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A sublimely orchestral ‘Walküre’: Andris Nelsons and the Tanglewood Music Center Fellows in an instrumental story

Where the “Walküre” singers were mainly from older generations, the orchestra’s members, drawn from colleges and conservatories around the world, pulled from their guts a distinctive, youthful passion and addressed Wagner’s challenging score with aggressive aplomb.

Program, July 27 and 28, 2019
Richard Wagner: “Die Walküre”: Music drama in three acts, second evening of “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” Libretto by the composer
July 27, 2019: Act 1
July 28, 2019: Acts 2 and 3

Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra,
Andris Nelsons conducting

Amber Wagner, soprano (Sieglinde)
Christine Goerke, soprano (Brunnhilde)
Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano (Fricka)
James Rutherford, bass-baritone (Wotan)
Franz-Josef Selig, bass (Hunding)

The Valkyries
Jennifer Faselt, soprano (Helmwige)
Wendy Bryn Harmer, soprano (Ortinde)
Kelly Cae Hogan, soprano (Gerhilde)
Eve Gigliotti, mezzo-soprano (Siegrune)
Dana Beth Miller, mezzo-soprano (Grimgerde)
Ronnita Miller, mezzo-soprano (Schwertleite)
Mary Phillips, mezzo-soprano (Rossweisse)
Renée Tatum, mezzo-soprano (Waltraute)

With the members of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra dominating the stage of the Tanglewood Shed, it was evident from the first foreboding tremolos in the violins and contrabasses and the mourning wails of the cellos that Andris Nelsons was about to take us on a different kind of Rhine journey.

The singing and acting of a brilliant cast of international opera stars was lifted and inspired by instrumental solo and ensemble performances of stunning freshness and immediacy. The challenge of forbidden young love to the avenging morality of the head gods is expressed as much in Richard Wagner’s score as in his libretto.

But where in each performance on the great opera house stages the orchestra is confined to a pit, here one heard and experienced not only the emotions and conflicts in the sung words, but equally in the instrumental expressions of impulses, vexing personal choices and subtle anticipations of a distant and tragic future.

Where the “Walküre” singers were mainly from older generations, the orchestra’s members, drawn from colleges and conservatories around the world, pulled from their guts a distinctive, youthful passion and addressed Wagner’s challenging score with aggressive aplomb.

Wagner embeds in the orchestra melodic and harmonic fragments (leitmotifs) that enrich the listening experience not simply by embellishing the narrative, but by giving immediate significance to the forces of past history and the inevitable arc of moral conflict that leads ultimately to the twilight of the gods.

Franz-Josef Selig as Hunding. Hunding warns Siegmund that after he stays the night, he will fight him to the death the following day. Selig’s steely bass and forceful acting embodied masculine control and unremitting vengeance. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

The instrumental players signal these meanings as when, in the first act, the commanding, hortatory husband, Hunding, appears and asks the name of the exhausted young hero, Siegmund, who has collapsed before his hearth following a long flight through the forest. Quickly it becomes clear that Siegmund was chased by an army of Hunding’s relatives, bent on revenge for Siegmund’s family’s aggressions on them. When Hunding connects the dots, he warns Siegmund that he can stay the night (because of the tradition of hospitality!) but will fight him to the death the following day.

Poignant glances and shivers of recognition establish simultaneously that Hunding’s wife, Sieglinde, is the twin sister who was separated from Siegmund and his mother by Hunding’s kin years before.

In anticipation of Siegmund’s pulling from the ash tree that rises through the floor of Hunding’s living room the magic sword that their father (the head god Wotan) had embedded to enable him to prevail in this inevitable confrontation, the symbolic arpeggio representing the sword is sounded by a French horn.

In the first of many virtuoso displays by the TMC fellows, it fell to the principal cello, John Lee, to express—in a magnificently developed, extended solo—the freighted yearnings of the young lovers and the premonition of the tragic undoing of their romance (sung sensitively in the same range by tenor Simon O’Neill: “I sought joy but found only sorrow.” “Love lured Spring here.” “The sister, the bride, has been found by her brother!”)

