Christine Goerke and Greer Grimsley reach long-awaited heights at BSO’s ‘Wagner Opera Spectacular’
It’s a feeling that has accompanied, to some extent, every gig I’ve attended since I started coordinating my pocket squares with my KN95s. A back-to-normal subtext has itself become a sort of new normal. And while the novelty is starting to wear off, I have to admit that when I heard fragments of the brassy, bellowing leitmotif of “Ride of the Valkyries” seeping through the stage doors onto Goerke’s post, and back to Strathmore as the BSO eased upwards, it set off a wave of familiar Wagnerian chills.
This “Spectacular” was particular in its balance of weight and spirit: “Ride” and the heartbreaking final act of “Die Walküre” were preceded by a driving run through Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F major (Op. 93). Directed by James Conlon — Music Director of LA Opera and currently in his first year as Artistic Advisor to the BSO — the orchestra sounded full, bright, tight and (if I’m reading my notes correctly) hungry.
(Namely, this was my first experience hearing the BSO in Strathmore, one of the most sonically rewarding spaces I’ve encountered since arriving in Washington. The closeness and clarity of certain frequencies m raised eyebrows a few times.)
Conlon drives like a man with Beethoven encoded in his muscle memory. He conducted a low-key dialogue with the orchestra on Saturday, tightly controlled (for the most part) and less concerned with seeking out the granular nooks and crannies than maintaining the liveliness and force of the work. After a few weeks immersed in the Beethoven cycle of the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gianandrea Noseda, this difference in approach has become accentuated.
A few performances together in Baltimore had clearly tightened some of the bolts between Conlon and the BSO. This symphony, written in 1812 (a year before Wagner was born), is often described as “lively”, but rare is the conductor who can go beyond and make it sound. living. Conlon is one of them.
In the first movement, the orchestra negotiated elastic tempos and effervescent accumulations. In the second – an allegretto scherzando of seductive brevity that evokes a ticking clock (or, according to some traditions, a device called a metronome) – they crawled and leapt like a cat. In the third movement, a few uncertain notes from the horns dulled the polish slightly, but were quickly softened by fine work through the woodwinds. And the fourth movement, with its opening shock in C sharp and the throbbing tiptoe towards its end, was both celebratory and surprisingly intimate: a party brimming with inside jokes.
Whatever emotions Goerke unleashed on Instagram were contained within the radius of her smile as she took the stage with Grimsley on Saturday. Sitting on stage through a stirring tale of “Ride of the Valkyries” – without riding Valkyries, but fully loaded nonetheless – Goerke was clearly enjoying the view on his way back to the top of the mountain. (Locals may remember his last-minute replacement for the injured Catherine Foster when the Washington National Opera staged its “Ring Cycle” in 2016.)
But as the final scene drew closer, so did Brünnhilde’s fate, and Goerke slipped into character as if falling into a dream. From there, Goerke and Grimsley (a terrific Wotan, if sometimes overwhelmed by the brass) summoned enough grief, anger and fire to burn away any residual guilt I might have harbored about jumping up. ‘in the end to get the goods. (It’s a bit like cheating.)
In song and on stage, Goerke and Grimsley have created a fast and strange chemistry – their bond is present enough that you can feel it breaking – and I am convinced that Brünnhilde lives in Goerke’s body. His voice didn’t just rise above the orchestra; she lured them to meet him. And Grimsley, summoning the ring of fire to encircle his daughter, also spoke of a measure of courage and grace that more Wotans could use.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s no small feat for an orchestra to go from symphonic acrobatics to the demands of Wagner’s musical dramas – let alone in the space of a single evening. The BSO turned this test into a treat, the strength of the first half honed by the sensitivity of the second.