Richard Wagner / Music

Wagner’s Die Walküre and Verdi’s Requiem under Andris Nelsons at Tanglewood

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Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and James Rutherford as Wotan with Andris Nelsons and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in 'Die Walküre' July 28 at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.
Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and James Rutherford as Wotan with Andris Nelsons and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in ‘Die Walküre’ July 28 at Tanglewood. Photo Hilary Scott.

Saturday, July 27, 8 p.m. Shed

The Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor

Wagner – Die Walküre, Act I

Sunday, July 28, 2:30 p.m. (Act II) Shed
Sunday, July 28, 6:30 p.m. (Act III) Shed
The Jenkins Family Concerts

Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor
Amber Wagner, soprano – Sieglinde
Christine Goerke, soprano – Brünnhilde
Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano – Fricka
Simon O’Neill, tenor – Siegmund
James Rutherford, bass-baritone – Wotan
Franz-Josef Selig, bass – Hunding
Jessica Faselt, soprano – Helmwige
Wendy Bryn Harmer, soprano – Ortlinde
Kelly Cae Hogan, soprano – Gerhilde
Eve Gigliotti, mezzo-soprano – Siegrune
Dana Beth Miller, mezzo-soprano – Grimgerde
Ronnita Miller, mezzo-soprano – Schwertleite
Mary Phillips, mezzo-soprano – Rossweisse
Renée Tatum, mezzo-soprano – Waltraute

Opera has been a significant presence at Tanglewood since the 1940s, whether in concert performances at the Koussevitzky Music Shed or fully-staged in the Theater—among the first structures to be built at Tanglewood, but disused since the Levine years—and I’ll confess a certain fondness for it, in spite of its spartan grimness, uncomfortable seats, and less-than-ideal acoustics. There, TMC Vocal Fellows and the TMC Orchestra could flex their muscles with sets and costumes, often producing superb results, above all in Mozart. The high points of opera at Tanglewood include performances of rarities under Leinsdorf and Ozawa, and I should mention Dutoit’s superb performance of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust in the Shed, as well as Szymanowski’s great Król Roger in Symphony Hall. Verdi’s Don Carlo and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, both with the TMC Orchestra were also outstanding events at Tanglewood. Nelsons’ performances of individual acts or even complete performances of old standards constantly in the programs of opera houses have seemed like a terrible waste of resources, whether they are good or bad, but there have been exceptions. Nelsons is a maddeningly uneven conductor, but Strauss and Wagner inevitably—so far—bring out his best. My theory is that the works of these composers have such  a strong forward impulse and such intense drama built into them that they force him to plunge ahead. Otherwise, enamored of the timbres and colors of the orchestra, he can lose himself in detail, making them exquisite to his ear and ours, and losing track of the dynamic, harmonic, and structural elements of large works and turning symphonies by Shostakovich and Mahler into museum pieces—and these essays seem self-indulgent and ultimately boring. In this review, his exceptional reading of Die Walküre, splendid in every way, will be paired with a performance of the other sort.

In the past, Nelsons expressed his desire—or plan—to conduct the entire Ring Cycle at Tanglewood, but there has been a two-year gap between his performance of Das Rheingold with the BSO and this year’s Die Walküre with the TMC Orchestra and no official announcement of Siegfried or Götterdämmerung. Attendance this year seemed a bit sparse, so I fear this may be the end of it. I hope not, because both performances were outstanding and presage a brilliant conclusion to the project, if it happens. I didn’t review Das Rheingold at the time, but it did strike me as an exceptionally fine performance, although not surpassing others I have seen, for example one under Philippe Jordans at the Paris Opera and, above all, under the brilliant Jonas Alber at the Semperoper in Dresden, who has very much his own, entirely contemporary, concept of the score. (I very much hope we get to hear an entire Ring under his direction—somewhere in the world—before long.) With the BSO on hand this was very much a symphonic approach to Das Rheingold, completed in 1854, and there were a few dramatic and modulatory moments I thought Nelsons missed. This year, the TMCO’s lighter sound resembled more the sonority of a top-notch opera orchestra, and one had the added thrill of the young musicians’ intense concentration on the score. There was not a single detail that popped out as overlooked or deficient from the perspective of an audience member, so engrossing and urgent was the playing and singing. Nelsons proved himself an eloquent story-teller in Die Walküre, the most popular and most-performed of the Ring music dramas.

