For over a decade I’ve covered the Glimmerglass Festival and have celebrated its ascension to an internationally lauded event under the direction of the boundlessly energetic and resourceful Franscesca Zambello. The cancelation of the 2020 season was another of many tragic cancelations of sister opera houses world-wide.
Ever wanted to hear a Wagner opera performed with smooth singing: little or no barking, effortful huffing, or slow wobbling? Sure, there have been individual singers who have managed the trick, such as Plácido Domingo in Giuseppe Sinopoli’s famous Tannhäuser recording. But I mean the whole cast, from the biggest roles right down to the smallest. Well, here’s your chance: a complete Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg that is a near-constant pleasure to the ears. The only problem is that it’s sung in Italian: hence I maestri cantori di Norimbega. But don’t let that you put you off. Opera houses in many countries have developed their own national traditions of Wagner singing in the vernacular. Opera enthusiasts cherish certain recorded Wagner excerpts sung magnificently in French by soprano Germaine Lubin or tenor Georges Thill.
Wagner’s Ring Cycle, aka Der Ring des Nibelungen, is a complicated, four-opera series dealing with the struggles to acquire a ring that provides the power to dominate the world. Characters including a human hero, demigod woman, King of the Gods, nasty dwarf and many others are part of the action. The entire opus lasts fifteen hours and has been the source of numerous parodies.
The names of Belfast-born soprano Heather Harper and Kansas-born tenor James King may not resonate for younger music lovers, but they sure do for folks my age. Harper was the glowing, nimble soprano in Colin Davis’s renowned 1966 recording of Handel’s Messiah and in Davis’s top-flight recording (ca. 1978) of Britten’s Peter Grimes, featuring Jon Vickers. James King was a steady, sturdy singer, though less magical in sound than Harper. Among his memorable recordings are Das Lied von der Erde (with Fischer-Dieskau, Bernstein conducting) and Solti’s Ring Cycle (in which he sang Siegmund to Régine Crespin’s utterly lovable Sieglinde).
As I wrote and revised this review. The news of the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh unfolded, reminding us that there is nothing funny about anti-Semitism. Following the hijacking of the US government in the 2016 election, so many topics any of us might use in black or tasteless humor have lost their potential for even sardonic laughter. These are grim times. (My Parsifal Conductor was clearly not made for them.) But we mustn't forget the power of satire in emergencies like the present one. As artists, it is our duty to keep people awake, and laughter, especially painful laughter, is one way to accomplish that.
There have been dozens of capable, and more than capable, recordings of Lohengrin. Among the most-often praised are the Sawallisch/Bayreuth (1962), Kempe (1963), Solti (1985), and Abbado (1991). Recording a major Wagner opera involves heavy costs that a record company may be unable to recoup. Hence the appeal of recording a concert performance. This CD set was edited from two such performances in Amsterdam’s famed Concertgebouw (literally: “concert building”) on December 18 and 20, 2015. The performance was semi-staged, i.e., done without costumes and sets. Some evocative lighting was employed. Characters made entrances and exits through various doors, and characters and (I gather) brass players appeared on balconies.
When I interviewed Francesca Zambello in 2011 she had just been named General and Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival. Under her predecessor’s tenure, each opera season had a unifying “theme.” Ms. Zambello quickly swore off such yearly festival themes as trite convention. Yet, in 2012, as reported in this journal, one clearly felt the bristling fervency of social activism in every aspect of production. That season was topped off with a provocative interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg to a packed audience in her thrall at the Otesaga Hotel. There were probably more law professors there that day than music lovers. Her special appearance and the ethical themes woven into each opera production, made for a startling and refreshing season. Aida, Music Man, Armide and most memorably, Lost in the Stars, were narratives, each quite unique, on the ethics of outworn societal patterns in the face of political, moral or economic change.
L'Opéra national de Paris, like most of the major opera houses around the world, with the notable exception of Bayreuth, have been building their new production of the Ring work by work over several years. I attended their Rheingold in 2010 and reviewed it in the Berkshire Review. Although I found the proleptic reference to Albert Speer's Germania questionable, I rather liked Günther Krämer's production at the time (The current French approach to Wagner favors native Germans both on the stage and behind it.); I was pleased with the cast; and I was deeply impressed with Philippe Jordan's conducting. The son of the renowned Swiss Wagner conductor Armin Jordan, he has an individual and thoroughly grounded vision of Wagner, which he can only have developed on his father's knee. Now three years later, on the eve of the Opéra's complete performances of the Ring in June, I saw and heard the same intelligences and imaginations take on Siegfried, often considered the most difficult of the music dramas as far as audience involvement is concerned, for reasons that are both obvious and bemusing.