An electrifying Wagner after 18 years

The Inbox

By Pablo A. Tariman, VERA Files

Photo by Charmaine Deogracias

The cream of Manila's opera lovers showed up in an all-Wagner program Saturday night and gave its guest soprano, Claire Primrose, a standing ovation along with the Manila Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Russian conductor Alexander Vikulov.

The last all-Wagner concert heard in Manila was in March of 1994, the same month Luciano Pavarotti had his Philippine debut.

Opening with the Overture to Meistersinger von Nuremburg, Vikulov led an unusually large orchestra with members spilling over the side entrance and exit. The grandeur of this overture set the tone for the evening. The MSO sound was solid as it was firm and gradually ravishing. The drama of Wagner's music was not lost on the audience who gave the orchestra and its conductor a resounding welcome applause.

Physically, Claire Primrose didn't fit the stereotype looks of Wagnerian singers. She's fairly trim, but when her sound was heard in the opening phrases of Tannhauser's Dich Teure Halle (Greetings to the hall), there was total silence in the hall you could hear a pin drop. The singer actually was well warmed up and the Wagnerian sound simply came out like a sudden gush of fresh, forceful gale.

Of course it helped that there was a power point (subtitle) translating the German arias as the performance went on. At the end of the first aria, a thunderous applause ensued and there was no doubt that she would deliver without hitch.

Primrose essayed love and longing in the Prelude and Liebestod (Love-Death) and for once you rediscover the unusual quality of Wagner's music. Used to the sound of Verdi and Puccini, the audience took to Wagner initially with unease but later gave way to unrestrained exhilaration.

The Siegmund and Siegfried Love Duet (from Die Walkure) featuring guest tenor Randy Gilongo gave the audience an unusual format of this duet. All throughout the duet, they didn't really sing together but answered each other's laments. In the duet, Primrose was trying to connect by looking into the eyes of the tenor but obviously he was too busy trying to hurdle the big Wagner challenge at the expense of acting and spontaneity.

But Gilongo gave it his best and the local audience realized a Filipino can tackle Wagner with fairly good result. His tessitura sustained the long arduous phrases of Wagner and even conveyed high drama. But as usual, the eyes were all on the soprano whose vocal prowess continued to stun the audience.

The orchestra lived up to the standard of the soloist and in the Prelude to Act 3, there was so much to relish. There was fairly good balance and the conductor brought in   orchestral precision without having to coax for it.

In the much-awaited Immolation Scene from Gotterammerung, the audience witnessed Wagnerian drama of the highest order. The power point not only gave the translation but actually visualized what was going on in the opera's final scene.

One could feel the audience holding its breath as the singer intoned: (a translation of the German text):

Radiant in the fire,

there lies your lord,

Siegfried, my blessed hero.

Are you neighing for joy

to follow your friend?

Do the laughing flames

lure you to him?

Feel my bosom too,

how it burns;

a bright fire

fastens on my heart

to embrace him,

enfolded in his arms,

to be one with him

in the intensity of love!

The big bonus about Primrose is that she could act as she could vocally deliver. You could actually see the sea of flames mirrored on her face even as the orchestra finished the rest of the concluding music. She was ecstatic as she was intense with her range, stamina and power perfectly intact.

In the end, Primrose and the orchestra got a resounding standing ovation which showed that Wagner had a special appeal all its own.

To be sure, this concert is another feather on the cap of the MSO which was supported by the  Australian Embassy and Mr. and Mrs. Fred Elizalde who provided the rehearsal venue and helped in getting the right conductor for the event.

In the end, you recall Wagner's credo and realize his art came not so much from his earthly financial ordeals but from a firm belief on the power of his art which he verbalized thus:

"I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven, and likewise their disciples and apostles; - I believe in the Holy Spirit and the truth of the one, indivisible Art; - I believe that this Art proceeds from God, and lives within the hearts of all illumined men; I believe that through Art all men are saved."

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")