You can summarise the plot of Die Walküre in three sentences: Siegmund and Sieglinde fall in love and elope; Fricka coerces Wotan into killing Siegmund; Wotan punishes Brünnhilde for trying to save him. But within that simple framework lies a vast gamut of human distress, striving, redemption - and, make no mistake, Wotan may be notionally a god, but Norse gods are made in man’s image: extensions of humanity rather than abstract spirits.

Martina Serafin as Sieglinde and Simon O’Neill as Siegmund © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Martina Serafin as Sieglinde and Simon O’Neill as Siegmund
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

In last night’s performance at the Met, Martina Serafin as Sieglinde and Simon O’Neill as Siegmund drew us completely into the process of two people falling into illicit love. Serafin was simply outstanding: her voice lustrous and strong, her acting completely credible. O’Neill took on the story-telling with drive and excitement, singing with immense lyricism - faltering only at the end of the act, when there was perhaps not enough left in the tank to make the most of the big “Siegmund heiss’ ich” moment. The Met orchestra sounded like a different orchestra from last night’s Rheingold, with rich, intense strings mixed with powerful brass and controlled woodwind. I know that fans of Tristan und Isolde will dispute this, but for me, Act I of Die Walküre is by far the most affecting depiction of love that Wagner ever wrote - and this performance was one to savour.

Act II of Die Walküre is about the destruction of feckless dreams. Mark Delavan proved an engaging and humorous Wotan, in carefree fashion at the start of the act, his voice darkening in mood as events progress. Katarina Dalayman was a sensational Brünnhilde, hitting all the vocal heights and adeptly playing the transition from happy-go-lucky warrior maiden to serious heroine: I was particularly affected by her scene with Siegmund in which she first understands the existence of love and how it can matter to someone more than anything else in this world or the next. Completing an extraordinary trio of female singers, Stephanie Blythe wasn’t called upon to do much acting - in Robert Lepage’s staging, she barely rises from her ram-drawn chariot - so everything was in the power of the voice as she inhabited the character of the harridan wife: dignified, morally 100% in the right, implacable and utterly loathsome to a straying husband.

Act III is about anger and its eventual redemption: Wotan has been feckless, he is frustrated and angry at the destruction of his plans, and Brünnhilde is the target of all that rage. The ride of the Valkyries was staged superbly (more about that in a moment); the following long scene between Wotan and Brünnhilde contains another helping of Wagner’s most emotional music and was sung quite beautifully. While Delavan’s acting was more to the fore in Act II than his singing, he really hit the heights at the close of the opera, leaving us with his tender farewell to Brünnhilde ringing in our ears. Dalayman’s voice was heart-melting.

In common with Das Rheingold last night and, I assume, with the rest of the cycle, Robert Lepage’s staging is based on a giant structure of aluminium beams which are constantly shape shifting to create different scenes and effects. Two of these were outstanding pieces of spectacle. The first came in the prelude to the opera: the beams were set vertically or near vertically and illuminated with trompe l’oeil video projections to create a snowy forest of giant tree trunks, through which we see Siegmund being chased. As the action starts, the trees move to transform into the giant ash at the centre of Hunding’s home, with the wooden structure that surrounds it. The second was the ride of the Valkyries, in which each Valkyrie is riding one of the beams, holding giant reins as the beam bucks and dips, then sliding down the beam to join her sisters on the stage. As an expression of the sheer thrill of fast motion, you couldn’t beat it.

Costumes were a big improvement on those in Das Rheingold. The slightly cheap feel of Wotan’s armour was replaced by something far more solid; the Valkyries’ costumes, in shaped chain mail, managed to be both feminine and warlike; Fricka’s voluminous blue creation was suitably regal. I’m at a loss to explain why, for two operas within the same cycle, the costumes should have been so superior in one to the other, just as the orchestral playing was so superior on this second evening.

Looking back at what I’ve just written, I’m struck by how little I feel the need to write about individual aspects of vocal prowess. I think that’s what Wagner wanted: the point of the Ring is to immerse the audience in the story and the emotions, so what matters most about the singers is not the precise technique showed in some particular phrase, but their ability to bring across the characterisation and the story. Measured by that yardstick, last night’s cast were excellent, blending with orchestra and staging to produce a true piece of unified theatrical art.