Saturday, November 1, 2008

NSO - All-Wagner - 10/31/08

Conductor: Iván Fischer
Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
“Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Götterdämmerung
Prelude to and “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde – Elizabeth Connell
Die Walküre, Act III, Scene III - Elizabeth Connell and Juha Uusitalo

Friday night is always a time to rejoice, and last night I had an even bigger reason than the upcoming weekend to be cheerful. On my schedule was an all-Wagner concert by the NSO. Although I’m not (yet?) a die-hard Wagner groupie, more by lack of deep knowledge of than instinctive disdain for his oeuvre, I’ll be the first one to recognize his priceless contribution to classical music and opera. His genius being as outsized as his ambition, he eventually managed to transform not only the musical world, but the art world as well, through his idea of Gesamtkunstswerk (total artwork), a synthesis of all the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, epitomized by his monumental four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. I’ve been forever daunted by the prospect of nearly 15 hours in the company of gods, demigods and mortals whose interactions are ruled by eternal forces and all carrying the message that art has the sacrosanct duty to tackle all lofty issues of human, religious and social nature. After Wagner’s philosophy guru, Schopenhauer, stated that music was the highest form of art, the determined composer set about to start his gargantuan undertaking of The Ring, and started his own revolution in the process.

The festivities started pleasantly enough with the prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The violin attack launching the piece gave the tone to an energy- and passion-filled evening, but so far things kept fairly gentle. Wagner’s only comedy of romance gave him and the orchestra the perfect and only opportunity to lighten up a bit, and it was all the more enjoyable for the audience. The following “Rhine Journey” began the progression towards darker and more convoluted events, and the orchestra dutifully kept pace with it.
An epic love story, for many THE epic love story, Tristan und Isolde famously ends with the love-death hymn “Liebestod” sung by Isolde over Tristan’s dead body. It is not only a heartbreakingly beautiful aria, but it also, more prosaically, marks a welcome conclusion after five intense hours of relentless drama. The prelude already containing some themes to be found again in the final aria, and this is Wagner at his most lyrical to whom the NSO whole-heartedly did justice. Elizabeth Connell gave a faithful, if not transcendental, rendition of Isolde’s last words, even though the low notes couldn’t make it above the orchestra’s playing.
Back for more after the intermission, we got ready to dwell in the final scene of Die Walküre. This is an intensely emotional confrontation between the god Wotan and his favorite goddess daughter Brünnhilde, during which he banishes her, makes her mortal and put her to sleep in a ring of fire. Even if you haven’t put yourself through the whole Ring yet, this scene can easily stand on its own if you just relax and take in the music (Yes, it is “The Ride of the Valkyries”) and the singing. The two singers on Friday got the job done without any particular sparks, but without mishaps either, solidly backed by the NSO.

No matter what one thinks of him, Wagner rarely leaves anybody indifferent. But an audience’s reaction depends mostly on what is happening on the stage, and Friday’s concert-goers were understandably rather reserved during the first half of the performance as the orchestra, later with Elizabeth Connell, was still getting it together. While perfectly adequate, they originally did not seem to have the required fierce cohesion to make the magic happen. Things luckily improved for Die Walküre, and all was well that ended well.

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