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OPERA REVIEW : O.C. Tries Wagner On for Size : Opera Pacific Meets Most of the Challenges in 'Die Walkure'

March 07, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

COSTA MESA — And here we thought it was safe to forget about Opera Pacific. . . .

When last heard from, Orange County's official guardian of the lyric muse was lavishing its pretensions upon a fragile operetta, and doing so with heavy, provincial hands. The public, it should be noted, seemed to love it.

Now, David DiChiera and his not-so-little band have turned to Richard Wagner's "Die Walkure." Repeat: "Die Walkure."

The stretch is formidable, and very costly, too. Some might call it foolhardy.

Wagner, who never even dreamed of thinking small, dealt here in nearly five hours of massive, and massively convoluted, Germanic mythology. He wrote for a huge, tireless, brassy orchestra and demanded a cast of singers equipped with huge, leathery lungs. He required a scenic apparatus that could invoke--hopefully without caricature--an ever-ever-land of super-heroes, super-gods and super-villains, not to mention flying lust-maidens, mystical apparitions and a magic fire adorning the sacred rocks of Valhalla.

There isn't much ersatz-Viennese waltzing here.

The opulent Music Center Opera has attempted Wagner only once--a single "Tristan und Isolde" 6 1/2 years ago. That sobering realization made matters doubly intriguing on Friday as Costa Mesa rushed in where Los Angeles fears to tread.

DiChiera was trying to play David to Peter Hemmings' Goliath. Although the local "Walkure" would hardly make the burghers of Bayreuth look to their laurels, it was emphatically serious, never less than honorable and seldom less than competent. There may be hope.

*

The musical direction was entrusted to John Mauceri, who had led a much-publicized, somewhat controversial "Ring" during his tenure at the Scottish Opera. His concept of Wagnerian grandeur would seem to be neither terribly grand nor terribly passionate, but he knows how to keep the pulse moving, knows where the climaxes lie, knows how to define a mood, and, perhaps most important, knows how to accompany the endangered species on the stage.

Mauceri is, if nothing else, a pro. He also happens to be a musician whose conscience precludes mutilating the score even by a hemidemisemiquaver. (One wonders why he sanctioned that awful wind machine that obliterated much of the prelude.)

The Segerstrom Hall pit is ridiculously inadequate for Wagner. It seated only 71 players on this occasion, and there couldn't have been room for another piccolo. Undaunted, the Opera Pacific Orchestra played reasonably well for Mauceri; it doesn't often encounter a real conductor. Even so, the symphonic output was modest at best, anemic at worst.

The action--and inaction--on the stage was entrusted to another canny veteran of Wagnerian wars, Roberto Oswald of the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. Functioning as director as well as set and lighting designer, he enforced logic amid the potential chaos and created some nice, pretty pictures in the process.

He is no fashionable revisionist--probably not even a modernist--yet he does have the good taste to simplify and stylize the mythic vistas. That's more than can be said for the folks in charge of the kitschy Metropolitan Opera "Ring," which reproduces every infernal leaf in every fussy forest.

Oswald, comfortably safe even when he isn't particularly stimulating, projects a lot of busy clouds on the scrim, makes his characters spend a lot of time rolling on the floor, and tries not to contradict the libretto too much. His traditional sets, designed for Dallas 22 years ago, leave no turns unstoned. Anibal Lapiz's old-fashioned costumes are disarmingly functional--winged helmets, funny breastplates and all--even if they don't always flatter their current wearers.

One first-rate singer dominated the generally second-rate cast on opening night. Jane Eaglen, the 33-year-old Briton who had stepped in to replace Ealynn Voss, actually suggested that the authentic Wagnerian soprano may not be as extinct as the dodo bird. Her voice--big, warm, rich and wide-ranging--cut through the orchestral mass with laughing ease. She articulated Wagner's text poignantly, and, despite her ample physique, sustained a sympathetic facsimile of dramatic credibility.

She doesn't happen to command much of a trill for the battle cry, but Birgit Nilsson didn't master that detail either. Actually, if comparisons were essential, Eaglen would recall Helen Traubel more than Nilsson. It's a happy recollection.

*

The others, for better or worse, belonged in the yes-but category.

John Keyes sang Siegmund with strikingly strong, dark, vibrant tone and really resembled a muscular giant. Like many a would-be Heldentenor before him, however, he tired easily, found the top notes a struggle and tended to sing flat under pressure.

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