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In Review > North America

Das Rheingold

New York Philharmonic

In Review Rheingold Philharmonic hdl 817
NYPO Das Rheingold concert with Willis-Sørensen, Jagde, Van Horn, Owens, Barton and Gilbert (on podium)
© Chris Lee

THRILLINGLY SUNG  and sumptuously played, the New York Philharmonic’s concert version of Das Rheingold was a stirring reminder of what an audacious feat of imagination Wagner’s music drama truly is. This Rheingold, seen on June 1 in the first of a three-performance run, marked Alan Gilbert’s penultimate subscription program as the orchestra’s music director and served as a vivid demonstration of his virtues as a conductor. The work, over its two-and-a-half-hour span, emerged as an unbroken statement; the musical motifs—from the Rhine’s depths to the Nibelungs’ anvils to the rainbow bridge carrying the gods into Valhalla—seemed to transform organically, one into the next. 

A great cast truly sangthe work: there was nary a moment of strain or a “Bayreuth bark” to be heard all evening. This must surely be Gilbert’s achievement as much as that of his able performers. Despite the recalcitrant acoustic of David Geffen Hall, every note, every word was audible. The orchestra roared when it held center-stage but achieved perfect transparency when supporting the singers.

Eric Owens, in firmer voice than heard in recent encounters, was a vulnerable Wotan, not a heroic one. Even as he achieved his greatest triumph, this god seemed to sense thoroughly his future ruination. Jamie Barton, an opulent Fricka, delivered her wish for gold finery with such seductiveness that you wondered how Wotan could ever resist her blandishments. Russell Thomas was unusual casting as Loge—not a character tenor but a full-throated lirico-spinto. He was consistently musical in his approach, but I missed the quicksilver attack that some singers bring to the role; the singing didn’t flicker 

The giants were both superb, and superbly contrasted. Stephen Milling’s voice was so inky that he seemed hardly to need to raise it above a murmur to make Fafner’s malevolence felt. Morris Robinson, his rolling bass astoundingly resonant, sang so beautifully that you could imagine an alternative Rheingold with Fasolt as its romantic hero. The generous scale of Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s singing as Freia made me hunger to hear her in Wagner’s more substantial jugendlich dramatische roles. Christian Van Horn was a stouthearted Donner, Brian Jagde a Froh with the projective force of a true heldentenor. The three Rhinemaidens—Jennifer Zetlan (Woglinde), Jennifer Johnson Cano (Wellgunde), Tamara Mumford (Flosshilde)—blended their voices in unerring synchrony, but each sounded like a star in her own right, Zetlan’s bold voicing of Woglinde’s coloratura providing particular pleasure. 

Considering the all-around excellence of the cast, it seems almost unfair to single out one member. But Christopher Purves’s Alberich was the breakout performance of the evening. His tone was firm and fully supported at all dynamics, from the dwarf’s insinuating whispers to his cries of rage. The hallmark of his singing was its lyricism: even at Alberich’s most venomous, you could hear the thwarted romantic longing that sets the opera into action. 

The concert was “semi-staged,” with Louisa Muller responsible for the movement. She was no more successful than most directors in figuring out how to deploy the godly onlookers while Wotan, Loge and the giants conduct their Scene 2 negotiations. But by fostering interactions between the performers, the staging enhanced the theatrical effectiveness of the presentation. And it allowed Purves to present a kind of tortured body language that was every bit as expressive as his singing. —Fred Cohn 

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