Orchestra Enters ‘Ring’ At Center Stage, Etching Images In Wagner Gold

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Rhine Daughters Flosshilde (mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum), Woglinde (soprano Valentina Farcas), and Wellgunde (mezzo-soprano Kimberly Gratland) frolic at the onset of ‘The Ring.’ (Photos by Sylvia Elzafon, courtesy Dallas Symphony Orchestra)

DALLAS — “Only what is in the depths can be trusted;/What rejoices above is false and craven!” The Rhine Daughters’ lament at the end of Das Rheingold might also serve as an epigram for the role Wagner allocates to his orchestra throughout the Ring cycle. It becomes the bedrock of truth that persists beneath the illusions unfolding above, onstage, where his characters enact their drama.

But the Dallas Symphony’s latest project, to present the entire Ring in concert, centers the orchestra itself as chief protagonist, no longer hidden away in the depths of the opera pit.

Densely populated by full-time DSO musicians plus a roster of some 21 guest players, the Meyerson Symphony Center stage had to be extended to accommodate the singers for the DSO’s recent back-to-back performances of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre; I experienced the opening nights of each (May 1 and 2, respectively). The other two Ring operas will follow in early October, with the complete cycle to be performed subsequently from October 13 to 20.

At the end of his fourth season as music director of the Dallas Symphony, Fabio Luisi is taking his commitment to opera in the concert hall to a new extreme with this adventure, billed as the first time an American orchestra has endeavored “a full Ring cycle in concert in recent history.”

DSO music director Fabio Luisi led the orchestra in ‘Das Rheingold’ and ‘Die Walküre’ at Meyerson Symphony Center. 

Luisi, 65, has previously led the DSO in concert versions of Salome and Eugene Onegin. It was as an opera conductor, in fact, that he initially became known to American audiences. In his position as principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, he took over musical direction of Robert Lepage’s much-disparaged Ring production when the ailing James Levine had to bow out. Luisi conducted the Siegfried and Götterdämmerung performances included as part of the DVD Ring set that took the Best Opera Recording Grammy Award in 2013.

On opening night of Das Rheingold, a sense of the unusual nature of the undertaking — and an awareness of its risks — enhanced the excitement pervading Meyerson Symphony Center. Following a slightly muddy-sounding Prelude, in which balances clearly needed more adjustment, Luisi’s high standards for the orchestra paid off handsomely.

The Genoa-born conductor repeatedly sought clarity of texture and showed a flair for Wagnerian melos, with welcome attention to legato phrasing and flow that embraced and complemented the singers. Rarely has the cornerless Ring motif itself sounded so downright lyrical, making its resemblance to Valhalla’s musical signature all the more explicit. Kudos in particular to the DSO’s outstanding horns and brass, who executed their long, taxing parts on both evenings with beautiful tone and dynamic control across a wide spectrum.

Fabio Luisi’s tenure as DSO music director extends to 2028-29.

Luisi’s preference for lucidity opened up colors and details that can get lost in the opera house. This proved especially beneficial for Die Walküre’s passages of chamber music-like intimacy, particularly in the orchestra’s knowing commentary in the first act, in which the instruments first provide the revelation of the love between Sieglinde and Siegmund. Following the turbulent intensity of the Valkyrie scene beginning the third act (Wagner once referred to the Ride of Valkyries as “my vaudeville”), in the long scene of confrontation between Wotan and Brünnhilde, Luisi teased out the inner line amid the blossoming of poignant woodwind colors.

The conductor avoided heavy-handed climaxes — the violent ferocity and thunderous power of some of Rheingold’s orchestral passages could have used more muscle — but he underscored the thrilling terror of Alberich’s curse, intensifying the effect by its contrast with restraint elsewhere. Toward the end of Die Walküre’s first act, he suddenly dialed up the passion into a genuine frenzy and gave full weight to the biting dissonance preceding the closing chord.

Overall, Luisi shaped the drama with a sure sense of pacing — a feat all the more remarkable in the absence of the usual theatrical cues. The lack of scenery and external props in fact helped refocus attention on Wagner’s “deeds of music” themselves. The singers’ positioning on the downstage extension, in front of the orchestra — they relied discreetly on monitors at the end of the stage for cues from Luisi — moreover resulted in an optimal blend of the voices with the orchestra. The justly celebrated excellence of Russell Johnson’s acoustic design naturally amplified the astonishingly clear and full-bodied sound picture. DSO is recording these performances for future release on its in-house label.

The large cast of Das Rheingold offered numerous moments of illuminating vocal characterization. In her taunting of Alberich, Renée Tatum’s Flosshilde emerged as the most sophisticatedly cruel of the Rhine Daughters, alongside alluring contributions from Valentina Farcas and Kimberly Gratland James. The Nibelung exuded menace and resentment that only magnified in Tómas Tómasson’s portrayal as the opera progressed. Hapless brother Mime (Michael Laurenz) managed to convey the stress of Alberich’s tyranny without the help of oppressed fellow Nibelungs crowding the stage.

