To those who go to a lot of concerts, great art can become routine. The first half of the all-Wagner program Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offered this past weekend, which the orchestra brought to Strathmore on Saturday night, could definitely have represented this kind of routine: The overture to “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” and the Prelude and Liebestod to “Tristan und Isolde” are both wonderful pieces that often show up when orchestras want to pay homage to Wagner, particularly in this bicentennial year of his birth.
But the reason we go to concerts is for the moments when they break through the routine and yield something magical and memorable. And that’s what happened when, after the orchestra had played the “Tristan” prelude, the soprano Heidi Melton got up and began singing the final and most famous aria of a role known as one of the most difficult in the repertoire.
Isolde is hard because you have to make yourself heard over the full orchestra, and lots of singers approach it by simply pumping out sound. Melton, instead, treated it simply like beautiful music, and made the aria work with her voice rather than shoehorning her voice into a conception of what the aria requires. What made her singing wonderful was not volume — though her voice is by no means small — but freshness and feeling. From the moment she opened her mouth, she was artlessly moving, actually communicating what the words meant, so that all of the encrusted expectations around the role fell away to remind you that this scene depicts not a Pinnacle of the Repertory but a woman who is finally reunited with her true love, only to see him dead.
Isolde is probably a stretch for Melton, but Sieglinde in “Die Walkure” is something she’s done often, and in the complete first act of the opera, which formed the second half of the concert, she was vocally and dramatically even more in command. She led a trio of fine American Wagnerians (and I relish being able to write that sentence). When Brandon Jovanovich won the Richard Tucker Award in 2007, I said the role of Siegmund seemed a couple of sizes too big for him. But he’s grown into it since, and I liked his performance here even more than I did in San Francisco in 2011. He is more of the pumping-out-sound school of Wagnerian singing, but he makes a nice, ringing, healthy sound, and he showed no signs of tiring as the act built to its full-throated climax.
Eric Owens was a marquee name in the role of Sieglinde’s husband Hunding, though he was less effective here than in the magnificent Alberich at the Metropolitan Opera that helped make him into a Wagnerian star. On Saturday, he sounded a little more constricted and not quite as richly colorful as I’ve heard him be in the past, although these are quibbles about a solid performance.
Wagner is by no means routine for Alsop and the BSO, and the musicians certainly sounded excited to be playing it: The “Meistersinger” overture bubbled over with exuberance, to the detriment at times of the balances when brass overpowered strings. It’s not yet a completely comfortable fit. Alsop is so capable and competent and anxious to get the music to do what she wants that her performances can be a little airless, and that was certainly true of both the “Tristan” prelude, which was stripped of its usual quasi-mystical emotion, and the “Meistersinger” overture, which was curiously wooden, every footfall of the jovial opening march so deliberate that it lacked bounce and spark, illustrating the idea of bourgeois middle-of-the-road contentment perhaps more convincingly than was meant.
The opening of “Walkure” sounded much more comfortable. This is driven, intensely energetic music that waxes and wanes, and Alsop brought it off really well. But the drama still needs fine-tuning; despite the brass’s exuberance, they didn’t quite deliver at the relatively simple moment when the trumpets ring out with the gleaming theme associated with Siegmund’s sword, another moment when control emerged at a time the listener wanted to be swept away.
I wish Alsop conducted Wagner the way she conducts Bernstein, to whose music she brings the sense of fun energy that I didn’t get here. One way for this to happen: Keep playing it. Based on this performance, and the singers they got for it, if the BSO and Alsop want to work on improving their operatic chops, I’d be happy to listen to them do it.