Standing ovation for NZSO's Wagner

No-one in the world of music has polarised opinion as much as Richard Wagner, and no creative endeavour has so transcended the narrow world of music quite like his vast cycle of four music dramas - The Ring of the Nibelung.

Yet, here in July 2012 was the first time the most "stand-alone" of the four operas has been performed in New Zealand, albeit in a concert performance.

So this was a significant event, and, although the hall was not quite full for the four hours of turbulent music drama, there was intense interest by a big audience of a wider range of age than usually attends formal musical events in the capital.

At the end the performance was greeted by a standing ovation of an intensity unprecedented in my experience. Was it for the performance or was it a recognition of Wagner's extraordinary imagination? Both, I would suggest.

Die Walkure is the second of the Ring operas: the first, Das Rheingold, is a prologue, shorter and more a stage setting for the following operas as they follow the progress of the gods to the final destruction of Valhalla in Die Gotterdamerung.

Die Walkure is the most lyrical and approachable of the four operas. An almost soap opera mix of adultery and incest is observed by world-weary god Wotan, with a real problem with family relations, and Wagner surrounds it all with music of great passion and searing power.

There is, within the music, a complex mix of motifs - the most obvious to the casual listener is the Siegfried motif, which becomes dominant in the final two operas - and Wagner deploys a huge orchestra with a formidable brass section that includes four Wagner tubas.

Yet some of the most significant moments come from the solo contributions from the cor anglais, oboe and bass clarinet, absolutely beautifully played here.

The singing is crucial and it was a privilege to hear principals of such quality. The two sopranos, Edith Haller as Sieglinde and Christine Goerke as Brunhilde, were sensational. Each displayed a vocal command that was never daunted by the huge orchestra behind them, and each showed a characterisation that never needed a costume or a set.

Simon O'Neill (Siegmund), with his searing power and his effortless command of the Wagner idiom, and the smooth darkness of Jonathan Lemalu, as Hunding, were similarly brilliant. Margaret Medlyn in her cameo as Fricka avoided hysteria to establish the character in potent fashion. Only John Wegner, an established Wotan of real quality, was below par, solely because of an obvious throat infection.

THE eight Valkyries were marvellous. In the famous Ride of the Valkyries they were absolutely thrilling, placing the best-known piece in the opera into its proper perspective, and interfacing with a distraught Brunhilde in moments of great theatre.

Pietari Inkinen showed, as never before, his mastery of the orchestra. Whatever misgivings I have had of him in the past were swept away by a real understanding of Wagner's demands and he drew a combination of beautiful pianissimos and raw power from an orchestra that swept all before it.

It might not have been the complete Wagner palette, but for someone starting out conducting opera, Inkinen's was a vital contribution to a Wagner experience that was unforgettable and indelible.

Music: Wagner
Die Walkure: Simon O'Neill, Edith Haller, Christine Goerke, John Wegner, Jonathan Lemalu, Margaret Medlyn
The Valkyries: Morag Atchison, Amanda Atlas, Sarah Castle, Kristin Darragh, Wendy Doyle, Lisa Harper-Brown, Anna Pierard, Kate Spence
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen

The Dominion Post