Berkshire Review

Nicolai’s Merry Wives at the Boston Midsummer Opera and Tanglewood Tales: Jurowski and Koenigs Tell the Whole Story

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Richard Wagner in 1873
Richard Wagner in 1873

Friday, July 19, 8:30pm: Koussevitzky Music Shed
Wagner – Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Liszt – Totentanz, Paraphrase on Dies irae, for piano and orchestra
Jean-Yves Thibaudet – piano
Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68
Vladimir Jurowski – conductor

Saturday, July 20, 8:30pm: Koussevitsky Music Shed
Wagner – Die Walküre, Act III
Katarina Dalayman – Brünnhilde
Amber Wagner – Sieglinde
Bryn Terfel – Wotan
Elizabeth Byrne – Waltraute
Melissa Citro – Ortlinde
Molly Fillmore – Helmwige
Deborah Mayer – Gerhilde
Blythe Gaissert – Siegrune
MaryAnn Mccormick – Grimgerde
Mary Phillips – Schwertleite
Rebecca Ringle – Rossweisse

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Lothar Koenigs, conductor

It was James Levine’s many cancelations that most directly led to his (perhaps forced) resignation as the Boston Symphony Orchestra music director in the spring of 2011. But Levine has no monopoly on health problems and accidents. The glow of the two superlative concerts I attended at Tanglewood (July 19 and 20) was clouded over by the startling announcement that Levine’s young and healthy replacement, 34-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, was unable to conduct the July 27 Verdi Requiem, his first scheduled concert since his appointment, because he had suffered a “severe concussion” after being “struck in the head by a door that unexpectedly swung open at his residence in Bayreuth, Germany.” Nelsons came to the attention of the BSO in 2011 when he filled in for Levine at short notice, leading the Mahler Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. But later that year, Nelsons cancelled his Boston debut at Symphony Hall because his wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, was having the couple’s first baby.

Neither Nelsons nor Levine are the only musicians who’ve had to cancel BSO concerts. Riccardo Chailly, the much-admired international conductor who was once on the A-list of possible BSO directors, cancelled his BSO debut performances, evidently because a heart condition made him ineligible for transatlantic travel. And for the two other concerts scheduled for the weekend of the Tanglewood Requiem, the BSO had to come up with yet more last-minute replacements because conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach was suffering from an inner ear infection and couldn’t fly, and a bad cold forced bass Ferruccio Furlanetto to drop out of the Requiem (he was replaced by the Met’s Wagnerian bass Eric Owens). Bad karma? Voodoo? The curse of the Bambino? Or is cancellation just the latest trend? Certainly an unbelievable run of bad luck for the BSO.

But the luck for the two Tanglewood concerts I attended was all good.

Vladimir Jurowski, whose exciting performance last year at Symphony Hall of Shostakovich’s rarely heard Fourth Symphony instantly made him the conductor I was most hoping would become the next BSO music director, was at Tanglewood leading a program of 19th-century works: Wagner’s noble Prelude to Die Meistersinger; Liszt’s flamboyant Totentanz, with French virtuoso Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the keyboard; and Brahms’s First Symphony, with its own subtle evocation of Wagner’s triumphal overture (a piece Brahms was quite familiar with, having been a copyist for the Vienna premiere).

Jurowski, at 41, is a grown-up and decisive conductor who obviously knows what he wants and how to get it. Unlike many conductors who simply follow along with a score, he seems to make the music happen. Even before the Tanglewood concert started, you could see this decisiveness in the seating arrangement he chose. Not only did he follow Levine’s decision to divide the first and second violins antiphonally, he also spread the basses across the back of the stage, and in front of them were trumpets on their right and horns on their left. It was apparently the arrangement Brahms used. For Wagner, it clarified the texture by “layering” the score, emphasizing not the usual mass of Wagnerian sonority but the polyphony that is essential to Wagner’s evocation and celebration of medieval German music. The sound of the strings had a rare depth, but Jurowski also gave the winds an audible breathing space. It was as if we began by listening to the parts and then at the end when all the parts came together, the experience was overpowering.