There was no reason to go beyond this. There is a widespread tradition of performing Die Walküre on its own, and, although Maestro Nelsons must conceive it as part of a complete cycle, it will be difficult for him to forge it into the unity more readily possible in the course of a cycle performed within a week, as complete cycles usually are. Wilhelm Furtwängler, above all, was—and is—renowned for the organic wholeness of his Ring. Of his two performances surviving in recordings, one was performed within a limited space of time in an opera house, and the other (with the exception of Das Rheingold) act by act in a radio studio. Of course Furtwängler had conducted it as a contained cycle on previous occasions, and his holistic concept could survive even when the performance disjointed.

I have heard orchestras play Die Walküre magnificently and badly—in one instance because the score was new to the players and they couldn’t do any better and in another on purpose, although they could play it to perfection, because they had no respect for the conductor. The score was obviously new to the young musicians of the TMC Orchestra, but they played every bar with conviction and unanimity, if not always the precision demanded by a Toscanini or a Szell, which is not universally essential in any case. Nelsons was totally engaged in the performance, and he and the orchestra seemed to enjoy a direct connection to one another. The treble instruments sang, and the lower growled—ferociously. Every instrumental solo was most expressively played. The brass were cohesive, rich, and powerful.

There are a few fine Wotans and Hundings in the world, fewer Siegmunds, Brunnhildes, and Sieglindes, but the result made these singers seem like the dream cast of our time. The wobbles and sense of physical effort and distress which plague the Wagner singing of our time were little in evidence. It is almost unheard-of to hear an entire cast sing the parts with such strength and beauty, including the eight Valkyries. Six of them had recently sung their parts at the Met this past spring, and the team seemed happy and energized by their reunion and were, of course, thoroughly seasoned in battle: Jessica Faselt as Helmwige, Wendy Bryn Harmer as Ortlinde, Kelly Cae Hogan as Gerhilde, Eve Gigliotti, as Siegrune, Mary Phillips as Rossweisse, andRenée Tatum as Waltraute. Dana Beth Miller as Grimgerde, and Ronnita Miller as Schwertleite were the spirited newcomers. Musically it also helps to have them all in one place, rather than scattered around a mountaintop set.

Of the consistently excellent principals, the experienced New Zealander Simon O’Neill showed secure vocal strength from beginning to end, a handsome, nicely balanced heldentenorish timbre, not too bright, not too dark, sensitive, well-considered phrasing, and absolutely clear German diction. I’ve not heard a better Siegmund in a live performance. Amber Wagner has received widespread attention for her performance of Sieglinde at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Her performance here, the first time I have had the pleasure of hearing her, stood out for her solid support, which gave her an easy command of line and phrasing, and enabled her to maintain her beautiful, golden, vulnerable tone throughout. She showed not signs of tiring. Her characterization was also vulnerable to the point of revealing Sieglinde as the lost soul that she is, but retaining some dignity under her husband’s thrall, superbly acted and sung by Franz-Josef Selig. He seemed to approach Hagen as a state of being, rather than a series of psychological moments, as he made his demands to his wife and laid down the rules of engagement with Siegmund. Even today, long into the movement to improve the acting skills of operatic singers, few show as convincing a grasp of character and  power of projection as Herr Selig. His leathery voice, as dark in timbre as any I’ve heard, made his presence even more fearsome.

Stephanie Blythe‘s voice, as she grows older, continues to enrich its gamut of color and expression. Her lower register is now unique in tone, making her Fricka a formidable opponent to her husband in their tragic encounter. Her acting is also highly developed and her expression infinitely nuanced through her voice. As Wotan James Rutherford showed an attractive, strong voice, mercifully free of the wobble which affects many of the even the most prominent singers of the role today. He is also a resourceful actor, giving his Wotan the full range of emotions created by his predicament—his loss of his freedom of action. He is sly, frustrated, angry, loving, sorrowful, and much more, in his scens with Fricka and Brunnhilde, sung by another great singer and actress, Christine Goerke, now at the peak of her reputation as Brunnhilde. Her vocal power and security of support are rare assets today, and no other among the major sopranos can deliver everything Brunnhilde requires to the same extent: vocal beauty and depth of timbre, humanity, nobility, a capacity for love and loyalty, as well as her unique sense of humor.

This concert performance gave us a special opportunity to savor the performances of these great singers without the compromise of a fully-staged production—which is more likely to be burdened with distractions than enhancements to the dramatic and musical qualities demanded by Wagner’s writing.

