While Melbourne’s State Theatre reverberated to the awe-inspiring strains of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the adjacent Hamer Hall was having more than its fair share of Wagner excitement in a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert entitled Simone Young Conducts Wagner & Bruckner.
In a series of coincidences, we had yet another gifted American singer to add to the roll call of internationally celebrated exponents of Wagner’s operas singing in Melbourne. Along with soprano Amber Wagner (apparently no relation to the Master), we had another acclaimed Sieglinde in mezzo Michelle DeYoung. (How often do you find a singer and conductor with virtually the same name?).
Both singers have the range and richness of tone to a sing role that is not sung exclusively by one voice type. Kundry is another but is even more demanding, requiring a high B – no mean feat for a mezzo. In excerpts from Act II of Parsifal DeYoung was a Kundry with exceptional talents. Possessing a three-octave range, impressive amplitude of sound and sensitive musicality, she stood goddess-like in all of her six foot one inch glory, her mane of curly blonde hair as voluminous as her opulent voice. Alive to text and musical phrasing, she conveyed the many shades of Kundry’s enigmatic character as she attempted to seduce Parsifal and then turned on him in passionate denunciation when he rejected her. The covered tone of her rich dark voice occasionally involved some unusual vowel sounds and her top notes were not always without strain, but this was a Kundry of remarkable accomplishment. Besides which, the sense of a singer in this role stretched to the heights of passion is pretty exciting, especially when the notes are there. Both she and Stuart Skelton sang without a score, which enabled them to make some, if limited, theatrical connection.
Stuart Skelton had sung the role of Siegmund in Opera Australia’s 2013 production of Die Walküre with great success. In an earlier concert in Hamer Hall the initial overwhelming impression was the power of his voice; on Thursday night it was its beauty. Smooth and finely textured, he responded to Kundry’s call with quiet wonder as he recalled a dream about his dead mother. DeYoung played on his feelings of guilt at abandoning his mother with expert coloration as she and Parsifal’s mother became conflated in his mind. All very Freudian. Skelton’s outburst of conscience and, after Kundry’s kiss, agonized awakening to the pain endured by Amfortas were only surpassed in dramatic intensity when he cast her off and pleaded for salvation. The interweaving of hushed pathos with mighty Heldentenor vocal power during this rollercoaster of emotions was phenomenally effective. Both singers pushed the limits of their expressive range to bring Wagner’s music drama to life.
Simone Young and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra were fundamental to the creation of such irresistible dramatic force. Surging, elastic rhythms and well-coordinated playing provided the essential momentum. There was sterling work on the part of the brass and Concertmaster Eoin Andersen provided an attractive obbligato as Parsifal remembers his mother. With Sophie Rowell sharing the front desk, the orchestra followed Young’s clear direction as if at one with her conception.
As a Wagner and Bruckner devotee Simone Young was an ideal maestro for this program. She very wisely decided to reverse the order so that Bruckner’s Symphony No.9 was played before interval. Both works could be considered swan songs since Parsifal was premiered only months before Wagner’s death in Venice and Bruckner was unable to complete the fourth movement before his death. The Parsifal excerpt in some respects provided that final movement – an idea that might have pleased Bruckner since he, among other great composers, was a huge fan of Wagner’s genius. In dedicating his Symphony No.3 to Wagner he wrote: “To the eminent Excellency Richard Wagner the Unattainable, World- Famous, and Exalted Master of Poetry and Music, in Deepest Reverence Dedicated by Anton Bruckner”. Debussy too judged Parsifal to be “one of the finest monuments in sound ever to have been raised to the everlasting glory of music”.
Even in its unfinished form, Bruckner’s monumental symphony runs close to an hour. Boasting twice as many players in the horn/Wagner tuba section as Parsifal the symphony begins on a hushed note before the horns enter sounding quite Wagneresque. Although the violins soon establish the unmistakable voice of Bruckner, it is remarkable how many members of the audience found echoes of other composers throughout this piece. In a work so brimming with ideas, sudden shifts and contrasts, it is perhaps not surprising to have these fleeting glimpses. It was as though Bruckner had filled a bag full of musical jewels from which subsequent composers could take their pick. Although Bruckner and Mahler are significantly different in compositional techniques, the passage of gloriously full MSO string tone in the third movement was reminiscent of Mahler at his most sumptuous. Of the many riches to be found in Bruckner’s symphony and these performances a couple of others stood out.
The first is the way Simone Young engaged her whole body to express her intentions. This was not only useful for the orchestra but also helped the audience to find greater meaning in the music. Particularly in the second performance I was struck by the way she stretched the rhythms with a lilting, suspended upbeat that swept into the next phrase with renewed momentum. The Scherzo, between the comparatively solemn pillars of the outer movements, was unrestrained in its weighty stamping motion as if savage drunken giants were dancing in turn with dainty damsels. The other standout was the terrific work of the brass, both as individual sections and as a satisfyingly integrated whole. Guest Principal horn, Samuel Jacobs was truly impressive; it seemed that he was kept almost as busy as the string players.
This final concert of the MSO’s subscription series was a wonderful way to finish the year. Enthusiastic cheering and many members of the audience standing to applaud at the end of the Parsifal excerpts acknowledged this as being among the most successful concerts of 2016. Now there’s only a Messiah left to round off another terrific year of music making by the MSO.
Reviewer Heather Leviston first heard the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concert, Simone Young Conducts Wagner & Bruckner, at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on December 1, and was so impressed she returned on the night of December 3 for the repeat performance!