What I loved most about the Liszt Totentanz, which is really a set of variations on the plainsong “Dies irae” theme that is part of the Requiem mass, was that neither Jurowski nor Thibaudet downplayed the sheer vulgarity of this score. In fact, they celebrated it. The alternately percussive and glistening keyboard writing, the fortissimo tremolos, the wild arpeggios, the soulful wind solos, the delicately sentimental use of the triangle, the tinkling trebles over a pounding bass. I think of Thibaudet as an essentially elegant player, but here he shamelessly (and correctly) pulled out every stop, encouraged by Jurowski at every turn. It was in every sense of the word a sensational performance. The audience couldn’t get enough, and Thibaudet returned for an encore, Liszt’s familiar Consolation, No. 3—touching, interior, yet not cloying.

After intermission, Jurowski delivered a rare Brahms First Symphony that was absolutely gripping from beginning to end, emphasizing Brahms’s underlying narrative: the torment, doubt, tentativeness, and determination of the tortured opening movement (in C minor), the recollections in tranquility of the Andante, the “grazioso” pastoral that’s either a vision of some even more distant idyllic past or a desired otherworldly future, and the growing, insistent affirmation and hard-won triumph of the last movement (ending in C major) with its famous theme echoing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (a connection that, as Brahms himself declared, “any ass can see”).

In one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, we’re in the audience for a symphony concert. The conductor has his index finger in his mouth, his score in disarray on the stage floor; a violinist is using his fiddle like an archer, shooting the arrow of his bow across the stage; two string players are wrestling on the floor; a harp string is broken; soap bubbles are coming out of the tuba. The person sitting in front of us is whispering to his companion: “This is the worst Brahms First I’ve ever heard.” This cartoon is the perfect image for too many Brahms performances. But not Jurowski’s.

The following night came another memorable concert. Lothar Koenigs, the German-born director of the Welsh National Opera, led a stunning version of the third act of Wagner’s Die Walküre, the act beginning with the familiar “Ride of the Valkyries” and ending with the sublime “Magic Fire Music.” Though it concerns gods and demi-gods, it’s one of Wagner’s most human dramas. A loving father (Wotan, the king of the gods) has to punish his disobedient daughter (the semi-human Brünnhilde), and unwillingly must take away her immortality. Some necessities even gods can’t disobey.

Koenigs, like Jurowski, emphasized the narrative thread, the forward rush of the story. This was lean and hungry Wagner and it flew like the wind, especially during the long, intricate give-and-take of Wotan’s argument with Brünnhilde, which can be the driest part of this act. Also like Jurowski, his orchestral seating arrangement was unconventional: on his immediate right cellos, then first violins, then at his far right basses; and to his left, second violins and four harps.

The evening began on a slightly comic note. “The Ride of the Valkyries” projects the galloping arrival of Brünnhilde’s sisters onto a mountain peak. So it made me chuckle to be hearing the most viscerally thrilling entrance music in all of opera while eight sopranos in concert evening gowns carefully sauntered onto the stage (better to have them already in place before the music began). Vocally, however, “the girls” were terrific, hurling their “Ho-jo-to-ho!” battle cries out into Tanglewood’s vast Koussevitzky Shed.

The performance was blest with two of today’s greatest practitioners of their roles: Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel and Swedish dramatic soprano Katarina Dalayman, who appeared together in the Met’s notorious new Wagner Ring Cycle, upstaged by Robert Lepage’s multi-million-dollar/multi-ton fiasco of a set. They both seemed relieved, certainly at vocal ease, to be singing without this encumbrance, and they were magnificent.

