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November 19, 2009

Wagner in concert form: Washington National Opera shows how to do it

Opera is the highest of the art forms -- some of us believe, at any rate -- because it combines music, acting, visuals (scenery and costumes) and sometimes dance. Opera performed only in concert form must be a lesser entity, right? Not if you do it up proper, the way Washington National Opera did with "Gotterdammerung."

There are fully staged productions that would have a hard time measuring up to what I encountered last Sunday at the Kennedy Center. (I'm finally reporting on it now under the better-late-than-never assumption.)

This was the second of two performances the company gave as a way of making amends for the suspension of its first attempt at tackling all of Wagner's "Ring" Cycle. Budget constraints forced the postponement of what was to have been a staged "Gotterdammerung" this season, the last installment of WNO's intriguing take on the "Ring," one filled with American iconography.

WNO has promised to do that staged version of "Gotterdammerung" in the near future, together with the other three pieces of the cycle. (There was no repeat of that promise, however, in the program message from general director Placido Domingo, who wrote only that "these performances ... mark the conclusion of WNO's production of the 'Ring.' ")

The company delivered the concert-"dammerung" in the KC Opera House and kept the orchestra in the pit, as it would have been for a sets-and-all production. That was a huge

plus, since it allowed for a proper balance with singers. It also meant that the cast had room to move and interact, rather than being largely confined to the rim of the stage (as was the case when WNO brought a concert version of "Turandot" to Baltimore's Lyric Opera House last season, with the orchestra onstage).

With some input from assistant director Andrea Dorf (there was no official director) and ideas from several of the singers, the performance had a remarkable amount of what could be described as staging. This was not a stand-and-bark affair. Other than the presence of music stands in most of the scenes, it didn't look that much different from what you might encounter in a trendy, minimalist production, right down to the contemporary dress, atmospheric lighting (by Mark McCullough), and a couple of chairs.

What mattered, needless to say (and you thought I'd never get to this), was the music-making. Very hot.

It's no secret that there's a global shortage of the type of Wagnerian voices that soared once upon a time, and WNO didn't magically deliver a cast of legend-worthy vocal cords. But this was about as good as you could hear anywhere. Above all, everyone brought to the assignment such commitment and style that the music came fully to life. The five hours passed by in a flash.

Irene Theorin, as Brunnhilde, offered laser-like accuracy of articulation and a mostly warm, tireless tone. Jon Frederic West was the fearless Siegfried, literally jumping into the role and producing a bright sound that only rarely lost its steadiness.

Alan Held made a compelling Gunther. Gidon Saks could have used a little more tonal smoothness and, in the lower range, solidity, but his singing as Hagen registered with considerable dramatic weight. Elizabeth Bishop (2nd Norn and Waltraute) offered very impressive vocalism. Gordon Hawkins was the vivid Alberich. Fredrika Brillembourg (1st Norn) sang with admirable richness of tone. Bernadette Flaitz, as Getrune, began the afternoon not always centered on pitch, but she finished up strongly.

Philippe Auguin conducted masterfully, shaping the score with an unerring sense of momentum, proportion and sensitivity. The orchestra obviously enjoyed working with him (lots of tell-tale foot-stomping in the pit when the conductor entered for each act), and the playing had lots of fire and color that made up for occasional slips (the horns were certainly willing, but their notes were often weak).

All in all, a first-rate effort, and a persuasive affirmation of how powerful opera-in-concert can be.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:58 PM | | Comments (1)


I grew up listening to Wagner's "Ring" on the now-legendary London/Decca recordings with Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. One significant advantage of hearing the "Ring" via recording or in a concert performance is that you don't have to contend with the staging. Your imagination IS the staging. For all of the interesting American iconography of the Zambello "Ring" in D.C. (or the fascinating Achim Freyer staging in Los Angeles), sometimes the best way to experience the "Ring" is to sit back and be overwhelmed by the music making.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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