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From NSO, a Wagnerian Class Act

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 13, 2006

With the news of the recent death of the great Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson, it was fitting that the National Symphony Orchestra last evening entered into the atmospheric fantasy world of Wagner's "Ring" cycle. The NSO gave a sumptuous Kennedy Center concert of the complete first act of "Die Walkure," the second of the four operas in the epic, and dedicated it to the Swedish soprano.

American guest conductor James Conlon drew out the playing of luxuriant beauty from the orchestra. A gifted and experienced maestro who stepped down in 2004 as musical director of the Paris National Opera after almost a decade, Conlon maintained a strong yet never willful presence and constantly drew on the NSO's commanding virtuosity and rich sound.

A trio of soloists sang beautifully, strongly characterizing the individual roles and rendering the texts with suppleness and emotion.

Conlon whipped up an intense storm of sound in the Overture. These fiercely taut measures immediately underscored the unique communicating force of the opera in concert format. With players out of the pit and without elements such as sets and lighting, Wagner's music -- some of the most evocative and tender of the composer's 10 major operas -- landed with an unalloyed emotional punch.

The hour-long act describes the reunion and growing attraction of the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, who were separated in childhood by their father, the god Wotan. Siegmund stumbles on the home of Sieglinde's husband, Hunding, who essentially holds her captive. Sieglinde drugs her growling spouse after he promises to kill the visitor. As their initial interest develops into romantic feelings, the twins realize their sibling connection, confess their mutual attraction and plunge into boundary-crossing incestuous love.

In the performance, German soprano Anja Kampe returned to the part of Sieglinde, which she filled in the Washington National Opera's 2003 production of "Die Walkure." At points, the splendor and intensity of her Sieglinde had pleasing shades of Nilsson, though the radiant Kampe may not possess the same naturalness and stamina.

Clifton Forbis sang Siegmund. The American tenor possesses an ardent, lyrical voice that maintains its strength across the registers. His singing illuminated the contradictory frailty and strength of the character, and there was no moment more lovely than the aria "Wintersturme," in which Siegmund equates burgeoning love with springtime blossoming.

American bass Eric Halfvarson sang Hunding with dark power and sheer ferocity.

The concert began with a charming account of Mozart's "Linz" Symphony, No. 36 in C Major, K. 425, that went down like a fine aperitif. In an intelligently organized reading, the NSO infused the Mozart with as much diamond-edge precision and verve as the Wagner had sonic power and enduring glow.

This not-to-be-missed concert repeats tonight and tomorrow evening.

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