It’s Richard Wagner’s bicentennial year, and everyone is getting in on the act. 22 different productions, by one count, of the complete Ring cycle will be seen worldwide, not to mention countless other celebratory evenings put on by sundry ensembles. Among the latter was last Saturday’s concert at the Music Center at Strathmore, with Marin Alsop leading the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – a conductor and an ensemble not known for their Wagnerian chops.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop © Dave Harp
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop
© Dave Harp

The program could have been called Wagner’s Greatest Hits: the Meistersinger prelude, the prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and Act I of Die Walküre. The orchestral playing, like the programming, was more dutiful than inspired, with Alsop’s prosaic conducting failing to paint with a broad tonal palette or to capture a rich, expressive Wagnerian sound. Alsop tended to conduct measure to measure, with an inflexible beat, rather than envisioning any larger musical sweep or sense of architecture. Nevertheless, what lifted the evening’s proceedings beyond the mundane were the noteworthy contributions of three American singers featured in the Walküre excerpt.

The evening’s curtain-raiser, the Meistersinger prelude, was predictable and pedestrian, led as it was with an almost metronomic regularity. The march and fanfare melodies were plodding and heavily articulated, with little sense of rhythmic drive or forward momentum. The BSO’s strings produced a thick, powerful sound, and had some lovely cantabile moments when called for, but the woodwinds were unstylish and the brass lacking in crispness. Brass-heavy balances in the peroration obscured the contrapuntal textures and inner detail, though the piece did achieve a kind of inevitable, blunt power at its climactic moments.

Alsop’s account of the Tristan prelude was conceived on a smaller scale and led carefully, never giving itself over to abandon or to Wagner’s sense of unending melody. Orchestral textures were clearer, but Alsop’s four-square approach meant that the performance never captured the ardor and ecstasy of the ebb and flow of the music’s sweeping lines. The first impression of Heidi Melton given in the Liebestod was one of a youthful, warm, and focused dramatic soprano, which, alas, was several sizes too small for Isolde. She sang with elegant sensitivity yet was simply underpowered, even with Alsop visibly restraining her orchestral forces.

Act I of Die Walküre, after the intermission, proved altogether much more successful. Vocally far better suited for the role of Sieglinde, Melton exhibited a beautiful richness of tone, well-focused and dramatically apt singing, and a touching vulnerability. As Siegmund, Brandon Jovanovich balanced heroism and lyricism, delivering in his big tenor moments. He sang “Winterstürme” with a sweetness and tender ease, while his extended cries of “Wälse” displayed the sheer, impressive power of his ringingly heroic voice. Jovanovich’s portrayal only lacked a certain nuance and specificity in his smaller moments, but all of the raw material is there for him to be taken seriously as a true Heldentenor.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens turned in the most stylish and dramatically effective performance as Hunding, full of snarling menace and villainous bite, even if he lacked a degree of ease, particularly in his lower register. The weak link proved to be Alsop and the orchestra, who failed to match the inspired music-making of the trio of singers. The orchestral scene painting was bland: the opening storm, taken at a very fast tempo, sounded merely hectic, rather than fearsome, while the evocation of spring lacked sparkle and lift. Once again, Alsop’s conducting lacked a sense of continuous development, halting momentum at crucial moments and breaking the Wagnerian spell cast by the enchanting singing.

***11