A tenor and a baritone (or, in this case, a bass) vie melodiously for possession of the girl. It’s not exactly Wagner’s greatest piece of operatic innovation, but with the tenor and bass in question being Stuart Skelton and Ain Anger, the first act of Die Walküre was sheer bel canto bliss. And yes, I do mean bel canto. As Skelton paced the stage in suitably lupine fashion, what rang out was a truly beautiful voice which remained lovely through anguish and fury, tenderness and passion. Skelton’s long overdue Royal Opera debut has been eagerly anticipated, and not without reason: this was accomplished with panache.

Stuart Skelton (Siegmund) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Stuart Skelton (Siegmund)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

But in his contrasting way, Ain Anger was just as thrilling. The way Anger sings him, Hunding isn’t a churlish oaf to set against the heroic Siegmund: this is a hard man who is sure of his cause and will not give quarter. This was an immense piece of bass singing, Anger summoning up immense richness and depth or switching to the precision of cold steel. As Sieglinde, Emily Magee didn’t quite match the vocal prowess of two such virtuosic suitors, but solidity throughout her range and an utter commitment to her character made its contribution to a riveting first act.

Ain Anger (Hunding) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Ain Anger (Hunding)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

From Act 2 onwards, Wagner does innovate: the opera is a series of confrontations, each presented in a fascinating way: Wotan and Fricka, Brünnhilde and Siegmund, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde, Brünnhilde and Wotan. Whatever ailment troubled John Lundgren in Monday’s Rheingold seemed almost entirely behind us; his voice had nuance, clarity of diction and, most importantly, authority. I don’t think one could ask for a pair of antagonists more imperious than Lundgren’s Wotan and Dame Sarah Connolly’s Fricka: the ebb and flow of the power struggle between them was as dramatically convincing as it was musically thrilling.

It’s hard to find new words for Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde. Suffice to say that the beauty of her timbre, her phenomenal understanding of how the music fits around the text and her sheer vocal stamina were in every way up to our most exalted expectations. But I’ll focus on one thing: her transition from carefree warrior maiden to tragic heroine. With the greatest respect, it’s a long time since Stemme was a footloose teenager, but you wouldn’t have known it from the early part of Act 2, with her skipping body language full of joie de vivre. As a result, the moment where Siegmund refuses to come to Valhalla if Sieglinde isn’t going to be with him, at which point Brünnhilde realises for the first time the meaning of mortal love, was all the more spellbinding. Her final duet with Wotan was equally convincing in a power struggle of a very different kind, a contest between tenderness and fate (at least as Wotan perceives it). The final farewell was overpoweringly poignant.

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The Ride of the Valkyries may be the most famous scene in Walküre, but it’s the one that plays the least part in the dramatic backbone of the piece. Still, it gave the chance for Pappano and his orchestra to let rip and for some spirited singing from our octet of Valkyries. However, their execution of the choreography, with its turns and lifts of horse skulls, was less than perfectly coordinated, and in general, Keith Warner’s staging of the scene has not worn well: the video effects look dated, the assembly of dead heroes from bloody body parts looks merely odd, and the Valkyries’ costumes are more Macbeth witch than warrior maiden.

Various elements of continuity in the staging are becoming discernible. The red rope of fate and the wolf costumes of the Wälsungs return prominently from Monday’s Rheingold, as does the steel spiral around the stage which blends into tree roots at the bottom – some conflation of Yggdrasil and Níðhöggr, Norse mythology’s world ash tree and the serpent that gnaws at its roots. An enlarged version of the nacelle and propeller from Rheingold’s aeroplane puts in an appearance as ceiling fan on the end of the red rope: perhaps industrial power is now driving fate. But Warner’s overall intent remains obscure.

The Magic Fire © ROH | Bill Cooper
The Magic Fire
© ROH | Bill Cooper

But one thing remained a constant between these two evenings: the quality of the orchestral performance. From the very first notes, we knew we were in safe hands, with the pounding, driving cellos and basses and the soaring brass as Siegmund flees through the storm. From then on, it just kept getting better, the pace maintained and the full palette of orchestral colours shining brightly: however great the curtain call cheers were for Skelton and Stemme, the ones for Pappano were louder. With vocal performances at the very highest level, this was a Walküre to remember.

*****