Wagner Notes

[The following review is excerpted from the August 2017 issue of Wagner Notes, the bimonthly publication of the Wagner Society of New York; it is sent free of charge to all Society members. ©2017. All rights reserved.]

Rheingold in New York
Principals: J. Barton, K. O’Connor, R. Willis-Sorensen, S. Milling, E. Owens, C. Purves, M. Robinson, R. Thomas. A. Gilbert, cond., New York Philharmonic. Performance of June 3, 2017.

Rhinemaidens teasinig Alberich (Christopher Purves).

It is well known that Wagner began writing the Ring of the Nibelungs story with Siegfried’s death but felt that he had to keep expanding the background until he wound up with four separate works. Only then did he compose the music, beginning with the “introductory” Das Rheingold, and progressing through Die Walküre and Siegfried to the final Götterdämmerung
   Das Rheingold
is populated by gods, giants, dwarfs, and three silly mermaids. As the insightful Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick wrote: “The motives at work in Das Rheingold are exclusively deceit, prevarication, violence, and animal sensuality. Even the gods are characterized by covetousness, cunning, and breach of contract.” Only those among us who believe in aggressive self-interest to the exclusion of all else would consider any of its characters worth emulating. Nevertheless, they hold our attention because their traits are unfailingly familiar. The Rhinemaidens’ teasing rejections, Alberich’s thuggery, Loge’s deceit, Fricka’s jealousy, Mime’s whining, the giants’ obsession with maintaining their line, and, above all, Wotan’s self-delusion and lack of scruples—all pertain to the human condition.
   The fact that Maestro Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic’s music director until June 2017, was unable to realize his dream of bringing Olivier Messian’s colossal St. Francis of Assisi to New York with Eric Owens in the title role and had to settle instead on Wagner’s work, taking advantage of Owens’ ability to sing it, represents the kind of compromise that frequently alters the most noble vision. Fortunately, in this instance (with three performances), the compromise engendered a stunning success.
   Poor Wotan! He has signed a contract with Fasolt and Fafner to build his aerie, Walhalla, pledging Fricka’s sister Freia, symbol of eternal youth, as payment. He is sure he can wiggle out of it, having tasked the crafty Loge as negotiator-in-chief to find an alternative payment acceptable to the giants.

   The musical portion of this drama is a masterwork. Set pieces are especially characterful and impress themselves on our memory, from the opening portrayal of the Rhine and the song of the Rhinemaidens, through the tableau vivante of the Gods contemplating Valhalla, the obsessive pulse of Nibelheim, and finally the solemn march across the rainbow bridge. The score was written for a large, virtuoso orchestra performing with panache, and the New York Philharmonic met every challenge head on. The prelude showcased a mellifluous horn section, while strings and winds played with flair and beautiful coloring throughout. Nibelheim’s percussionists were appropriately relentless. Gilbert elicited intense involvement in the orchestra as he maintained a steady rapport with his fine cast of singers. Tempi seemed natural—there was no artificial haste or undue caution to impede the sense of forward movement.
    Louisa Muller’s direction of this semi-staged performance kept the cast on its toes, interacting where there would otherwise have been stasis. Eric Owens (Wotan) and Christopher Purves (Alberich) were outstanding, each enriching their vocal characterizations with a subtle palette of emotional shadings. Russell Thomas’s excellent declamation and detailed singing created a cynically effective Loge. Jamie Barton’s beautifully sung Fricka was an excellent foil for Wotan, who looked pained at every encounter with her. Rachel Willis-Soreensen as an anxiety-ridden Freia was compelling. The giants—Morris Robinson and Stephen Milling—were commanding basses with individual timbres, Robinson imbuing Fasolt with lyricism at first and ultimately regret, Milling as Fafner, all steely darkness.
   Kelley O’Connor’s warm mezzo conveyed Erda’s mystical forebodings. Brian Jagde’s assertive tenor was perfect for Froh, and Christian Van Horn’s Donner grippingly anticipated the storm that will begin Die Walküre. The Rhinemaidens—Jennifer Zetlan, Jennifer Johnson Cano, and Tamara Mumford—were vocally and dramatically perfect, singing their ecstatic lament amidst imposing brass fanfares and string arpeggios. David C. Woolard’s costumes were straightforward and effective. As Wotan led the gods into Walhalla, “hurrying to their end,” as Loge characterizes it, a slow dance of death unfolded, eliciting an image given us by Ingmar Bergman at the end of “The Seventh Seal.” 
    Wagner sprinkled magic dust throughout Das Rheingold, effecting small changes in various leitmotifs that transform their meaning. At the end of the first scene, during which Alberich steals the gold, a gnarly diminished seventh arpeggio associated with the Ring he intends to forge is turned into the calm, majestic, major-key chord progression that introduces Walhalla to the gods. Later, during the scene in Nibelheim, a previously happy, descending major second sung by the Rhinemaidens to the word “Rheingold” becomes a half-step groan accompanying Alberich’s oppression of the Nibelungs. 

   Near the end of the opera, as Wotan contemplates Walhalla in the hope that it will offer the gods shelter from the world’s evil, Wagner flashes a preview of Nothung, Siegmund’s promised sword, fully introduced in Die Walküre. Indeed, he uses the music of the opening lines of Siegmund’s sword monologue on identical pitches, thus planting a seed for subsequent development. 
    We await the development of his motivic ideas in a concert performance of Act I of Die Walküre by the New York Philharmonic under Music Director Jaap van Zweden on Feb. 14, 15, and 17, 2018. The cast will include Heidi Melton, Simon O’Neill, and John Relyea.


Ira Lieberman, a Society member, was a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for 35 years. 

Curtain call for New York Philharmonic's Das Rheingold: June 1, 3, and 6: music director Alan Gilbert in center. Photos: Chris Lee.

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