Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Verdi Contra Wagner?

Wagner and Verdi choruses ring in a Ring Festival LA program

Wagner & Verdi: Opposing Roads to Greatness
The Verdi Chorus
Anne Marie Ketchum, Music Diretcor
Laraine Stivers-Madden, Accompanist
Aurelio de la Vega, Commentator
First United Methodist Church, Santa Monica, California
Saturday, May 1, 7 pm (Repeated Sunday, May 2, 4 pm)

For two centuries, Bostonians have listened to oratorios performed by the venerable Handel and Haydn Society. On two nights last weekend, Angelenos listened to opera excerpts performed by what might well have been called “The Verdi and Wagner Chorus.”

OK, it’s really The Verdi Chorus.

But in honor of Ring Festival LA, and at their usual venue, Santa Monica’s First United Methodist Church, our operatic choristers magnanimously devoted bookended segments of a concert to the two greatest opera composers of the 19th Century. Titled Wagner & Verdi: Opposing Roads to Greatness, the program featured in one corner (first half) the challenger, Richard Wagner; in the other corner (second half) their usual champion, Giuseppe Verdi.

Fortunately Sixtus Beckmesser was not in charge of the judging in this singing contest or he might have skewed the results as he did those of Walter von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. In fact, under the capable hands of Music Director Anne Marie Ketchum, accompanist Laraine Stivers-Madden, and the splendid voices of The Verdi Chorus, the two composers were sung to a draw. As in American politics, however, each of their audience claques went home quite certain their boy had won.

All kidding aside, their usual Verdi style proving no stumbling block to the singers in either the German language or Wagner’s musical idiom, thrilling Wagner choruses rang out in the large sanctuary hall from Tannhäuser, Parsifal, Der Fliegende Holländer, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Likewise, Verdi was represented with the ensemble’s usual flair in selections from Don Carlo, La Forza del Destino, Il Trovatore, and Aïda.

More uneven were contributions from the soloists in arias or solo segments from the same operas. At the head of the list by a wide margin were those of dramatic soprano Erin Wood. Possessing a strong top voice with a rich lower register (she reportedly began her career as a mezzo) Wood commanded the evening in such selections as Dich, teure Halle from Tannhäuser, Senta’s Ballad from Holländer, and Pace mio Dio from Forza.

Tenor Shem von Schroeck lent solid credentials to a number of ensemble solos. Less effective were contributions from the unrefined, occasionally glottal mezzo soprano, Shoghig Koushakjian, and the initially underpowered, if pleasant baritone, In Joon Jang. Smaller solo roles contributed by regular members of the chorus were always effective and some of quite high quality.

In a long evening, however, some of the more protracted solos and solo ensembles might have been trimmed to keep audience ears fresh and eager for the choruses in the longish program.

Prior to the concert, the eminent composer and musicologist, Aurelio de la Vega, gave an overview of both Verdi and Wagner and their place in 19th Century music. Each was important, and each was a nationalist, seeking to unify his respective politically fractured country. In musical approaches the two differed. Verdi’s was evolutionary, emerging organically from the bel canto tradition of his older contemporaries, Donizetti and Bellini. By contrast, Wagner was a musical revolutionary who sought to radically reform not just music, but also the formal aspects of opera and its relationship with story material, drama, stagecraft, and philosophy.

As generous as the program was, it missed some opportunities by not exploring the Italian influences on Wagner’s musical development, as for example by inclusion of a selection from his early Bellini-infused Das Liebesverbot. Likewise, it has often been observed that Verdi had succumbed to at least a modicum of influence from Wagner in Otello, no selection of which was on this program.

We can be grateful for The Verdi Chorus and its quarter of a century of solid choral singing in Los Angeles, its fine reputation sustained this evening. Maybe a few more Wagner choruses here and there might not be a bad idea going forward.

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