Philharmonic’s thrilling “Rheingold” provides a high point of Gilbert’s final weeks

Fri Jun 02, 2017 at 1:14 pm
Eric Owens was Wotan in the New York Philharmonic's concert performance of Wagner's "Das Rheingold," led by Alan Gilbert Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Eric Owens was Wotan in the New York Philharmonic’s concert performance of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” led by Alan Gilbert Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Alan Gilbert still has one more subscription weekend before his tenure with the New York Philharmonic is up. But there was no denying a certain valedictory quality in the concert performance of Das Rheingold that the outgoing music director led Thursday night–a performance that, though not without shortcomings, was certainly among Gilbert’s grander achievements at David Geffen Hall.

Enormous forces were arrayed onstage for the performance, and for the most part Gilbert handled them cleanly, if not always with exceptional vigor. Much of the score felt timid, when more brio was required to achieve the full effect of Wagner’s dramatic writing. No doubt, some of that was an attempt to stay under the singers—in orchestral interludes, where he could really let them blare, the orchestra became a different beast entirely, as in the glorious, roaring descent into Nibelheim. Still, more definition was required to really bring out the intense colors of a piece whose intricate details are so vital to its larger architecture.

It was the vocal performances above all that made Thursday’s Rheingold one to remember, including a few unexpected standouts. The biggest surprise of all was Eric Owens, who in the crucial role of Wotan, chief of the Gods of Valhalla, sounded stronger than he has in years. To be sure, a little bit of the rasp and weariness that have affected him recently were in evidence, and his was not as vocally imposing a Wotan as is standard. But there was a body and tonal nuance in his voice that have been missing, and to hear those qualities again was a welcome development.

Russell Thomas brought tremendous swagger as Loge, the fire sprite of Wotan’s court. His voice tended to spread somewhat in his upper range, especially in the final scene, where he seemed to have run out of gas entirely. For the most part, though, he offered a lean, sunny tenor, giving an energetic account of his extended narrative monologue.

The real star of the night was Christopher Purves, who dove into the role of Alberich with spectacular malevolence. He brings to bear a gristly baritone of great power and unusually cool color. He hammed it up a little bit early on, letting some sliminess come into his vocal characterization during his pitiful wooing of the Rhinemaidens. Yet there were real moments of lyrical beauty in his singing, and he achieved a harrowing, powerful rage in his curse, matched with ferocity by the orchestra.

Though she’s somewhat more prominent in Die Walküre than in Rheingold, Wotan’s wife Fricka is a weighty figure in the first leg of the Ring cycle, and Jamie Barton was a perfect match for the role, commanding respect with her presence alone. Barton possesses a powerful mezzo-soprano that she can fashion to fit various demands, summoning up a hard amber sound when she needed to project authority, and finding a much softer, more lyrical note in her lamentations.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen gave a winning, earnest portrayal of Freia with her sweetly pealing soprano. Brian Jagde brought a heroic tenor to the role of her protective brother Froh, but tended to push. Christian Van Horn bellowed admirably as Donner, thundering as he called to the mists with his cries of “Heda! Hedo!” Peter Bronder was an unusually sympathetic Mime, achieving a real pathos in his wincing pleas. Kelly O’Connor’s misty mezzo-soprano was an odd fit for Erda, her warnings seeming shrouded in mystery rather than booming with the force of prophecy.

As the two giants Fasolt and Fafner, Morris Robinson and Stephen Milling were marvelous. Robinson sports a big, cavernous sound with a rich, lyrical flow, while Milling offered a more gruff but equally colorful bass as the treacherous Fafner. Jennifer Zetlan, Jennifer Johnson Cano, and Tamara Mumford sparkled as the three Rhinemaidens. Mumford in particular stood out as Flosshilde, showing off a forceful, burning mezzo-soprano that she could fill out beautifully where her part called for a more plush sound.

Louisa Muller directed a lean but effective bare-bones concert staging, offering some light blocking to portray action onstage. The real dramatic color was added by the clever costuming of David C. Woolard—just a single garment or accent was enough to signal each character’s personality, be it Loge’s suave red patterned blazer or Fricka’s smashing satin evening gown. Particularly illustrative were the costumes for the giants, casting them as a pair of nightclub bruisers in black leather trench coats.

On the whole, this was a worthy performance of what is truly one of the most inspired works of music ever devised. As much as Muller and Woolard’s visual cues helped provide a little grounding for the audience, Wagner’s score is so impossibly vivid that it can conjure up a dramatic scene in the listener’s imagination. Just to hear Rheingold performed and be able to focus so keenly on the music is a rare treat.

And in that sense, this Rheingold was emblematic of the Alan Gilbert era. In his eight seasons at the Philharmonic’s helm, he’s taken on many challenging and exciting projects. His greatest successes have come not from standard warhorses but rather from his knack for presenting his audiences with something they won’t encounter on an average subscription weekend. It’s unlikely that any Brahms or Beethoven symphonies will stand out as cherished memories of Gilbert’s tenure, where he often appeared to struggle turning his interpretive ideas into compelling orchestral playing. Yet with events like this Rheingold that display his adventurous spirit, he has given the orchestra a worthy legacy to build on.

Das Rheingold will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at David Geffen Hall.

One Response to “Philharmonic’s thrilling “Rheingold” provides a high point of Gilbert’s final weeks”

  1. Posted Jun 04, 2017 at 12:55 am by Ursula Hahn

    Having attended the first performance on Thursday, I agree with the reviewer’s comments except for Christian Van Horne’s Donner and Brian Jagde’s Froh; voices I’ve heard in these roles were never more than adequate at best. I also wouldn’t characterize Rachel Willis-Sorensen’s soprano as “sweetly pealing” as her voice displayed considerable power and heft.

    After this semi-staged Rheingold, I question the need for a fully staged production. The simple means with which the director Luisa Muller set the scenes, such as gold glitter for the Tarnhelm, were brilliant. Being able to concentrate on the groundbreaking music and really “hear” every facet and musical line without distraction by stage scenery was luxury. The fact that all singers are also excellent actors enhanced the impact of this simple staging concept. Despite having attended numerous Ring cycles in New York and other cities, the dramatic immediacy kept me on the edge of my seat as if the opera had been new to me.

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