Wagner and Verdi Bicentennial

For my criticism class:

An anniversary celebration of Wagner and Verdi? Extravagance is a given. Both are giants of opera, known for massive works that call for enormous orchestras and powerful singers. Wagner’s librettos often deal with Norse mythology, filled with dwarfs, gods, and knights. Many of Verdi’s are the ultimate in tragedy (a mother throws her child into a fire in Il Trovatore), but leave room for spectacle (there have been productions of Aida with live elephants). So a concert in honor of both composer’s bicentennials is sure to be immoderate, to say the least.

To rise to the occasion, a fully complemented Oberlin Orchestra joined forces with the Musical Union and Oberlin College Choir on Sunday, Dec. 8 in Finney Chapel under the baton of Raphael Jiménez, with the two choirs prepared by director Jason Harris. Despite being jam-packed with musicians, Finney’s stage was too small to hold everyone, some singers displaced to the balcony. With such forces, calling the climaxes colossal is an understatement.

Each composer was highlighted in a half of the concert. Though this order allowed for a good comparison of styles, a mixed program would have been appreciated so that Verdi could provide a palliative to the sometimes overblown Wagner. An uninterrupted hour of some of Wagner’s most epic music felt like being clobbered by the Norse gods who inhabit his works.

Not that his music isn’t incredibly powerful and wonderful. In the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, sustained chords slowly unfold in a sanctified atmosphere, moving from the high violins through magical harmonic shifts into the full orchestra. The Pilgrim’s Chorus and Finale from Act II of Tannhäuser is similarly bathed in a holy light. When the entire chorus joined together for a rousing close, it seemed as though the gates of heaven had opened. You can’t help but marvel at Wagner’s incredible compositional art when four themes are combined to create a triumphal patchwork in the Act I Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which moved without pause into the same opera’s Chorus and Finale from Act III on Sunday. The Wagner part of the program was rounded out with his ubiquitous Bridal Chorus. Oberlin’s chorus was muscular and energetic while the orchestra was majestic and fully committed to their playing.

The Verdi half provided a stark contrast. His melodies have more character than Wagner’s, like the sultry theme in the Overture to La Forza del Destino or the doleful phrases of La Traviata’s Act III Prelude, which Oberlin’s strings struggled to keep in tune. Low-life characters add a sprightly love of life to his music, like the Gypsies in the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. Aida’s Act IITriumphal March and Ballet Music is vividly colorful as a result of its exotic locale, Egypt. And Verdi can inspire without resorting to ecstatic mysticism, as the simple melody of “Va, pensiero” illustrates.

Twenty-five years until the next big exciting, moving, exhausting anniversary  concert. We’ll need the intervening time to recover from all the bombast.

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