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Grand Teton Music Festival Opens Triumphantly With Beethoven and Wagner

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Sitting pretty in its geographical patch of political Wyoming blue, the Grand Teton Music Festival opened its 51st Teton Village season Friday night. Given the quality of the music making in a program of Beethoven and Wagner, it was immediately clear that this festival is developing along the Aspen model, presenting classical music of the highest quality in surroundings of formidable luxury (symbolized by a Four Seasons hotel) against a backdrop of iconic mountain majesty.

Over the course of seven weeks, the Festival Orchestra will play on Friday and Saturday nights at Walk Festival Hall; this weekend it was Beethoven's Eighth Symphony and excerpts from Wagner's The Valkyrie. Led by the Festival's dynamically leonine Music Director Donald Runnicles, the Beethoven was rich and engaging, and featured horn playing in the Trio of exceptional sweetness and beauty with the enchanting cello triplets played solo (instead of by the whole cello section) by Toronto Symphony's Igor Gefter. For Wagner, the Orchestra was increased in size exponentially, with a huge complement of strings, and filled the acoustically brilliant hall with stunning sound while Runnicles and the singers infused the narrative with wonderful humanity.

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As she had the night before in a recital of German romantic songs and American cabaret, soprano Heidi Melton stressed classical music's eternal youth; in the Wagner, Melton found refreshingly light emotional moods in both Sieglinde and Brunnhilde; although there was plenty of bitter moral tragedy and some spectacular Valkyrie cries in her magnificent singing, the occasional girlish note in her acting made both heroines seem appealingly young and remarkably healthy.

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Stuart Skelton's heroic Siegmund was the ideal lover for Melton's sumptuous Sieglinde. He strode out onto the Walk Festival Hall's stage, seemingly seven feet tall, resplendent in an ample vest of purple. He mouthed his words with outstanding relish and spun them out stentorian and proud; when his character allowed him to be, as in the "Winter Storms" song, Skelton delivered rapt poetry and long, elegant lines.

No Wotan could have suffered more eloquently nor carried out the terrible ritual demands his position required than Donnie Ray Albert. The authentic, fine emotion in his burnished baritone rode triumphantly the alternating waves of Wagner's mythology until, at the end, his powerful love ignited the flames of glory protecting Brunnhilde until her Siegfried comes (next opera).

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The Festival Orchestra was made up of America's best, many from major orchestras off the mainstream radar screens, including Kansas City, Saint Paul, Minnesota and Utah. As the best orchestras do, it took Wagner's immensely difficult music to a parallel dimension beyond the story and the words, where the opera lives an entirely instrumental life, and where, on Friday night that instrumental life overwhelmed a breathless audience with its size and power.

Teton Village lies at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, located adjacent to the gates of Grand Teton National Park. The valley in general is called Jackson Hole and then there is the town of Jackson as well. So, there is plenty to do between the Festival's musical events, like para-gliding for two at a few hundred bucks a pop, encountering moose on the trail (hint: respect their space), or just cruising through the open spaces, the mountain passes and the comforting presence of the surrounding, similarly western states.