NSO's Wagner: Operatic Treasures Minus the Emotion

Soprano Elizabeth Connell played Wotan's daughter (!) in a duet from
Soprano Elizabeth Connell played Wotan's daughter (!) in a duet from "Die Walküre." (By Clive Barda)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

Opera is part of an orchestra's balanced diet; you wouldn't want it every day, but it's good to have on the menu every season or so. And excerpts from Richard Wagner's operas -- the "Siegfried Idyll," "Forest Murmurs" -- are meaty enough orchestral pieces to serve as repertory fodder all year round. So it's good for the National Symphony Orchestra to sample this fare every once in a while -- particularly "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" ("Rheinfährt"), which the orchestra previously played only once, in 1974. And it sounded like a great idea for Iván Fischer to lead an all-Wagner program, which he did last night (it repeats tonight and tomorrow). Unfortunately, it was better for the orchestra than it was for its audience.

Though Fischer is best known in America as an orchestra conductor, opera is very much a part of his arsenal. He led the Lyon, France, opera from 2000 to 2003, though his tenure came to an abrupt end; in 2006, he led a successful production of "Cosi Fan Tutte" at Glyndebourne, available on DVD. Still, his older brother, the conductor Adam Fischer, is better known as a Wagnerian; he led the "Ring" operas at Bayreuth for several years earlier this decade.

Iván Fischer's approach last night was perhaps a little too Mozartean. At least, there were a lot of specifics and individual details, but not enough flow. Wagner poses a thorny exterior to some opera-goers because of his long, static scenes, but the music is actually all about raw emotion. Last night's performance had plenty of rawness, but it took the orchestra a while to get in touch with its emotional side.

Indeed, it wasn't clear that emotion was what Fischer wanted. His goal in the first pieces -- the Overture to "Meistersinger" and the above-mentioned "Rhine Journey" -- appeared to be to show them as orchestral rather than operatic works: emphasizing the inner voices, bringing out new details. But these pieces also are telling a story; they are so fundamentally dramatic that to strip them of their drama is to do them a disservice.

You could argue that presenting these pieces in concert is stripping them of drama to begin with; certainly the evening was a puzzle in that there did not seem to be much holding it together. From "Meistersinger," extremely heavy in the brass, yet still an unfunny take on a comic opera, the orchestra careened to the "Rhine Journey" from "Götterdämmerung," in which a young hero sets out to start a chain of events that will lead to the end of the world. Then the scene shifted to the Prelude and "Liebestod" from "Tristan und Isolde," and ended with the last scene of "Die Walküre." In a straight-out opera gala, one suspends one's disbelief, but this program seemed to be trying to be something more serious.

The orchestra has played some of these pieces before, but they sounded mighty unfamiliar last night. The "Rhine Journey," in particular, was rocked by splashes of wildness that seemed to be left over from the Mahler Third a couple of weeks ago: less the image of exuberant young hero than a rowdy peasant dance. There were some lovely individual passages; in fact, it seemed like the program might jell more as the players get it under their belts.

And then there were the singers. When I saw Elizabeth Connell's name on the season program, I assumed it must be a different Elizabeth Connell from the one I remembered from the 1980s; but it was indeed she, 62 years old, willing to give Isolde the old college try, but definitely past her vocal prime. She still has the ability to produce some lovely top notes, and she has a commendable quality of freshness, but there is little low, the sound is patchy, and she ran out of gas by the end of the aria. For the "Walküre" duet, she had the unenviable task of playing Wotan's daughter while looking more like his mother.

The Wotan, Juha Uusitalo, is starting on what looks on paper like a huge career: Jochanaan at the Met, Wotan in Vienna, a new CD of Wagner excerpts out this fall. He looks every inch the part; what is missing for me, as it is on the CD, is the sound to back it up. He's a towering man, but the voice is not very big or, to my ear, very interesting. It did not speak well for the singers that the orchestra got it together to make its contribution to this scene the highlight of a rather dimly illuminated evening.

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