Andris Nelsons’ final Boston Symphony program of the season contrasted the all-consuming, destructive force of the release of passion suppressed and the contentment and tranquility of passion domesticated with two works by Wagner: Act 2 from Tristan und Isolde and the Siegfried Idyll. A sense of occasion and the buzz of anticipation rustled Symphony Hall with four of the six singers making their BSO debuts and accomplished Wagnerians, Jonas Kaufmann and Camilla Nylund, singing the title roles for the first time.

Andris Nelsons, Camilla Nylund, Jonas Kaufmann and the Boston Symphony © Hilary Scott
Andris Nelsons, Camilla Nylund, Jonas Kaufmann and the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Wagner sketched, then abandoned, several pieces devoted to members of his family before finally completing the Siegfried Idyll as a birthday gift for his wife. Although born on 24th December, Cosima always celebrated her birthday on Christmas Day. On Christmas morning 1870, she woke to the strains of the Idyll with her husband leading thirteen members of the Tonhalle Orchestra deployed on the landing of the main staircase. Wagner recycled some of the material from his previous attempts and incorporated music from Siegfried to create a highly personal, affectionate love letter to his wife and children, Eva and the 18-month-old “Fidi” (Siegfried) in particular. The original title, Tribschen Idyll with Fidi’s birdsong and the orange sunrise as symphonic birthday greeting betrays the specificity of his inspiration. The orange wallpaper which decorated Cosima’s bedroom in their Tribschen villa glowed spectacularly with the rays of the rising sun, gilding the room and his wife and child with its reflected light. Nelsons played the Idyll as a dawn piece, suffused with this mellow light and imbued with the repose of a world rolling over and slowly wakening. Anyone who has experienced dawn in the Alps, would have seen it in the music.

In contrast, Tristan und Isolde’s Act 2 is primarily a night piece. Its only light comes from fire, both literally, in the form of Brangäne’s torch, and figuratively, in the burning ardor of Tristan and Isolde themselves, under the spell of the Love Potion. Nelsons carried the chamber music intimacy of the Idyll over into the quieter, more languorous passages of the lovers’ long duet. With traditional cuts opened, it took up nearly half of the act’s eighty plus minutes.

Both Kaufmann and Nylund were anchored to their scores. A few, brief, tentative moments aside, the tenor was in excellent voice, his top ringing freely and his skill at singing softly and with legato while avoiding crooning a boon in the softer passages. He often brings to mind Ramón Vinay in vocal quality and dramatic commitment, though his voice is more flexible, not as burly, nor his top veiled. In an interview on local radio, he had referred to the role in terms more descriptive of a Parkour obstacle course. That image seemed foremost in his mind as his eyes remained, for the most part, glued to his score. His usual attention to weighing and shading the words of the text was less in evidence as well, but that is likely to improve with familiarity and was perhaps for the best, given some of the nine-syllable nonsense Wagner puts in the mouths of his lovers.

Nylund‘s soprano had a smoky quality which lifted as her voice rose. It sometimes lacked the heft to cut through Wagner’s lusher orchestration, but that should change as she becomes more comfortable in her role and more confident when those challenges arise. Both singers stood at either side of the podium, but their voices still complemented each other and intertwined like the climbing tendrils of a nocturnal blooming vine. Overall, they seemed understandably cautious.

Not so Georg Zeppenfeld, a Bayreuth veteran who sang without a score and was the most dramatically involved. Time stands still for Marke’s monologue which, in the wrong hands, can seem interminable. Zeppenfeld's sonorous bass and nuanced, heartfelt rendition held the listener rapt. Mihoko Fujimura’s Brangäne was mellow and warm, her ominous warning floating through the orchestral nightscape. Local stalwart, David Kravitz, and Andrew Rees as Kurwenal and Melot didn’t allow the brevity of their parts to prevent presenting a distinct character.

Andris Nelsons is known for his attention to detail. In this case, however, some faster tempo choices tended to obscure some of the subtleties of the score. Otherwise, he and the orchestra delivered a dynamic, well and dramatically paced, psychotropic performance.

Four years ago, Kaufmann made his BSO debut. Discussions about performing Act 2 began then. Though he envisions Tannhäuser as his next Wagner role, Tristan would be an important stop on his journey to his ultimate goal, Siegfried. He aims to perform the Breton nobleman complete in three years time. Let’s hope discussions have begun to have him do it here.