To learn and forget fear is a deeply ingrained near-compulsion in the German psyche from its earliest folklore. Siegfried’s discovery of fear in the eponymous opera may also perhaps be seen as emblematic of the individual journeys of the 125 members of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. These precocious 11-21-year-olds must have rapidly plunged from confidence to terror when they learned that that they would be playing one of the most demanding works in the orchestral/operatic canon. But after 46 hours of rehearsals since February, their performance Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall testifies that they have forgotten and overcome angst.
Coming from an outstanding Don Carlo at the Met the night before, I expected to have to suppress winces as too many talented but overexuberant kids covered mediocre singers. Was I ever surprised. This achievement couldn’t be appreciated more vivdly than in a letter a Wagnerite, pianist, and local artistic director wrote to conductor Ben Zander: “Under your superb pacing through the dramatic arcs, the sound and style [the BPYO] produced … would be the envy of most provincial European opera houses—and even some major ones. This is extraordinary Wagner playing, and music making of a very high order.”
It was clear from the orchestral opening that sounds sumptuous and articulate would emanate from the very large opera orchestra on the extended stage instead of in a pit. What was also proved quite early was that, through Wagner’s orchestrational genius and the players’ disciplined efforts, the singers’ every utterance could be understood. And this was not simply because of the plus-sized voices. The singers were also able to convey tremendous nuance of characterization because this orchestra listened to them.
Heldentenor Stefan Vinke laid down a Siegfried for the ages. In depicting his character’s path from callow youth to stature worth of Brünnhilde, his vocal quality followed the same trajectory, from hectoring to heroic. Vinke’s immersion was total. He knew the Ring so well that he apparently covered the missing Wotan’s role from memory during a rehearsal. And at the end, his bright and powerful instrument sounded primed for another round, or maybe several.
The three other singers also made strong impressions. German bass-baritone Thomas Jesatko covered the role of Wotan manfully; on short notice he portrayed the wanderer’s weariness and resignation with tones that perfectly suggested his fall from high stature.
Deborah Humble, unusually svelte as earth mother Erda, sang with great refinement and tone that managed to be intelligent, gorgeous and powerful—all at the same time. We were very sorry that Wagner required her to take leave of us so early.
Though she got to offer no “Ho Yo to Hos” in this opera, Brünnhilde, as essayed by the gleaming-toned Alwyn Mellor, rather got to tell us of her awakening womanhood and yielding to human desire. Her chemistry with Siegfried was as exemplary as her high Cs.
And perhaps it’s proper to think of the 21 first violinists as a single soloist. Their teasing every detail out of a part in which some great orchestras resort to faking was an impressive achievement. Lend them some 18th-century instruments and the illusion will be complete.
Also worthy of their tumultuous curtain calls were the low brass (five trombones and tuba), the horns and Wagner tubas led by Megan Shusta, the six harps (really), bass clarinetist Joseph Matthias, principal oboe Jonathan Gentry, and principal clarinet Paul Hafley.
Should we not also mention Benjamin Zander? His plummy intoning of the estimable David St. George’s 20-minute Ring synopsis set the stage for novice and true believer alike almost as well as experiencing the works preceding the act offered by BPYO. Zander also demanded high production values, including excellent, uncredited supertitles.
What Zander has achieved with this ensemble in three years in a challenged philanthropic climate almost beggars description. His refinement as Wagner interpreter is a pleasant discovery, but how he assembles, supports, and inspires his gifted charges is the achievement for which he must be most gratefully thanked. What could have been overreach was triumph.