Festive inaugural concert ushers in the Nelsons era for Boston Symphony Orchestra

September 30, 2014
By David Wright

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra Saturday night in his inaugural concert as music director with soprano Kristīne Opolais and tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Photo: Chris Lee

Saturday’s gala inaugural concert by and for Andris Nelsons as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was about so much more than the works being performed—high hopes for the future, high-profile soloists, high-wattage television lights on everything including the audience, even a high camera on a boom swooping over the stage—that if some decent Wagner, Puccini, and Respighi came out of it all, it would feel like a bonus.

The event was being recorded for PBS’s “Great Performances” series, since PBS doesn’t have a series titled “Great Big Fuss.”  And the potential for greatness was there, beginning with the dynamic and long-awaited young maestro, who had already demonstrated his prowess with this orchestra several times while waiting to occupy his office in Symphony Hall.

The two soloists, soprano Kristīne Opolais and tenor Jonas Kaufmann, presently sit on top of the opera world.  Last April she went in the record books by making two role debuts at the Metropolitan Opera within an 18-hour period, singing Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San on a Saturday night, then rescuing the Met’s HD telecast Sunday afternoon by substituting on a few hours’ notice as Mimi in La Bohème.

Kaufmann has been earning raves in opera repertoire ranging from Mozart to Wagner, and seems to have been named “Singer of the Year” by just about everybody who does that sort of thing.

And if that weren’t enough, last June Opolais and Kaufmann appeared together in a hip new modern-dress production of Manon Lescaut at London’s Royal Opera House that reportedly had opera lovers buying transatlantic plane tickets just to see it.

And Opolais, Kaufmann, and Manon Lescaut were all on the bill at Symphony Hall Saturday night, surrounded by such juicy items as the Tannhäuser Overture, Respighi’s The Pines of Rome, and some other justly famous opera selections.

Was it great?  At times, it indisputably was.  And there might have been more of those times, but for Opolais’s unfortunate vocal indisposition.

On Saturday night, the soprano’s voice sounded a little rough, its range constricted.  Her starship seemed to be operating on about two-thirds power.  During bows, she reacted with self-deprecating humor, covering her mouth, shaking her head, at one point leaning theatrically on the podium railing for support.

But having previously demonstrated her ability to succeed in less-than-ideal circumstances, Opolais gave it a go again Saturday, hanging in for her full program plus an encore, making it happen with skillful acting, vocal adjustments, and singing within her limits.  (One previously announced adjustment had been substituting Puccini’s “Un bel dì” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for “Ebben?  Ne andró lontana” from Catalani’s La Wally.)

The audience responded to her first appearance, in Isolde’s Liebestod, with polite applause at first, then with a standing ovation when she returned to the stage, as if acknowledging first the so-so performance, then her guts for doing it at all.

It was, furthermore, a night when Maestro Nelsons could do no wrong, and so you won’t hear any complaints here about an overly ponderous tempo in Tannhäuser’s Pilgrim’s March or slightly ragged wind entrances.

Tenor Kaufmann was in top form, without qualification.  In his ghostly yet articulate pianissimo at the opening of “In fernem Land” from Lohengrin, one could feel how “far away” was the place where the Grail was kept.  His voice swelled on a long line to the fervent climax, revealing an instrument of rare security, richness, and ring.

Nelsons adopted a very broad tempo again in the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, but this time the rising lines had great tensile strength, pulling the music ever-so-gradually to its ecstatic heights.

Even on a good day vocally, and even on a less conspicuous occasion, the Liebestod would seem a strange choice for Opolais, whose justly-admired lirico-spinto voice is hardly the heavy equipment needed for Isolde.  (Her program biography lists no Wagner roles at all.)  She did what she could with it on the night, singing expressively as Nelsons restrained the large orchestra.

Kaufmann returned in a new guise, as Turiddu in the tragic farewell scene (“Mamma, quel vino è generoso”) from Cavalleria rusticana.  In addition to ringing high notes, he brought the drunk, half-mad young man to life with near-whispers and other strange timbres that somehow carried to the back of the hall.

Substituting “Un bel dì” for the Catalani aria, Opolais returned to the role of Cio-Cio-San, the first half of her double-barreled Met triumph, with results that at least hinted at what a full-bore performance might be like.

Likewise, the much-anticipated Manon Lescaut duet “Tu, tu, amore?  Tu?” could only suggest what had driven them wild in London, as Kaufmann throttled back to more nearly match his somewhat impaired partner.

After one callback for bows, there was a pause, and then the duo and Nelsons returned to the stage, having decided to go ahead with their planned encore, the conclusion of Act I of La Bohème (“O soave fanciulla”).   The singers artfully acted the scene’s gentle comedy and sweet romance, the attentive Nelsons supported them with a plump orchestral cushion, and Opolais bravely hit the pianissimo high note at the end.

There were hugs all around afterward, and Opolais repeatedly brushed away tears—the source of which one could only imagine, on this night of difficulties for her and triumph for her husband, Andris Nelsons.  One wondered whether the guys out in the PBS truck were zooming the cameras in or turning them away at that moment.

By this time, the audience was no doubt ready to settle back for some uncomplicated cinematic entertainment, and Nelsons delivered with a vivid account of The Pines of Rome, complete with wildly jangly child’s play at the Villa Borghese, profoundly spooky double basses at the catacombs, limpid clarinet phrases (courtesy of principal William R. Hudgins) in the night at the Janiculum, a nightingale played a little too loud on the gramophone, and inexorable Roman legions on the Appian Way, which can never be too loud.

The enormous crescendo that ends this piece, with everybody playing full out and extra brass in the balconies, tends to blow away all memory of what went before.  So let’s pause a moment to reflect on the extraordinary skill of conductor and players in creating the soft moonlight, the little gust in the pines, the dark shadows and earthy throbs of the piece’s atmospheric middle sections.

OK, now you can cheer.  It’s a new era at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The program will not be repeated.  Andris Nelsons conducts Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 1:30 p.m. Friday.  bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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