“Welcome World” proclaims the bright yellow International Festival posters all over Edinburgh in distinctive scribbly font, unmissable in the warm evening sunshine. It seemed as is the world had indeed tried to squeeze into the Usher Hall, everyone keen to be in at the beginning of the Festival’s ambitious plan to stage Wagner’s Ring over the next years, each opera with different performers on the concert platform. Valery Gergiev and the considerable forces from the Mariinsky Opera got the cycle started with Das Rheingold.

Valery Gergiev © Valentin Baranovsky
Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky

The huge orchestra sprawled upwards to meet the audience in the organ gallery, the gong player only getting positioned with the audience all in. In an intriguing arrangement, the second violins changed places with the cellos and basses, with all the horns behind the violas. For the audience, the limitations of a concert performance (this one was not even semi-staged) is balanced by the thrill of seeing the players on the platform, normally well-hidden in the opera house for Wagner’s Ring. It is a tricky challenge to get the balance right, but the soloists at this performance were in big voice, arranged right across the front of the stage, singing out splendidly.

Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces know this work inside-out, and while the orchestra was workmanlike, dependable and authoritative, it was perhaps lacking in a hunger for discovery. There were plenty of exciting moments and beauty in the reflective passages, but even allowing for adjustment for balance in the concert hall, there was sometimes a lack of bite, particularly in the upper strings. It is a marathon for the players, and so pacing is critical – the cellos barely stopping for the continuous 2 hours 40 minutes. Gergiev conducts slightly stooped forwards and is economical in gesture – at several points I found myself silently urging him on to inject some more dynamism and up some of the tempos. In this performance, the voices provided the passion, using their scores for cursory reference only.

There is no getting away from the sheer thrill of this work. The famous E flat opening on double basses and horns emerged out of nothing, Gergiev raising his short baton and wiggling his fingers, slowly building the world and the Rhine into full flow. Zhanna Dombrovskaya, Yulia Matochkina and Ekaterina Sergeyeva were three playful Russian Rhinemaidens in vivid scarlet dresses, singing brightly as individuals and wonderfully blending together as they teased the dour Vladislav Sulimsky as Alberich mercilessly. Sulimsky was a study in scheming greed and dwarfish nastiness, gleefully renouncing all love for the gold and raging loudly as he is tricked into giving it up, with a curse that echoes down through the rest of the Ring operas. His bullying of Andrei Popov’s Mime was ruthless and fierce, leaving the superbly shifty-eyed Popov to spill the Nibelung secrets to Wotan and Loge – one would look forward to Popov’s performance in Siegfried.

Vitalij Kowaljow © Sussie Ahlburg
Vitalij Kowaljow
© Sussie Ahlburg

Vitalij Kowaljow sang Wotan heroically in a warm resonant bass, almost bemused at the happenings round him, trying to find a way to pay the Giants for building Valhalla while saving his sister-in-law Freia, keeper of the apples of youth, from their clutches. Tenor Mikhail Vekua was clearly born to sing Loge, a bright and mischievous master of ceremonies, smart enough to trick Alberich and to broker the deal between Wotan and the Giants, lumbering Yuri Vorobiev and Mikhail Petrenko in characterful performance, although it takes Anna Kidnadze, a powerfully gritty Erda, emerging at the back of the orchestra to proclaim a dark day for the Gods, yet pave the way to Valhalla. Vekua was clearly enjoying himself, rubbing his hands together in preparation for the Nieblung challenge, clearly seeing the whole picture and disdainfully glancing at Wotan.

Ekaterina Semenchuk’s burnished timbred Fricka, barely glancing at her music, was able to convincingly realise her role, throwing Wotan concerned looks and urging the men to rescue Freia, Oxana Shilova in lovely clear voice.   

Musically, Wagner is setting the scene in his introductory first evening, as the tunes go on to pepper and inform the rest of the cycle. The big set pieces did not disappoint: the first awakening of the Gold in the Rhine with its rich brassy leitmotif takes the breath away, the journey down to the Nibelung, the off-stage anvils and the large snake were vivid and exciting, as was the final entry of the once-again youthful Gods to their new kingdom across the rainbow bridge. As the singers took their bows, the cello leader shook hands with all his hard working players, together with the violas, the powerhouse of this performance. With Loge and Alberich taking the singing honours in a vocally strong cast, this was nevertheless a remarkable evening, leaving us wondering about the possibilities of Die Walküre to come.