in: Reviews

December 11, 2014

A Wagnerian Battle of the Wrong Sort

by

At the conclusion of last night’s gala benefit performance of Die Walküre Act III, only two members of the lustily cheering audience remained in their Jordan Hall seats: this writer and an adjacent Metropolitan Opera donor. A fundraiser for the conservatory’s new Student Life and Performance Center, the evening also honored NEC’s new vocal instructor, Wagnerian soprano Jane Eaglen. The celebrants included her favorite Wotan Greer Grimsley, excellent Valkyries from the NEC opera department, a Sieglinde in the person of artist diploma candidate Kirsten Hart, who held her own with the Met pros, and an enthusiastic, beefed-up NEC Philharmonia—together they gave superlative support to the comeback for the recovering soprano. But from my expensive, limited-view, donor seat in row A on the right side of the balcony, the orchestra relentlessly, often painfully overwhelmed the generously voiced singers.

The blame lies upon Spano, in my view. Although an experienced, indeed excellent Wagner conductor, he is used to leading this repertory submerged with pit bands who know it cold. He could have done much more here to hold back the brass and work more patiently on Wagner’s dynamics. He seems not to be one to encourage patient unfolding. Testosterone and adrenaline laced the playing even when the score calls for oxytocin. And it’s simply not the case that the luxurious deployment of 99 players including eight horns makes orchestral dominance inevitable in Jordan Hall; under Hugh Wolf I have often heard NEC Phil play with refinement and reflection.

Eaglen and Grimsley embrace. (Andrew Hurbut photo)

Eaglen and Grimsley embrace. (Andrew Hurlbut photo)

Beginning with the “Ho Yo To Hos!” from the eight Valkyries headed up by the potent yet suave Nataly Wickham (the only one I could see), a contest was entered into between orchestra and vocalists to see who could produce greater output. Others have remarked on how conductors in concert performances of opera at Jordan Hall need to do more to put the orchestra in a virtual pit (see Tony Schemmer’s review of Die tote Stadt here). Last night’s singers were given little scope for utterance below mf. What I could hear from the eight maidens sounded altogether pleasing. They were very well-prepared and seemed determined to maintain both ensemble and excitement, grinning at each other in mutual admiration, as seemed fitting.

There were moments where Wagner’s reduced orchestration did allow for poignant and effective stage drama. War es so schmählich was one such. Eaglen, in Brünnhilde’s character from beginning to end and evocative of visage, was given dynamic space as the winds accompanied. Spano later rightly singled out oboist Caroline Scharr and bass clarinet Hunter Bennett.

When Eaglen soared, she really soared. Her chemistry with the Wotan of Greer Grimsley involved total engagement. Their final embrace spoke on many levels: of the pathos of the characters in the moment, their nostalgia for filial love, as well as seemingly a remembrance of the singers’ own earlier stage embraces in better days. Our closeups to these great artists gave humanity to the gods’ embrace which is often lacking in the opera house. As Wotan consigned Brünnhilde to her long sleep, the chivalrous stage director had him escort her offstage rather than demand she lie prone for the conclusion (though having a stagehand open the door would have constituted a final act of courtesy).

After the magic fire gleamed, Wotan’s Leb Wohl ensued as another moment to be treasured. Grimsely’s stage command was compleat, and his instrument burnished, powerful and true. And for NEC, an important mission was accomplished: representing a difficult, major work honorably while giving a vital push to the building fund.

See related interview here.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

2 Comments

  1. As someone who also remained seated at the end– more out of principle and laziness than actual disapproval– I should say that the stress on the orchestra’s loudness is a bit misplaced, in my opinion. Misplaced but not wrong: the valkyries were not given much room at all to shine in the first scene, and until he hit his groove and relaxed a little, I was afraid that Wotan was going to need to treat us to an hour of Bayreuth barking. (As it was, he treated us to a performance that was both strong and tender.)

    Nevertheless, it should be stressed that there was a lot of fantastic playing going on. Woodwind intonation, in particular, was stellar, and there were indeed impressive solos (as the reviewer mentioned). As hard as the string parts were, the assembled throng delivered their share of the work with nary an audible lapse, and the best parts from the brass were very fine. Full marks to the percussion section, as well.

    Nevertheless, Jordan Hall is a real monster for orchestras, and it gets progressively worse as you fill up the stage. Then, even when the band sounds pretty good on its own terms, it can still squash a soloist who has the nerve to stand out near the footlights. Add the requirement for a stage extension, and you’re asking for some real trouble.

    So, I’d echo some of the regret in the review, but blame as much on circumstance as the man in charge. Even Karajan spent quite a few months (years?) getting the Berlin Phil to know its place in this music, and nailing the balance of a first performance in a notoriously small-group-friendly hall would have been a miracle, in my book. I certainly noted the miracle’s absence last night, but found much else to elevate the mood.

    Comment by Camilli — December 11, 2014 at 9:17 pm

  2. Another colleague in the balcony mentioned that the singers were sometimes drowned out by the orchestra. That was, however, not my experience, sitting in the orchestra stalls. I found the balances well handled. It is always a challenge when the orchestra is on the stage, instead of in a pit, where they were designed to sit. At Bayreuth balance between the orchestra and the singers is never a problem. Wagner knew what he was doing! However, on this occasion, not only were the voices clearly and magnificently audible in the stalls, the words, which are so often inaudible in Wagner, were clearly decipherable, helped by the discreet, but clearly visible translations on screens on either side of the stage.

    I must also mention the quite extraordinary and completely professional intonation in the winds and brass throughout the performance. The NEC Philharmonia has never sounded better.

    Comment by Benjamin Zander — December 11, 2014 at 9:24 pm

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