By Dennis D. Rooney
For its public concert July 14, the Miami Music Festival’s Wagner Institute presented the second acts of two of Richard Wagner’s operas: Lohengrin (1850) and Die Walküre (1870), providing a generous portion of contrasting music. The singers, chorus and orchestra, all drawn from the participants in this year’s institute, were conducted by its artistic director, Michael Rossi, in an evening at the New World Center in Miami Beach.
The two decades separating the operas testify to the development of Wagner’s goal of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk (artistically integrated theatrical work). Lohengrin is a pageant in which the chorus plays a principal role. Act Two is a succession of dramatic scenes between Ortrud and Telremund, Ortrud and Elsa, Elsa and Lohengrin, and a final ensemble with chorus as Elsa and Lohengrin enter the cathedral (or minster, amusingly misspelt “minister” in the projected supertitles) for their wedding as the orchestra sounds the Motive of Warning in the final measures.
Die Walküre is the second of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy and shows the composer’s sophisticated use of leitmotifs (leading motives) in its musical construction. The second act consists of a series of long scenes in which Wotan is confronted by Fricka, then with his daughter, Brünnhilde, in a long expository recounting of the building of Valhalla, followed by his order that she not help Siegmund in his coming battle with Hunding. Her anguished acquiescence turns to defiance as she determines to aid Siegmund and his sister, Sieglinde, who already carries the unborn Siegfried within her. All that action constitutes the final portion, which concludes as Wotan slays both Siegmund and Hunding, then sets off in pursuit of the fleeing Brünnhilde, who shelters Sieglinde.
Each act was sung by a different cast and displayed variable vocalism. In Lohengrin, soprano Amanda Zory brought a strong physical presence to her role of the vengeful sorceress, Ortrud, who seeks to destroy Elsa’s happiness. Her impersonation was convincing despite a squally top which was not flattered by the room acoustics that tended to overload on voices regardless of register. As Ortrud’s disgraced husband, Telremund, baritone Peter Bass, despite a weak high register, did not allow vocal limitations to prevent him from embracing his role with energy and commitment.
Soprano Megan Nielson (Elsa) struggled initially in her upper register but the voice became more equalized as she relaxed into her role. In the title role, tenor Jon Janacek displayed attractive lyricism but also a lower register with enough vocal heft to be convincing. Bass-baritone Eugene Richards sang the King (Henry the Fowler) credibly. He was the only singer to appear in both casts. Unfortunately, the choristers had too few mature voices and were also short of low voices, which undervalued their importance in the musical textures.
In Die Walküre’s second act, Alan Held (Wotan) demonstrated an ability to combine serviceable vocal resources with long experience in the role to produce a commanding Wotan. In “Die alte Sturm,” he was the husband berated by his scolding wife, the goddess Fricka, who demands that he uphold marital norms broken by Siegmund’s taking Sieglinde from her husband Hunding, who seeks vengeance. She demands that Wotan not aid Siegmund. In this, she eventually gets her way and her husband’s promise to that effect.
Mezzo-soprano Vivien Shotwell (Fricka) had a sizable voice but not a particularly pretty one. I also missed a convincing lower register, but in fairness to her she seemed especially ill-served by the tendency of the large planes of the room’s ceiling to cause overloading of both voices and instruments. Soprano Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) inspirited her role with more dramatic than vocal distinction, which was often variable.
As the incestuous Wälsung siblings, soprano Helena Brown (Sieglinde) had difficulty controlling her intervals and her words meant little. Tenor Dominic Armstrong (Siegmund) brought enough heroic vocal character to his role to suggest him who pulled Nothung from the tree. Eugene Richards dispatched Hunding’s brief role tidily.
Much was made in the publicity for the event of the involvement of the composer’s great-great grandson, Antoine, as stage director for Die Walküre and designer of the accompanying video images projected on the aforesaid plane surfaces of the ceiling (and elsewhere). Although advertised as “semi-staged,” it turned out to be singers in costume walking around an area above the well in which the orchestra sits. What insights might have been intended did not reveal themselves to this observer.
As for the projections, they were not distracting although photographs of ruined buildings (looking like the Catskill Mountain House or the ruins on New York’s Roosevelt Island) did not suggest the eventual destruction of Valhalla. Frankly, I preferred the projections designed by Yee Eun Nam for Lohengrin, which suggested the medieval period of the story.
The mostly student orchestra went through some personnel changes between the acts. They demonstrated an expected lack of experience in playing this literature that develops an ability to pace oneself through two very long acts. Plus there were inherent weaknesses in the trumpets and French horns that dragged down the brass fanfares in Lohengrin, especially. Despite such faults, Wagner was as magical as ever in creating a unique tonal world for the receptive listener.