A Stupendous Night of Wagner

by Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News

If you weren’t at the Meyerson Symphony Center Friday night, you missed what may have been the most electrifying performance I’ve witnessed in Dallas in 16 years. Unfortunately, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s concert version of Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre, with three fabulous singers, was a one-time event, originally planned as a prelude to a European tour. The tour was called off, officially because of security concerns, but the singers were contracted, so there’s to be a second one-night Wagner concert, with excerpts from Die Walküre and Lohengrin, on April 15. Order your tickets now.

DSO music director Jaap van Zweden is immersing himself in Wagner these days, recording a RingCycle with his other orchestra, the Hong Kong Philharmonic. In the Netherlands, he has led and recorded concert performances of Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde. He’ll make his Vienna State Opera debut in May with Lohengrin.

I can’t think that I’ve heard another conductor produce so consistently gripping or so elegantly detailed an act of any Wagner opera as van Zweden’s Friday night. Right from the start, with basses pacing nervously and violas and cellos lurching menacingly, it was

clear that Siegmund was running in mortal fear. But then came the wide-eyed wonder as Siegmund and Sieglinde recognized a mysterious kinship, then the ominous fanfares at the approach of Sieglinde’s abusive husband, Hunding, then the dreamy evocations of the god Wotan’s noble theme.

The music was always organically alive, surging then hesitating, threatening then caressing, violent then tender, finally chills-down-the-back thrilling. For all the detail, van Zweden maintained amazing command of the whole act’s dramatic and musical trajectory, always sure of its ultimate goals, those incredible climaxes.

Simon O’Neill was a spectacular Siegmund, his tenor a bit brighter than the classic Wagnerian heldentenor, but as capable of eloquent pianissimos as of blazingly powerful–and apparently effortless–top notes. Michelle DeYoung’s well-appointed mezzo could project wariness, determination and glorious, full-throated ecstasy. Kristinn Sigmundsson was an unusually mature Hunding, but there’s an argument for that, and his bass aptly seasoned beef with vinegar.

Projected titles provided translations and explained just enough of the action. It’s too bad the singers weren’t more consistent in their dramatizations. O’Neill was the best, fully engaged with actions and emotions. DeYoung was tellingly involved and facially expressive at most important moments, but neither she nor O’Neill portrayed a crucial transfixed look in the stage directions. Sigmundsson was too attentive to his score to project Hunding’s full menace.

Accompanying an opera with the orchestra onstage, as opposed to in the pit, can pose almost insuperable balance problems, nowhere more so than with Wagner. Most amazing of all may have been how van Zweden let the orchestra blaze thrillingly on its own, yet recede just enough–without losing focus or urgency–when accompanying singers.

Start to finish, the DSO sounded like one of the world’s great orchestras, finely disciplined, powerful yet pliant. Horns and the notoriously tricky Wagner tubas sounded especially fine, and there were particularly eloquent solos from cellist Christopher Adkins and oboist Erin Hannigan.

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