Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic continued their musical journey of the Ring for the second evening, with a superb reading of the score that was sweeping, organic and yet at times finely detailed. With some memorable singing by the international cast, the evening simply flew by and left the audience both exhausted and jubilant.

There was no moment of awkward pacing that was sometimes present in Das Rheingold the previous evening. When the music slowed, as in Act I's Siegmund/Sieglinde duet, the Annunciation of Death in Act II, and in Brünnhilde’s Act III plea to Wotan, the quiet and deliberate slowdown was most appropriate to bring out the intimate connection of the music and the text. Wotan’s farewell was also taken at a luxurious tempo, with the superb Wotan of Tomasz Konieczny rising to the challenge; he sustained the last note with his arms fully extended to the side as if to savor the moment himself. 

Despite these isolated quiet moments, the overall performance was energetic and fast paced, especially the prelude to the second and third acts. Sir Simon focused again on the strings, especially the cello, whose sound was more prominent than ever. While the winds, brass and percussion sections all contributed exquisitely to the overall performance, the strings players worked the hardest, with some of them almost leaning out of their seats in their forward motion. They were also having a time of their life, responding to the challenge posed by a demanding maestro. The third act was often at a breakneck speed and volume, but Sir Simon was also mindful of the need of individual singers. And the singers met the maestro’s demand splendidly. 

Martina Serafin brought her warm and rich soprano to express many facets of Sieglinde’s emotional turmoil. Her high notes were a natural extension of her middle voice, with no swooping or register breaking, and just bloomed effortlessly. Christopher Ventris may not be a strapping young Siegmund but he had maturity, wisdom and solid technique to portray a sympathetic character. His fine grained voice was most pleasing in the lower register, but he also rose to the challenge of “Winterstürme” and the Act I ending. Serafin and Ventris were both fine actors, and displayed good chemistry as they discovered their mutual attraction. Mikhail Petrenko as Hunding, with somewhat light bass baritone, unfortunately lacked the darkness both in voice and character needed to bring off Hunding’s savagery.

Tomasz Konieczny’s Wotan continued to grow in voice and stature. A fine actor, he was able to modulate every note and phrase to express emotional nuances of the text. His interaction with Fricka, the wife he no longer loved, played out as a domestic power struggle, while his scene with his soulmate Brünnhilde was heartbreaking. I will not soon forget the numerous shadings and colors he brought to Wotan’s farewell. Michaela Schuster played Fricka not so much as a nagging wife but as a defender of principles of law. Her solid and penetrating voice was most appropriate to the character, and her understated acting was effective. The eight valkyries all sang well individually and in ensemble. 

The role of Brünnhilde is central to the Ring; some may argue that she is the true hero who brings to a close what her father Wotan, another central character, initiated. Evelyn Herlitzius is a petite woman who nevertheless has a tireless stamina and voice. She is also a very fine actress and moves well. While she hit all the notes accurately and on pitch, she was a bit stretched at the end, and her monochromic sound might become more of a problem as the character of Brünnhilde evolves in the next two operas.

The production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf was more successful in Die Walküre than in the largely minimalistic Das Rheingold. Hunting’s hut had a tall pole/tree in the center of a long table. A wolf was projected at the opening, signaling the presence of the twin’s father. In the second act, the front stage held rows of backless benches that essentially created a maze for the characters to negotiate, while at the back of the stage there were trees to hide them as needed. The stage was mostly dark, with lighting selectively and effectively used to illuminate performers.

The third act was played in an empty hall with doors on the side with large statues of nine horses in the center. The valkyries entered, manhandling the heroes. Their costumes of white dress with black markings was awkward as a big fluffy skirt hampered the image of the warrior women. Brünnhilde wore a more stylish long blue gown. The final moments of the opera were memorable as Wotan and Brünnhilde walked towards the back of stage hand in hand, with Brünnhilde simply collapsing on the floor in her sleep. Wotan covered her with a large white cloth, and the projected fire first illuminated the horses, and then gradually spread to the entire three walls of the stage to the ceiling. Amid the red flames and the shadowy figures of Wotan and horses, the music gradually faded into silence.