Dallas — Rarely, but every blue moon, a critic will be surprised by an extraordinary performance by a known quantity. When expecting the same, something magical happens and the performance transcends, not only expectations, but also the art of music itself. Such was the case on Friday evening when Music Director Jaap van Zweden, three exceptional soloists and the Dallas Symphony presented Act One of Wagner’s second opera in his massive operatic Ring Cycle, Die Walküre.
Reaching back into a fuzzy memory, it seems that van Zweden and the DSO assayed this same act once before, with discouraging results. Not this time: the results went far beyond extraordinary and into that rarified strata of lifetime remembered performances. It was as much a surprise as it was a transcendental experience.
For those unfamiliar with the opera, projected supertitles not only gave the translation but also gave some brief descriptions of how the opera is usually staged. But for those of us who knew the score, we were too engrossed in the performance to even notice them.
In order to pull off a performance of any Wagner opera, you need a magnificent cast able to withstand the rigors the composer inflicts. This is especially true with Die Walküre because there are only three singers in the act: it all falls on their heads. Also, there is the added balance problem when doing Wagner in concert, with the orchestra onstage and not in a pit. For this concert, the Dallas Symphony fielded as strong a Walküre cast as one could imagine and Music Director Jaap van Zweden kept a firm hand on the balance, so that the singers were never covered.
New Zealand born tenor Simon O’Neill was marvelous as Siegmund. His clarion voice has some Italian-style “ping” that many heldentenors lack. This allows him to sail out over even the largest orchestra swells with ease. He is also able to produce some soft singing.
Siegmund is a signature role for him and he has sung it all over the world. He was also the subject of a 2004 BBC documentary, The Understudy, based on his stint covering Siegmund at the Met for Plácido Domingo.
Siegmund is different from the other tenor roles in Wagner’s Ring Cycle in that it is mostly in the middle voice and only rarely goes much above the staff. Even his anguished cries for his absent father, Wälse, are only on a high G flat moving to a G natural. These are notes that any decent baritone can muster. But forget about muster. O’Neill knocked them out of the park. He held them way too long, but no one complained—not even van Zweden. He was also the best of the three singers in conveying the dramatic twists and turns of the plot without the benefit of staging.
Michelle DeYoung greatly impressed when she appeared in the DSO’s concert performance of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and she impressed all over again as Sieglinde. She is a mezzo-soprano, but this is a role that both mezzos and sopranos sing regularly. As an understudy for an indisposed Lotte Lehmann, the 23-year-old dramatic soprano Astrid Varnay debuted in the role in 1941. Other sopranos famous for the role include Margaret Harshaw and Deborah Voigt. Yet mezzo Christa Ludwig was equally successful in the role. We can add DeYoung to the list of great mezzo Sieglindes. She effortlessly sang the role, with a rich voice of remarkable size. She also conveyed all the drama, in this unstaged version, purely with vocal coloration.
Like O’Neill, the Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson has a brighter sound than most others who sing the role of Hunding, or all of the other Wagner bass roles for that matter. However, his resonant voice still has plenty of basso depth. Hunding is the villain of the opera but Sigmundsson played him with more dignity and less coiled danger.
Van Zweden’s notorious intensity, which he brings to even the lightest works, suited him perfectly for this score. He delivered a taut performance that never let up until the last note, which followed an unexpectedly passionate kiss that O’Neill planted on a surprised DeYoung. Van Zweden, it appears, is an ideal Wagner conductor. Reportedly, his non-symphonic career is moving in that direction.
He was on hair-trigger alert right from the particularly menacing storm’s thunder and lightning, that starts the opera. Yet, no matter how loud things got, van Zweden had significant volume left in the bank for when it was needed. He also gave the singers some freedom, within his overall parameters, to bring their own interpretations to life. All this combined for a truly exceptional performance.
The DSO was extraordinary. They are not an opera orchestra, a specialized beast if ever there was one, but you wouldn’t know that from their responsive performance on Friday. Further, purely orchestral-oriented orchestras are notoriously short on rehearsal time, but Walküre sounded very well rehearsed indeed—like the orchestra had played frequently it for years.
For some reason, the DSO only presented this concert for one night. Those of us in the packed Meyerson Symphony Center realized what a magnificent performance was unfolding before us. The audience was on edge right from the gripping opening measures and a spontaneous cheering ovation exploded simultaneously from every one present after the last triple-forte suspension was resolved to an emphatic G major stinger.
Even though act one of Die Walkūre will not be repeated, on April 15 the DSO will offer a consolation prize for those who missed it: A concert of selections from all of Die Walküre as well as from Lohengrin. It is safe to predict a similarly spectacular outcome.