BWW Review: There's 'GOLD in Them Thar Hills as NY Philharmonic and Gilbert Take on Wagner's Gods
Just after hearing the wonderfully well sung, semi-staged DAS RHEINGOLD at the NY Philharmonic, under departing Music Director Alan Gilbert, I saw the current Broadway revival of THE LITTLE FOXES. It seemed Richard Wagner's gods and Lillian Hellman's Hubbards had lots in common: The small-minded, self-serving gods of this production, at least, could have been friends and neighbors of the mendacious, corrupt Southerners in Hellman's play (or even of a would-be-royal family in Washington, DC).
Wagner created his Ring cycle by fusing elements and characters from many German and Scandinavian myths and folklore and adding a mixture of human flaws that opera-goers could relate to. While the other operas in the tetralogy--DIE WALKURE, SIEGFRIED and GOTTERAMMERUNG--may be flashier, RHEINGOLD does a remarkable job of laying out the action to come and giving us an understanding of the characters' motivations. And in the hands of the remarkable cast assembled for one of Gilbert's parting gestures (he finishes up the season, and his tenure, next Saturday), this was a night to remember.
Yet, RHEINGOLD seemed a slightly odd choice for the series of concerts (finishing on Tuesday, June 6), though it is no secret that it was not Gilbert's original preference as one of his farewell pieces. While the Philharmonic played very well indeed, giving a lucid, expressive performance, it seemed to take on the role of a "pit band" for the action (staged by Louisa Miller with smart costumes by David C. Woolard) and singing (music prep by Dan Saunders) taking place at the front of the stage. Although there's plenty of great music in the score, there's no "Wotan's Farewell," "Magic Fire Music," "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" or "Ride of the Valkyries" to give the symphony an "aria" of its own.
In recent runs of this Wagner work at the Met, bass-baritone Eric Owens walked away with honors for RHEINGOLD as Alberich, the dwarf-who-would-be-richer-than-Croesus. Here, he has "graduated" to Wotan, the supreme god of Wagner's universe, a larger (but less flashy) role that he has sung before and sang here with majesty and, yes, unmatched greed. Musically, it suited him better than almost anything I've heard him sing in the last couple of years (e.g., Jaufre in L'AMOUR DE LOIN, Orest in ELEKTRA). He may not have been the most formidable-seeming Wotan in memory, but he was certainly one of the most nuanced.
Nevertheless, I wondered whether he regretted having "moved up" to this role, considering the great success that the British baritone Christopher Purves had with Alberich, virtually walking away with the piece. Whether he was coming on to the Rhinemaidens--good luck to that!--or cursing Wotan for having stolen the golden ring (that Alberich himself has forged from stolen gold, setting the opera cycle in gear), Purves was sensational, sounding in good voice and, by turns, oily and scary, pathetic and vengeful in his characterization. (He would have been right at home with Hellman's FOXES.)