I'm not of the Wagner persuasion who travel the world seeing Ring Cycles, but it does, I suspect, take some special kind of madness to sign up to stand for a Ring Cycle, and in concert at that. After Das Rheingold I can confirm that so far it has been worth doing, but I do have some reservations.
In terms of orchestral sound this has to have been one of the most beautiful Wagner performances I've ever been fortunate enough to hear. The Staatskapelle Berlin had marvellous richness in all departments. Barenboim's tempi, which we'll come back to, were clearly designed (at least to my ear) to accentuate space and beauty and there are places where this pays major dividends. I can't recall Froh's evocation of the rainbow bridge ever being delivered so clearly and beautifully.
In terms of the line up of singers the casting was very strong. Iain Paterson was making his role debut as Wotan. He doesn't perhaps quite yet have the commanding vocal heft of the best, but it was a very creditable debut, he was always clear and audible, had good stage presence, and delivered the naming of Valhalla at the end with real punch. I hope he won't rush his development in the role as too many singers seem to do to their vocal detriment. He was superbly partnered by Ekaterina Gubanova's Fricka. I have always had a soft spot for the Fricka of Die Walkure, finding her confrontation with Wotan in Act Two one of the highlights of that work, but I don't previously recall the Fricka of Rheingold making much impression on me. My recollection of the beginning of Scene 2 is that I'm usually glad when the Giants arrive and things really get moving, not so here. Gubanova brought real character to her angry exchanges with Paterson over the price to be paid for Valhalla – this was one case in the evening where one was not conscious of Wagnerian talk slowing things up. I also very much enjoyed Johannes Martin Kranzle's Alberich (he previously impressed me as Beckmesser at Glyndebourne). Just occasionally he got a little swamped by the orchestra, but the characterization really came across and his curse on the ring was powerfully done. My only slight disappointment among the major roles was Stephan Rugamer's Loge. Where I was in the Arena I found his voice too light – and for me there was a lack of character to his vocal performance. Whether it was him or Barenboim's tempi places where the talk was mostly his (the search for a substitute for Freia and particularly the lead in to the Gods grown old) really seemed to drag – not something I recall happening on other occasions.
The minor roles were all well taken. Stephen Milling (Fasolt) and Eric Halfvarson (Fafner) made a nicely contrasted pair of giants – the former bringing out that very human longing for Freia which good directors also pick up on. The Rhinemaidens were a well matched trio (and looked genuinely seductive for once). Jan Buchwald was a solid Donner. Anna Larsson's Erda lacked a little warmth to my ear, but I think was helped neither by being positioned by the organ, nor by Barenboim's tempi which again were too slow here.
And this brings us back to the one problem I had with this performance. Overall I think there were just too many places where Barenboim was too slow, and sacrificed drama to beauty and space. If I had to come up with one word to explain what I thought was insufficiently present I would say inexorability. This applies in two ways. First, those places where things simply seemed to grind to a halt (the sequence leading to the Gods grown old) or to be too slow for real dramatic punch (Erda's intervention). Second, the places where crescendos needed to be louder, and orchestral attack more savage – the most noticeable example here was the descent into Nibelheim. The curiousity about this second point is there were places where Barenboim had savagery and attack – Alberich's curse in particular – or really loud sound – the final Entry of the Gods into Valhalla. But these aren't the only places in this opera, in my view, that need those things.
So after opera number one I'm glad to be doing this Ring. Standing for performances like this, as close as you are to the singers for that price is a unique privilege, and there was much to admire both musically and in characterization (despite this being a concert performance). But Barenboim's tempi did prevent me from being overwhelmed, and I do have some qualms as to how they will work in other places (for example the opening of Act Three of Siegfried) where inexorability is vital.