LENOX, Mass. – Right on cue, rolling thunder over Tanglewood created an ideal prelude, only a second before conductor Andris Nelsons commenced the stormy third act of Die Walküre. It was a special semi-staged performance spread over July 26 and 27 with a blue-chip cast and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, the festival’s summer academy ensemble for emerging professionals. Weather is a major Wagnerian device that gauges the moods and power plays among the Norse gods that populate the four-part Ring cycle. This time, the great outdoors continued intensifying Act 3 of Die Walküre with rain, wind, and thunder claps. It could only be the work of some celestial stage director.
Not that a performance like this needed much stage direction, since the opera’s interior drama was so fully realized by the young Tanglewood orchestra in this most beloved section of the Ring cycle – with its ecstatic Act 1 love duet, heroic battle cries in Act 2, and heart-breaking farewell of Act 3. The four-hour epic was made to fit into the busy festival schedule with Act 1 performed the evening of July 26 while the other acts were heard the afternoon and evening of July 27. Singers were mostly first-string Wagnerians, even if they did not always seem perfectly suited to each other.
After her successful Metropolitan Opera Ring cycle earlier in 2019, Christine Goerke gave the warrior Brünnhilde great dimension, evolving from an agent of destruction to a creature with infinite compassion. As her father Wotan, James Rutherford’s pleasing bass-baritone seemed only middleweight next to Goerke’s stentorian pipes, and was further dwarfed by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe as his wife Fricka (the contrast having symbolic value since this character was out for total subjugation). With regard to the incestuous twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, Simon O’Neill’s lean tenor felt pale next to the rich soprano of the dramatically sympathetic Amber Wagner, who was the primary subject of post-performance buzz among the audience, which included members of the Music Critics Association of North America, whose annual meeting was being held at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
In the best of times, the large Wagnerian orchestra unites (some might say engulfs) a less-than-ideal cast. That’s just what happened here under BSO music director Nelsons. The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, formed for the summer, has little to no experience in Wagner. Obviously, such an ensemble can’t deliver the orchestral personality heard at the Vienna State Opera, especially since the division of work was indeed divided: Musicians were rotated so that nobody played more than two acts.
What the Music Center’s youthful forces did benefit from was time. While a Wagner revival in Vienna might get a run-through rehearsal and succeed mostly on the basis of institutional professionalism, this orchestra had two and a half weeks that were so intensive that physical therapists were on hand, since the musicians, whose average age hovers around 25, weren’t used to playing so long and hard. Thus, the performance was more than well examined but represented the unmediated interpretive concept of conductor Nelsons, whose musical personality at age 40 can be elusively polished and detached or, as was the case here, entrancing and personal.
Each act had its own orchestral tint, the most gratifying being the Act 1 meeting of the long-lost twins. Vibrant bass lines and timpani explosions recalled the late Georg Solti, but with blended sonorities distinctive to Nelsons that fluidly revealed how one Wagnerian idea grows out of another in a clear dramatic line, and with all manner of coloristic subtleties along the way. When the orchestra needed to be swift, it moved like quicksilver. Incidental solos, the soul of the opera, took on added emotional weight thanks to the instrumental blends around them. This was the work of a highly evolved Wagnerian who didn’t micromanage dramatic details but incorporated them into a singing line.
Some might say that any full Wagner opera performance is an immersion unto itself, especially for a community such as Boston and Tanglewood, where this repertoire is mostly left to the Metropolitan Opera HD simulcasts. But this Die Walküre was a multi-purpose nexus, not just to expose the young Tanglewood musicians to the opera, but for the newly built Tanglewood Learning Institute to establish its footprint with an entire Wagner Weekend. The TLI mission to explore “meaning in context” (according to director Sue Elliott) came in the form of ancillary events that avoided the obvious.
Example: Many Wagnerites might have typically used the two-hour dinner break between the second and third acts of Die Walküre for a nice picnic in the fresh Berkshire air. But those who subscribed to the full weekend were sent to the movies, namely Wagner & Me, a 2010 documentary by English actor and comedian Stephen Fry about reconciling his Jewish heritage with his passion for Wagner and the annual festival at Bayreuth (which he wittily describes as “Mecca and Graceland rolled into one”), with all of its anti-Semitic Nazi associations. His personal conclusion is that both Wagner’s music and the theater are bigger than the Nazi resonance – an idea that, when carried into the Act 3 of the Walküre performance that followed, encouraged you to look past the heroic posturing of the first scene and focus on the shifting loyalties and life-and-death negotiations among desperately real characters.
Elsewhere in the Wagner Weekend, you could truly “nerd out” at a seminar on Wagner’s brass instruments. But the biggest revelations came from Jane Eaglen, yes, the fine Wagnerian soprano who is on the New England Conservatory faculty, not quite retired from singing but retired enough that she could give an unfiltered, keenly observed view of the repertoire and the performance world around it. Among her observations: Wagner operas are not loud, at least when done right.
Independent of that, Nelsons, a seasoned Wagnerian and periodic guest at Bayreuth, worked almost exclusively during his final rehearsal on July 27 on passages of Die Walküre that more quietly explore the inner psychology of the characters rather than exterior events.
The most provocative Eaglen assertion: Big voices and loud voices are not the same thing, since a big voice need not strive for loudness. What a different lens this became when hearing the Walküre performances. Goerke’s Brünnhilde was in many ways the model singer in that respect, at least in Act 2. Perhaps because vocal projection came so easily to her, she was able to concentrate on matters beyond singing. Her text coloring, at times, had the detail of a lieder singer. She projected the character physically, taking Wotan’s hand in his time of need. So vivid was her presence that you could almost hear her thinking. In contrast, Blythe’s Fricka was both big-voiced and deployed loudly. Sustaining rage in Wagner is a feat, but her approach left little room to build, and tended to hit the same color with a voice that had so much more to offer.
You could argue that Blythe had the freedom to exercise the loudness option in this one-off performance. Nonetheless, this semi-staged, one-act-at-a-time formula, however viable it might be for other Wagner-starved communities, may have its downsides. I felt some flagging momentum, not in the energy of the performance so much as a feeling that some of the voices had lost their stride during the two-hour break between Acts 2 and 3. In Act 3, Goerke was pushing a bit hard. Rutherford’s Wotan was slow to warm up in Act 2 and went through that process again at the beginning of Act 3, although he ultimately delivered some extremely satisfying singing in the more tender moments of his final scene. This plan is one of many flawed approaches to Wagner.
Practically speaking, any Wagnerian ideal — vocal, theatrical, whatever — is an elusive pursuit. We’ll never have perfect presentations of these epic operas the way we have, say, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. One reason people keep coming back to Wagner may be because the ideal is always on the horizon, always out of reach.
Except maybe when the weather delivers thunder on cue.