Rare foray into opera proves to be rewarding
By Marilyn Farwell From The Register-Guard July 4, 2013 The Oregon Bach Festival rarely has dipped its toes into operatic waters. We have heard fantastic opera singers during the festival’s 44-year run, but for the most part they sang in lieder recitals, oratorios, Masses, and of course, in J.S. Bach’s Passions. Once in a while, we have been treated to an offbeat opera in concert, such as that odd duck, “The Uncle From Boston” by Felix Mendelssohn. And in several fortunate instances, we heard Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, an opera in all but name. This year, however, brought a perfect storm of operatic anniversary births: 200 years for Verdi and Richard Wagner, and 100 years for Benjamin Britten. The festival grabbed this opportunity to showcase festival favorite Tamara Wilson in what Executive Director John Evans called “a feast of opera.” Although Tuesday’s program for “A Night at the Opera” at the Hult Center highlighted Wilson’s singing, the OBF orchestra, under the energetic and dramatic leadership of incoming artistic director Matthew Halls, occupied center stage for much of the concert with operatic preludes, overtures and interludes. It was an exciting and rousing concert that included substantial, albeit traditional, examples of each composer’s work. Wilson has been singing big Verdi roles around the world, and her clarion spinto sound is perfect for characters such as Aida. She began her first aria, Verdi’s “Pace, pace mio Dio,” with a perfect messa di voce from offstage; then, while singing with melting lyricism, she walked on stage. Wilson’s vocal talents include a trill, smooth register transitions and an easy pianissimo in her upper range. Better enunciation would advance her interpretive skills. In her second Verdi aria, the early “Ernani! Ernani! involami,” she had to execute florid as well as legato passages, and although she is not as comfortable in that style, she was convincing. The most impressive piece was the Prelude and “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” the beginning and end of his five-hour drama. The orchestra played these sections with alternately subdued accuracy and expansive drama. While Wilson is not a Wagnerian soprano, she sang radiantly, even though the orchestral dynamics obscured her lower range. In an inspired bit of programming, Halls chose to offer only orchestral and vocal selections from Britten’s 1945 masterpiece “Peter Grimes.” In this way, the audience could follow the arc of the musical story. Britten specialist Nicholas Phan sang his solo with grace. Wilson sang a subdued “Embroidery Song.” Wilson, Roxana Constantinescu, Julia Sophie Wagner and Linh Kauffman sang the delicate quartet inspired by Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier,” but the piece was strangely unsatisfying. The orchestra played Britten’s haunting sea interludes brilliantly. Halls brought out every minutia of drama from the orchestra. The one purely instrumental work, Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” was Wagner’s birthday present to his wife. Since no mere “Happy Birthday to You” would do for him, Wagner composed a 20-minute tone poem. The orchestra began with some intonation problems, but at the end Halls conducted an exquisite and exquisitely long diminuendo. Now that the festival has tested the operatic waters, perhaps it will venture beyond the shore in future. Marilyn Farwell, a professor emerita of English at the University of Oregon, reviews vocal and choral music for The Register-Guard.