Boston Classical Review, September 28, 2014
|By David Wright
Konzert, Boston, 27. September 2014
Festive inaugural concert ushers in the Nelsons era for BSO
Saturday’s gala inaugural concert by and for Andris Nelsons as music
director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was about so much more than the
works being performed—high hopes for the future, high-profile soloists,
high-wattage television lights on everything including the audience, even a
high camera on a boom swooping over the stage—that if some decent Wagner,
Puccini, and Respighi came out of it all, it would feel like a bonus.
The event was being recorded for PBS’s “Great Performances” series,
since PBS doesn’t have a series titled “Great Big Fuss.” And the potential
for greatness was there, beginning with the dynamic and long-awaited young
maestro, who had already demonstrated his prowess with this orchestra
several times while waiting to occupy his office in Symphony Hall.
The two soloists, soprano Kristīne Opolais and tenor Jonas Kaufmann,
presently sit on top of the opera world. Last April she went in the record
books by making two role debuts at the Metropolitan Opera within an 18-hour
period, singing Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San on a Saturday night, then rescuing the
Met’s HD telecast Sunday afternoon by substituting on a few hours’ notice as
Mimi in La Bohème.
Kaufmann has been earning raves in opera
repertoire ranging from Mozart to Wagner, and seems to have been named
“Singer of the Year” by just about everybody who does that sort of thing.
And if that weren’t enough, last June Opolais and Kaufmann appeared
together in a hip new modern-dress production of Manon Lescaut at London’s
Royal Opera House that reportedly had opera lovers buying transatlantic
plane tickets just to see it.
And Opolais, Kaufmann, and Manon
Lescaut were all on the bill at Symphony Hall Saturday night, surrounded by
such juicy items as the Tannhäuser Overture, Respighi’s The Pines of Rome,
and some other justly famous opera selections.
Was it great? At
times, it indisputably was. And there might have been more of those times,
but for Opolais’s unfortunate vocal indisposition.
On Saturday night,
the soprano’s voice sounded a little rough, its range constricted. Her
starship seemed to be operating on about two-thirds power. During bows, she
reacted with self-deprecating humor, covering her mouth, shaking her head,
at one point leaning theatrically on the podium railing for support.
But having previously demonstrated her ability to succeed in less-than-ideal
circumstances, Opolais gave it a go again Saturday, hanging in for her full
program plus an encore, making it happen with skillful acting, vocal
adjustments, and singing within her limits. (One previously announced
adjustment had been substituting Puccini’s “Un bel dì” from Puccini’s Madama
Butterfly for “Ebben? Ne andró lontana” from Catalani’s La Wally.)
The audience responded to her first appearance, in Isolde’s Liebestod, with
polite applause at first, then with a standing ovation when she returned to
the stage, as if acknowledging first the so-so performance, then her guts
for doing it at all.
It was, furthermore, a night when Maestro
Nelsons could do no wrong, and so you won’t hear any complaints here about
an overly ponderous tempo in Tannhäuser’s Pilgrim’s March or slightly ragged
Tenor Kaufmann was in top form, without
qualification. In his ghostly yet articulate pianissimo at the opening of
“In fernem Land” from Lohengrin, one could feel how “far away” was the place
where the Grail was kept. His voice swelled on a long line to the fervent
climax, revealing an instrument of rare security, richness, and ring.
Nelsons adopted a very broad tempo again in the Prelude to Tristan und
Isolde, but this time the rising lines had great tensile strength, pulling
the music ever-so-gradually to its ecstatic heights.
Even on a good
day vocally, and even on a less conspicuous occasion, the Liebestod would
seem a strange choice for Opolais, whose justly-admired lirico-spinto voice
is hardly the heavy equipment needed for Isolde. (Her program biography
lists no Wagner roles at all.) She did what she could with it on the night,
singing expressively as Nelsons restrained the large orchestra.
Kaufmann returned in a new guise, as Turiddu in the tragic farewell scene
(“Mamma, quel vino è generoso”) from Cavalleria rusticana. In addition to
ringing high notes, he brought the drunk, half-mad young man to life with
near-whispers and other strange timbres that somehow carried to the back of
Substituting “Un bel dì” for the Catalani aria, Opolais
returned to the role of Cio-Cio-San, the first half of her double-barreled
Met triumph, with results that at least hinted at what a full-bore
performance might be like.
Likewise, the much-anticipated Manon
Lescaut duet “Tu, tu, amore? Tu?” could only suggest what had driven them
wild in London, as Kaufmann throttled back to more nearly match his somewhat
After one callback for bows, there was a pause, and
then the duo and Nelsons returned to the stage, having decided to go ahead
with their planned encore, the conclusion of Act I of La Bohème (“O soave
fanciulla”). The singers artfully acted the scene’s gentle comedy and sweet
romance, the attentive Nelsons supported them with a plump orchestral
cushion, and Opolais bravely hit the pianissimo high note at the end.
There were hugs all around afterward, and Opolais repeatedly brushed
away tears—the source of which one could only imagine, on this night of
difficulties for her and triumph for her husband, Andris Nelsons. One
wondered whether the guys out in the PBS truck were zooming the cameras in
or turning them away at that moment.
By this time, the audience was
no doubt ready to settle back for some uncomplicated cinematic
entertainment, and Nelsons delivered with a vivid account of The Pines of
Rome, complete with wildly jangly child’s play at the Villa Borghese,
profoundly spooky double basses at the catacombs, limpid clarinet phrases
(courtesy of principal William R. Hudgins) in the night at the Janiculum, a
nightingale played a little too loud on the gramophone, and inexorable Roman
legions on the Appian Way, which can never be too loud.
crescendo that ends this piece, with everybody playing full out and extra
brass in the balconies, tends to blow away all memory of what went before.
So let’s pause a moment to reflect on the extraordinary skill of conductor
and players in creating the soft moonlight, the little gust in the pines,
the dark shadows and earthy throbs of the piece’s atmospheric middle
OK, now you can cheer. It’s a new era at the Boston