There's a powerfully symbolic moment at the close of the second act of the Royal Opera's Die Walküre, and it wasn't dreamed up by director Keith Warner. Bryn Terfel's Wotan runs through John Tomlinson's Hunding with his spear – and thus the new Wagnerian king at Covent Garden is seen, finally, to slay the old one.

Five years ago, when Terfel pulled out of singing Wotan in the complete Ring here at short notice, Tomlinson took on what for years had been his signature role, and saved the production. Now his veteran, inky-sounding Hunding is a masterclass in vocal technique and stagecraft, even on a stage that, in act two, resembles an obstacle course of leftover props.

With Brünnhilde's defiance of her father, however, Warner's staging turns in a rewarding new direction, away from the clutter and towards the abstract. The rotating, stage-filling white slab on the Valkyries' Rock, and Wotan holding the Magic Fire gently in his hand: these are unforgettable images.

Terfel continues to captivate, charting the unravelling of Wotan's tightly wound composure in everything from a whisper to a bellow. Is there a hint of vocal fatigue in the middle of his long farewell to Brünnhilde? Perhaps, but he communicates every word, even above an orchestra that, under Antonio Pappano, rarely holds back. However, he can't dominate a cast this strong. Sarah Connolly cements an outstanding role debut as Fricka. As the incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, Simon O'Neill's huge, steel-tipped tenor once more complements Eva-Maria Westbroek's glowing soprano. The massed Valkyries make a thrilling juggernaut of noise.

Brünnhilde has a lot of growing up to do, and Susan Bullock so far combines radiant singing with an almost puppyish demeanour. She is first seen descending a ladder from the flies: health, safety and presumably common sense demanded she have a safety harness, but it was a shame she had to get a stagehand to disentangle her when it got stuck. Not a very Valkyrie thing to do.

• Broadcast on Radio 3, 18 October

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Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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