BWW Review: There's 'GOLD in Them Thar Hills as NY Philharmonic and Gilbert Take on Wagner's Gods

BWW Review: There's 'GOLD in Them Thar Hills as NY Philharmonic and Gilbert Take on Wagner's Gods

BWW Review: There's 'GOLD in Them Thar Hills as NY Philharmonic and Gilbert Take on Wagner's Gods
Left to right: Willis-Sorenson. Jagde, Van Horn,
Owens, Barton and Gilbert. Photo: Chris Lee

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).

BWW Review: There's 'GOLD in Them Thar Hills as NY Philharmonic and Gilbert Take on Wagner's Gods
Left to right: Zetlan, Johnson Cano, Purves,
Mumford and Gilbert. Photo: Chris Lee

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.)

The women in the story had a good night, with this part of the Ring leaning heavily on the mezzo branch of the operatic firmament and not calling for a single Brunnhilde-type soprano. Heading the list was the plush-voiced Jamie Barton as Fricka, the wronged wife of Wotan and a sympathetic figure toward her siblings in the opera. From bel canto to Wagner, there's nothing that seems out of reach for her powerful yet warm voice. As her sister, Freia, who is taken hostage by the giants Fasolt and Fafner (sung by sensationally fearsome basses, the cavernous Morris Robinson and booming Stephen Milling) who have been stiffed on payment for building Valhalla, soprano Rachel Willis-Sorenson (recently a FIGARO Countess at the Met) was full voiced and suavely appealing.

The Rhinemaidens--Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde--were out of "Mean Girls: The Opera," taunting Alberich till you almost felt sorry for him (if that's possible). Mezzo Tamara Mumford was a standout as Flosshilde, more sultry and playful than we had any right to expect from her low-key performance as the Pilgrim in L'AMOUR DE LOIN at the Met, with mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano and soprano Jennifer Zetlan both coming across very well. The final mezzo of the cast, Kelley O'Connor was Erda, who enters at the tail end of the opera to warn the gods that the future does not bode well for them, but seemed a bit small scaled and less a presence to be reckoned with, despite her ominous message.

The cast boasted a pair of tenors as Fricka's siblings, who are not necessarily known for this repertoire but showed real aptitude for it, even if they flagged a bit by the evening's end. Russell Thomas was Loge, the fire spirit and demi-god, who accompanies Wotan on his search for the gold ring, bringing more personality and energy to the role than frequently heard, while Brian Jagde was a bright-sounding, thrusting Froh. (Their bro, the fearsome Donner, was the pleasing bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, ready to beat anyone necessary with his hammer.) Peter Bronder, another tenor, brought his well-schooled Mime to the action, more sympathetic than most.

All in all, it was the kind of performance to look back on and be glad to have heard--and to remember what life under Alan Gilbert was like at the Philharmonic. He will be missed.

The final performance of DAS RHEINGOLD will take place on Tuesday, June 6 at 7:30pm, in Lincoln Center's Geffen Hall. It will be followed on June 8-10 by the sold-out "A Concert for Unity," with the orchestra and Maestro Gilbert joined by musicians from orchestras around the world in concerts showcasing the universal language of music. See the website for more information.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.