Wagner triumphs on the West Side

The cast, with conductor Isaac Selya and director James Slouffman, center
The cast, with conductor Isaac Selya and director James Slouffman, center

Last weekend, on a beautiful fall day, I traveled to the West Side of Cincinnati to see the Queen City Chamber Opera mount Wagner’s “Siegfried” Act I. The opera start-up led by Isaac Selya, 28, was putting on a reduced version of the orchestration by Alfons Abbass. It is believed to be the first performance of this edition in the United States.

“Siegfried” is the the third drama in “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” It was the second Wagner opera tackled by Selya, in collaboration with the Wagner Society of Cincinnati — he mounted Act I of “Die Walkure” last spring. It was an ambitious undertaking, but no surprise for those who know about this ambitious young company. Their productions take place in the Dunham Arts Center – a Hannaford-built Arts Deco building that at one time served as an arts center for patients of a tuberculosis sanatorium on the park grounds.

This was a fresh, youthful production that was musically excellent. It included a cast of three rising singers, all with ties to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
The orchestra of 43 players was spread out below the small stage. As might be expected, the set design, by James Slouffman (who also directed), was bare bones but functional. A box with a bellows was the forge, with the anvil front and center. Behind the wall of Mime’s hut was a lovely painted forest backdrop.

Selya’s reading of the score was secure and richly detailed, and he propelled the action well. Wagner’s motives were sharply etched in horns and brass, and the orchestra played expressively. It was interesting to hear this “chamber” version, without those mellow Wagner tubas, which made the sound very bright in a hall that is already bright.

That said, there was something visceral about hearing Wagner up close – almost as if the listeners were part of the music drama. Tenor M. Andrew Jones was superb as the wily dwarf Mime, whose ulterior motive for raising the orphaned young man, Siegfried, is to get the magical Ring – even if it means killing him.

As our hero, a CCM-trained heldentenor named Matt Tschimperle bounded onto the stage with his pet bear (Rob Rosenberg), and put Mime in a choke hold to try to learn his identity. He sang with ardor, once leaping up onto a bench. He gleefully forged his sword (Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert!), and exuberantly dashed out to slay the dragon.

On Sunday, there were some issues with balance in the tenor voices, but there was no issue with bass Timothy J. Bruno. He was sensational as The Wanderer, and his powerful presence and robust voice filled the hall. His scene with Mime of the three questions was riveting,

Under Selya’s baton, the orchestra was excellent, with special praise going to the horns.  The afternoon ended all too quickly; it’s too bad we didn’t get to hear the magnificent Forest Murmurs (Waldweben) in Act 2, or see what fantastic invention might represent Fafner, the dragon. Afterwards, Selya said he might someday perform the entire work.

I have no doubt that he will eventually lead an entire Ring Cycle. But first, it’s on to Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” in March. I can’t wait.

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