After a concert last week made inaudible by thunder and a very heavy rain storm, The Cleveland Orchestra and its music director Franz Welser-Möst returned to Blossom Music Center this past Saturday in much more auspicious circumstances – a gorgeous, warm, non-humid evening – for a generous helping of excerpts from the operas of Richard Wagner, in celebration of that composer’s bicentenary. Integral to the success of the concert were the soloists, soprano Christine Brewer and bass-baritone Alan Held, both of whom upheld their reputations as leading exponents of Wagner’s operas. Both filled the vast outdoor spaces of the Blossom pavilion with streams of dramatic sound.

Christine Brewer © Christian Steiner
Christine Brewer
© Christian Steiner

The program opened with the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, with Ms Brewer as the soloist. Throughout this concert Welser-Möst seemed in his element; although his readings of standard orchestral repertoire are never less than competent, the drama of Wagner’s music seemed to inspire him, in the same way that Bruckner’s symphonies lead him to probing interpretation. Time and again this evening there were details of orchestral texture revealed and a sense of forward motion that was not rushed, but always supported the music’s drama, as well as the singers’ performance. Christine Brewer is without doubt one of the leading dramatic sopranos of our day (indeed, her program biography noted that BBC Music Magazine had named her one of the top 20 sopranos of all time, a quite remarkable accolade.) Her voice in the Love-Death music was colorful and rich, especially so in her lower range. In the very soft opening of the aria, very low in the soprano range, some sopranos struggle to make themselves heard; not here. Ms Brewer’s voice continues its richness up to the top of the range, although it is true that she struggles a bit on the highest notes. Ms Brewer’s vocalism convinced us of Isolde’s radiant transfiguration.

Alan Held joined the orchestra for the closing music from Die Walküre, the second opera in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. In this 20-minute scene, the head god Wotan says farewell to his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde as he describes her punishment for disobeying him and attempting to protect Siegmund. Brünnhilde has pleaded with her father that she only did want his secret wish was. He relents and in a monologue of power and tenderness he kisses her, causing her to no longer be a god, and to sleep on a rock surrounded by an impenetrable circle of fire to await the eventual bravery of Siegfried’s rescue. Alan Held delivered a high-octane performance of Wotan’s music, capturing the character’s ambiguity about the punishment he is destined to mete out to his beloved daughter. With a few simple hand gestures, Held made the audience aware of Wotan’s sadness and resignation. After his last goodbye, the orchestra takes over in glittering music representing the magic fire, thus setting up the next opera in the Ring.

The relatively short concert (slightly more than 90 minutes, including intermission – barely more than a single act of one of the operas!) finished with several great hits from Götterdämmerung, the fourth of the Ring operas, in which the hero Siegfried is betrayed, denounces Brünnhilde and is killed by Hagen (son of the greedy dwarf Alberich who sets the whole story in action at the beginning of Das Rheingold, the first opera in the tetralogy), and causes the downfall of the gods. “Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” depicts the hero’s sunrise ride down the Rhine River to the kingdom of the Gibichungs. There are solos for most of the principal winds and brass, but especially for the horn section. Siegfried’s off-stage horn calls were stirringly played by principal horn Richard King. Later, in the orchestral scene in which Siegfried is killed and in the following funeral, the entire Cleveland Orchestra brass section was magnificent, full, but always well-blended.

Christine Brewer returned to sing the final scene in Götterdämmerung, in which Brünnhilde laments Siegfried’s death and oversees the funeral pyre in which she will sacrifice herself with Siegfried’s body. Ms Brewer gave a riveting performance of the Immolation Scene, pouring out rivers of energized sound, yet at the end one felt like she still had more to give. Certainly, singing just one scene and singing the whole, five-hour opera are quite different challenges, but this was impressive. The sound was robust and full, strong, but warm. She had a sympathetic partner in Franz Welser-Möst, who was attuned to both singers’ needs in phrasing and breathing. This concert can be considered one of the highlights of the 2013 Blossom season. It was glorious from beginning to end.