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.