When Andris Nelsons was five, his parents took him to a performance of Tannhäuser at the Latvian National Opera in Riga. Mesmerized, he soon became immersed in Wagner’s sound world, a year later even piling the LPs for Parsifal onto the family stereo. Wagner remained a constant throughout his time at Riga both as trumpeter in the orchestra and then Music Director, while Bayreuth became his home for part of each summer even after his appointment as the Music Director of the Boston Symphony. With his withdrawal from Bayreuth last year, the BSO’s summer home, Tanglewood, became the venue for his Wagner with a concert performance of Das Rheingold, possibly the first installment of a complete Ring cycle to unfold over subsequent summers. Having assembled an international cast of seasoned exponents of the opera’s roles, Nelsons led a supple and powerful performance of the cycle’s “preliminary evening” remarkable for its close-knit sense of ensemble. Interaction was so fluid and dramatically apt it seemed as if the singers had been performing together for months.  

Stephanie Blythe, Thomas Mayer, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony © Hilary Scott
Stephanie Blythe, Thomas Mayer, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Ill health forced Dame Sarah Connolly to withdraw at the last moment. A substitute Fricka was found a short distance away: Stephanie Blythe, a Tanglewood Music Center alumna and currently a TMC faculty member. Had Wagner heard her, he might have considered making Wotan a mezzo. Her smooth, ripe, and seamless voice flowed as freely as the Rhine, commanding and filling the open expanse of the Koussevitzky Music Shed with ease. Thomas J. Mayer, in contrast, battled with tightness at the outset, but an impromptu visit to the wings just before Loge’s entrance in the first scene suggested something more might have been amiss. He sang more freely thereafter as the voice gradually warmed and opened and a proud and conflicted Wotan took shape. Decked out in a pink shirt, red velvet bow tie, and fire-red socks, a patterned silk scarf insouciantly draped over his shoulders, Kim Begley played Loge as a sprightly, slightly world-weary, tippling bon vivant; the audience was his confidante as he schemed and mocked the so-called gods for their pride and blindness. Agilely prancing and flouncing vocally and physically, he vogued his final exit to the tune of the Rhinemaidens’ lament. Though some of his efforts to expressively bend a note ended up in Schönberg territory, Jochen Schmeckenbecker was vocally forceful and suitably repulsive and vindictive, bringing a strong streak of self-loathing to his interpretation of the thwarted, dwarf, Alberich. David Cangelosi as his brother, the aggrieved smith Mime, wailed and whimpered musically, which is not always the case with this potentially annoying role.

All the smaller roles benefited from voices of leading-role caliber. The three Rhinemaidens blended and contrasted exquisitely as they rode the swells of the rolling river. Catherine Martin’s seductive mezzo suggests that she’s long due for promotion to dry land and a place in Valhalla. The two giants slowly loped onstage in cadence with the lumbering giants’ music, a potentially comical choice which, thanks to the demeanor of Morris Robinson and Ain Anger, was actually menacing. Robinson’s Fasolt, the more voluble of the two brothers, was as imposing vocally as Blythe. Anger made what little he said count and chillingly mimed the snapping of his brother’s neck. Malin Christenssen’s Freia was a fetching damsel in distress, though sometimes overwhelmed by the tumult in the orchestra and onstage, a challenge likely mitigated by a concert-hall acoustic. Ryan McKinney summoned the storm with sonorous authority while David Butt Philip conjured the rainbow bridge in a stream of bright, sparkling tone. Erda entered snugly sheathed in a long gown bedazzled with sparkling sky blue rhinestones to the navel and bright white ones above, an Earth Mother who could easily arouse oedipal sentiments. Patricia Bardon’s smoky mezzo veiled her warning with a presentiment of the tragedy to come.

But the bright, shining ring atop this hoard of riches was the orchestra itself. From the burgeoning E flat drone of the prelude, gradually undulating in volume and colors as each section joined in, to the relentless, horripilating final bars – one of the finest passages Bruckner never wrote – it glowed with Loge’s fire, gloried with Wotan’s pride, stormed with Donner’s thunder, and pleaded with Freia’s urgency. Conducting for the most part seated on a stool, Nelsons led a fluent, rhythmically keen, calibrated performance which seemed much shorter than the actual two and a half hours.

Nelsons mentioned in a print interview that Das Rheingold was something of a test run to gauge the feasibility of performing the rest of the Ring Cycle. Given the clamorous response to Saturday’s performance, there should be no hesitation about proceeding. Bayreuth’s loss should be Tanglewood’s gain.