Might it not be regarded as something of a compliment to the world of opera that concert billings now increasingly include arias, the oft-reviled “bleeding chunks”, complete acts and indeed entire works presented as semi-staged events? After all, apart from inserting the Leonora no. 3 overture into the fabric of Fidelio (from the pen of the same composer!), there are very few instances of the reverse process.

Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann © Matthias Creutziger
Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann
© Matthias Creutziger

Be that as it may, there is surely a case for performing an entire operatic act when, as in the case of the first act of Die Walküre, the gripping drama of the narrative is underpinned by music that radiates atmosphere, electricity and sensuality. However, annoying the Wagnerian gods is never a good idea, especially if you are a mere mortal, and what was initially announced as an enticing palate-cleanser placed between the story of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the later death of Siegfried – Sofia Gubaidulina’s newly commissioned Der Zorn Gottes (The Wrath of God) – had to be abandoned because of the composer’s unfortunate illness.

Instead we had a few more bleeding chunks from Götterdämmerung, so that the growing passion in Die Walküre between the twin siblings who spring from Wotan’s encounter with a mortal woman led pretty rapidly to the death not only of the hero they ended up procreating – from zero to hero and back again in a few easy stages, so to speak – but also of Wotan’s favourite daughter.

There are few purely orchestral storms as thrilling as the one that opens Die Walküre. Nonetheless, Christian Thielemann conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden (half of whom regularly play in the Bayreuth Festival season) was focused less on the ferocity of sound that can be unleashed than on a sense of unease that ripples through those opening string figurations, leaving no doubt that this greatest of all music dramas is going to end very badly for all the protagonists. With Thielemann you are always made aware of how the sound is grounded on a strong bass line supporting the individual strands of the orchestral fabric. It helps if you have at your disposal a string section that is as warm and supple as those of the Dresden orchestra, moving like a cheetah across the veldt, and cellos and basses that bask in the sheen of a mahogany-like richness. You might have expected a Germanic heaviness to inform the playing; what was on show was a surprising translucency of the textures and, aided no doubt by the crystalline acoustics in the Elbphilharmonie, a chamber-like delicacy at anything below mezzo-forte. I was struck as never before by the debt that Debussy felt he owed to Wagner: time and again Thielemann demonstrated the principle of musical pointillism. Yet when it mattered, as in the orgiastic climax which ends the first act, he was there with his big stick – power with responsibility. Experienced operatic conductors always know when to go for the jugular.

But if the quality of the orchestra counts, so do the singers. Stephen Gould, latterly a Siegfried in Dresden, has recently commented  on the almost impossible demands that Wagner makes on his heroic tenors. “If you sing Siegfried at 28, you’ll never be able to sing him at 40,” he said. The same might almost be said of Siegmund. If you look the part, the chances are you lack the experience to carry off the role convincingly; once the maturity is there, one cannot quite believe in the still raging hormones of a twenty-something. Gould had the voice to scale all the heights as he withdrew the sword Nothung from the world ash-tree, but also lyrical tenderness in his exchanges with Sieglinde. Georg Zeppenfeld, a notable Sarastro at Covent Garden, sang Hunding with a spine-chilling blackness of tone that made him Iago’s comrade-in-arms.

Staatskapelle Dresden, Anja Kampe, Christian Thielemann, Stephen Gould, Georg Zeppenfeld © Matthias Creutziger
Staatskapelle Dresden, Anja Kampe, Christian Thielemann, Stephen Gould, Georg Zeppenfeld
© Matthias Creutziger

The star of the evening was unquestionably Anja Kampe (who is Brünnhilde at this year’s Salzburg Easter Festival). As both Sieglinde, and Brünnhilde in the latter’s Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung, she displayed a remarkable evenness throughout her registers. There were impressive chest tones to savour as she exposed first the darkness of her relationship with Hunding and later when recalling Siegfried’s unintentional treachery towards her. She had the steely sharpness to cut through the orchestral textures but also the lambency to voice the vulnerability of a deeply wronged woman.

Would that it had been all plain sailing. Whereas Thielemann had the first act of Die Walküre done and dusted in a mere sixty minutes, the four extracts from Götterdämmerung suffered from overly expansive tempi, with the Funeral March subjected to agogic distortions. When the big stick was wielded – and Thielemann has that and an iron fist tucked away in reserve – the sound had nowhere to go in the restricting acoustics, leaving a sense of unwelcome raucousness.