It may be taking the Hallé longer to present its concert Ring cycle than it took the giants to construct Valhalla, but when the results speak so eloquently of the care, attention and respect lavished upon Wagner's masterwork by Sir Mark Elder and his orchestra, it would be churlish of us to complain. This one-off performance of Das Rheingold, which played to a full and enthusiastic audience, had the feel of a special occasion from the moment the double basses began to pick out the low E flat *Rhine* motif and the tension and narrative thrust - elusive qualities in this largely expository work - were seamlessly maintained over the following three hours. No easy feat, even for a seasoned Wagnerian like Elder, whose efforts were greatly facilitated by the contribution of stage director Iain Rutherford and a marvellous cast of singing actors.

The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder
The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder

Of the four Ring dramas, Rheingold is the one that gains most (and loses least) from a concert staging: even the Met, with its bottomless pit of private funding, cannot do justice to the outlandish special effects demanded by Wagner's stage directions. Better then allowing our own imaginative forces to conjure the specified ascents, descents, physical transformations and rainbow bridges while the drama in the orchestra – covering almost every cubic metre of the Bridgewater Hall stage – is strikingly visible to all. The things that in less experienced hands can make the Vorabend seem dry and unaffecting (mainly the fact that it's a lengthy piece of scene-setting) were embraced by Elder, whose refusal to sacrifice dramatic coherence to emphasie the 'big moments' indicated that he has total belief in the work.

That said, this concert staging did take some time to warm up and the comedy of the opening scene between Alberich and the three Rhinemaidens seemed self-conscious. Samuel Youn is already a celebrated interpreter of the malignant dwarf and he brought a powerful attack and sense of line to a role that can too easily degenerate into randomised barking, even if his German pronunciation wasn't always immaculate. Rheingold's Alberich is a very different character to the one we encounter late in the Ring and one of this drama's main strands is how he becomes what he is – from the horny little devil of the first scene to the crazed and dispossessed demon who delivers the curse. Youn had the measure of all these incarnations, happily pantomiming Alberich's transformations into a giant snake, then a toad and rising to an incandescent fury when cursing the ring. 

Iain Paterson © Maximilian Van London
Iain Paterson
© Maximilian Van London
Alberich's antipode, in status though hardly in outlook, was Iain Paterson's louche, dandified Wotan, who swaggered on with a loose bow-tie and an air of unthinking entitlement, a landed gentleman surveying his new country estate. Paterson lacked none of the requisite authority the role requires and has a penetrating voice of sufficient size to ride over all but the most overwhelming of Wagner's orchstral tuttis. He was well-matched with a Fricka who, in Susan Bickley's magnificently sympathetic performance, became a painfully neglected spouse rather than a scolding trophy wife. Add to this a pair of well-contrasted giants, the mellifluous Fasolt of Reinhard Hagen jarring with Clive Bayley's acidulous Fafner, both of them decked out in workmens' overalls, and we had a peerless cast, topped off by Will Hartmann's nattily pinstriped Loge, the nearest thing Rheingold has to a likeable character.  Hartmann's winning portrayal was very much the cheeky chappie, as dextrous vocally as in movement, and with a keen appreciation of the foibles of his fellow gods.

The simple but very effective staging told the story with a minum of props: two thrones set on either side of the vast stage to symbolise the emotional estrangment of Wotan and Fricka; and a golden cloth to signify the Nibelung hoard, which symbolically doubled as the weapon with which Fafner slew (strangled) Fasolt. Who needs a big production budget when the bare minimum will do?

By the time Wotan and Fricka crossed over the unseen rainbow bridge into their offstage Valhalla, there was a palpable sense of having shared in a great achievement. Roll on 2018, when we can expect the Hallé's Siegfried.