On a freezing February evening, the audience who braved the weather to attend the Boston Symphony Orchestra's concert was rewarded with a magnificent performance of excerpts from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. With many new opera productions deemed too expensive and often controversial, especially in Europe, it was refreshing to experience Wagner’s music in its glory without distracting staging. I would have enjoyed hearing Act 1 in its entirety, especially to hear more from Marina Prudenskaya, whose too brief an appearance at the end of Act 3 made a great impression; Prudenskaya possesses a rich and alluring voice, as her Venus tempts Tannhäuser to return to her.

Andris Nelsons and Klaus Florian Vogt
© Aram Boghosian

Andris Nelsons’ approach to Wagner struck one first as a little low key. He was meticulous in his attention to precise details and nuances of the music and was focused on building momentum, volume and ensemble slowly and carefully. It was a deceptively straightforward, yet ultimately rewarding experience to follow him as he gave his trust and reins to each individual player. There were many standout performances, most notably the concertmaster Elita Kang, whose exquisite violin solos were one of the highlights of the evening. Woodwinds and harps sang beautifully, while the lower strings added dramatic tension. The Boston brass section was flawless, never too dramatic or overbearing. The placement of musicians playing the Venusberg music towards the end of Act 3 just outside a side door was ingenious, creating a sense of a distant land of sensuality. 

The BSO was fortunate to have some of the finest interpreters of Wagner’s music as soloists, especially Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role and Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram. Gerhaher is a renowned Lieder singer whose impeccable German diction made each and every word come alive with emotion. Wolfram’s hymn to the evening star, “O du, mein holder Abendstern” has seldom been sung with such sadness, resignation and introspection as Gerhaher displayed in his mastery of vocal color and nuance. His singing turned passionate and dramatic as Wolfram confronted Tannhäuser, when he returns from his unsuccessful pilgrimage to Rome to atone for his carnal sins. Vogt’s lyrical voice may not fit the conventional idea of a Wagnerian tenor, but he has been a reigning Lohengrin in Europe for almost two decades. His voice combines clarity, beauty and sweetness with power and volume to ride above the orchestra with seeming ease. Tannhäuser’s Rome narration showcased Vogt’s ability to trace his character’s journey from suffering and hope to despair, his quiet soliloquy turning increasingly to frustration and frenzy. He ingeniously distorted his voice when narrating the Pope’s condemnation. His final utterance, “Heilige Elisabeth, bitte für mich!” was a breathtakingly beautiful whisper.

Marina Prudenskaya, Andris Nelsons, Klaus Florian Vogt and Christian Gerhaher
© Aram Boghosian

Soprano Amber Wagner has a wonderful ability to produce a warm, even-toned voice. Elisabeth’s “Allmächt'ge Jungfrau, hör mein Flehen!”, as she pleads with Virgin Mary, showcased her beautiful middle voice. If only her German diction was more intelligible. But she was nevertheless a worthy member of a strong ensemble. I especially enjoyed hearing Tannhäuser, Wolfram and Venus in their frenzied exchange as the singers were all placed in front of the orchestra, unlike in many stagings where Venus tends to be placed in the back or above. Last but not least, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, directed by James Burton, was a magnificent and moving contributor to the success of the evening; as the chorus sang the miracle of redemption, with the Pope’s staff sprouting the new leaves, there was no need for the audience to see the pilgrims in costume or the staff. The rousing chorus supported by the excellent orchestra moved us to tears.