Terfel, with that unmistakable edge and color—is it pewter?—to his voice, veered between rage and bitter sadness at Brünnhilde’s disobedience, at one point actually sitting down in despair on the edge of the podium platform. “She alone knew my innermost thoughts,” he sings. And Dalayman’s Brünnhilde knows that her disobedience, in trying to save her father’s beloved Siegmund from death when he has forbidden her to do so, was a way of reading his innermost thoughts. As with her heartbreaking Kundry in the Met’s new Parsifal (just telecast on PBS), the nuanced richness of her voice (even larger in person than it seemed on the HD telecast in a movie theater) includes a remarkable sense of intimacy. These two great artists, at the top of their powers, actually seemed to be having a deep conversation with each other rather than simply pumping vocal iron.

They got strong support from young soprano Amber Wagner, a 2007 Met Auditions winner, whose big voice and distinctive, slightly dusky tone made her an admirable Sieglinde, the pregnant widow and sister of the slain Siegmund, whom Brünnhilde is trying to protect. Sieglinde’s son, of course, will be the hero Siegfried, who in the next Ring Cycle opera, Siegfried, will rescue and fall in love with Brünnhilde, and whose death in Götterdämmerung finally dooms the gods. Koenigs certainly seems to have an intimate knowledge of the entire cycle, and made the most of each Wagnerian premonition of Siegfried’s theme.

* * *

Susan Davenny Wyner, Conductor
Susan Davenny Wyner, Conductor

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Music by Otto Nicolai
Libretto by Salomon Hermann von Mosenthal after Shakespeare

Boston Midsummer Opera
Director, Antonio Ocampo-Guzman
Susan Davenny Wyner, Music Director and Conductor
Stephen Dobay, Scenic Designer
Karen Perlow, Lighting Designer
Elisabetta Polito, Costume Designer

Martha Guth – Alice Ford
Stephanie Kacoyanis – Meg Page
Ricardo Lugo – Mr. Page
Sean Lair – Slender
Stephen Humeston – Dr. Cajus
Alex Richardson – Fenton
Jason Budd – Falstaff
Dean Elzinga – Mr. Ford
Sara Heaton – Anne Page

Back in Boston, the scrappy, low-price, low-budget Boston Midsummer Opera, which has largely emphasized familiar standard repertoire in its previous seven seasons, brought us New England’s very first professional production of a delightful opera much better known in Europe than in this country, Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, with a libretto by the German-Jewish writer Salomon Hermann von Mosenthal based on Shakespeare’s only middle-class and contemporary comedy, a comic sequel to his Henry IV plays featuring his greatest comic character, Falstaff (both play and opera could be subtitled “The Humiliations of Falstaff”). The composer who shares the same shockingly brief dates as Chopin (1810-1849), was a musical prodigy who became the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. In this country, he’s best known for the delicious overture to his best-known opera. Merry Wives is significantly indebted to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (the aggrieved wife generously forgiving her husband’s jealousy) and Mendelssohn’s magical incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Nicolai’s refreshing amalgamation of German and Italian operatic styles seems quite his own.

The greatest joy of Boston Midsummer Opera has been music director Susan Davenny Wyner, a celebrated and cherished soprano (Elliott Carter composed his Elizabeth Bishop song cycle for her) turned supremely gifted conductor after a hit-and-run accident doomed her singing career. In Merry Wives, she led a good 21-piece orchestra with only four first violins—less than half the size Nicolai’s opera requires—in a sparkling and dancing rendition of the Overture and provided the overall shaping for the entire opera, emphasizing Nicolai’s wide variety of dance meters (waltz, mazurka, sicilienne). In the final scene, where Falstaff turns up in Windsor Forest costumed as a stag and is forced to repent his naughty ways by being pinched and squeezed and tickled by “elves” and “insects,” the musical brio and momentum made one forget the inadequacies of the size of the orchestra or other aspects of the production.

Falstaff and a Page. Adolf Schroedter. Pencil. 16x14.9 cm Germany. Circa 1841. The Hermitage.
Falstaff and a Page. Adolf Schroedter. Pencil. 16×14.9 cm Germany, circa 1841. The Hermitage.

