Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The perfect Wagnerite

Wagner is a composer whose influence is everywhere, but whose actual works, at least in Boston, are - well, not so much in evidence. The BSO performs them fairly regularly in concert, of course, but I can't think of the last time anyone has attempted a fully-staged Wagner opera in the Hub. The reasons why are obvious. The later ones make demands that are just too daunting for local producers - the orchestra would stretch any pit in town to its limit, and of course the stagings are not only immensely long and complex (the Met's recently retired Das Rheingold, above) but often require huge choruses, live horses, or magical special effects. And to be blunt, sopranos and tenors with the power to cut through a late Wagner orchestration aren't exactly thick on the ground.

This, perhaps, explains the excitement stirred by the appearance of Linda Watson (left) with the Boston Philharmonic last weekend, in a program devoted entirely to Wagner. Watson sang Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene as well as Isolde's "Liebestod," ("Love-death"), and the Philharmonic essayed the popular preludes to both Tristan and Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg as well as what you might call Götterdämmerung's Greatest Hits - "Dawn" along with Siegfried's "Rhine Journey," "Death," and "Funeral March."

The evening was therefore a kind of Wagnerite wet dream - and a palpable thrill of electricity ran through the crowd upon the appearance of Watson. Imperious, draped in black, and sporting not just long Aryan locks but a stereotypical German profile, the soprano might have been sent by central casting - although actually, she's the genuine article, with a long list of Wagner credits that culminates in Brünnhildes at both Bayreuth and the Met. Once she began to sing, the reason for that résumé was immediately clear; even though she was working with Wagnerian forces cheek-by-jowl on stage (as opposed to down in the pit), Watson's voice more than held its own. The soprano has a clarion top, and there's a weight and burnished sheen to her voice that stretches unbroken almost to its bottom (only here did she have trouble being heard). For Wagner, it's all but perfect - although frankly, there's not much in the way of individual color to it, and Watson's performances were so dignified as to verge on the sedate. Admittedly, we don't expect a full dramatic performance in a concert setting - still, both Isolde and Brünnhilde are experiencing transfiguration amidst destruction, neither of which seemed to leave Watson particularly ruffled. (An amateur recording of Watson in a performance of Isolde is below; for a sense of how far the role can really go, at bottom is one of the great Isoldes of our day, Waltraud Meier, in an almost scarily intense performance.)

Linda Watson as Isolde at Deutsche Oper am Rhein in 2003.

While the diva did her thing, the Boston Philharmonic did its - intermittently. The opening prelude to Die Meistersinger was bright and energetically clipped, just as it should be, but after that, as conductor Benjamin Zander slowed his rhythms for the ensuing deaths and funerals, his interpretations still seemed somehow metronomic. A rising, but mysterious, suspension is central to Tristan - and a similar sense of decline infuses Götterdämmerung, but rather than summon gathering, inchoate moods, Zander seemed to be shifting, albeit at a funereal pace, from one spot to another in the score. As a result, the orchestra sounded far less focused than it did in their recent Dvořák Seventh, even though there were sudden bursts of brilliant playing in Siegfried's Funeral Music and in particular the overwhelming rise of the Rhine (and final coda) after the Immolation Scene. At these moments the terrible grandeur that is Wagner did, indeed, echo in Boston as it rarely does.

Now that's an Isolde: Waltraud Meier not so much sings as transcends the "Liebestod" in Munich in 1998.

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