Simon O’Neill – Wagner Gala

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anthony Legge  with Simon O’Neill (tenor)

(New Zealand International Arts Festival)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 5 March 2010

It is interesting and perhaps almost a defining characteristic of New Zealand art, to devote attention to perceived weaknesses in an artist once the rest of the world has acclaimed them, and give perfunctory credit to an artist who has excited everyone else.

Simon O’Neill is being subjected to this a little, though happily, he is able to ignore it in the light of the more positive appreciation from those here and overseas who focus on the virtues of a performer, rather than minor failings or features that are developing.

This concert of excerpts from Lohengrin, Parsifal and the Ring explored music that lay at the heart of these pieces, not just the popular numbers, though the opening of Act III of Die Walküre and the prelude to Act III of Lohengrin were there.

O’Neill’s excerpts assumed a level of familiarity with the works, giving credit to taste and to the audience’s grasp of some of the music’s dramatic and narrative characteristics.

The Lohengrin prelude opened the concert and it signaled Anthony Legge’s approach to the orchestra, and to his view of its role which marked his style throughout. While all the splendour and pageantry called for in the next scene were vividly present, I enjoyed the beautiful warmth and mellowness of the orchestra – the brass was glowing with humanity rather than with cold brilliance; it did not prevent its rising to a grand rhetorical climax.

We first heard O’Neill then in ‘In fernem Land’, which he sings lamenting Elsa’s faithlessness than has forced him to reveal his identity and thus to leave her; it usefully tells the audience something of the Grail legend, connects himself with his father, Parsifal, whom Wagner finally returned to 30 years later. The singing was sweet, melodious and sad, and the orchestra a carpet of shimmering woodwinds and opulent brass. O’Neill’s top notes were splendid, perhaps a relief after the strain that was audible occasionally in his voice in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony the week before, and he raised the emotional tone steadily towards the powerful end.

The Ring came next: excerpts from Die Walküre and Siegfried. I have heard the Introduction to scene 3 of Siegfried Act III, played with more firepower than this, but the compensation was the delicacy of the opening passage, the orchestra’s relishing of its colours, as Siegfried at last penetrates the ring of fire protecting Brünnhilde on the mountain.

This is a much gentler Siegfried than the obnoxious youth in the great scenes with Mime in Act I, and it was wonderful to hear the evolving dramatic realization with its detailed awareness of every word, as he discovers Brünnhilde: an episode usually heard only in the opera house.

Conductor Legge created a splendid rhythmic simulation of racing hooves leading to Siegmund’s bursting, exhausted, into Sieglinde’s house at the start of Die Walküre: one of the most exciting moments in the cycle, double timpani lending weight. Then stillness and we skip 40 minutes of his first encounter with his sister to the point where he is seeking desperately for a sword – the sword his father promised him. The urgent plea turns to brilliant excitement in O’Neills voice as the glint of the sword in the tree that happens to grow by Sieglinde’s (and Hunding’s) house.

One of the cycle’s most ecstatic moments follows as the moonlight suddenly bursts through the house, and brother and sister acknowledge love; O’Neill delivered a ringing, lyrical account of ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’.

The first half ended with a strongly pulsating Ride of the Valkyries, which opens the opera’s third act.

The second half was devoted to Parsifal and Götterdämmerung. In Klingsor’s evil, magic garden in Act II, Parsifal recognizes the nature of the debilitating wound that has spiritually paralysed Amfortas, the leader of the knights of the Grail. Here O’Neill produced the stentorian voice which has hardly been required earlier in Parsifal, a notch up on his performance in the great semi-staged production in the 2006 Festival. It was world-class, as was the orchestra’s playing, particularly cor anglais and solo clarinet and violin. In the following Good Friday music, oboe and clarinet solos again lent magic and the ending was rapturous.

The Götterdämmerung pieces included both the major orchestral excerpts, Siegfried’s Journey to the Rhine and the Funeral music, and then Siegfried’s final monologue after he emerges from the spell, just before Hagen murders him. Siegfried’s Journey was remarkable in its spirit of light-spirited adventure which, with chilling trombones, turns suddenly to foreboding. O’Neill brought a deep feeling of loss and bafflement in this tragic utterance to his ‘Brünnhilde! Heilige Braut’; he remained standing as the Funeral Music followed, with such power and sense of the hope for the world extinguished: very contemporary in spirit.

On leaving, many were lamenting that neither our opera company nor the NZSO appear to be planning, for lack of adequate funds, the resumption of concert or semi-staged versions of these great masterpieces that the population of a civilized nation should be exposed to from time to time.

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