It was an upside-down kind of Rheingold, a topsy-turvy experience fom the outset as the three Rhinemaidens (effortlessly sung and harmonised by Sofia Fomina, Rowan Hellier and Lucie Špicková) looked down from high in the Royal Festival Hall’s choir seats while Robert Hayward’s Alberich peered up from the players’ platform. Something’s amiss when a river runs ten feet higher than its banks.

Lucie Spickova, Rowan Hellier and Sofia Fomina © Simon Jay Price
Lucie Spickova, Rowan Hellier and Sofia Fomina
© Simon Jay Price

You might reasonably consider that to be an obtusely literal observation. This was a concert performance after all, not a theatrical account of Wagner’s prologue to Der Ring des Nibelungen, so why mention it? Because it was a distraction, and the first of several peripheral ticks around a performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra that was itself executed symphonically by Vladimir Jurowski.

The next thing was a space oddity. Jurowski’s soloists sang from behind the orchestra, so the dynamic impact that Opera North achieved two years ago in its peerless semi-staging of the Ring was mitigated by distance. Were the singers audible? Yes. Did they jangle the nerve-ends? Sadly not. Only tenor Adrian Thompson, who was outstanding in Mime’s one brief appearance, managed to create the illusion of immediacy; everyone else needed to be brought forward. Vsevolod Grivnov was a sprightly, engaged Loge but he struggled more than most of his colleagues to project the text across the orchestral canyons.

Matthias Goerne and Michelle DeYoung © Simon Jay Price
Matthias Goerne and Michelle DeYoung
© Simon Jay Price

Finally in the inverted order of things we arrive at Matthias Goerne. This chance to hear the great German baritone as Wotan was the concert’s biggest draw; after all, his performance in Jaap van Zweden’s Hong Kong Ring is one of that cycle’s glories. In fine voice at 50, this is repertoire that he should be lapping up. Yet he still doesn’t know the role. For the second time in my experience (the first was a performance of Britten’s War Requiem some years back) Goerne buried his head in the score and went through the vocal motions. Of Wotan the god there was scarcely a sign; all he left was a trail of notes. Amusing though it was to watch a retinue of music-stand-shifters service his needs, the embarrassment of seeing Goerne alone have recourse to a score must have miffed his colleagues, several of whom – unlike him – were making their role debuts, and not in their own language.

One of these was Hayward, another experienced Wotan but here a formidably twisted Alberich. His vocal skills were placed at the service of the opera and his character’s place within it, and he was unafraid to ‘go ugly’ when need be. It was the performance of the night, closely followed by the Fafner and Fasolt of two bass giants, Brindley Sherratt and Matthew Rose, whose accounts were cleverly differentiated – the one insidious and calculating, the other bluff and humane – and both wonderfully sung. Allan Clayton and Stephen Gadd also made first-rate contributions as Froh and Donner respectively.

The LPO percussion © Simon Jay Price
The LPO percussion
© Simon Jay Price

Anna Larsson’s Erda rose from the earth and sang with an even beauty of tone but insufficient mystery; Lyubov Petrova did what she could with Freia, a character to whom things happen rather than doing much herself, and Michelle DeYoung, Goerne’s fellow veteran from the Hong Kong cycle, inhabited a fervent, troubled Fricka, albeit with more of the curious vowel sounds that appear to have become her shtick.

No director is named to take responsibility for the visual mish-mash, although the American Ted Huffman is coyly credited as ‘consultant’, which may mean any number of things. As for Jurowski, he sought to render the score as stylishly as possible with his Glyndebourne-seasoned LPO, but this approach came at the expense of dramatic power. His was an exquisite traversal of Wagner’s orchestrations, but never a thing of flesh and blood.