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.
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.