Die Walküre

Elio Boncompagni
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
13 February 1984
Opera Baltimore
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
SiegmundWilliam Johns
HundingMatthias Hölle
WotanJames Morris
SieglindeBrenda Roberts
BrünnhildePauline Tinsley
FrickaSheila Nadler
HelmwigeSusan Dunn
GerhildeSusan Neves
OrtlindeMilagros Williams
WaltrauteMertine Johns
SiegruneJeanne Haughan
GrimgerdeMartha Jane Howe
SchwertleiteCharlotte Dixon
RoßweißeBeverly Williams
Washington Post

James Morris’ New And Powerful Wotan

To borrow a phrase from television commercials, one does not sing Wagner’s Wotan, the king of the gods, until its time. The idea is, correctly, that one does not risk singing an Isolde, or a Dutchman, or a Tristan until the voice is fully developed. Bass James Morris, who is 36 and increasingly a major figure at the Metropolita Opera, took on his first Wotan here Thursday night. And for him, it clearly is time. It is a major step in Morris’ career, and is a very powerful Wotan.

The ocassion was a new production by the Baltimore Opera of the second part of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung–Die Walkure.” It is an normously ambitious work for a regional company like Baltimore’s to take on. In the pit there must be a large orchestra–in this case, the Baltimore Symphony. There must be two Wagnerian sopranos (or 10, if you count the Valkries), a Wagnerian tenor, a contralto, a deep bass and, most important, a sonorous heroic bass, for Wotan.

Though the god appears in three of the four operas that constitute the “Ring’s” two-third of a day span, it is “Die Walkure” that is, above all, his. And it is also “Die Walkure” in which Wagner’s passionate and heroic lyricism flows most contantly at floodtide, especially in Wotan’s music.

With a Wotan of Morris’ dramatic and musical command, the Baltimore production could hardly fail. It is not unusual for a Met singer to sing a major role for the first time in a less visible place than the Met. But, rest assured, Morris’ Wotan is not the cautious, tentative tryout that often results under such circumstances. This is a characterization that could go onto the stage in New York next week and be a triumph (although Simon Estes, not Morris, is cast as Wotan in the Met performances this spring at the Kennedy Center).

Dramatically, Morris is a godlike Wotan–quite different from the world-weary captain of fate of Donald McIntyre’s perfomances in last season’s televised “Ring.” Of course, Morris’ 6-foot-3 presence is an enormous asset. Marvelously made up and costumed (wearing a huge long cloak with train), he looked imposing indeed on the stage. And Morris, a naturally athletic man, handled himself regally without ever undercutting the ultimate pathos of the role.

There was as much drama in his voice as in his demeanor. As basses go, he is very much the lyricist, with superb resonace, especially in the middle range. Ocassionally, there was a hard note at the top–something that Morris should be cautious about, becuase if he preserves the top, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be singing the part 20 to 25 years from now, as did his coach for the part, the great Hans Hotter. Time and again Morris caught the subtle effects of Wagner’s superb text, exploring the complex and irreconciliable demands of being both the angry god and the loving father.

Inevitably, the production and other singers suffered by comparison. At least one other singer, though, seemed quite well cast–Shelia Nadler as Wotan’s vengeful wife, Fricka. It is a large, lovely, mezzo, and she has lots of passion in her portrayal.

Pauline Tinsley’s portrayal of Brunnhilde lacks vocal and dramatic majesty, but she sings and acts well, though stage director Bliss Hebert should not left her just standing there singing so often–especially since Morris’ stage action has been thought out in such complete detail.

Matthias Holle’s Hunding, with hime made up like a Nordic “Mr. T,” was the one breath of life in the opening act–where the Sigmund and Siegmund and Sieglinde of William Johns and Brenda Roberts were astonishingly straight-faced, both in action and in sound.

Settings were serviceable; it is unfair to expect a company with Baltimore’s budget to match Bayreuth. After a listless first act, the orchestra played vigorously under conductor Elio Boncompagni.

Lon Tuck | February 13, 1984

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A production by Bliss Hebert
James Morris gives his first Wotan.