Following his abrupt withdrawal from the Bayreuth Festival in Germany three years ago, Andris Nelsons might well have been wistful over the lost opportunity to conduct Wagner operas at this time of year. The concert performance of Die Walküre that Nelsons, the music director of the Boston Symphony, led at the Koussevitsky Music Shed at Tanglewood (the orchestra’s summer home in the Berkshires) during the weekend of July 27–28, however, must have mitigated any sense of personal loss.
But there was a more compelling reason for programming Die Walküre.The orchestra performing was not the Boston Symphony but an assemblage of Tanglewood Fellows, young musicians brought to the summer retreat as part of its mission to nurture careers. Because the young players are likely to take jobs with orchestras, many will have scant opportunity to perform large and challenging operas like this beloved component of the Ring cycle, and Nelsons wanted to give them the chance. The orchestra consisted of 129 players having an average age close to twenty-four.
As Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony’s president and chief executive officer, observed at a concurrent gathering of music critics, busy musicians may be challenged to remember exactly what they played two weeks ago but can vividly recall seminal events from their youth. None of the young people playing in this impressively cast Die Walküre, he added, will ever forget the experience.
Instrumental solos were uniformly well taken. Nelsons enforced a high level of precision. One could quibble over details, but his reading was well paced and emotionally charged.
So as not to cause undue strain on players unaccustomed to participating in long operas, the acts of Die Walküre were presented as separate events: Act I on Saturday evening and Acts II and III on Sunday afternoon and evening. As a result, one tended to focus on the individual acts as distinct units to an extent that one would not in a normal performance; this was by no means a disadvantage.
Act I presents one of opera’s great love stories, incestuous though it is, as Siegmund and Sieglinde—children of the mythological chief god Wotan, long separated from each other—are reunited, piece together their identities, and declare their love. The veteran tenor Simon O’Neill sang Siegmund with poise and assurance, but his tightly focused voice didn’t always give pleasure, and his portrayal needed more emotional life. Amber Wagner’s big, voluptuous voice, intelligently deployed, made for an exciting Sieglinde, and Franz-Josef Selig was excellent as Sieglinde’s malevolent husband, Hunding. If the act’s frenzied conclusion failed to make its full impact, O’Neill was partly to blame, but Nelsons also could have generated more red-hot fervor.
I was swept away, though, by Acts II and III. Act II, which introduces three new characters, is the crux of the Ring. Here Wotan reveals in two long scenes the problems he faces in maintaining power. In the first, he reluctantly yields to his wife Fricka, the goddess of marriage, and, in the second, he withdraws his support for Siegmund before the latter’s impending fight with Hunding.
Unfortunately, the popular mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe’s performance as Fricka was little short of grotesque. Her singing was relentlessly loud, and her voice often sounded frayed. She took a number of phrases down an octave but belted them out as if they were supposed to go that way. (According to an orchestra official, she sang at proper pitch at rehearsal.) You had to sympathize with James Rutherford, an articulate and vocally ingratiating Wotan, in having to deal with such a termagant.
But Rutherford went on to excel with his valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde in the long narrative scene that followed. Of the Ring’s three Brünnhilde roles, the one in Die Walküre suits Christine Goerke best, and she gave an accomplished performance. Vocally, it had its flaws, since her voice tends to lose its luster under pressure, but she inhabited the role and was keenly alert to dramatic and emotional details.
Act III brought an unusually fine group of valkyries for the famous “Ride,” most of whom displayed voices I would be eager to hear in more extensive roles. Amber Wagner was thrilling in Sieglinde’s cry, “O hehrstes Wunder,” upon learning she is pregnant with Siegmund’s child (Nelsons could have broadened the tempo more). And Goerke and Rutherford interacted beautifully to make the farewell scene especially poignant.
The young players rose magnificently to the occasion. One could imagine a more fully integrated string section, but their sound was warm and robust. The brass and woodwind sections were equally good, and there were fewer brass bloopers than in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent performance of the opera that I attended. Instrumental solos were uniformly well taken. Nelsons enforced a high level of precision. One could quibble over details, but his reading was well paced and emotionally charged. I left Act III feeling happily “Wagner drunk,” to borrow a term from the late New Yorker critic Andrew Porter.
Although this was a concert performance, there were some effective visual details, including a big farewell embrace of Brünnhilde by Wotan. Concert performances are often welcome alternatives to intrusive modern stagings. On the morning of the Act I performance, a review appeared in The New York Times of the Bayreuth Festival’s opening production of Tannhäuser in which a scene was set in a Burger King restaurant. It made me glad I was at Tanglewood, and I suspect Nelsons was glad to be there, too.