Valery Gergiev is famously one of the busiest conductors in the world. Such a hectic work schedule must sometimes take its toll on one’s physical health but, as one would expect, the Russian conductor is not someone who easily gives up or cancels commitments. Conducting Act III of Die Walküre on Friday night at the Concertgebouw, he was seriously limping and visibly in pain, but the only concession he made was to enter the stage from a side entrance rather than descend the infamously steep red-carpeted stairs of the Main Hall.

Christine Goerke © Pierre Gautreau Photography
Christine Goerke
© Pierre Gautreau Photography

Such unconditional dedication is admirable, and any criticism is now going to feel like nit-picking. Don’t get me wrong: it was a first-rate performance. It is just that, in view of recent excursions by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra into the Wagner opera repertoire, expectations were staggeringly high. Mr Gergiev himself has conducted the orchestra in unforgettable performances in the past, most recently last season in a program including Shostakovich and orchestral Wagner excerpts. Here, the maestro came short of taking the orchestra to the miraculous Wagnerian heights which we have heard from Andris Nelsons’ tempestuous Der fliegende Holländer in 2013 or Mark Elder’s inspired Lohengrin last season.

A miracle did occur however and, this time, it came from the singers. The performance boasted a fine team of eight Valkyries with powerful and nicely contrasted voices, but ultimately it was the three principals who lifted the whole evening to the Valhalla of music. Sieglinde only gets a few minutes to sing in Act III, but Tamara Wilson, a luxurious casting choice for such a short part, certainly made a lasting impression. Her cry “O hehrstes Wunder” (Oh sublime wonder), as Sieglinde receives Siegmund’s sword from Brünnhilde before fleeing to shelter, sung with beautiful tone, raised the roof of the hall. The latest recipient of  the Richard Tucker Prize, Ms Wilson is building a reputation mainly based on Verdian repertoire and this was, I believe, her first incursion into the role of Sieglinde. She proved she is not going to let herself be pigeon-holed and this short performance really made one long for more.

Michael Volle’s Wotan had the audience riveted to their seats. Listening to his bronze baritone develop from his initial wrath against his disobedient daughter to his tender farewell as he induces the magical sleep that will hold her captive, was awe-inspiring. It was clear that, behind the stentorian declamation of this mighty god, the cruel punishment he was describing to his “lachende Lust meines Auges” (“the smiling delight of my eyes”) was leaving the father internally torn. I was sitting too far in the audience to see if Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde’s tears were real or simply acted as Wotan was bidding her his final farewell. Mine were real.

As Brünnhilde, this summit of the dramatic soprano repertoire, Christine Goerke gave a truly exhilarating performance. Her voice sounded totally free from a lush low register to a bright and powerful top and carried easily above the orchestra in the 2000-seat concert hall. Her singing was poignant in portraying the disbelief of the young woman in front of the punishment imposed on her by a father she adores. Her Brünnhilde was also movingly human, facing her father at times with steely righteousness, as a stubborn teenage daughter would do. Ms Goerke hardly glanced at her score and her formidable singing was enhanced by buoyant acting, her gestural and facial expressions turning this concert performance into an intense theatrical experience. This was far too strong a competition for the projected animation film by Dutch graphic artist Tjarko van der Pol that faded into oblivion after the first ten entertaining minutes.