Music Director Christof Perick had planned an all Wagner program of overtures, scenes and solos, and choral excerpts to culminate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Charlotte Symphony. Unfortunately his wife’s serious illness forced him to miss the last two classical programs of the season. The orchestra was lucky to get George Hanson, longtime Music Director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, to cover the program on short notice. His seven years of experience as General Music Director of the Wuppertal Symphony and Opera in Germany was evident in the theatrical vitality and polish of his interpretations. His informal and short comments from the podium of Belk Theater before leading the pieces helped put the works in context. Well-timed super-titles helped keep listeners abreast of the dramatic excerpts.
The German language was second nature for all three vocal soloists, two Germans and a Dutchman. Their diction was crisp and clear. The running stereotypical operatic saying — "It ain't over till the fat lady sings" — could not have been further from the truth in the case of the soprano, Carola Höhn. In today’s opera world, looks can be deceiving. The native of Erfurt, Germany, looked like a slight waif but when she sang she filled the hall with no trace of strain. She was superb in the role of Elisabeth in Act II, Scenes 1-4, from Tannhäuser. Her warm voice was seamlessly even across its range, and she brought out her character’s emotional depth while blending perfectly with her Tannhäuser in the duet "Gepriesen sei die Stunde" ("Oh blessed hour of meeting"). In an age of opera audiences and directors putting a premium on a character's physical realism, Höhn's sterling vocalism ought to take her far.
Since the passing of Lauritz Melchior and Wolfgang Windgassen, there has been a woeful lack of true Wagnerian Heldentenors. Few have the heft and stamina to sing over Wagner’s huge orchestra. Fewer still have anything like a pleasing sweetness of timbre. Tenor Albert Bonnema, a native of Holland, came closer to the basic characteristics than I expected. He gave a sensitive account of “Morgenlich leuchtend in rosigem Schein” (“Shinning resplendent in dawn’s rosy light”), the Prize Song from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Only a few moments of strain were evident as Bonnema brought natural warmth to Walther’s vision. His timbre was pleasing and he carefully crafted the dynamics to wring out the maximum of meaning from the words. Bonnema sang the Prize Song without a score but used one for his marginally less attractive and free performance of Tannhäuser’s part from Act II, Scenes 1-4.
Bass Michael Dries, a native of Munich, was a towering Hans Sachs in an excerpt from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. As he stood by conductor Hanson, he was nearly as high as the tall director was on his podium. His even, light voice was easily projected no matter whether he was singing quietly or loudly. Age should add darker color and weight to an already very pleasant instrument. Hans Sachs' “Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!” (“Mad! Mad! All the world’s mad!”), can come across as hectoring. Dries’ subtle phrasing brought out both Sachs’ good-humored brusqueness and his tender, poetic side.
The Oratorio Singers of Charlotte had been superbly prepared by their director, Scott Allen Jarret. Sopranos and altos sandwiched the men between them. Sections sang together in lock step as if they were one voice. Words were clearly enunciated and projected, and dynamics were carefully observed. The choir sang with wonderful full and rich sound that blended well with the orchestra. In the Prelude to Act I and Chorale from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the transition from orchestra to the opening scene with the church choir performance of a Bach-like chorale was managed seamlessly. The dramatic quality of the crowd at the song contest ("Wach' auf, es nahet gen den Tag") was well conveyed as was their growing wonder as Walther sang the Prize Song. The Bridal Chorus from Act III of Lohengrin was festive and stirring, enhanced by extra off-stage brass placed high above the boxes on the right of the stage. The chorus’ role was briefer in the excerpts from Tannhäuser.
The members of the Charlotte Symphony performed at the top of their form. They played with tight ensemble, producing a full and rich string tone, highlighted by vital woodwinds and brilliant brass. This was immediately evident as each section had its turn in the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger. There was a lovely baroque quality when the chorus entered at the end of the orchestra portion as cellist Alan Black joined Mark Tysinger on electronic organ to provide a continuo accompaniment. The delicate poetry of the Act III Prelude, considered one of Wagner’s finest pieces, was filled with gossamer magic. The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin was even more ethereal while the Act III Prelude was ablaze with rousing brass. Throughout all the excerpts, including the four scenes from Tannhäuser, the orchestra played Wagner’s many leitmotiven adroitly.