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Arts Festival Review: Wagner Gala

Arts Festival Review: Wagner Gala

Review by Dominic Groom


Simon O'Neill: Wagner Gala
Simon O’Neill with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Anthony Legge
Michael Fowler Centre
March 5


Simon O’Neill is steadily gaining recognition abroad as a name to watch: he has won a number of competitions, famously understudied Siegfried to Placido Domingo at the Met, and is steadily notching up debuts in important roles at important opera houses.

Highly touted as a heroic tenor – a rare breed combining a rich, dark tone and considerable power with the technique and musicianship to sing complex Wagnerian lines and the dramatic sensibility to handle long introspections and passionate outbursts – O’Neill impressed at last festival’s Parsifal as a man on the verge of mastering his craft.

O’Neill is scheduled to tackle most of the cornerstones of the heroic tenor repertoire over the next 18 months. Just entering his prime, he’ll need to be in the form of his life. Based on last night’s performance, he is well placed to deliver.

The concert started with the first of a number of orchestral interludes – the famous wedding march from Lohengrin. The orchestra was somewhat slow to get underway, symptomatic, I think, of direction from Anthony Legge that might be charitably described as economical and unprepossessing. Simon O’Neill’s selection from Lohengrin, In Fernem Land, reflected Wagner’s highly accessible earlier work before his breakthrough Ring cycle. He was immediately in fine voice, superbly secure throughout the range with the uncanny mixture of ease and intensity required to bring these heroes to life.

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The next selection from Siegfried began a really fine display of singing through some of Wagner’s essential tenor moments. From here on in O’Neill’s intensity and execution never flagged and he started to bring the orchestra along with him. By the Valkyrie selection, the orchestra had fully woken up, and there were some sublime moments. Winterstuerme, Seigmund’s rapturous ode to love and nature, is some of the most simple and beautiful music in the Ring cycle and O’Neill’s rich tone and unaffected rendering was moving for many in the audience. However, after this, the Ride of the Valkyries was the last thing I felt like. Familiarity breeds contempt, and at the time it unfortunately felt like a bonbon. While competently performed, I left the hall for interval wishing that I’d just heard the Magic Fire music – or perhaps even the Ride with the vocal parts for a change?

After the interval, we were greeted with a selection from Parsifal. This is an opera very dear to my heart, and for the first time in the evening I missed the staging. A few balance issues crept in at this time, which can be a concert hall problem as an orchestra pit is very effective at dampening and homogenising the orchestral sound. There is a lot of low register work for the tenor in Parsifal and more effective direction may have helped this to be heard clearly. The Good Friday Spell saw the orchestra probably at their best last night and was a serene, pious moment of repose that was welcomed by the attentive audience.

The Gotterdammerung selection wasn’t quite the sparkling finale that many would have expected. Siegfried’s solemn, intensely philosophical (and vocally modest) death was followed by the funeral music, which left a dead Siegfried an awfully long time to stand on stage with no singing to do. This maybe reflected the shortcomings of the ‘excerpt’ format in a concert featuring music by a man whose whole ethos forbade ‘easily digestible chunks’. Notwithstanding, the funeral music was expertly played. The brass sound, bolstered by Wagner tubas, bass trumpet and contrabass trombone, was spot-on and the total effect was spine-tingling. The funereal sequence was preceded by a curiously pedestrian Rhine Journey which, despite the orchestra’s best efforts to provide the requisite sparkle, didn’t work for me at all.

Simon O’Neill has gone from on the verge in the Parsifal of two years ago to manifestly having made it. Clearly a top-tier artist, he made a strong impression as a believable and human heroic presence with a vocal technique to match. His reprise of Winterstuerme as an encore was as warm and marvellous as the first and underlined his consistency and security throughout the evening. This concert was in part promoting a Wagner excerpts CD O’Neill recorded last year with the orchestra under musical director Pietari Inkinen on the EMI label, which would doubtless make a worthy addition to any music-lover’s catalogue.

If I am allowed one digression, it would be to make a curmudgeonly gripe about last Friday’s performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. In the spirit of full disclosure, I didn’t hear the concert and nor am I a big fan of Mahler. However, this is certainly a work of marginal quality which is best known for the size of the orchestra and choir it employs. It was performed under the direction of Vladimir Ashkenazy, a conductor who is justifiably more famous as a pianist. Additionally, it has already been performed as a festival concert: albeit 14 years ago. This seems to me to be programming for all the wrong reasons. There is a world of untapped-yet-marketable, high quality, large scale orchestral music available to the innovative programmer, and I would be happy to advise future festivals for a modest fee.

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Arts Festival website: Simon O'Neill: Wagner Gala
Earlier: Arts Festival Review: Mahler Symphony No 8
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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