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Substantial Froth Celebrates New Maestro



Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann emote for Andris Nelsons (Chris Lee photo)
Kristine Opolais and Jonas Kaufmann emote for Andris Nelsons (Chris Lee photo)

Coming after some years of anxiety over the leadership of the orchestra, the debut performance of Andris Nelsons as 15th music director in the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 134 years heralded a welcome return to normality and, hopefully, developing greatness. Yet programmatically it was a bit odd, to say the least, that the new maestro introduced himself to us with a strange potpourri that did little to strike up the band until the last piece.

The event was worthy of a national stage, demanding the notice of PBS. The extra-brilliant lighting, exuberant camera-crane operator, and traveling cam within the orchestra announced that the world was watching. This came at some cost to Nelsons’s “dear friends” in Symphony Hall, though. We were distracted by all the motion, and the hall’s celebrated quiet was marred by the equipment-cooling fans—a real shame, since Nelsons held the players to some of the finest pianissimos this writer has ever heard from the BSO.

For his debut work as BSO music director, Nelsons turned to the first classical work that had engaged him as a child. The overture to Tannhaüser, heard so much more often than the opera that follows, is now something of an oft-transcribed cliché. An exercise in relentless crescendoing, it does not always succeed as pure music. Perhaps if it had been performed in a darkened hall with the lights coming up in lieu of the main act curtain, some of the gauzy mystery upon which opera thrives would have been realized. But the exigencies of broadcasting prohibited such theatricality, as did the fact that the houselights never dimmed throughout the evening, in order that audience reactions could be televised. This took focus from the stage and the musicmaking. Nelsons’s performance was clean and alert to the last stand. Eyes were on the conductor and the execution must have been all he could have hoped for. Yet the question persisted—why this calling card?

Germany’s greatest tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, made a dramatic entrance onto the doubly extended stage for the second installment of the all-Wagner first half. After a positively glorious messa di voce introduction, his tone rang out heroically in “In fernem Land” from the third act of Lohengrin, and to a person the audience was at his feet in gratitude for the passionate account, even as an early bravo shattered our reverie.

Latvia’s greatest soprano, Kristine Opolais, sat dutifully onstage through a somewhat less than ecstatic, albeit beautifully detailed, Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. Conducting much of the time from a crouch, Nelsons was busy shaping and cuing, seeming less interested in beating time. From section to section, the playing was exquisite, with a fine and fluidly flexible line. We truly admire how the BSO plays for the maestro.

Opolais has announced that she wishes to play Isolde, but from her covered tone and husbanding of resources in the “Liebestod” last night, this is not promising.

The second half moved to sunny Italy as Kaufmann returned in extravagant Italianate spinto voice for “Mamma, quell vino è generoso” from Calvalleria Rusticana. He completely embodied the role of Turiddu with ringing top and emotional projection. His anticipation of death was the dramatic engagement of the evening. Invite him back for an entire program!

Why the famous subsequent Intermezzo from the same opera appeared only after the interruption of the substituted “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly was a programming mystery. Following costume change, Opolais came to us with this saddest of songs. Singing now from memory with lots of imploring gestures, she gave us an intimate, conversational account through most of her range, and with some authentically powerful projection from the top. However, it’s hard to put this aria across out of context, without the introduction from Suzuki, and the trappings of the stage.


Finally we got the Mascagni Intermezzo as the sterling example of how flexibly the BSO might play for Nelsons. The strings adopted a sweeter tone and delicacy not heard earlier. But even as supported by the pealing BSO organ, the piece is something of a downer, so why program it on a festive night?

The vocal fireworks culminated with the duet “Tu tu, Amore” from Manon Lescaut. Starting with some funny stage business, we soon got the first genuinely vivid opera scene. Opolais, now in excellent voice, and Kaufmann, dramatic and burnished as he was all night, gave something extra, evidently goaded by each other’s performance. The curtain call included mock jealousy over Kaufmann’s embrace of the wife of the new conductor. [hear sound sample from BSO by clicking below, noting that the closely miked voices sound more forward than they did in the room]

This was followed with a planned encore, a la Pops. “O soave faciulla” from La Boheme came across as celebrity duet. Nicely sung and with good interaction, it featured another superb floated messa di voce from Kaufmann; while stylistically he might have been better-partnered with a Tebaldi, there was the start of chemistry here.

For the closer a feast of Respighian colors and effects was served up, orchestra and maestro in fine form as a glowing augury of the partnership all can expect. PBS loved it as well, with the crane camera prancing and the stage cameraman highlighting every solo—which were numerous and fine. The camera particularly loved harpist Jessica Zhou, being often in her face. But a shadowy question dimly arose: was the performance of Pines of Rome conceivably about anything other than orchestration and nostalgia for the grandeur of faded empire? A nod to the more imperial new Italy, or to an America newly leading allies into yet another battle? Emphatically no. This was a vehicle to showcase the BSO as an instrument of the very highest quality, cajoled, manipulated and presided over by an aspiring genius at the podium, who deferred to the dozens of remarkable musicians whose individual contributions he acknowledged with real gratitude.

After this frothy demonstration that the BSO can really play for Nelsons, we’re relieved that his next nine concerts will concentrate more on deeper music, less on celebrity sparklers.

