Review: Restrained Wagner at the New York Philharmonic

Review: Restrained Wagner at the New York Philharmonic


Jaap van Zweden, conducting the New York Philharmonic in a program that paired a work by John Luther Adams and a concert performance of Act I from Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” The restrained evening came one night after Mr. van Zweden announced an ambitious 2018-19 season.

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Jaap van Zweden, the music director designate of the New York Philharmonic, built up good will with the orchestra’s extended audience on Tuesday evening when he announced the details of his first season, which begins in September. He enthusiastically discussed his plans and programming, including five premieres he will conduct, the introduction of two new-music series tied to themes the season will explore, and much more. It was an auspicious occasion for the Philharmonic.

Less auspicious was Mr. van Zweden’s conducting on Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. The concert, a program pairing the New York premiere of a short, recent work by John Luther Adams with a concert performance of Act I from Wagner’s “Die Walküre,” was an opportunity to find out more about what he might bring to the Philharmonic, and to New York audiences. If anything, Mr. van Zweden can be too feisty and forceful in his performances of the standard repertory. So I was surprised that his account of this 70-minute Wagner act often lacked tension and urgency.

The performance started strongly. In the dark, pulsing orchestra music of the opening scene, Wagner simultaneously depicts the stormy weather that pummels a wounded young Siegmund as he is pursued through a dense forest, and the internal despair that never leaves him. Mr. van Zweden conducted this music with lean textures and crisp attacks.

But once Siegmund (here the veteran tenor Simon O’Neill), seeking shelter in a hut, chances upon the fearful young Sieglinde (the radiant soprano Heidi Melton), Wagner’s music turns mysterious and quietly suspenseful. The isolated Siegmund and beaten-down Sieglinde, who is trapped in a marriage to the bullying Hunding, look at each other longingly. In fact, they are twins, separated since their early childhood. And during these passages Mr. van Zweden’s performance often went slack.

For whole stretches the music is daringly restrained, sometimes with just a solo instrument or two, as Wagner conveys the inner feelings of two lost souls. Perhaps Mr. van Zweden was trying too hard to be supportive and deferential to his singers. But these crucial exchanges sometimes seemed drained of mystery and apprehension.

Although Mr. O’Neill’s sound sometimes had a nasal, reedy quality, he brought both poignant sadness and youthful ardor to his performance. Singing with bloom and richness, Ms. Melton was a tender, vulnerable Sieglinde. The gravelly colorings of the bass John Relyea’s stentorian voice were ideal for Hunding. Things came together the best during climatic episodes, especially the conclusion of the act, when Siegmund mightily pulls a magic sword from a tree and claims his sister as his bride.

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