The Boston Musical Intelligencer, APRIL 6, 2018
|by Jeffrey Gantz
Wagner: Konzert, Boston, 5. April 2018 (Tristan, 2. Akt)
Outstanding Wagner from Nelsons and the BSO
This weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program offers contrasting ideas
about love from Richard Wagner. His Siegfried Idyll, composed in 1870,
celebrates his marriage to Cosima von Bülow and the birth of their son
Siegfried. Tristan und Isolde, composed between 1857 and 1859, paints a
darker picture; act two, which is what Andris Nelsons and the BSO presented
Thursday and will repeat Saturday, is an extended apostrophe to dreamless
unconsciousness. Nelsons was superb in Thursday’s Siegfried Idyll, and his
Tristan, with Jonas Kaufmann and Camilla Nylund, was not too far behind.
The Siegfried Idyll premiered on Christmas morning, 1870, on a staircase
just outside Cosima’s bedroom in their home in Tribschen (a district of
Lucerne). The piece was a surprise gift under the title Tribschen Idyll,
with Fidi’s Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, Presented as a Symphonic Birthday
Greeting to His Cosima by Her Richard. (Fidi was the young Siegfried, born
in June of the previous year; the “Orange Sunrise” refers to the morning sun
hitting the rug outside Cosima’s bedroom. Cosima’s birthday was actually
Christmas Eve but she celebrated it on Christmas Day.) The musicians, drawn
from the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich, appear to have numbered 13. (There was,
obviously, a limit to how many could fit on the staircase.) Playing the
trumpet part, all 13 bars of it, was the celebrated conductor Hans Richter.
The audience included a young Friedrich Nietzsche.
The piece was not
intended for public performance. In 1877, however, the Wagners, pressed for
funds, sold it to Schott. It was published the following year as Siegfried
Idyll, with the orchestral forces bumped up to 35. When considering a more
commercial title, Wagner would have had in mind not only his son Siegfried
but also the way the piece shares themes with the third of the Ring dramas,
Siegfried, which he essentially completed in 1869 and which premiered in
There is one theme that seems more appropriate to the young
Siegfried Wagner than to the operatic hero: the oboe melody that enters at
bar 91 (about six minutes in) appears to draw on the German lullaby “Schlaf,
Kindlein, schlaf” (“Sleep, Child, Sleep”). It’s as if Siegfried and
Brünnhilde — or rather, Richard and Cosima — were being reminded of their
parental responsibilities. Mostly, however, the Siegfried Idyll revels in
ideas from the third act of Siegfried. The opening theme is the melody that
accompanies Brünnhilde’s “Ewig war ich, Ewig bin ich” (“Eternal I was,
Eternal I am”), where, fearful, she tries to keep Siegfried at a distance.
In what could be considered the development, where the time signature
switches from 4/4 to 3/4 (bar 148), we get the continuation of that idea,
where she sings “O Siegfried! Herrlicher! Hort der Welt!” (“O Siegfried!
Glorious one! Wealth of the world!”). Brünnhilde’s uncertainty is pointed by
the piece’s persistent French-horn triplets. At bar 259, the last major
theme arrives, a sidestepping downward idea for the French horns that turns
up at the end of Siegfried and again as part of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey in
Most accounts of the Siegfried Idyll run 18 or 19
minutes. Nelsons’s ran 24 and was worth every second. At some 60 strong, the
orchestra wasn’t Tribschen intimate, but the reading felt intimate, Nelsons
starting with a sigh and caressing the “Ewig” theme, pulling out phrases
here and there while maintaining the shape of the whole. Keisuke Wakao was
“Sehr einfach” (“Very simple”), as Wagner directed, in the oboe melody and
later poignant playing the “Ewig” theme against the “O Siegfried” theme in
the orchestra. The French horns were consoling at first, then ominous.
Thomas Siders’s trumpet triplets would have pleased Richter; Richard Sebring
delivered a radiant “Sehr ruhig” (“Very quiet”) French horn solo near the
end, just before the music starts to sound even more like the last movement
of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony than it already has. (Mahler borrowed the
“Ewig” theme for his symphony.) And Nelsons had the measure of every mood,
not just the reverent and mystical moments but the anguished, despondent
ones, Wagner’s acknowledgment of everyday life. If the oboe theme is a
lullaby for the young Siegfried Wagner, this Siegfried Idyll was a lullaby
for his loving parents.
For Tristan und Isolde, Wagner turned to the
unfinished early-13th-century account by Gottfried von Strassburg. The basic
elements of the story — at least in the British Isles — go back much
farther, however, to stories like Ireland’s “The Exile of the Sons of
Uisliu,” in which Ulster king Conchubur claims the beautiful Derdriu for
himself but she falls in love with young buck Noísiu. This pattern — old
king, tribal goddess, young king — is repeated in the later Irish tale of
Finn, Gráinne, and Díarmuid, and in the Round Table story of Arthur,
Guinevere, and Lancelot. At the time he was composing Tristan, in the late
1850s, Wagner was enamored of Mathilde Wesendonck, and though he was two
years older than her husband, he surely thought of himself as Tristan rather
than Marke. Tristan didn’t premiere till 1865, and then under the baton of
Hans von Bülow, whose wife, Cosima, had just two months earlier given birth
to Wagner’s daughter Isolde — life once again imitating art.
to a point. Richard and Cosima did not swear eternal fidelity and die, any
more than Richard and Mathilde had done. But Wagner did find a kindred
spirit in Gottfried von Strassburg, for whom the morality and chivalry of
court count for little against the mystic union of his Tristan and Isolde.
