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The Valkyrie, Eos Orchestra, 20 March 2004

The Eos Orchestra continued its traversal of the Ring Cycle, compressed and adapted for chamber orchestra, in an arrangement originally developed in the 1980s by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick for the City of Birmingham Touring Opera. The production was given at NYU's Skirball Center, on the south side of Washington Square Park--a considerable improvement over the cramped Ethical Culture Auditorium, where the same team's Rhinegold was given two years ago.

Director Christopher Alden set the entire opera in a sparsely-furnished kitchen, emphasizing the domestic conflicts that pervade the story. The reduced orchestration brought Wagner into the compass of singers (all of them superb actors) who would otherwise never attempt it. Led by Sanford Sylvan (Wotan) and Linda Pavelka (Fricka), the ensemble cast delivered an interpretation that was at once shocking, yet beneath its surface respectful of the story's emotional core.

The abridgement took the opera down to three hours with a single 20-minute intermission, meaning that about 75 minutes of music was lost. I don't mind cutting Wagner, which even the haughty Met used to do in times past (admittedly not to this degree). Generally, Dove's cuts are seamless. But the the two-act structure compels the loss of the great musical climaxes with which Wagner ended the original Acts I and II, and a new musical climax is "invented" where Wagner never intended one, to take us to the evening's lone intermission.

Dove's arrangement for an orchestra of eighteen players works better than one would think. Most of the time I was lost in the drama, and not really conscious that 80% of the instruments Wagner wrote for were missing. But at times the loss was glaring. The Ride of the Valkyries sounded tinny, as did the Magic Fire music that ends the opera. The fault seemed to be with the upper strings--just two violins and one viola--which didn't always play together, and just couldn't produce enough sound.

(Dove's scalpel didn't fall equally on all instruments. He writes for two horns, which is 1/4th of the eight that Wagner used. The two cellos are 1/6th of Wagner's complement, and the one double bass is 1/8th. But the lone viola is 1/12th of a full Wagner orchestra, and the two violins just 1/16th. I think the sound would be about a hundred times better if the upper strings were doubled.)

Conductor Jonathan Sheffer deserves all the praise he can get for bringing this production to life. There was a significant claque of boo-ers when he appeared for his bow, which I did not understand. Let us hope that Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods won't be far behind!

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