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Review: May Festival concludes with operatic grandeur

James Conlon

By Janelle Gelfand

Opera lovers may find it difficult to choose a favorite moment in the Cincinnati May Festival’s season finale. Saturday’s concert led by James Conlon hailed the bicentennials of opera titans Wagner and Verdi with a hit parade of scenes and choruses.

Under Conlon, who observes his 35th year as May Festival music director next season, the opera evening has become a regular presence within the festival’s oratorio fare. But the volunteer, 140-voice May Festival Chorus was hardly ignored on Saturday. Its selections ranged from Verdi’s expansive and moving chorus of the Hebrew slaves, “Va Pensiero” from “Nabucco,” to the finale of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” which fittingly for Cincinnati, sent the audience away to the words “Honor your German masters.”

There were multiple standing ovations before the traditional sing-along of the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the festival’s conclusion. The crowd cheered lustily for the grand chorus, “Gloria all’Egitto” (Glory to Egypt) and the Triumphal Scene from Verdi’s “Aida,” in which the processional music performed by Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra was as vivid as if the elephants, ostriches and other colorful participants were parading across Music Hall’s stage.

The evening’s most spellbinding moment arrived when two excellent Wagnerian singers, soprano Christine Goerke and bass-baritone Alan Held, performed Brünnhilde and Wotan’s scene from Act III of “Die Walküre” (The Valkyries). Held’s majestic voice was a match for the trombones. He enthralled as he confronted his daughter with her transgressions, angrily spitting out the text. His emotion was palpable as he bid farewell to her, rushing to her side and delivering an embrace that brought Goerke and some in the audience to tears. Raising his arm dramatically, he boomed to Loge, the god of fire, to encircle her in a ring of fire.

In contrast to Held’s commanding presence, Goerke, who only recently added Brünnhilde to her repertoire, was often buried in her score. When she tore herself away, she unleashed a voluptuous voice that soared over the large orchestra and her phrasing was quite moving.

Conlon breathed with his singers, and he built the music to rapturous climaxes. The Magic Fire Music sparkled and blazed, with superb playing from the winds and brass.

Held returned to sing Hans Sachs in the finale of “Die Meistersinger,” a gripping performance that gave weight to each word.

The chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, projected a noble sound in “Wach’auf!,” as the people of Nuremberg. They were less successful as Scottish refugees in “Patria oppressa!” (Oppressed Homeland) from Verdi’s “Macbeth,” which called for crisper rhythms and enunciation. “Treulich Geführt,” the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” was memorable for its charm and lightness.

Through all that and more, Conlon energized the choral and orchestral forces, whipped up excitement in the dramatic moments and knew just when to pull back.

The evening opened with trumpeters in the gallery as the chorus sang in German, “Joyfully we greet the noble hall,” from the procession of the nobles in the Wartburg from “Tannhäuser.”

Few concert halls in the country besides Music Hall, which was built for this festival, possess the grandeur that is so suited to this music.