Nelsons leads a superb cast in Tanglewood debut of “Das Rheingold”

July 17, 2017
By Aaron Keebaugh
Richard Wagner's "Das Rheingold" had its belated Tanglewood Festival premiere Saturday night with Andris Nelsons leading the BSO.

Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” had its belated Tanglewood Festival premiere Saturday night with Andris Nelsons leading the BSO.

Concert performances of opera are a Tanglewood tradition that have long drawn stars of the operatic stage. Four years ago, Andris Nelsons led a captivating performance of Act 3 from Wagner’s Die Walküre, which starred Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde. Terfel returned to Tanglewood in 2015 to perform the role of Scarpia in Act 1 of Puccini’s Tosca, led by Bramwell Tovey with Sondra Radvanovsky resplendent in the title role.

Saturday night at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Shed, Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a cast of superb soloists in the festival’s first performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. As with concert opera performances in recent years, this was an event that will linger in the memory.

The shortest work in Wagner’s Ring cycle, Das Rheingold sets the stage for the story to come in the ensuing music dramas. In order to pay two giants for constructing Valhalla, Wotan, lord of the gods, ventures to Nibelheim to confront Alberich, a dwarf who has constructed a magic ring from the Rheingold, a mystical treasure he has stolen from the Rhinemaidens. Wotan succeeds in stealing the ring, but decides to keep the ring for himself. Only when he comes to understand the ring’s curse does he turn it over to the giants.

Many in Saturday’s cast have made names for themselves in their respective roles at Bayreuth, the Metropolitan Opera, and English National Opera, among other prominent venues for Wagner’s works. The singing was consistently excellent, although a few problems of balance crept in to mar an otherwise fine performance.

As Wotan, Thomas J. Mayer ranged from singing of cool reverence to passages of power and conviction. Early in the drama his voice was sometimes lost beneath waves of instrumental accompaniment. But Mayer seemed to warm into the role. In the scene where he argued with Loge, his singing rang with intensity.

Due to illness, Sarah Connolly had to withdraw from the performance. Taking her place as Fricka was Stephanie Blythe, who delivered some of the finest singing of the evening. Her voice had focus and energy, her lines soaring easily over the orchestral passages as she sang of the virtues of marriage. 

The other standout was Jochen Schmeckenbecher, who sang the role of Alberich with palpable weight and drama. Schmeckenbecher’s voice had a smoky quality, and his scene in Nibelheim revealed singing that fully captured the character’s cruelty and greed. When he curses the ring later in the opera, he conveyed Alberich’s rage with poignant depth.

As Freia, soprano Malin Christensson couldn’t quite match the power of the other singers. While her high notes had a ringing clarity, her singing in the middle range was often lost in the orchestral textures. 

Kim Begley, as Loge, provided comic relief through clever one-liners and prancing stage action. The tenor possesses a smooth-toned voice that managed to float freely over Wagner’s colorful and thick orchestration.

As the giants Fasolt and Fafner, basses Morris Robinson and Ain Anger delivered phrases of chilling power. Robinson’s singing took on a poignant grace when his character sang of Freia, the goddess whom he longs to possess for himself. Anger captured the greed and ruthlessness of Fafner in his final scene in the drama.

David Butt Philip and Ryan McKinny made for strong vocal presences as Froh and Donner respectively. When Donner summons the weather to reveal the rainbow bridge at opera’s end, McKinny’s singing rang fully in the Shed’s copious space.

Rhinemaidens Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum sang with equal parts grace and strength. Patricia Bardon’s singing of Erda had a dark glow. And David Cangelosi’s performance of the dwarf Mime had a bell-toned and clarion quality to capture the character’s fear.

Wagner’s music drives the emotion and symbolism of the story line, and Andris Nelsons led a committed and muscular performance of the score. Tempos were lively where appropriate, and the performance showed the BSO musicians in some of their finest playing of the year. The brass provided a rosy glow to the Valhalla motive, and the descent into Nibelheim rattled with metallic energy from the percussion and strings. 

Concert operas, of course, don’t require staging. But the singers proved effective actors and made limited use of the stage to tell the story. The ring was conjured with closed fists that were thrust outward or up in the air. Fights between Wotan and Alberich and Fasolt and Fafner were conjured through aggressive motions. Stage lights cast an orange glow for the gods’ realm and a red tones for Nibelheim. In the scene where Alberich transforms into a large snake and a toad, Mayer and Begley made clever use of the space to bring those invisible elements to life in the listeners’ minds. Wagner, as this performance showed, remains a theatre of the imagination.

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