However music-rich it may be in general, Boston has never been wealthy in Wagner, so Wednesday’s New England Conservatory benefit gala at Jordan Hall was a welcome event. “An Evening in Valhalla” brought us the third act of “Die Walküre,” with Jane Eaglen as Brünnhilde, Greer Grimsley as Wotan, and former BSO assistant conductor Robert Spano leading the NEC Philharmonia.
This act opens with the “Ride of the Valkyries,” and the 98-piece orchestra blasted it out with gusto. The eight Valkyries, all NEC opera students, and wearing black, paraded out and stood in a line, an odd dramatic choice, but it worked. They sang with grace and intelligence, though only Nataly Wickham’s Helmwige was able to hold her own against the mighty force of the orchestra, and their laughter was a little forced.
Eaglen, when she entered, sang on another level. Her voice is every bit as powerful as it was when I last saw her, 10 years ago, singing Brünnhilde in “Götterdämmerung” at the Met. It’s more steely than seductive, and at times, as at the beginning of “War es so schmählich,” she seemed to be hectoring her father rather than pleading with him. But it bloomed at the moment when she tells Wotan that it’s he who inspired her love for Siegmund, and she absolutely beamed when he agreed to surround her rock with fire so that only a hero could reach her.
As Sieglinde, Kirsten Hart, in a brief third-act role, made the most of her big moment, when she realizes she’s pregnant with Siegfried and sings the redemption motif that will eventually bring the “Ring” Cycle to a close. The evening’s star, however, was Grimsley, a magisterial Wotan with a deep voice and a bottomless well of sorrow. He commanded a broad range of emotions, and he pointed his words with great care. Pacing back and forth, he kept his distance from Eaglen until the moment when they hugged; then they put their arms around each other and he led her offstage in a touching gesture.
The orchestra tended to be too loud, a common failing in Wagner performances, and phrasing was sometimes tentative — hardly surprising under a guest conductor. But overall the students acquitted themselves well; the brasses weren’t blatty, and there was some really exquisite woodwind playing preceding “War es so schmählich” and again before Brünnhilde’s “Nicht weise bin ich.” Entrance to Valhalla approved.