BMO assembled a mostly adequate cast. As Alice Ford (this production uses the Shakespearean English names in John Moriarty’s translation rather than the German names in Mosenthal’s libretto), the primary victim of Falstaff’s lecherous adventures, soprano Martha Guth, looking like a young Meryl Streep, demonstrated a lovely lyric tone with exceptionally impressive high notes, both pretty and accurate, and a technique that included real trills. She seemed to be having more fun with the part as the evening went along (which meant that her big first-act aria, which triggers the entire plot, though very well sung, felt a little timid). As her co-conspirator, Meg Page, contralto Stephanie Kacoyanis did well in a role with more flesh than what Boito, Verdi’s librettist, gave him for Falstaff, the greatest opera based on the same play. Soprano Sara Heaton warbled warmly as the ingénue Anne Page who becomes Titania in the Windsor Forest revels. Mistress Quickly, one of Verdi’s (and Shakespeare’s) greatest comic creations, is absent from this opera.

Among the men, bass Jason Budd, who’s been singing mainly in the mid-west, was—as he had to be—the production’s liveliest (and broadest) presence as Falstaff. His natural heft (I didn’t detect any of the usual padding) never interfered with his physical dexterity or wide-ranging vocal agility. Tenor Alex Richardson, who looks a little like Rod Taylor, has a pleasing voice, and totally transformed himself from the brutish Tom Buchanon he played in the recent Emmanuel Music version of John Harbison’s Great Gatsby. I wish he and Heaton had been directed to look at each other, rather than staring out at the audience, during their sweet love duet with violin obbligato.

I liked Puerto Rico-born bass-baritone Richard Lugo as Mr. Page, but bass-baritone Dean Elzinga, in the crucial role of the obsessively jealous Mr. Ford (and looking like a bald-pated John Malkovich), was, I’m sorry to report, a disaster. Consistently over the top, yet painfully stiff, he was hopelessly unfocused both dramatically (could a better stage director than Northeastern’s Antonio Ocampo-Guzman have provided more help?) and vocally, almost as if he were in a different production from the rest of the cast. His credits include a featured role at the Met and many major roles regionally; perhaps this was an aberration. In smaller comic roles, bass Stephen Humeston and refined tenor Sean Lair were the victims of some of Ocampo-Guzman’s silliest stage directions.

Ocampo-Guzman at least had the good sense not to stage the overture, so we could actually listen to it without distraction. (Thank you!) During the spoken dialogue, the lax cue pickups kept slowing the pace Davenny Wyner was trying to establish. The final scene, with the young girls from the Central Mass Dance Academy waving lit batons in the Tsai Center’s aisles (not a good moment for one patron who was trying to return to his seat), was Ocampo-Guzman’s brightest moment. Stephen Dobay’s set included a pleasant kitchen for the Ford household, and, for the inn, a blank wall with a miniature cityscape of Windsor perched on top of it. The one tree would have been more useful in front of this wall than behind it. When the kitchen swiveled around on its turntable, it revealed yet another blank wall. Elizabetta Polito’s costumes were mostly a patchwork (in several cases quite literally), with little color-coordination, and for the men—especially Ford in an improbable red and maroon patchwork jacket—particularly ugly.

Apart from translator Moriarty inserting Feste’s haunting song from Twelfth Night, “The rain it raineth every day,” which fortuitously fit Nicolai’s music for Falstaff, this English version eschewed any of Shakespeare’s language. I’m not sure Moriarty was responsible for such contemporary locutions as “okay” and “cash,” and he surely had nothing to do with the lame jokes about the new royal baby or same-sex marriage (in both the opera and the play, two comic male characters actually marry each other or other men by mistake). I’ve heard worse translations, but this one, more efficient than sparkling, cast a vague pall over the entire performance.

On the other hand, there was Richard Dyer, the retired Boston Globe classical music critic, giving a wittily informed and informative pre-performance talk pinpointing just why this irresistible opera deserves more of our attention, following which were Susan Davenny Wyner in the pit, a skilled orchestra, and some very good singers proving that Dyer was right.


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