For any music group worth its salt, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is a coveted calling card. Including it in the repertoire is a sign of maturity and self-confidence. Raising the bar for the Hong Kong Philharmonic in its 41st year of professional life, music director Jaap van Zweden leads the orchestra to present one opera from the Ring every year to 2018, starting with Das Rheingold this year. Not only does this arrangement make it less of a strain on the orchestra, it also breaks Wagner’s über-masterwork into bite sizes more palatable for the hectic schedule of Hong Kong audiences with a short attention span.

Matthias Goerne © Marco Borggreve | Harmonia mundi
Matthias Goerne
© Marco Borggreve | Harmonia mundi

By Wagner’s own admission, Das Rheingold is a prequel to the trilogy that traces the lineage and life of Siegfried in the Ring Cycle. He wrote the libretti of the four works in reverse chronological order, with Das Rheingold being the last to be finished. It sets up the background to the origin of the gold ring that wreaks havoc among deities and mortals alike.  Alberich, the brutish slave-driver of the Niebelheim underworld of dwarfs, steals the horde of gold from three Rhinemaidens and forges a gold ring with which he expects to dominate the world. Wotan, the god of all gods, commissions a palace to be built by two giants, Fafner and Fasolt, and promises to pay for the work with his sister-in-law Freia. Pressured by his wife Fricka to change his mind, he tricks Alberich into giving up the ring and the gold with the help of Loge, god of fire, whereupon Alberich places a curse on the ring. The curse strikes the giant brothers when they trade Freia for the gold and the ring; consumed by greed, Fafner kills Fasolt, as the gods cross the rainbow bridge to their new home – the newly built palace Wotan calls Valhalla.

For the performance on Saturday Maestro van Zweden assembled a cast of international singers to lend a hand to the first in his quadrennial presentation of the Ring. It’s a testament to the position of the Hong Kong Philharmonic in the pecking order of world orchestras that baritone Matthias Goerne chose this occasion to make his debut as Wotan. Surprisingly, he didn’t steal the limelight despite giving his all to the role. With his head bowed for a good part of the evening, his delivery was contrived and lacking in reckless abandon. Peter Sidhom’s Alberich, by contrast, was detestably evil, helped by suitable outbursts that reinforced his psychotic panache for oppression. David Cangelosi, as his much victimised brother Mime, was a good sport and sparring partner.

A veteran in the role of Loge, the manipulative and cunning demigod of fire with a chip on his shoulder, Kim Begley was agile and full of verve. Although the role of Fricka give Michelle DeYoung little room to show her mettle, she didn’t quite seize the moment as Wotan’s frustrated wife. Deborah Humble as Erda was earthly enough in dishing out her wisdom to Wotan; and Anna Samuil's Freia was quite helpless as a pawn among Wotan and the giants.

Between the giants, Kwangchul Youn as Fasolt was more solid and credible than Stephen Milling’s Fafner. Among the Rhinemaidens, Aurhelia Varak as Wellgunde was a powerhouse in full throttle, while Hermine Haselböck’s Flosshilde was nimble and delightful despite her gatekeeper role, but Eri Nakamura’s Woglinde was a little flaky at times. Charles Reid shone with stylish refinement as Froh, the god of light desperately trying to be helpful, and Oleksandr Pushniak was a thunderous antithesis to the giants.

Maestro van Zweden didn’t spare any effort in staying faithful to Wagner’s requirements for the orchestra, mustering up six harps, a full complement of anvils off-stage, the bass trumpet and the Wagner tuba. Ever energetic and precise, he nevertheless missed good opportunities to tease out more details of orchestral texture to exploit the potential of Wagner’s finely honed score.

Shorn of elaborate staging, colourful costumes and dazzling lighting, the Hong Kong Philharmonic had few materials to work with in realising Wagner’s conception of total theatre, but a combination of earnest singing and dramatic insight nevertheless made it a remarkable evening. I can’t wait to see the next instalment this time next year.