Deutsche Oper Berlin celebrated the opening of its new season with a special concert in Berlin's Philharmonie with two works for orchestra and voices, one familiar, another less so.  Both works were by composers very much ahead of their times. Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre Act I was presented as a concert performance after an intermission and was preceded by the substantial Music of the Spheres by Danish composer Rued Langgaard.

Anja Harteros and the Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin © Bettina Stoess
Anja Harteros and the Orchestra of Deutsche Oper Berlin
© Bettina Stoess

The first act of Walküre is probably the best known and beloved of Wagner’s Ring operas; mounting a concert performance of the well-known act was a daring act as many of the Berlin audience seemed familiar with every note of the music and every word of the text. Anja Harteros, one of the most versatile and accomplished sopranos of our time, was taking on the role of Sieglinde for the first time before a full performance of the role scheduled next spring. It was a splendid first attempt. Sieglinde requires a lyric voice with gleaming high notes, and Harteros had both the purity of tone and plenty of power to push through Wagner's heavy orchestration. She was also a consummate actress. From her very first utterance “Ein fremder Mann? In muss ich fragen,” she brought us into the inner world of an unhappy prisoner of a brutal husband. Without gesture or facial expression, her voice, with its endless color and expressiveness, was enough to convey Sieglinde’s every mood. Her diction was crystal clear, and each word was imbued with emotion. It was truly a miraculous and thrilling performance.

Harteros chose to sing Sieglinde with a liberal use of legato and long pauses. She was never hurried in reaching for tricky high notes, but rather approached them slowly and cleanly, albeit carefully. She used soft singing in some of her high notes to great effect. It was at times an idiosyncratic, and certainly a unique, approach to a Wagnerian role, almost Italianate, but it opened the listeners' ears to subtitles and nuances often hidden in Wagner’s music.

Anja Harteros, Donald Runnicles and Peter Seiffert © Bettina Stoess
Anja Harteros, Donald Runnicles and Peter Seiffert
© Bettina Stoess

Georg Zeppenfeld, fresh from his successful Bayreuth season, sang Hunding with his youthful and flexible but bass. His is a Hunding with brutish nobility, worthy of playing the third foil to the Wälsung twins. His menacing high notes rang through the hall. German tenor Peter Seiffert has been a stalwart Wagnerian hero for decades, tirelessly singing Siegmund, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and Tristan. Unfortunately, his voice has now lost much of its former brightness and warmth, and has become grainy and colorless. He could still muster enough volume and heft for such money notes as “Wälse! Wälse!” and his experience and musicality got him through the punishing long monologue of the early part of the act. Most of his singing, however, was forte, and sometimes he fell slightly flat.

In his masterful conducting of the orchestra and support of the singers, Donald Runnicle once again demonstrated he is one of the best Wagnerian conductors of our time, if not always receiving due recognition. The orchestra responded to his every move and direction, and the strings played exquisitely, starting with the early cello solo. The violin accompaniment to Siegmund’s “Winterstürme” was pure elegance and beauty. Woodwinds and brass mostly played with authority and confidence.

The Music of Spheres was a contemplation of nature and heaven, with violins playing endlessly repetitious and slow melodies that start out of nowhere, a bit like Wagner’s Ring, and seemingly go nowhere. It was as if the time stood still. Then the lower strings and other instruments joined in, including off stage orchestra, to add complexity. Finally the music seemed to move to a higher plane, almost reminiscent of Mahler’s Eighth, with chorus and solo singers (soprano as heavenly voice, two mezzos with the chorus) joining in. It is an enormously challenging piece to perform, especially for the string players, and its abrupt shift in volume and instrumentation was handled deftly by Runnicles.

But the evening belonged to Anja Harteros. Her beautiful voice, her exquisite stage presence and solid technique all contributed to an exciting role debut by a soprano in her prime.

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