Concert performances of opera are seen by some as distinctly second best, short-changed from the real deal in the opera house. For music programmers there are many positives, here allowing the Edinburgh International Festival to mount its second instalment of the Ring, Die Walküre with a hand-picked international cast of singers for one night only. For audiences, stripping away scenery, costumes and lighting allows us to concentrate on the music, and to get the rare chance to actually watch an orchestra tackle Wagner’s epic, thrilling score. The combination of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis and a top cast of big-voiced Wagnerians singing from memory had the whole Usher Hall audience on its feet roaring like a football crowd at the end. A great Edinburgh night. I genuinely don’t remember seeing anything quite like it.

Simon O'Neill and the RSNO © Beth Chalmers
Simon O'Neill and the RSNO
© Beth Chalmers

The Festival celebrates its 70th birthday this year, and in a radio interview this week, a veteran EIF concert-goer said that you just know from the first bars when something is going to be special. The RSNO players, with brass spilling up onto the organ gallery steps, approached the music with infectious zeal, surely a first Walküre for many, the orchestra only rarely playing whole operas. Davis lit the touch paper, unleashing instant drama as the cellos stormed and rampaged through the famous opening, the strings biting savagely into the tremolos. Simon O'Neill’s Siegmund and Amber Wagner’s Sieglinde were perfectly matched as the incestuous twins, O’Neill’s big, bright, silvery tenor and Wagner’s rich, warm soprano both rising effortlessly above the orchestra. Davis, rather than packing out the platform wall to wall with strings, sensibly chose to keep numbers tight, avoiding overwhelming the singers and making for some really exciting playing. It is the strings that tell us that Sieglinde recognises her long lost brother, but they circle each other with riddles and stories, just about to touch fingertips when Hunding’s sinister theme crashes in.

Matthew Rose’s sinister, brooding bass added menace to the mysteriousness of the unarmed stranger as he tricked Siegmund into betraying that he is the enemy. The storytelling was superb, the final release of the magic sword and the elopement of the incestuous lovers into the emerging spring an electrifying climax.

Fricka’s stormy chariot music set the tone of her tirade at Wotan, enumerating his long list of infidelities and explaining exactly why he cannot support Siegmund. Taking Wotan in hand needs a commanding presence and Karen Cargill has developed into a terrific Wagnerian, giving a truly magnificent performance, her powerful mezzo raging against the incestuous twins, springing the trap that sets Wotan on his downfall. Sir Bryn Terfel’s Wotan, a hint of greyness to the voice adding a subtle, careworn quality, was a mixture of tenderness, breaking the news to Brűnnhilde that she can no longer allow Siegmund to win his fight against Hunding, and downright rage finding that she has disobeyed him. Christine Goerke's Brünnhilde was perhaps a little lighter than her voluble companions, but was nevertheless very finely sung, with clear narrative. She rose magnificently to the climaxes, her scene with Siegmund a highlight, the orchestra in passionate accompaniment.

Sir Bryn Terfel in rehearsal © Beth Chalmers
Sir Bryn Terfel in rehearsal
© Beth Chalmers

Davis used a conductor’s stool for the first two acts, but was on his feet throughout Act 3. The loud chorus of Valkyries, each one a fine Wagnerian, shrieked their post battle greetings, turning to shock as Brünnhilde arrived on her horse, not with a warrior soul but with a woman. Terfel changed his tone from warmly compassionate to stentorian fury as the orchestra raged, Wagner tubas set aside to give a robust rank of nine horns. Brünnhilde's lengthy bargaining with Terfel’s Wotan was astonishing, proving that scenery is not always required with feelings conveyed by stolen glances with both characters almost walking out.  Wotan’s farewell was agonisingly heart-rending as Terfel and Goerke embraced for a final time, leaving Wotan, a broken god, to summon Loge’s fire to surround Brünnhilde on the mountain top, the six harps kindling the blaze.

The RSNO under Davis was on stupendous form, from softly compassionate with beautiful cor anglais and cello solos to tension building, relishing the leitmotifs as they came along.  Davis kept dynamics well under control, so that when the big moments came along they had a huge impact, the players clearly enjoying the performance immensely.

Last year, the Mariinsky and Gergiev built Valhalla, and now the RSNO and Davis have put Brünnhilde to sleep atop the mountain. Like most in the Usher Hall, I can’t wait for EIF to reveal who will be in the driving seat to see Siegfried breaking through the ring of fire.