Related article here.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Not to sound excessively PC, but that the festive concert inaugurating the BSO’s Nelsons era, occurring as it did during the Jewish High Holy Days, featured four quasi or actual Fascist-sympathetic composers seemed a bit tone-deaf. Not that every season should start yet again with the ‘To Joy’ ode, but still.

    Comment by David Moran — September 29, 2014 at 1:53 am

  2. As you seem to suspect, David, that does sound a bit excessive. I don’t know much about the political activities or views of Mascagni, but it is a considerable overreach to tar either Puccini or Respighi with the label ‘fascist’. My understanding is that neither artist was much engaged in the politics of his time, and however much the regime tried to exploit his burgeoning fame, Respighi seems in retrospect to have been distinctly uneasy about the fascist movement and supportive of its critics in the musical world.

    As for Richard Wagner: an anti-semite, to be sure, if long before the advent of fascism per se, so maybe a bit tone-deaf of the BSO there. Of course the significance of those selections to both Nelsons and Kristīne Opolais – not to mention the brilliant Jonas Kaufmann – seemed important somehow: the inaugural concert was the groundbreaking ceremony, after all, for a new Camelot.

    Comment by nimitta — September 29, 2014 at 11:07 am

  3. Thanks. Mascagni was a proud member and admirer of the party; Puccini was admired by and his music used by the Fascists but reciprocated chiefly for artistic support; the mostly apolitical Respighi likewise was made large use of by the government and became a member of the Fascist Royal Academy. I don’t disagree about overstatement; to my programming sense, though, it felt, along with so much Wagner, a little bit off for these weeks.

    Comment by David Moran — September 29, 2014 at 12:04 pm

  4. Wow, such a great evening has brought out such troubled observations. If we delved into every composer’s politics, prejudices and peccadilloes I doubt we would have much music to be happy with in the classical world. The story of the overture to Tannhauser is well known… it is Nelson’s first piece he remembers that helped him decide on a musical career. Perhaps all the pieces held a special meaning to him, and the majority of the hall seemed to respond. But what do we know?

    Kaufmann long ago decided to perform selections from roles that many observers never thought he should consider singing. Parsifal? His recent MET production was superb. Certainly, many tenors and purists do not care for his bari-tenor voice but by now his interpretations of the Italian, French and German repertoire have become an accepted and to some, preferred style. Perhaps Kaufmann has counseled Ms. Opolais to consider Isolde to give the role her own voice. I have a feeling Lillian Nordica, Boston and Maine’s “Yankee Diva” (and first Elsa at Bayreuth), would tell her to go for it. The great singers of the past were not as boxed in as today’s artists.

    As far as the hall atmospherics with the TV crews there, we all knew what the deal was. Be happy that the BSO is back, and this one evening gave us a welcome change of pace but at the same time signaled that the gifted maestro is ready to lead Boston to a better place and back to the foundations the orchestra was built on.

    The audience member beside me had never heard of Jonas Kaufmann before. Wanted to ask what life is like on Mars.

    Comment by Joe Mozdiez — September 29, 2014 at 4:01 pm

  5. Is Mars an opera-free planet ? Well, it’s nice to know there are alternatives.

    The opening night program represented the BSO as a symphony orchestra that wishes it were an opera company. I would take this as a bad sign, but opening night is alway the least interesting program of the season. It’s essentially a social occasion, and the music is required to be well-dressed, obedient, and unobtrusive. “Interesting mediocrities,” in Lee’s words, except for the interesting part.

    The question of whether our judgements of a composer’s personal behavior and opinions should decide whether their work is performed is difficult and filled with confusion; to suggest that we can refine it to the point of deciding that the work can be played only on certain days and not others is almost comical. We will have to petition Sarastro to provide us with a magical musical calendar.

    Comment by SamW — September 29, 2014 at 9:20 pm

  6. The order of selections in the second half was as follows: Mamma quel vino, Un bel di, Cavalleria intermezzo, Tu tu amore tu, O soave fanciulla (encore), and Respighi Pines of Rome.

    Comment by John — September 30, 2014 at 12:09 pm

  7. I must be from a 3rd planet. Know who Jonas Kaufmann is but never heard him live. Now, not only live but more than once, in different personae, alone and with Kristine Opolais, she also showing different facets. If this is the vocal programming we can look forward to, good for Earth.

    Comment by LoisL — September 30, 2014 at 2:06 pm

  8. Just for the record, Jonas Kaufmann is not Germany’s greatest tenor, but the world’s.

    Comment by Katalin Mitchell — September 30, 2014 at 2:54 pm

  9. Is it unintelligent to ask why would a season opener concert have anything to do with the Jews or whatever ethnic group? Why did they have to schedule the World Cup to take place during the Muslim holy MONTH?

    I heard Kaufmann at MET, singing Parsifal’s title role. It was not unsatisfying, compared with my previously tortured experiences with some Tristan, Sigmund and Siegfried… I considered getting a DVD of that production and hear him again.

    Anyway, just to repeat my aged viewpoint: anyone who is serious about Wagner’s music should distance himself from a performance of excerpts. At least, Nelsons did not include too many in his program.

    Comment by Thorsten — October 1, 2014 at 12:40 pm

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