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The operas of Richard Wagner require mighty forces and are beyond the reach of most opera companies outside major population areas. No opera company I know of in North Carolina has produced any of Wagner’s 13 operas (including his three non-canonic early works which are never performed at his music festival in Bayreuth). Notwithstanding, local Wagnerites get to hear some popular excerpts, choruses, and “arias” (Wagner disdained set pieces in opera) from time to time. The most notable was Birgit Nilsson’s performance of the “Immolation Scene” from Götterdämmerung under the auspices of the Friends of the College concert series in 1961. But that was over fifty years ago!
So this concert by the North Carolina Opera, featuring the complete first act of Die Walküre (the second of the four operas comprising Der Ring des Nibelungen, or simply, "The Ring") was a most welcome and highly anticipated occasion. The appearance of the latest Wagnerian wunderkind, Jay Hunter Morris, elevated the concert to a grand event which attracted Wagner fans from near and far. Unfortunately Morris had to cancel due to illness. He is in a hospital in Atlanta with a virus. All wish him a rapid and complete recovery. In his place Georgia native Clay Hilley performed very nicely indeed. He has sung numerous roles in operas in the United States and is scheduled for major roles in The Flying Dutchman and Aida in the near future.
This year we are observing the 200th anniversary of the birth of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, the most controversial and iconic pivotal figure in the development of the art of music. His legacy includes music and drama and writings that have influenced composers, poets, authors, painters, dramatists, and politicians, and that have shaped cinematic music. His legacy also includes a bizarre self-centered personal life-style and a despicable, onerous anti-Semitism. His lifelong goal was to reach people through his art – to make us into something more than we were before; more aware, more sensitive, more compassionate human beings. That he was unable to do this for himself is perhaps the great burden he bore and was the tragedy of his life. That he has been able to do this for generation upon generation of audiences is all the evidence we need to recognize the greatness and truth of his art.
The orchestra was led by Timothy Myers, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of North Carolina Opera. Hilley, standing in for Morris, was joined by Elizabeth Bishop (Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera), and Peter Volpe, who has received critical and popular acclaim on four continents. His ability to bring characters to life on stage has been especially noted.
To open the program Myers led the expanded orchestra (with four Wagner tubas and a contrabass trombone added) in a rousing performance of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner’s only mature comic opera and essentially a paean to the art of music. The orchestra played with gusto at the brisk tempo Myers set, providing a thrilling start with this heroic music
In Der fliegende Holländer, Daland, a Norwegian sea captain, has met the Dutchman and seeing signs of wealth decides to bring him home to introduce him to his unmarried daughter, Senta. “Mögst du, mein Kind” is that introduction, and Volpe proved his press releases by presenting, without costume or set, a powerful characterization through a few body movements and a full-bodied, well-controlled bass voice.
“Fanget an!” from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is Walther von Stolzing’s first attempt at a song to enter the Mastersingers song contest. It breaks all the rules and confounds the masters. Hans Sachs however sees the seeds of a prize song in it and agrees to tutor him. Of course, he wins the prize - the hand of Eva, his love, who also loves him. Hilley’s voice did not seem quite suited to the role and perhaps he was not fully familiar with the part, but for one filling in on a moment's call he performed very well.
"Ride of the Valkyries" from Act II of Die Walküre is one of the iconic Wagner tunes. It has entered our culture in so many different ways from Bugs Bunny’s What’s Opera, Doc? to Apocalypse Now. Myers stirred up the orchestra to a powerhouse performance of this one.
Bishop’s performance of “Mild und leise” (Liebestod; in English, Lovedeath) from Tristan und Isolde was stunning and moving as it almost always is. Wagner’s music for this four-and-a-half-hour-long allegory of spiritual and physical human love finally reaches its blinding climax here. All I can say is that it was so gorgeous I was near tears at the final cadence.
The second part of the concert after an intermission featured Act I of Die Walküre in its entirety. Siegmund, a son of Wotan the god and a mortal mother, wounded and exhausted, seeks refuge in the hut of Hunding and Sieglinde. Siegmund and Sieglinde are actually twins separated in infancy. They are immediately attracted to each other and fall in love. When Hunding comes home, he recognizes Siegmund as his mortal enemy but grants him the courtesy of hospitality for the night, challenging him to do battle in the morning. Sieglinde drugs Hunding’s bedtime drink and, after he retires, points out to Siegmund a sword embedded in an ash tree growing through the hut. Only a hero can dislodge the sword, and Siegmund pulls it out with ease. He sings of the love that has driven winter storms away ("Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond"), and they make plans to run away together after Sigmund slays Hunding in the confrontation the next day. Alas, in Acts II & III we find the best laid plans of men and gods go oft’ astray.
In the roles of Sieglinde and Siegmund, Bishop and Hilley filled the auditorium with ecstatic sounds. The tender and intimate music of their meeting and discovery of each other was richly conceived and realized. Volpe, as Hunding, was menacing and straightforward. After he retired, the lovers celebrated their discovery of each other and Siegmund burst into “Winterstürme.” The orchestra and the soloists seemed to grow in strength and confidence as the act progressed to its triumphant conclusion. It was magnificent. The vigorous cheers and applause confirmed that.
To sum up, I am reminded of this line from M. Owen Lee's Wagner, The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art, (Toronto, Buffalo, London University of Toronto Press 1999): “The intuitive Wagner saw deeper into human nature than the rest of us are likely to do. And so we need him.”