Eaglen brings Brünnhilde to Aspen

Susannah Luthi
Special to The Aspen Times
Soprano Jane Eaglen performs the role of Brünnhilde from Wagner's Ring cycle on Sunday at the Benedict Music Tent. (Courtesy Aspen Music Festival and School)

The first time renowned soprano Jane Eaglen heard the role of Brünnhilde from Wagner’s Ring cycle, it was on a recording by Birgit Nilsson that she listened to in the library of the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. Eaglen was a teenage student there at the time.

“I was completely blown away, and I have been addicted to Wagner ever since,” said Eaglen, who has since been hailed by Opera magazine as “the finest Brünnhilde alive today.”

This week, Eaglen comes to Aspen to make her concert debut and bring her Brünnhilde to the Benedict Music Tent on Sunday for a 4 p.m. Aspen Festival Orchestra program featuring some of the most famous scenes in all of German opera.

Conductor James Conlon will lead the concert, launching it with Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”), the final opera in the four-part Ring cycle, in which Wagner drew from Norse mythology to create a musical epic.

Siegfried’s Death and Funeral Music follows, and then comes Eaglen singing Brünnhilde’s Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung. It’s a scene that Eaglen describes as “a culmination of what Brünnhilde has learned” from listening to all the characters around her.

“It brings everything together,” she said. “It’s an amazing scene, and every time I do it I find something new and exciting.”

Brünnhilde, a Valkyrie and one of the chief characters in the story, loses her immortality by angering her father, the god Wotan, in the midst of the struggle over the magic ring that is central to the saga. It’s a ring that grants its possessor the power to rule the world. It also rouses tremendous evil, and in the end, Brünnhilde is the one who rids the Earth of it.

“I just love Brünnhilde,” says Eaglen, who has now sung the role throughout the entire eighteen-hour Ring cycle in the world’s most prestigious opera houses ” the Lyric Opera of Chicago, La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and the Vienna Staatsoper. “My basic ideas of her character have stayed the same, but I find more depth, more things to play with in the music and in her character. That’s the definition of great music, and great art, when there are all the new things that you find.”

Eaglen adds that she’d also love to record the Ring, but notes there is little recording occurring due to industry budget constraints. “Unless someone has three million dollars to spare, it’s not going to happen.”

Her repertoire expands far beyond Wagner. London’s The Sunday Times dubbed her the “Norma of the 1990s” for her title role in Bellini’s great bel canto opera, and it was the part that brought her to Seattle and launched her career in the United States. She is also returning to the monumental role of Tosca in Japan during the upcoming season, and will debut as Lady Macbeth in Vancouver this November ” “a role that I’ve avoided before because I really wanted to be ready to do it,” she explained.

And, at Sunday’s Aspen concert, she will bring another dramatic role to life ” Richard Strauss’s mad heroine in the final scene of Salome, when Salome is frenziedly singing to the severed head of John the Baptist.

“It’s such a fantastic scene, and it depicts so well what the text says,” she said. “It’s a little freaky in a way, but that’s what Salome is at that point ” she has lost all reason.”

Eaglen is helping close the 2006 Aspen festival season, singing the soprano soloist role in Britten’s mighty War Requiem in the Aug. 20 Aspen Festival Orchestra program led by festival Music Director David Zinman.