Nelsons leads Boston Symphony in belated “Bohème” debut at Tanglewood

July 17, 2018
By Aaron Keebaugh
Kristine Opolais and Jonathan Tetelman perform in Puccini's "La boheme" with Andris Nelsons and the BSO Saturday night at the Tanglewood Festival. Photo: Hilary Scott

Kristine Opolais and Jonathan Tetelman perform in Puccini’s “La Bohème” with Andris Nelsons and the BSO Saturday night at the Tanglewood Festival. Photo: Hilary Scott

Vestiges of Leonard Bernstein’s legacy are everywhere at the Tanglewood Festival this summer. As part of the season-long celebration of his centennial, the Tanglewood Visitor Center is displaying a special archival exhibit that documents the composer-conductor’s historic connection with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bernstein’s music also peppers many BSO and Boston Pops’ programs at Ozawa Hall and the Koussevitzky Shed, including productions of Candide, West Side Story, and On the Town.

On other programs, Bernstein’s long shadow is less obvious but no less present. That was the case Saturday night at the Koussevitzky Shed, where Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a starry cast of soloists paid tribute to Bernstein’s life and artistry with a work that was close to his heart: Puccini’s La Bohème.

Puccini’s tale of starving artists and their passionate and tragic love affairs remains the most popular tearjerker in the operatic repertoire. And though the BSO has offered select arias from the opera in concerts over the years, the orchestra has, surprisingly, never performed La Bohème in its entirety.

As in previous summers, Saturday’s semi-staged production featured singers who have sung their respective roles at the Metropolitan Opera, English National Opera, Teatro alla Scala, and other high-profile venues.

Kristine Opolais garnered critical acclaim after she stepped into the role of Mimì as a last-minute replacement for Anita Hartig for a Met matinée performance of La Bohème in April 2014. Since then, the role has become one of the Latvian soprano’s most visible ones. Saturday night, Opolais brought a graceful stage presence, darkly inflected tone, and wide emotional arc to the tragic figure. Her singing of “Si, mi chiamano Mimì” was fluid, with high notes ringing like a bell. In Act 3, her voice swelled with anguish when she sang of Rudolfo’s jealousy. In her final duet with Rudolfo, with its hints of “Che gelida manina,” her soprano  faded gently to touching effect in the last breath of a dying woman.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala was scheduled to perform as Rodolfo, but he pulled out of the performance earlier this month to take on the role of Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival. Filling in for him was Jonathan Tetelman, who is a relative newcomer to the punishing role. With a charming demeanor and ripe though fitfully light voice, he managed to float a plush and resplendent “Che gelida manina.” By Act 4, his voice had grown in strength, and his singing of “O Mimì, tu più non torni” had just the right touch of aching nostalgia.

As Marcello, Franco Vassallo sang with a deep, chocolaty baritone. He had a fine partner in Susanna Phillips, who played the coquettish Musetta. Her singing of “Quando m’en vo’” (Musetta’s waltz) was coy and effervescent, and together Phillips and Vassallo made a cute and at times humorous on-again, off-again couple.

The ensemble numbers, early in this performance at least, suffered from balance problems. The singing of Tetelman, Vassallo, Elliot Madore (as Schaunard), and Luca Pisaroni (as Colline) in the opening scene was sometimes lost beneath the waves of Puccini’s thick orchestration. Madore’s low notes had additional difficulty cutting through the texture in his brief solo moments. Pisaroni fared better in Act 4, when he projected his aria “Vecchia zimarra” with bold conviction. As for Tetelman and Opolais, it didn’t help that the sounds of a passing thunderstorm swamped their otherwise impassioned singing of “O soave fanciulla.”

Balance issues also plagued veteran bass Paul Plishka, who, in dual roles as Benoit and Alcindoro, was almost entirely drowned out whenever he sang. But tenor Neal Ferreira and bass David Cushing sang fully and smoothly over the orchestra as Parpignol and the Customs Sergeant respectively.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Children’s Chorus, prepared by James Burton, delivered their featured moments as street merchants and the bustling crowd in Paris’ Latin Quarter with energy and crisp diction. A small band of trumpets, piccolos and drums marched up one of the shed isles to bring martial pomp to the chorus at the end of Act 2.

Andris Nelsons led Puccini’s sumptuous orchestral score with fleet tempos to bring punch and excitement to the action onstage. Elsewhere, his direction resulted in a tasteful ebb and flow to the music; Musetta’s waltz, in particular, curved in supple arcs. In the chamber-like textures of Act 3, John Ferrillo’s oboe and Jessica Zhou’s harp were delightful solo highlights.

Daniel Rigazzi’s stage direction kept the story moving swiftly as the actors used the stage and shed floor to good effect. Tables, chairs, small stove, and couch were just enough to transform the space into a garret and café in the Latin Quarter. As has been the case with previous semi-staged operas at Tanglewood, simple props go a long way.

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Friday night’s BSO program of Austrian and German masterworks, led by Moritz Gnann, brought additional moments of lyricism and drama to the Koussevitzky Shed.

The solo spotlight fell upon pianist Paul Lewis, who offered Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27. In his final piano concerto, Mozart turns away from fiery technique and towards tranquility. An orchestra of strings and woodwinds accompany the soloist delicately, and pregnant pauses and warm, resonant harmonies are the frameworks upon which Mozart hangs his intimate melodies.

Lewis is a consummate classicist, having won accolades for his recordings of the sonatas of Schubert and, recently, Haydn. His Mozart flows like friendly conversation. Throughout he played with a pearly tone that brought depth to the trickling lines of the first movement, which barely registered above mezzo forte. In the final movement, Lewis’ soft runs blossomed into flourishes that were mirrored by flute and oboe. The cadenzas, Mozart’s own, flowed freely. His phrases in the second movement swelled before fading suddenly.  Gnann led a sensitive accompaniment well attuned to Lewis’ lead, and the music rose and fell away.

Gnann is completing his third season as BSO assistant conductor, and in his time with the orchestra he has prepared scores with Andris Nelsons. Like his Latvian boss, Gnann leads with a keen eye to musical detail. His reading of Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, Rhenish, heard Friday night, revealed a firm, multi-dimensional sense of orchestration.

Gnann approached the outer of the symphony’s five movements with sweeping energy, though he lingered on the songlike themes of these movements. The second movement’s ländler flowed like the water of the eponymous river of the symphony’s subtitle.

Leading with sweeping gestures and crouches, Gnann coaxed soft, reverential lines from the ensemble in the third movement. Wind melodies dissolved into soft sonorities, and solo cello wove a burnished melody through the texture. The fourth movement, long thought to be Schumann’s depiction of a processional in the Cologne Cathedral, was as somber and solemn as an ancient ceremony, to which the organ-like brass brought grand solemnity.

Friday’s opener, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, had the searching intimacy of a lullaby. The brief impassioned moments of the score surged without the musicians sacrificing the underlying vocal quality, and elsewhere Gnann drew lines that wafted in the air like before coming to rest on faintly glowing harmonies.

Andris Nelsons will lead music of Mendelssohn, Bernstein, and Beethoven, with pianist Yuja Wang 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Koussevitzky Shed. bso.org; 888-266-1200

 


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