There is little doubt that, after eight years as NY Philharmonic music director, Alan Gilbert has become a better, more assured conductor than when he started. And, through Gilbert's influence as director and personnel manager - responsible for hiring no less than 27 musicians, including a new concertmaster, principal trumpet, and principal clarinet - the Phil has undoubtedly become a better orchestra.
As we've noted here many times over the years, perhaps the biggest factor in Alan's success has been his bold, innovative approach to programming, which saw the Phil embrace contemporary music in a way not seen since Pierre Boulez and forge a completely new path into staged productions, making the most of Geffen Hall's limitations. And so, when the Phil asked Alan what he'd like to do in his final weeks as music director, he chose, among other things, Olivier Messiaen's 1983 masterpiece Saint François d'Assise, in what would have been, after several previous failed attempts, its NY premiere. By all accounts, everything was in place: the director chosen, the singers cast, the dates set.
Except, it was not to be. According to Alan, who spoke candidly with the Times' Michael Cooper about his various frustrations with the Phil, "The plug was pulled, shall we say." Having seen Saint François in Amsterdam in 2008, I can understand the Phil's concerns: the opera is more than five hours long, and is full of challenging, dissonant music that would almost certainly send subscribers - never known for their willingness to embrace modern music - racing to the exits, as they did the last time they played Messiaen's Eclairs sur l'au delà, a NY Phil commission. I just wish someone had said something sooner so that the Met could have done it, as originally planned.
So, what to do, particularly with bassist Eric Owens, who had already been booked to portray Saint François? Answer: Wagner's Das Rheingold, which, at 2 1/2 hours, would give Philharmonic audiences a shorter, more digestible dose of opera, and would give Owens his first opportunity to sing the role of Wotan in New York, following memorable appearances as Alberich in the Met's most recent Ring cycle. Add a director (Louisa Muller) and a costume designer (David C. Woolard), and it was off to the races.
Having seen Rheingold half-a-dozen times across the plaza led by James Levine, one of the world's great Wagnerians, I found it hard to view this performance with complete objectivity. For one, despite solid playing from the strings, woodwinds, and percussion, the Phil will never measure up to the great Met Orchestra, which eats this music for breakfast. (The horn section in particular was struggling with the unfamiliar Wagner tubas.) We were also asked to really suspend our disbelief: without any sets or props, the singers were left to pantomime key actions, such as piling up the giants' quota of gold or crossing the rainbow bridge. (Forget about seeing Alberich turn into a dragon or toad.)
If there was a benefit to be had from this lack of scenery, it was the startling directness with which the singers conveyed Wagner's text from the narrow stage apron (via surtitles projected above the stage.) To that end, the Phil assembled a solid cast of mostly-young singers that had no trouble making themselves heard over the Phil (though I couldn't tell whether or not they were mic'd.) In addition to Owens, who was suitably regal and severe as Wotan, the tenor Russell Thomas shone brilliantly as Loge, the demigod of fire who serves as Wotan's somewhat conniving right-hand man. Basses Morris Robinson and Stephen Milling brought Sopranos-style thuggishness to the roles of the giants Fasolt and Fafner, complete with leather trench coats. And mezzo Kelley O'Connor was spectral and haunting as Erda, her ominous warning against Wotan's grasping for power filled with the resonance of current events. (Other cast members listed below.)
But the revelation here was the veteran British baritone Christopher Purves, who portrayed the gnome Alberich with a startling degree of humanity. In the opening scene with the three Rhinemaidens (Jennifer Zetlan, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tamara Mumford), you almost felt sorry for him after Flosshilde rejects his hapless advances with a withering putdown (Mumford). And, when he is finally forced to relinquish the ring to Wotan, the pain of his loss is palpable, making his subsequent curse on the ring all the more dire.
"Everyone will want to possess it, but none will find pleasure in it...It is a living death, the Ring's lord will be a slave to it."
Of course, the overall winner here was Alan Gilbert, who hit all of the opera's high points, including the majestic, brassy conclusion. If there's to be more opera in Alan's future - which he has said was one of the factors in his decision to resign from the Philharmonic - Wagner should be a big part of it, alongside the contemporary fare for which he's best known. And, when the Met finally does get around to staging St. Francois, maybe they'll think about booking the guy who was all set to conduct it across the plaza.
More pics on the photo page.
Das Rheingold, New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall. Conductor, Alan Gilbert; director, Louisa Muller; costume design by David C. Woolard; music preparation by Dan Saunders; stage manager: Kaitlin Springston. Cast: Eric Owens, bass-baritone (Wotan); Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano (Fricka); Christopher Purves, baritone (Alberich); Russell Thomas, tenor (Loge); Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano (Erda); Morris Robinson, bass (Fasolt); Stephen Milling, bass (Fafner); Rachel Willis-Sørensen, soprano (Freia); Brian Jagde, tenor (Froh); Christian Van Horn, bass-baritone (Donner); Peter Bronder, tenor (Mime); Jennifer Zetlan, soprano (Woglinde); Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano (Wellgunde); Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano (Flosshilde).