* * *

Andris Nelsons, the BSO, TFC, Kristine Opolais, Jonathan Tetelman, Oksana Volkova, and Ryan Speedo Green perform Verdi's Requiem at the Shed. Photo Hilary Scott.
Andris Nelsons, the BSO, TFC, Kristine Opolais, Jonathan Tetelman, Oksana Volkova, and Ryan Speedo Green perform Verdi’s Requiem at the Shed. Photo Hilary Scott.

Saturday, July 13, 8 p.m. Shed
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conductor

Kristine Opolais, soprano
Oksana Volkova, mezzo-soprano
Jonathan Tetelman, tenor
Ryan Speedo Green, bass-baritone

Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
James Burton, conductor

Verdi – Requiem

Verdi had no intention of creating anything like the Ring, a work of such vast scale that it did in fact change the nature of opera and exercised a broad influence on culture and mores. Far from desiring to change opera, Verdi, disgusted with the corruption and compromises of the opera house, had abandoned it. When he embarked on the Requiem, he thought Aida, premiered a few years earlier, in 1871, would be his last. As far as Verdi was concerned, he created this memorial to Alessandro Manzoni, a man whom he greatly loved and admired—a secular Requiem. His was not the first instance of a Requiem written for performance outside the Roman Catholic liturgy. Verdi had models in works by Cherubini and Berlioz, which transformed the genre, traditionally a composition intended to honor a deceased monarch or member of the aristocracy, into a solemn civic or political occasion, intended to celebrate and promote the values of the deceased. Verdi’s intentions are clear enough, but audiences, critics, and musicians are still somewhat puzzled by it, as was Hans von Bülow at its premiere, when he described it as “Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes,” a slur he retracted many years later after he actually heard the work. If one remembers that Verdi, variously called an agnostic or an atheist, was at the very least “not a believer,” that he was a man of the theater and an opera composer to his marrow, and that he had a clear mission in taking up the project, the demands of performing it should be relatively clear. Verdi’s musical language was indeed operatic, interspersed with contrapuntal choruses based on models in Italian church music of the Renaissance and Baroque, a genre which especially fascinated him, with his studies resulting in the Quattro pezzi sacri (1898) at the very end of his life. His adherence to operatic style and performance practice (his vocal quartet included singers from the Aida premiere, and his chorus female sopranos and altos, strictly forbidden in church choirs) was intended to mark his work as secular and political, honoring Alessandro Manzoni, one of the founding fathers of the Risorgimento, whose novel, in its Tuscanized version, provided a model for a national language. If Verdi made specific indications asking the singers to restrain the individual characterizations and drama of the operatic idiom, it is doubtful that he meant for his singers, who were trained in stage singing from the beginning, to abandon it altogether and to adopt a churchy style. Verdi only wanted it tempered in a spirit of earnest ceremony.1

Even before Aida, Verdi was set in the direction of a grand memorial work by the death of Rossini in 1868. He proposed to his publisher, Ricordi, that a group of leading Italian composers join together to compose a Requiem in Rossini’s memory, each contributing a movement. He had extremely strict ideas about where and how the work should be performed, specifically in Bologna, where Rossini lived much of his life, and in the Basilica of San Petronio. The composers were selected by a committee and they submitted their allotted work, but the difficulties of mounting the performance in the way Verdi stipulated proved insurmountable, and the score was abandoned, lost, and not rediscovered until 1970. Verdi himself wrote the concluding Libera me. After Manzoni died suddenly in 1873, Verdi set to work on the Requiem, which was performed on the first anniversary of his death. In this, Verdi incorporated the movement he had written for the Messa per Rossini. So in his retirement, never intending to write another opera, Verdi set himself on this ceremonial trajectory, honoring the leaders in whatever greatness Italy could lay claim to by the end of the Risorgimento, the results of which disappointed him bitterly. As some writers observed, “This mixture of nostalgia and pessimism makes plausible the view of some writers that, in bidding farewell to Manzoni, Verdi was also writing a ‘Requiem for the Risorgimento’ and marking the passing of a whole generation and a whole tradition.”2

The premiere of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem took place in a church, S. Marco, in Milan, chosen by Verdi primarily for its acoustics, within the liturgy of a “dry Mass,” that is a Mass omitting the Eucharist, on May 22nd, 1875. The parish priest got permission from the Archbishop for women to participate in the performance. “This was eventually granted, provided that ‘all possible precautions [be taken] that the women be hidden by a grating, [placed] off to one side, or something similar’. Indeed, at the San Marco performance – but not subsequent performances – the female choristers wore ‘a full black dress with the head covered by an ample mourning veil’”3 This was followed by three performances at La Scala, ten minutes walk away, on subsequent days.