Gottfried’s lovers spend what seems an eternity trying not to get caught;
Wagner pared the story down to its essentials, omitting Tristan’s marriage
to Breton princess Isolde of the White Hands and giving the opera’s second
act over to a single rapturous, ecstatic tryst. His Tristan and Isolde
choose night over day, death over life. Schopenhauer’s influence is obvious,
but perhaps Wagner also had in mind Novalis’s Hymnen an die Nacht, and
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, another couple who, with no place in the
daylight world, are destined for eternal night.
Any performance of
Tristan has to negotiate between text (that is, intelligibility) and music.
It’s the music, in a sense, that the opera is headed for; music is night to
the text’s day. But act two, even though it’s set at night, finds the lovers
still divesting themselves of day and its illusions. They have trusted their
friend Melot to take King Marke away on a hunt so they can be alone;
Isolde’s maid Brangäne warns that Melot will prove false, and by the end of
the act he does. The lovers also have to work through everything that
happened in the first act and before: Tristan’s slaying of Isolde’s fiancé,
Morold, in battle; Isolde’s failure to revenge herself on Tristan when he
came to her for healing; Tristan’s willingness to see her married to Marke;
Isolde’s attempt to kill them both with a death potion. Not only are they
journeying toward night, they’re looking to obliterate the “und” in “Tristan
und Isolde” so that they can be “ewig ein”: “eternally one.” By the end of
the opera, in Isolde’s “Verklärung,” the music can take over. But in act
two, the words still count.
Thursday, they counted as much as you
could expect from a concert performance in a big hall. Nelsons did have his
singers ranged on either side of him: Nylund (Isolde) to his left and Mihoko
Fujimura (Brangäne) to his right to start, then Kaufmann (Tristan) replacing
Fujimura. Once Georg Zeppenfeld (Marke) and Andrew Rees (Melot) entered,
Kaufman moved over to join Nylund, but even then there wasn’t much dramatic
interaction on stage. Nylund and Kaufmann sang from scores placed low on
stands; they did a decent job of singing to the audience but barely glanced
at each other. (Granted, Nelsons was in the way.) Fujimura might have had a
score but she hardly looked at it; her Brangäne was that much the better.
Zeppenfeld sang without a score, transfixing the audience; his was the best
acting of all.
Nelsons gave everyone — both singers and orchestra —
plenty of room. A standard second act of Tristan runs 70 to 75 minutes;
Nelsons took 84, and the result sounded quite natural. He was turbulent and
impulsive where Wagner asked him to be without sacrificing clarity: in that
moment at the beginning when Isolde insists to Brangäne that she can hear
the murmuring stream over the call of the hunt, the hunting French horns
just melted into the watery clarinets. When he slowed, it was to underline
the drama. In the love duet, which takes up the second of the act’s three
scenes, he was bright and vibrant as Tristan and Isolde remonstrated with
“false day” and with each other. Then he became hushed and magical as they
sank (“O sink’ hernieder”) into their night, to the “Verklärung” music with
which the opera will end.
Neither Nylund nor Kaufmann was quite as
prepossessing. Hers was a mature, grand Isolde, secure throughout her vocal
range but restrained in affect. She had the power to ride the orchestra but
without much color or characterization. That was true of Kaufmann as well.
He is a reasonable heldentenor who can really sing; his Tristan had both
vocal beauty and intelligence. What he lacked was romantic ardor. I’d like
to think that, in an actual staged performance, he and Nylund would have
been more animated. Nylund was intense in inviting “Frau Minne” (“Love”) to
shine bright; there was scorn in her voice when she called Tristan “eitler
Tagesknecht” (“futile servant of day”), and she sank to a reproachful
whisper when asking how Tristan expected her to bear her marriage to Marke.
And Kaufmann gave heroic weight to his “Mein Tag war da vollbracht” (“My day
was extinguished”), and to the lead-in to “O sink hernieder.” They floated
through the conclusion of their duet, rapture without words (which at this
point weren’t needed), and Nelsons managed not to cover them — a feat not to
be taken for granted.
Fujimura’s Brangäne was strong but not
strident; she gave a vivid, perceptive observation of Melot’s jealousy,
spitting out the final “Jägerslist” (“hunters’ cunning”). Brangäne’s
watcher’s song from the tower, delivered from offstage, is a highlight of
the opera. Here it was haunting but not as ghostly as it might have been; I
wonder whether Fujimura should have been farther away from the stage door.
Zeppenfeld was for me the vocal star of the evening. Marke’s sorrowful
soliloquy, in which he upbraids Tristan and reflects on his marriage to
Isolde, runs some 12 minutes, and in the past it’s been subjected to cuts,
but this is Wagner’s salute to day, to the damage Tristan and Isolde’s union
will leave behind. Backed by Craig Nordstorm’s earthy bass clarinet (which
had spoken up as early as bar 9 of the act’s Prelude), Zeppenfeld radiated
dignity as the king who has made Tristan his heir and who so reveres Isolde
that he has not yet consummated their marriage. Zeppenfeld also had the best
enunciation of the cast; you could actually make out the German text of the
soliloquy. Here again, Kaufmann should have been standing next to him,
looking abashed, and not on the other side of Nelsons.
Melot has very
little to do in act two, and Andrew Rees made the most of it. Tristan’s
faithful companion Kurwenal has even less, just three words: “Rettet dich,
Tristan!” (“Save yourself, Tristan!”). Full credit to David Kravitz, who
sported full evening dress for an appearance of barely five seconds, as he
sprinted in from the stage door, delivered his part, and sprinted off.
Given the current state of staged opera in Boston, any concert Wagner
from the BSO is welcome. If this isn’t the act two Tristan of your dreams,
it’s at least one to rival anything you’re likely to hear in broad daylight.