LEXINGTON — Any production of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle — even just a concert performance — is a mammoth undertaking for a major opera company or orchestra, never mind for Lexington Symphony and Symphony New Hampshire. And an “Essential ‘Ring’ ” is in a sense an even greater challenge, since Wagner’s four music dramas have more plot than the average opera and are not easy to abridge. Nonetheless, Saturday at Cary Hall, the combined orchestras, under their music director, Jonathan McPhee (who is also music director at Boston Ballet), delivered a stirring Part I of the project. (Part II is scheduled for this fall.)
This is not the orchestras’ first ambitious undertaking — in 2010, McPhee led them in Mahler’s gigantic Eighth Symphony. And for Part I of his “Ring,” he had a veteran Wagnerian soprano in Jane Eaglen, who sang Brünnhilde and Rhinemaiden Wellgunde, heading a superb vocal cast that included Alfred Walker as Wotan, Joanna Porackova as Fricka, Thomas Studebaker as Siegmund, Margaret Jane Wray as Sieglinde, Frank Kelley as Loge, Sam Handley as Alberich and Fasolt, and Pawel Izdebski as Fafner and Hunding.
McPhee’s Part I covered the material of the first two dramas, “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre,” boiling their six and a quarter hours down to 140 minutes. Inevitably, some close-to-essential plot points were sacrificed. The piling up of gold around Freia was excised and, more seriously, Wotan’s extreme reluctance to surrender the ring to giants Fafner and Fasolt. And at the end of “Das Rheingold,” there were no Rhinemaidens to bewail their lost gold. In “Die Walküre,” Siegmund’s life history was truncated, and his beautiful “spring” duet with sister Sieglinde was missing altogether. Most of Wotan’s conversations with wife Fricka and daughter Brünnhilde also disappeared, including his command to Brünnhilde not to save Siegmund, and Brünnhilde didn’t get to explain why she disobeyed. One could argue that, in the case of “Die Walküre,” it’s really not possible to reduce 230 minutes to 65. You get the what but not the why.
All the same, at Cary Hall you got outstanding Wagner. From the eight double basses’ grinding first E-flat, the Prelude to “Das Rheingold” burst into light, dancing, building to the release of the Rhinemaidens’ entrance. The orchestra was bright and vivid throughout, and McPhee offered an intensely dramatic reading of the score, with huge climaxes. I only wish he had given the closing “Magic Fire Music” more oxygen. The supertitles were clear and filled in most of the narrative gaps, though Fafner’s slaying of Fasolt was conspicuously absent.
The singers matched McPhee in characterization and emotion. Walker’s big, easy Wotan grew less bluff and more troubled as the evening went on. There were no villains: Porackova was an unusually sympathetic Fricka, Kelley an unusually principled Loge, Izdebski an unusually reasonable Hunding, Handley an unusually admirable Alberich, almost noble in his forswearing of love and his cursing of Wotan. Studebaker and Wray made a heroic couple as Siegmund and Sieglinde; Eaglen still has the requisite power for Brünnhilde. You could hardly ask for a better “Ring,” just more of it.
THE ESSENTIAL “RING,’’ PART I
Performed by Lexington Symphony and Symphony New Hampshire conducted by Jonathan McPhee At: Cary Hall, Lexington, Saturday April 2
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org