Stephanie Blythe as Fricka and James Rutherford as Wotan argue over Siegmund’s fate. Blythe’s gorgeous, enormous mezzo dominated the head god in forceful insistence on protecting the sanctity of the immortals’ moral code, all the while expressing in glorious dynamics the depth of her sadness, shame and rage. James Rutherford’s focused, stentorian bass-baritone gave way to achingly beautiful lamentations as he conjured authoritative but unavailing arguments to spare his beloved son. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

Premonitions abound in this opera, and they appear allusively in the text, especially in the long discourses between Wotan (who has fathered out of wedlock not only the young principals in Act One, but Brünnhilde and her eight women warriors, the Valkyries, who make their blazing entries on stallions at the beginning of Act Two) and his long-suffering wife, Fricka, who happens also to be the goddess of marriage. She insists, against his anguished and convoluted objections, on his taking an oath NOT to protect Siegmund in his battle to the death with Hunding (who is, after all, Sieglinde’s husband), despite having led Siegmund to the magic sword in the ash tree.

Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde, who decides to act on that part of Wotan that wants to save Siegmund rather than his agreement with his wife, Fricka. Inhabiting the character of the loving daughter and galloping warrior, Goerke’s intelligent phrasing and crystalline projection brought forth the essential emotions of her formidable role. All through the second and third acts, she gave voice to the compromises and punishments women are forced to endure, even as they insist on the high values of loyalty and love. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

A parallel premonition story is told in the music. When Wotan confesses his vexing conflict to Brünnhilde, she decides to act on that part of him that wants to save Siegmund rather than his agreement with Fricka. To wit, she’ll assemble the Valkyries to ride into the battle against Hunding and his army. For this ostensible betrayal, her father lets her have it, banishing her to a rock where she’ll be induced into a long sleep only to be awakened by the first man who discovers her, who she’ll have to serve to the end of her mortal life. (He revokes her godly privilege as well.)

In her argument to protect Siegmund, Brünnhilde noted that in Sieglinde’s womb dwelt the greatest human hero the gods have ever seen. Two motivic themes then briefly sound, the boldly inspiring signal of Siegfried and, later, three rising resolutions of the so-called “Tristan chord,” familiar to international movie connoisseurs as it ripples through Lars von Trier’s affecting science fiction film “Melancholia” as an asteroid hurtles toward our planet from outer space.

Read about and listen to the “Tristan Chord.” This harmonic resolution dates to Beethoven and Liszt. “An anecdote describes Liszt playing at Wagner’s home in Bayreuth excerpts from his Dante symphony on the 27th August 1878. At one point, as Wagner appeared to notice a resemblance between a certain passage and a passage in his Walküre, Wagner is said to have exclaimed: “Listen, that’s what I have stolen from you.” Liszt is said to have replied: “Well, at least someone will hear it this way.” (L. Hofmann-Engl, The Chameleon Group, London, November 18, 2011)

If this sounds serious, even ponderous in its complexity, the story is told in conversations that are lightened with ironic humor. In Wotan’s conversation with Fricka about his desire to protect Seigmund, lively argument reveals the distinctions between his sense of masculine privilege and passion and its justification for both his profligacy and his love of his son, and her godly role to proclaim and protect the rights and contract of marriage. She replies to one of his misrepresentations of her moral code, “You pretend to be both foolish and deaf,” drawing knowing titters from many of the women in the audience. When finally, after much dithering, he takes the oath, “I shall not protect him,” Fricka further admonishes him with a quick aside, “Keep Brünnhilde away from him, too!”

In this spirit, and at this point in this review, it would be well to summarize the roles of the principals in this opera in relation to the musical themes. Nowhere has this been done with greater efficiency (and hilarity) than by the immortal Anna Russell, who gave an unforgettable performance in the Celebrity Series in Boston’s Symphony Hall several decades ago. Please tune in, gentle reader, enjoy and take note.

Before becoming a comedian, Anna Russell studied piano and voice at the Royal College of Music in London. This routine became a central component of one of her acts. It went over well with Wagner’s descendants as well. As part of a 1976 centenary celebration of the Ring cycle’s debut, the composer’s grandson, Wolfgang Wagner, invited Russell to perform. In a parallel ending to the opera series, she brought down the house.

After Wotan takes the oath not to protect Seigmund, he sings of his sense of being enslaved by it, as tremolo cellos, and then violins over velvet brass, evoke the conflict between his deep sympathies and his moral shackles, which subsequently give rise to his cruel treatment of Brünnhilde (what Freud, who is linked to Wagner through Schopenhauer, would characterize as the ego defense called displacement. (Check out this link for a thoughtful and provocative discussion of Wagner and Freud).

Expressing Wotan’s anguish and conflict, TMC fellow Ben Quarles offered a long, reflective bass clarinet solo that sensitively drew down to an inevitable, exquisite and elegantly controlled diminuendo.

After Wotan confesses that he kept the stolen ring of the Nibelungen and used its gold to build Valhalla, before “the wisest woman in the world, bore you, Brünnhilde,” a gorgeous trombone choir reciprocates the simultaneous emotions of love and guilt, embedding in a passage the ring motif.

