It was always Richard Wagner’s intention that Der Ring des Nibelungen should be performed in its entirety over multiple nights. He was unhappy with “the special preview” (1870) of Die Walküre scheduled at King Ludwig’s insistence. Nevertheless, performances of individual Ring operas have become accepted in modern times, especially since putting together new cycles has become such a daunting task that it must be done over multiple seasons. Even more, individual acts, particularly those requiring fewer singers and featuring major orchestral passages, have been making their appearance in regular symphonic performances. But, the three acts of Die Walküre spread over almost 24 hours? What would have Wagner thought about such an arrangement? Truth be told, the performance layout was not far from the narrated time. One can assume that the second act takes place the day after the interaction between Sieglinde, the young Wälsung and Hunding, and that the third act follows several hours after the Siegmund–Hunding fight.

Christine Goerke and Simon O'Neill
© Hilary Scott

Taking part in a performance of Die Walküre, certainly was a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity for the fellows of the 2019 Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, regardless of whether they will have the chance to play again this music later in their careers or not. Obviously, splitting the performance in three discrete segments didn't just give the young and inexperienced musicians time to rest, but was also designed to allow more of them to experiment leading their respective sections. From the storming cellos in the introductory bars to the remarkable rendering of the flickering flames that Loge surrounds Brünnhilde's rock with, the results were spectacular. One only had to look at the young faces on the stage in order to become aware that this is not the sound produced by an experienced ensemble. Few brass hesitations were fully compensated by the orchestra’s disciplined enthusiasm, by the musicians' ability to support and not overwhelm the voices or by the outmost care with which Leitmotifs, imbued with prescience, were brought forward. Considering that Tanglewood alumni have played for decades major roles in American orchestras, one should truly feel confident about the future. Leading the roster of talented instrumentalists was surely an unforgettable experience for Maestro Nelsons as well. The level of details he had to delve into was unquestionably different than when conducting the Boston Symphony or any other major orchestra. More than that, he may not have conducted this opera since his days as Music Director of the Latvian National Opera, more than a decade ago.

James Rutherford, Christine Goerke and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

On the too rare occasions when vocal works are presented at Tanglewood, the organizers have always striven to hire the best available soloists. This weekend’s line-up was stellar. In a role that probably suits her best, soprano Amber Wagner was outstanding as Sieglinde. Not only did she control perfectly well, with beautiful phrasing, her stupendous volume, but she also offered a heartfelt performance, portraying Sieglinde’s need for protection, her vacillations between despair and passion. At all times, up to the second’s act “O hehrstes Wunder”, her instrument was full of warmth and color. Christine Goerke’s voice was a tad strained at the beginning of the long voyage that would eventually take her character from youthful insouciance to the wisdom acquired through love and suffering. Arguably today’s most famous Brünnhilde, at least on this side of the Atlantic, Goerke quickly took control, displaying the dramatic intensity she has been known for, at least since her formidable rendition of Strauss’ Elektra (also under Nelsons’ baton) at Carnegie Hall in 2015. Occasionally, one could hear reminiscences of the days when she sang Handel and Mozart. These chamber-music evoking sonorities, not the sheer power, make her voice so special. There are few singers around as reliable as mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, appearing here as Fricka, Wotan’s wife. Her voice might lack some suppleness but certainly not authority and power of conviction. Simon O’Neill didn’t only bring his formidable steely tenor to the role of the infelicitous Siegmund, but also less expected finesse. His question-and-answer dialogue, full of mounting tension, with Goerke’s Brünnhilde was one of the performance’s highlights. As Wotan, bass-baritone James Rutherford provided a quite bland summary of past facts for the benefit of his favorite daughter, but he warmed up, vocally and spiritually for the third act farewell. Hunding was interpreted with appropriate gruffness by German bass Franz-Josef Selig.

James Rutherford, Christine Goerke and Andris Nelsons
© Hilary Scott

For the modest and indefatigable Andris Nelsons – a conductor who proves more and more that he possesses the wonderful talent to bring out the best qualities of every musician that he is interacting with – the weekend performances were the culmination of a month-long residency at Tanglewood. The final pianissimo was followed by minutes of thunderous applause. They seemed insufficient.