Jamez McCorkle’s fluent tenor gave Froh an unusual, almost bel canto lyricism beside Hunter Enoch’s sturdy baritone as Donner. Ellie Dehn brought a somewhat lighter sound, again almost Italianate, to Freia. In lieu of the usual, same-sounding lunks, Liang Li and Andrew Harris starkly differentiated Fasolt and Fafner and their motivations: the former pining for Freia, the latter malevolently plotting against the gods. And underscoring the early onset of corruption in the Ring, he’s also the character who, after committing violent murder, makes off with the Ring at the end of Das Rheingold.

Tara Mumford, as Erda, arises from the pit to prophesy that Wotan will be a victim of the powerful ring’s curse.

Štefan Margita came close to stealing the show with his slippery yet charming turns of phrase as Loge, his smooth vocal mannerisms dripping with irony. Tamara Mumford’s Erda, sung with a youthful, plum-voiced luminosity, fittingly rose up from where the orchestra pit would be in an opera house: Like Wagner’s orchestra, Erda possesses a wisdom unknown to the other characters.

Mark Delavan, a veteran Wotan, was a central presence throughout both evenings. If he lacked the vocal weight to thunder with full glory in the greetings to Valhalla that frame his role in Rheingold or in his cries of despair in Die Walküre, Delavan combined musical intelligence with vivid dramatic presence to portray the chief god’s painful journey through experience. His Wotan expressed subtle shades of self-understanding, with varying mixtures of arrogance and vulnerability.

Brünnhilde (Lise Lindstrom) pleads with Wotan (Mark Delavan) in ‘Die Walküre.’

Delavan used the god’s interactions with Fricka, Loge, and Alberich to uncover different facets of a constantly evolving personality. His exchanges with favorite daughter Brünnhilde were particularly revealing, laying bare Wotan’s capacity for extremes. By the end of Die Walküre, when Wotan has been compelled to accept one unbearable loss after another, the Ring has shifted on its axis.

As Wotan’s consort, Deniz Uzun traced an arc from evident love for her mate already losing its hold in Das Rheingold to hardened resentment in Die Walküre over the extramarital exploits his recent projects have involved. However formidable the logic of Fricka’s arguments, the edge in Uzun’s voice — only partially apparent in the first opera — betrayed her motivation as stemming from a desire for revenge. The iciness of her brief contact with Brünnhilde was especially cutting.

As for Fricka’s other cause for resentment, Wotan’s begetting of human offspring from another woman, the story of Siegmund and Sieglinde in the first act was portrayed by Christopher Ventris and Sara Jakubiak with a slow crescendo of passion. Ventris has less of the heroic to his tenor than in his prime. His invocations of Wälse were merely adequate, but he sang with touching lyricism, while Jakubiak brought out Sieglinde’s traumatization with depth and compassion. Stephen Milling’s massive bass suggested a kinship between Hunding and the Giants. 

Lise Lindstrom triumphed as a deeply sympathetic, vocally magnificent Brünnhilde. The thrilling battle cry of her entrance gave way to warmer tones and the expression of newly confusing emotions in her reactions to Wotan’s despair and to the Wälsung twins’ plight. She brought a remarkably soft, gentle focus to her upper range, usually metallic in sheen, when she braved the war father with Antigone-like forthrightness in the third act: “War es so schmählich, was ich verbrach…” (Was what I did so shameful?) In this concert context, the polyphony of her fellow Valkyries — with Uzun doubling as Waltraute — resounded with fabulous clarity. In keeping with Luisi’s meticulous attention to detail, the DSO articulated the Valkyrie theme with scrupulous observance of the full dotted rhythm value.

Krista Billings’ lighting scheme illuminated the stage with a variety of hues intended to suggest the palace of Valhalla, a rocky precipice, and other realms.

–Credited as stage director, Alberto Triola (a frequent collaborator with Luisi) relied on a somewhat perplexing lighting scheme designed by Krista Billings. It illuminated the stage with a variety of shifting hues, the timing of which could seem arbitrary. The hall’s grand, 4,535-pipe concert organ was incorporated into the proceedings in the final moments of each opera: Prismatic lighting projected onto the pipes suggested Valhalla, while, on the second night, the organ and its loft were transformed into a (rather tamely) flame-flanked, rocky precipice for Brünnhilde’s long sleep.

Otherwise, Triola’s blocking of the singers (making surprisingly little use of the loft or balconies) was the only other overtly theatrical element. This ranged from fairly straightforward interactions that worked well enough for Alberich’s initial, fateful encounter with the Rhine Daughters and the Nibelheim scene but took some odd turns in Die Walküre. The Wälsung lovers, Siegmund and Sieglinde, were kept at opposite sides of the stage for much of act one, while a pair of chairs was provided for Wotan’s long exchanges with Fricka and Brünnhilde, respectively. Most distracting of all was Sieglinde’s absence during Brünnhilde’s Death Annunciation scene: Its turning point, after all, is motivated by the Valkyrie’s observation of the effect on Siegmund of his love for Sieglinde.

In DSO’s concert Ring, however, the task of presenting and interpreting the psychology of the characters falls to the orchestra. The further revelations that await are reason enough to eagerly anticipate the remaining installments of this bold project.