Not only does the motif signify the earlier history of the ring, but it also tells the listener what’s on Wotan’s mind and why he’s worried about the future of his empire. Squirrely, virtuosic lines from principal French horn Armando Lavariega Llaguno spoke as eloquently of Wotan’s tangled feelings as his words: “To my horror, a free man is going to fall to his death. I can only fashion a slower pace.”

After Brünnhilde sings of her astonishment that “I have never seen Father so angry,” with a splendid rising trombone solo by David Kidd, she speaks of her own trepidation, “Now I creep tremulously into an urgent battle.” Her fear and dismay are eloquently voiced by English horn fellow Andrew van der Paardt, and then by oboe fellow Joo Bin Yi. Van der Paardt’s ingenuously warm, unadorned timbre perfectly captured the depth of her emotions, while Yi’s crisp, lemony reply resonated splendidly to her hope for a favorable outcome.

Once again, when Sieglinde and Seigmund enter, Yi’s beautiful evocation of the lovers’ yearnings for a life together spoke as fervently as the Seigmund’s words: “Rest awhile, dearest woman. Your brother and husband will always be at your side.”

At this point in the drama, there was an unexpected bit of instrumental ballet. TMC tuba fellow Ole Heiland left his position to right of the trombone section to sit at the right of the Wagner tubas. (His high, B-flat German instrument was crafted to blend with the soft edges of the trombone sounds. But sitting next to the Wagner tubas, which were designed by the composer to fill the sonic space between the French horns and the trombones, the tuba could sound its formidable bell tones to pick up the nasal and forceful proclamations of the upper horn section and to bring out the devastating motif of Wotan’s death curse.)

The Valkyries make their blazing entries on stallions at the beginning of Act 3. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

As Andris Nelsons raised his baton to begin Act 3, a thunderclap came down from the skies above. (Hats off to the Tanglewood fireworks staff!) Had it not been for the orchestral premonition of tragedy to come, this would have been a joyride as the Valkyries galloped together on the stage to the resplendent chatter of piccolos, triangles, snare drums, xylophones and the fortimissimo unison development of the Valkyrie motif by the brass, heavy on the horns, trombones and tuba.

The mood quickly turned to fear — in a sudden key change from C, which each of Valkyries essayed perfectly to the top of their ranges, to A-flat — as it became clear from the approaching storm that Wotan was riding in from Valhalla to subvert Brünnhilde’s plan. Notwithstanding, the trilling was thrilling as well as chilling.

The Ride of the Valkyries, 2012, Metropolitan Opera Company. Note how the Valkyries, even as they sing, ride down the planks of the controversial “machine” that dominated the staging of all four operas in the Ring cycle.

True to say, as the off-stage low brass (all guest artists) double-tongued the storm motif from the door at stage left, the skies opened to a pouring rain on the innocent listeners on the Tanglewood lawn. To escape Wotan’s wrath, they fled to the empty seats at the rear of the Shed.

Brünnhilde cannot hide behind the Valkyries as Wotan arrives, and he exhorts her numbingly to choose her fate. This is his daughter, mind you, and she takes pains both to point this out, accompanied by a superb English horn descant by van der Pardt, but to assert convincingly: “I was guided by your counsel to love the one you loved. Must you banish a part of you forever?” To his declaration, “You will be helpless,” she replies, “You must grant me my only wish.” To protect her from being awakened and possessed by an unworthy man, “Let the rock be surrounded by flame so no common man can come.”

Here, two motifs interweave into the orchestral development, one signifying Valhalla and the ultimate burning down of the edifice by the extension of the flames surrounding Brünnhilde, and the other signifying Wotan’s curse, frighteningly sounded across the range of Ole Heiland’s tuba.

At this dramatic point, sudden shifts in harmonic tonality occur, with block chords parading through the orchestral sections. Wotan declares, “I shall light flames and blazes to surround the rock, where one man alone can approach, a man freer than I, a god.” A wisp of the love motif returns in the violins and French horn choir, and a final, softer, mourning variation on the Wotan’s curse motif sounds in the bass clarinet and trombones, reminding everyone of his tragic choice to abandon love, and its fateful inevitable consequence.

Wotan stands stoically. He cries: “Loge [the Norse fire giant], hear me! Arise, flickering fire!” As the percussion section erupts with hammered iron plate, tremolo xylophone, triangle and bursts of tympani, Brünnhilde begins her long slumber as Act 3 of “Walküre” ends.


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