On the hottest day of the year a packed Royal Albert Hall sweltered in the heat as Proms' history was made when maestro Daniel Barenboim raised his baton to usher in the sonorous E flat on the double basses which signals the beginning of the greatest operatic adventure of all time; Wagner's epic Ring Cycle, here being performed in its entirety for the first time at the BBC Proms.
Barenboim has been associated with The Ring since the late ‘80s when he conducted cycles at Bayreuth for the first time, but remarkably this was the first time that he'd ever conducted a complete Wagner opera in London, and despite a few quibbles here and there the results were revelatory.
He brought his Berlin orchestra with him - the Staatskapelle Berlin (making its belated debut at the Proms) - who are well versed in this music, having played complete Cycles under Barenboim in Berlin before decamping to London for the week. Their playing was exemplary, and given that Das Rheingold (the preliminary evening) is written in an unbroken span of two and half hours, their concentration never flagged despite the oppressiveness of conditions in the hall.
Playing from all sections was faultless – velvety strings, pungent brass and plangent woodwind all played their part in creating a sensuous aural tapestry, breathtaking at full throttle and mesmerising in the more introverted passages. Barenboim certainly knows this music inside out, but at times I found his pacing too leisurely and the brass section nearly came a cropper on the ascent back out of Nibelheim as he failed to give them their cue – but maybe I'm nitpicking. This was music making of the highest order and whetted the appetite for the remainder of the Cycle.
Overall the singing wasn't on the same level. Nevertheless there were enough performances which gave pleasure. I warmed to Iain Paterson's forthright Wotan more than others. This young British baritone has been making his mark in Wagnerian roles over the last couple of years, and this was his first attempt at Wotan, and a mighty impressive one it was at that. True, he could do with a bit more weight at the bottom, but the upper reaches of the role held no terrors for him and he grew in stature as the evening progressed – he clearly has the makings of a great Wotan.
Ekaterina Gubanova sang with uncommon beauty of tone as Fricka whilst Anna Larson was an imposing Erda, delivering her warnings from the organ loft. Stephan Milling and Eric Halfvarson were an imposing pair of giants, and there was a harmonious trio of Rhinemaidens. As Alberich Johannes Martin Kränzle could have done with a bit more bite and venom, whilst Stephan Rügamer as Loge nicely avoided caricature and sang the role rather than barked it.
All in all then, an impressive start to this year's bicentenary Ring Cycle at the Proms.