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BPO's Wagner performance is a spectacle of lights, music

You think you've seen it all when you see mountains rising over the stage of Kleinhans Music Hall. But this weekend, that's just the beginning.

How about a huge horse, striding in from the wings? Or a flock of birds wheeling into the distance? Perhaps prettiest of all was a sparkling, shimmering river.

The images were the work of the local company Projex. Projex collaborated with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for a condensed, narrated performance of orchestral excerpts from Richard Wagner's opera cycle "The Ring of the Nibelungs." The images -- the technology is called light-mapping -- don't use a screen. Instead, it bathes the entire stage area.

Music Director JoAnn Falletta, who is conducting, has written the narration. Between excerpts, it tells the complex opera plots, stories from ancient Teutonic mythology. The light mapping accompanies the narration.

The BPO is recording the performances for Naxos. These should be good recordings, given the Kleinhans acoustics, the musicians' chops, Falletta's gift for drama, and the excitement of the occasion. The audience the night of May 6, from the groups of students to veteran concert goers, seemed caught up in the spectacle.

It's not hard to imagine why the high schoolers, in particular, would "get it." Earlier generations might have kidded more about the convoluted plot turns the "Ring" operas take, involving dragons, Valkyries, potions, back-stabbing, and a ring that makes the wearer all-powerful. Today's younger generations love this stuff, and take naturally to it.

So much so that an awful moment came when the narrator, Douglas Zschiegner, had to break the bad news: "Siegfried is murdered." A terrible gasp went up from the school crowd. It tugged at your heart.

The images weren't perfect. The landscapes were striking, but the images of the gods and humans were on the cartoonish side. Well, Valhalla wasn't built in a day. The show has potential. A little tweaking, and it could be consistently stunning.

The orchestra was clearly embracing the music. And a big orchestra it was, for this occasion. A friend of mine counted 85 musicians on stage. Right away, you'll notice there are two harps, and more brass than usual.

For all Wagner's fame, you don't hear his music much at Kleinhans. In the more than 10 years I have spent as classic music critic, I don't think I have heard the BPO play so much as a Wagner overture. This was a rare event, and the orchestra clearly embraced the music -- its power and its delicacy. The woodwinds and horns did a beautiful job with the tender "Forest Murmurs" scene. The cathartic "Siegfried's Funeral Music" jolted the audience with its raw emotion.

Even in "The Ride of the Valkyries," surely one of the best-known pieces of music ever, you could hear new things thanks to the BPO's performance and the acoustics.

The condensed format wasn't always kind to the drama. For instance, the presentation didn't bring across the deep sorrow of the end to "Die Walkure," the music known as "Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire Music." It is one of the most beautiful and anguished endings in all of opera. Once, listening to a national broadcast, I heard the announcer actually break down in tears trying to describe what he had just experienced. "Smoke is rising... the stage is in flames..." he said, and then broke down. Another announcer had to step in, gently, and take over.

You didn't get that here. Maybe it would help to have some of that light-mapping as the orchestra is playing? So newcomers could equate the twinkling Magic Fire Music to the dancing flames? It's something to think about. In any event, this is a colorful experiment, and very enjoyable. It certainly brightens the gray May.


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