anger's impressive Fasolt succumbed swiftly to Sorin Coliban's Fasolt, after the foreboding appearance of Okka von der Damerau (Erda) unleashed a wash of welcome, powerful lyricism. Markus Eiche's Donner was suitably forthcoming and physically threatening, partnered with Thomas Ebenstein's Froh. Approaching the supposed climax, citron yellow lighting undercuts the sense that we will arrive at a glorious vision of a new world – rightly so – while the gods and Loge quit the stage before we hear the last cry of the Rhinedaughters. In this empty space, Fasolt's lone black, lifeless form reminds us of the precious human impulse to connect meaningfully with others... an apt springboard for Die Walküre.