Zander, Boston Philharmonic reveal power and majesty of Wagner
The Boston Philharmonic and guest soprano Alwyn Mellor under the baton of Benjamin Zander filled Sanders Theater Wednesday night with selections from three of Wagner’s most massive operas: Die Meistersinger von Nüremberg, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Götterdammerung.
Before each set, Zander led the audience through the plot and thematic material of the opera in question with help from the orchestra. Zander’s grand and melodious mini-lectures were perfectly pitched for the lay audience, but perhaps an unnecessary delay for Wagnerites who sought uninterrupted immersion in Wagner’s vivid mythology.
Die Meistersinger von Nüremberg was the first opera sampled by the Boston Philharmonic, who worked their way backwards, starting with the introspective Prelude to Act 3, which made for a rather subdued beginning to an evening of music by one of the Romantic era’s most intense composers. Nevertheless, Zander’s perfect pacing and the weight of the opening cello line were enough to pull in the audience.
The second Meistersinger excerpt, “Dance of the Apprentices,” proceeded without a break, revealing a surprisingly light and joyous sound from the orchestra before giving way to the triumphal, slightly pompous rendering of the Prelude to Act 1. Throughout these contrasting excerpts, the Boston Philharmonic delivered a big, immersive sound without losing clarity in the unique confines of Sanders Theater.
In his remarks on Tristan und Isolde, Zander emphasized the opposition between social order and chaotic emotion, a theme he introduced in his Meistersinger mini-lecture. Zander’s interpretation of forbidden but undeniable passion seemed to take the side of social order, presenting a very careful opening. While Zander’s restraint with dynamics frustratingly undercut the climactic moments of the Prelude, his measured pacing kept the audience hanging on every phrase. The dark tones achieved by the orchestra at the prelude’s close carried a satisfying hint of bitterness.
The “Liebestod” featured British soprano Alwyn Mellor. While her lower range lacked the power to cut through Wagner’s orchestration, the clear tone of her upper range effortlessly topped the ensemble in the sublime crests of each phrase. This combination of orchestral and vocal power fully revealed the wonder of hearing a live performance of Wagner.
The evening concluded with five selections from Die Götterdammerung, the fourth and final opera of Wagner’s 16-hour Ring cycle. The brass were the real stars in this half of the program, which gave them ample opportunity to display their fantastic tone, ability to blend, and dynamic control. From the powerful heroism they gave to Siegfried’s leitmotif, to the somber dark tone of the trombones and tubas at Siegfried’s death, to the rich clear tones of the Wagner tuba choir in the Funeral March, the brass section imbued Wagner’s overstuffed music with a fierce drive. The solos were equally compelling, especially the dramatic offstage horn in “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” played by Kevin Owen. The strings also provided striking moments in the Rhine theme’s rolling waves of sound, and the ghostly sounds of violins and harps at the moment of Siegfried’s death.
Alwyn Mellor returned to the stage for Brunnhilde’s Immolation. While her low register’s lack of power cut short the flow of the shorter vocal phrases in this excerpt, her expressiveness added majesty to the climactic address to Wotan and return of the ring to the Rhinemaidens. In the final moments of Gotterdammerung, the Boston Philharmonic once again delivered the passion and power to overwhelm that have kept Wagner’s music on symphonic programs for over a century.
This program will be repeated at Jordan Hall 8 p.m. Saturday and the Sanders Theater 3 p.m. Sunday. Bostonphilharmonic.org
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