Night of thrilling Wagner excerpts plays to sparse crowd at Ravinia

Thu Jul 01, 2010 at 11:20 am

By Wynne Delacoma

It isn’t often that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gets to roar full-throttle through an entire evening of Wagner opera. When the opportunity presented itself Wednesday night at the Ravinia Festival, the CSO seized it with gusto.

The concert—the final scene of Siegfried and excerpts from Götterdammerung conducted by music director James Conlon with soprano Christine Brewer and tenor John Treleaven—was exactly the kind of programming a major international festival should create for its resident orchestra.

With its big sound and glittering brass, the CSO is made to play Wagner. Conlon had just finished a month-long immersion in the composer, conducting three cycles of the complete Ring of the Nibelung at the Los Angeles Opera where he is also music director. Though the final series wrapped up only last Saturday, Treleaven, who sang Siegfried in all three cycles, was game to join Conlon for a few excerpts in Chicago. Brewer, whose full, gleaming voice is ideal for Wagner, has been a frequent Ravinia guest in recent years. It was a musical package all but tied up with a rich, red bow.

Why, then, the sparse audience in Ravinia’s pavilion? It’s true that performing Wagner opera in concert can be especially tricky. In the opera house Wagner’s large orchestra is hidden in a partially covered pit to ensure that the singers are front and center in the musical texture. In the Ring, the composer’s world of flawed gods, dragons and youthful heroes springs to life most vividly in the cocoon of a darkened opera house.

But Conlon handled the balance between singers and orchestra with care on Wednesday, and by the time Brewer launched into Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Götterdammerung, the audience was enraptured.

Concert Wagner has one undeniable benefit over staged Wagner—both singers and audience are fresh for the blockbuster moments. Two of the biggest from the Ring were on Ravinia’s program: the love duet for Brünnhilde and Siegfried from Siegfried and the Immolation Scene. By the time these come around in the opera house, musicians and audience are approaching the end of a five-hour marathon. Reveling in the glory of the moment isn’t easy when the voice or backside is tired.

Fatigue was nowhere in sight Wednesday night. Treleavan’s voice sounded slightly dry, but he navigated Wagner’s wide, leaping melodic lines with flexibility and ease. In the love duet, the British tenor was utterly convincing as an ardent young lover intent on winning the reluctant Brünnhilde.

Brewer was a fascinating Brünnhilde—a confident young woman unafraid to acknowledge conflicting emotions., The American soprano sang with authority, at times her voice sounding bright and luminous, at other moments full of dark undercurrents.

With the CSO on stage, maintaining an ideal balance between Wagner’s colorful orchestration and the singers’ vocal lines was all but impossible. At times the orchestra’s brief solos sounded wan, as if the players were holding back. But in the concert’s big orchestral excerpts—Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Siegfried’s Funeral March—Conlon and the orchestra provided all the color and passion Wagner lovers could hope for. The final few minutes of Götterdammerung, with the CSO’s jubilant brass blazing and its full-throated strings surging, couldn’t have been more thrilling.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Night of thrilling Wagner excerpts plays to sparse crowd at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Jul 01, 2010 at 11:32 pm by Ann Carton

    Christine Brewer’s powerful Brünhilde in the awakening scene from Siegfried with the CSO under Conlon was perfection–an intoxicating concert performance. I was ecstatic. Thank you Ravinia

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