If Wagner's music is as addictive as many say it is, the rehab centers are going to be jammed with Curtis Institute students after a Wagner-overdose concert Sunday at the Kimmel Center, aided by vocal performances from Heidi Melton and Eric Owens that the Metropolitan Opera's current Ring cycle would be lucky to have.
Led by guest conductor Mark Russell Smith, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra excerpted five operas over 21/2 hours, playing with a muscularity that creating tsunamis of Wagnerian sound. The overtures displayed particular curtain-raising force, starting with The Flying Dutchman, capably led by student conductor Kensho Watanabe. But if the thrills seemed superficial elsewhere, it's because Wagner operas are constructed with the subliminal search for the piece's home key signature; without that carrot-on-a-stick effect, much is lost for lack of context.
The Act III prelude Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, for example, was faultless on every cosmetic level, but didn't come close to exploring the loss and alienation of the opera's central character, an aging widower who sees an era he helped define being superseded by upstarts. But the music's distinctive sorrow without tragedy wasn't apparent in the performance.
On the brighter side: In "Dich, teure Halle" from Tannhauser, soprano Melton established herself as a mid-weight Wagnerian (vocal buffs might compare her to the great Margaret Harshaw) making plenty of dramatic impact without depending on vibrato.
The role of Alberich in the Ring cycle has taken bass-baritone Owens to a new career level at the Met. But here, he graduated from evil dwarf to the king of the gods in "Wotan's Farewell" from Die Walküre - a good vocal fit, and a role better suited to his long history with German art song.
Owens' idiomatic use of the text went beyond the typical big-operatic moment, turning the scene into a startlingly intimate outpouring of a being who has been all-powerful until this very moment, when he must exile his favorite daughter. The sense of resignation was monumental in singing that was disarmingly quiet but audible, thanks to his rhetorical conviction - though conductor Smith didn't always hold back the orchestra.
Then Smith ruined the mood with "Ride of the Valkyries" as an encore. Earlier, he had the bad judgment to include Wagner's endless, substandard Tannhauser ballet music. In his stage comments, Smith confessed to excesses in anticipation of Wagner's 200th birthday on May 22. I think it was simple self-indulgence.