The American premiere, performed by an opera company with choirs taken from churches, took place in New York in the autumn of 1874, and the Handel & Haydn Society presented the Boston premiere four years later. The BSO didn’t take it up until 1954, until Guido Cantelli’s direction. Since then the BSO has performed it every few years. Andris Nelsons himself was to have conducted it at Tanglewood in 2013, shortly after his appointment as Music Director, but an odd domestic injury prevented his appearance.

Nelson’s execrable 2017 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth in the Shed led me to anticipate Verdi’s Requiem with misgiving, but I was very much drawn to hearing it in the Shed’s expansive acoustics. Nelsons’ most successful performances have been in opera, so Verdi’s hybrid, should be a more congenial, language for him. This performance was by no means the disaster of Beethoven’s Ninth, which requires fundamental attention to structure, but it still missed the point, neglecting the Requiem’s operatic character for a vague, dreamy aura of piety. When passions became emotionally heightened, they were expressed more as quasi-religious agony than dramatic expression.

Nelsons began the first movement, marked Andante in the score, as an Adagio, not with the expression and inner urgency of, for example, Giulini’s slow tempo, but in a hushed stasis, hinting that the Requiem was Verdi’s Parsifal and setting off a tendency to drag or come to a halt at other moments. There should be some aspiration in these opening bars, and this is expanded in later movements, especially the “operatic” movements with the soloists. Aspiration was a value inspired in Italians by Manzoni and the Risorgimento, and the Requiem is as much a lamentation for their failure as much as for the great man, recently deceased. Better to stick to Verdi’s tempo indication.

In that Ninth in 2017 the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, newly under the direction of James Burton, sounded harsh. In this concert there was a concentration on a sweet, pretty sound from the sopranos and altos and mellowness from the tenors and basses. This especially struck me in that opening movement. Nelsons in general seems obsessed with tonal beauty—to the detriment of other qualities, including expression—and this seemed very much in that vein. In the chorus, diction and articulation in the fugal passages were loose to the edge of sloppiness, and, even in the Shed, I’ve heard an equally large chorus do much better—under Dutoit and Frühbeck de Burgos. Burton and Nelsons chose tonal qualities over counterpoint.

The vocal quartet was oddly cast. Opolais, even after her divorce from the Music Director, is still a sine qua non, it seems. Jonathan Tetelman’s handsome, darkish tenor, lacked the necessary Italian operatic brilliance on top, and seemed increasingly dull and underpowered, as the performance proceeded. Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green seemed incapable of the connected legato important in this part, constantly breaking up his phrases with glottal stops. Mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova was the most effective of the lot, spinning beautiful long phrases with her golden, always well-supported voice. It was so individual in color that it always came through, even when Opolais was singing over her in her most aggressive manner. She also brought some concentration to her singing, individualizing her expression in different movements. The others sang through the entire work with a consistent, monotonous manner of pained devotion. Opolais’ habit of treating her high notes in swooping, not-entirely-controlled phrases, always the same, no matter what the text, proved especially annoying. Nelsons seemed to avoid engaging the soloists and gave little attention to forge a unity between them and the prominent wind soloists in some sections, with weak, unfocused results. Nelsons’ applied the same hands-off approach to the blending of lines among the soloists. Curiously enough. Ms. Volkova’s and Mr. Teitelman’s voices were rather similar in timbre, naturally blending into one another in harmony without any control from the conductor..

All in all Nelsons’ Verdi Requiem was listenable enough, but essentially no more than a mediocre, purposeless run-through of work that deserved much better.

  1. One can get a sense of this mixture of styles in an extremely operatic performance of Mozart’s Requiem from the 1950 Edinburgh Festival, with Guido Cantelli conducting the La Scala Orchestra and Chorus with Renata Tebaldi, Fedora Barbieri, and Cesare Siepi among the soloists. Pristine Classical PACO027.
  2. David Rosen, Verdi: Requiem, Cambridge, 1995, p. 7 and note 15, p. 99.
  3. Rosen, p. 11.
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