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SONOROUS WAGNER GALA AND CAPACITY CROWD AT VALLEJO'S EMPRESS
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OPERA REVIEW
Vallejo Center for the Arts / Saturday, July 9, 2022
Vallejo Festival Orchestra. Thomas Conlin, conductor. Othalie Graham, soprano

O. Graham N. Armstrong T. Conlin July 9 in Vallejo

SONOROUS WAGNER GALA AND CAPACITY CROWD AT VALLEJO'S EMPRESS

by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Saturday, July 9, 2022

Opera galas in the San Francisco Bay Area are a rare occurrence, and an all-Wagner gala even more so. Therefore it’s a pleasure to report that the Vallejo Center for the Arts produced an exciting all-Wagner concert July 9 in Vallejo's charming Empress Theater. There was a near capacity and very happy crowd of 450, showing familiarity with the eight works performed (plus an encore), responding joyfully and loudly to each. Canadian-American soprano Othalie Graham was the radiant soloist with a splendid 63-member orchestra, conducted by the venerable Thomas Conlin.

The beloved Empress Theatre in downtown Vallejo is truly a Bay Area gem. It boasts a dramatic Art Deco interior with comfortable seating, excellent proscenium supertitles, a massively impressive and beautiful fleur de lis ceiling decoration, good sight lines, and very direct and clear sound without too much reverberation to muddy the music. The sound carried extremely well, and although recording microphones were present, there was no amplification for the hall itself. None was needed to say the least!

Getting to hear an all-Wagner program with full orchestra in a more intimate, European-sized venue was an extraordinary treat for the audience, and reminded me of why people have long been passionate about live opera and theater in general. As beautiful, glamorous, and impressive as a big city two or three thousand seat venue may be, it does not provide the same up-close and personal intensity of experience that a more intimate space always delivers. Opera was born in European opera houses seating usually 1000-1500 and that is how it is intended to be experienced, close enough to really see and hear what is going on. Being able to have ones hair parted by a brass section, or to fully take in the nuances of a great performing artist's interpretation of a role, to experience the most delicate pianissimo to the biggest forte, is only possible in a smaller space.

Wagner's immense scores can require 80 or more players. Having 63 on stage for this performance meant that the winds and brass sections were just about full-sized and the only reductions were in the strings. By any measure they made an enormous amount of sound to thrilling effect. The program consisted of orchestra-only selections from Der fliegenden Holländer, Tannhaüser, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg, and Die Walküre. Ms. Graham offered well-known arias from those same works, and The Ride of the Valkyries closed the evening as the best encore ever.

Mr. Conlin was the gracious emcee for the evening, and drawing on his long career experience, he played to the audience with a droll sense of humor that worked for the occasion, sharing anecdotes and setups with ingratiating charm. His conducting style is all business, very controlled, with an abundance of stick movement. Rubato, nuance, and flexible phrase-shaping were either very subtle or missing in many expected places, but his tempos were mostly in line and the music moved well. The pace could have been a little faster in the Meistersinger Act III Prelude and Tannhäuser overture, as well as the opening recitative of "Dich, teure Halle", which was a bit sluggish for the soprano. Elisabeth's huge sense of excitement on that entrance needs to be like a horse out of the gate. But most important was keeping everything together, which he did.

Section balances were all good. Mr. Conlin sat the 2nd violins stage left, and in several places their individual line could be easily heard. The brass was positioned against the stage’s back brick wall, and carried without drowning out the strings or soprano. The conductor presented no interpretative revelations, but in this concert with a recently formed orchestra and few rehearsals, playing it safe with absolutely solid readings was probably the best option.

There was a nice sprinkling of Santa Rosa Symphony players in this orchestra: Karen Shinozaki Sor and Jay Zhong (violin); Elizabeth Prior (viola); Laura McLellan (cello); Scott Macomber (trumpet). Paul Erlich (viola) is also well known to Sonoma County audiences. Concertmaster Nigel Armstrong had several sonorous solos, including a delicious one with the principal cellist Emil Miland. Intonation and dynamics were overall good, considering the hall’s acoustical properties, the size of the orchestra, and music that was perhaps unfamiliar. In sum, it was a fine orchestra that was able to capture the Wagner heroics.

Ms. Graham was the perfect soloist for this concert, having the kind of voice and presence that will amaze and delight anyone. She is stately and beautiful, generous and expressive in a restrained way, and possesses the type of dramatic voice that can make people who think they hate opera (or hate Wagner) think again. There is a magical Italian word to describe the phenomenon of classical vocal beauty: "chiaroscuro". It literally means "bright-dark" and originally was a term employed to describe the strong contrast of light and shadow and the resulting dimensionality it creates in Italian Renaissance painting. Usage spread to other art media and eventually became a musical term applied specifically to the balance of bright and dark color in the human singing voice. Chiaroscuro has been one of the defining standards, together with the principles of breath control and legato, of the vocal production, technique and style we recognize as Bel Canto.

Ms. Graham's voice is an excellent example of perfect chiaroscuro. Her voice, although full and darkly rich in its lower and middle range, actually is also "bright" with a steely quality, which cuts through the orchestra easily. But brightness alone isn't enough. Brightness, besides being penetrating, can also be thin, nasal, harsh or all three. And on the flip side, dark beauty without bright can be husky and throaty, and will not make it over the orchestra. In Ms. Grahams case, her powerful "bright" is perfectly counterbalanced with a lusciously rich and burnished "dark" quality. Combined with sensitive musicality, good German diction, excellent technique, the result is the ideal dramatic soprano sound. Her high power notes both electrified and embraced the listener.

She performed four big arias: "Dich, teure Halle" from Tannhaüser, and Isolde's "Liebestod" on the first half, returning with Sieglinde's two Act I arias from Die Walküre ("Der Männer Sippe" and "Du bist der Lenz") on the second half. I found the order to be a bit odd because after the two huge offerings, the rest of the program was for her a bit anti-climactic. I also wished she had included Senta's aria from Der fliegenden Holländer, as a complement to the overture which opened the program and raised the roof.

If Ms. Graham was the concert's diva assoluta, then the hero of the evening was Mr. Conlin. He had to keep things together throughout, and it was a very big night. Was it the greatest Wagner Concert Ever as promoted? Well, it WAS something very special for the San Francisco Bay Area, and very satisfying and gratifying as well for the performers themselves. This type of concert should be a regular event.

Elaine Trowbridge and Terry McNeill contributed to this review.