At the beginning of his tenure as New York’s Philharmonic music director, Alan Gilbert presented a semi-staged version of Ligeti’s Le grand macabre which was very well received, despite the Philharmonic subscribers’ traditionalism. He wanted to end his mandate on a similar note, scheduling Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, but the plan didn’t bear fruits. Instead, the public was regaled with another operatic choice that nobody could really call conservative, even if the première took place almost 150 years ago: Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The first evening was a stunning success.

Eric Owens and the New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee
Eric Owens and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

In the quasi absence of any props and given a very limited space where the characters could move, stage director Louisa Muller relied on the interpreters’ gestures and attitudes to help describe the narrative flux. She was greatly helped in individualizing each character by the ingenious but not necessarily congruous costumes created by David C. Wooland. The two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, wore black leather trench coats making them look like Stasi operatives. Goddesses were dressed in atemporal evening gowns. The two Nibelung brothers, Alberich and Mime, sported something evoking sanitation workers’ suits. Wotan had a sparkling satin-like vest to go with his business suit and Loge, the fire god, a blazer with red patterns.

The biggest merit of an unstaged performance of Das Rheingold is that it gives the public the opportunity to focus on the music without any distractions. On this occasion, the orchestra’s rendering of the luxuriant sonorities that take us from the Rhine to the rainbow bridge crossing to Valhalla was almost faultless. One could have expected a little more assertiveness, a few more fireworks but this is not the nature of this exact, seriously minded conductor with little penchant for gratuitous effects. Gilbert’s main concern was not to overpower at any point the soloists. He did release the full orchestral power in the E flat major prelude, where the orchestra reached climactic sonorities a little too fast, and during Wotan and Loge’s descent to Nibelheim.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Brian Jagde, Christian Van Horn, Eric Owens, Jamie Barton and Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Brian Jagde, Christian Van Horn, Eric Owens, Jamie Barton and Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

However, the performance belonged to an uniformly exceptional roster of singers. Bass-baritone Eric Owens, a remarkable Alberich in the most recent Metropolitan Opera Ring, sang his first Wotan at the Lyric Opera of Chicago last fall. Here, he interpreted the role with a deep, burnished and flexible sound. Owens' Wotan is not the majestic, power-wielding ruler of the gods but a character haunted by doubts, limited in his actions by the runes inscribed on his spear. With her malleable and soaring young voice, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was both powerful and lyrical as Fricka, Wotan’s wife. Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, unveiling layers of beautiful Wagnerian color, was Freia, the goddess of youth and the anguished object of the giants’ love interest.

It wasn’t the only example of luxury casting of the evening. The Rhinemaidens – Jennifer Zetlan (Woglinde), Jennifer Johnson Cano (Wellgunde) and Tamara Mumford (Flosshilde) – were a terrific trio. In her brief apparition, mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor was more compassionate than oracular as Erda, in concordance with an overall artistic view that made immortals display more human traits than usual. With vocal heft and rumbling bass instruments, Morris Robinson and Stephen Milling were the giants Fasolt and Fafner: Robinson has a wonderful lyrical luster in his booming voice; Milling was more appropriately menacing. In his brief apparition as Mime in this Vorspiel to Der Ring des Nibelungen, British tenor Peter Bronder sang with dignity, avoiding the distorted vocal utterances sometimes associated with the character. Freia’s brothers, Donner and Froh, were portrayed by the thundering bass-baritone Christian Van Horn and the heroic and shimmering tenor Brian Jagde, respectively.

Jennifer Zetlan, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tamara Mumford and Christopher Purves © Chris Lee
Jennifer Zetlan, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tamara Mumford and Christopher Purves
© Chris Lee

Normally, it’s the interpreter of Alberich, the scheming and pathetic dwarf that renounces love for power, that is the driving force for Das Rheingold productions. In this New York Philharmonic concert performance, tenor Russell Thomas as Loge, the god of fire with semi-divine status, almost stole the show. His character was more impish and sardonic than dark and manipulative. Until the end, when it was a tad tired, his bright and glossy voice was truly impressive. Christopher Purves’ Alberich was a more poignantly human character than usual, his malevolence not inborn but acquired. The English bass-baritone is the owner of an instrument full of resonance that he put to work with intelligent phrasing, drive and evident passion.

Alan Gilbert’s renditions of the standard repertoire rarely took off during his tenure with the Philharmonic. He was much more successful in implementing “special” projects, featuring works not regularly included in subscription programs. There is little doubt that these performances of Wagner’s Das Rheingold will become cherished memories for his admirers.