In 2013, the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of German Romantic composer Richard Wagner. His legacy of lush, dramatic operas and penchant for speaking his mind about topics ranging from music to politics and society has left a lasting impact on classical music and culture. Among his greatest contributions to the Western music canon is his four-cycle opera Der Ring des Nibelungen ("The Ring of the Nibelung").
Music Director Marin Alsop will lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in an all-Wagner program on Friday, February 15 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 17 at 3 p.m. at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and Saturday, February 16 at 8 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore. The program includes Act I of Die Walküre, Wagner's most favored opera from Der Ring des Nibelungen, which will feature tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Siegmund, soprano Heidi Melton as Sieglinde and bass-baritone Eric Owens as Hunding. The performance will also feature Wagner's Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger and the Prelude and Liebestod, sung by Heidi Melton, from his Tristan und Isolde. Please see below for complete program details.
Richard Wagner is regarded as the most influential figure in 19th century music for his brilliant and controversial compositions. Wagner referred to his own operas as "musical dramas," and the fiery First Act of Die Walküre, laden with tragedy, jealousy and love, certainly merits this title. Die Walküre is the second opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle, which he composed over a 26 year period lasting from 1848 to 1874. Wagner's Ring consists of four epic operas, which all draw upon myths and legends to create fantastical plots featuring dragons, dwarves and giants. Die Walküre, however, stands apart from the other three operas in its distinct use of human characters and it gripping exploration of the human condition. In this powerful composition, Wagner delves deeply into human emotions and is able to capture these feelings by weaving the orchestra and libretto together into a perfect "symphonic web."
The program will also feature Wagner's Prelude to the First Act of Die Meistersinger, and the Prelude and Liebestod from his Tristan und Isolde. Wagner composed both of these works during the decade-long hiatus he took from writing The Ring, and interestingly both of these pieces provide a unique insight into Wagner's life off-stage.
The Prelude to the first act of Die Meistersinger reveals the comedic nature of Wagner, a man famous for his dark and serious compositions. Amongst his friends and relatives, Wagner was known as a practical jokester, and on-stage this element is captured by the piece's festive tone and the plot's focus on humor, humanity and charm. Die Meistersinger is a salute to the mastersinger guilds of 16th century Nuremberg, Bavaria, which consisted of merchants, bakers, tailors and cobblers that passionately supported German poetry and song. Wagner shows his admiration for these patrons of the arts by making use of the entire orchestra, particularly the brass, and by reveling in the bright key of C major.
The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, a tale of painful, unfulfilled love, is also intimately connected to Wagner's personal life as he wrote the piece while in the midst of his own clandestine love affair with Matilde Wesendonk, the wife of his wealthy benefactor. The composition's original inspiration is the 13th-century German poem of Gottfried von Strassburg, which drew from the Tristan legend of either Celtic Ireland or Wales. The piece, mirroring Wagner's own yearning desire for love, is brimming with heartbreaking chords drawn from the woodwinds, cellos and basses. Wagner's biographer, Ernest Newman, described the Prelude as "the slow musical elaboration of a single bittersweet mood," as the Prelude draws to a close on a hopelessly tragic note.
The Liebestod, or "love-death", is the opera's final scene and features Isolde's aria to the dead Tristan. The aria's climactic soprano is often left out of the piece when it is performed at symphonic concerts, but soprano Heidi Melton, in her BSO debut, will sing the aria in its true operatic form. Melton's "big, gleaming and tonally resplendent" voice will perfectly capture this last moment of pure musical tension, as the violins reach their highest C-sharp and Isolde's death is punctuated by a resounding chord in B-major.