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Verismo Triumphs at Tanglewood


Sondra Radvanovsky and Bryn Terfel (Hilary-Scott photo)
Sondra Radvanovsky and Bryn Terfel (Hilary-Scott photo)

Bryn Terfel singing Verdi operatic excerpts, Sondra Radvanovsky appearing as the smoldering dark-eyed diva Tosca, the redoubtable Bramwell Tovey conducting the BSO, and John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus—all 118 or so of ‘em—primed to launch a Puccini Te Deum in a fff unison guaranteed to raise the Tanglewood Shed’s rafters—who within many a country mile would miss this?

What ensued Saturday was one of those memorable nights at Tanglewood that occur all too rarely. It was in the realm, say, of the Wagner Die Walküre Act 1 with Jon Vickers (R.I.P.), Jessye Norman and Seiji Ozawa; or Benita Valente and Colin Davis in Maestro Davis’s first Tanglewood Mozart Requiem; or Leonard Bernstein and the TFC in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; or last season’s stunning Bernstein Candide with a fabulous cast led by Maestro Tovey…yes, it was that wonderful an evening.

Tovey led off the evening’s music with a blisteringly Toscaninian reading of Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino, quite fast when it was needed and dazzlingly played throughout by the BSO which betrayed not a hint of challenge, top to bottom. But one example: the noble brass chorale at letter J of the Ricordi score was simply, thrillingly in tune, elegantly phrased, and nobly balanced. The strings, violins in particular, were a marvel of unanimity. Tovey, it would seem, can ask for much and can do just about anything quite well indeed.

This was a brilliant curtain raiser, worlds apart from the Verdi masterwork, which followed, the great, late Stabat Mater (pub. 1898), perhaps the most extrovert of the collected Quattro Pezzi Sacri.

As with all of the late Verdi works, there was much to amaze the listener. Take the first few measures: Verdi sets four accented and repeated open fifths in strings, horns and bassoons. They arrive at a unison G, only to have the chorus sing a loud C# against it, immediately creating the famous tritonic diabolus in musica clash on the first syllable of the word “Stabat.” This effect creates tension, anxiety, and foreboding within only a few seconds, an appropriate frame for the described image—quite a daring way to begin a piece, especially in 1898. Of course, the medieval text, a hymn describing Mary at the foot of the cross, gazing at and grieving for her crucified son, is colorful, to put it mildly, and this surely helped fire Verdi’s fertile imagination. The music is alternately anguished, terrifying, reflective, and ultimately noble, a masterful marriage of language and illustrative, emotional music. Tovey was alert to each twist and turn of the score, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus followed his every lead. The many exposed orchestral moments were, of course, elegantly essayed by the orchestra. Not surprisingly, the applause was a bit tepid at the music’s end. It is an unsettling work, to be sure. I wished the audience had accorded a bit more enthusiasm for this elegant performance.

The mood lifted considerably when Bryn Terfel emerged for two great Verdi scenes. To say that this great singer is beloved might be an understatement, so warm was his welcome to the stage. A superb reading of the famous monologue from Don Carlo (1867, rev. 1872, 1884, 1886) in which King Philip II bemoans his unloved condition ensued. A most remarkable introduction was coaxed from the orchestra by Tovey, which set up Terfel’s heartbreaking interpretation of Verdi’s masterful score (the Italian version was sung). It was not just that Mr. Terfel seemed to embody the deeply saddened King with superb Italian language and a vast range of vocal color. The orchestra was equal partner, with outstanding solos from several first desk players, especially the heart-rendingly beautiful and sensitive playing of Associate Principal ‘cellist Martha Babcock. Time seemed to stand still in that scena dolorosa, and thankfully the large audience was unusually quiet and attentive. At the end, after a brief pause, they rightly erupted, aware they had just heard something special.

A quick 180 degree turn came next, as Terfel announced from the stage, his rich voice audible to the back rows without microphone’s help, the setting of the next monologue, this from Falstaff (1893). This equally famous scene, with Boito’s canny translation of Shakespeare’s original much in evidence, paints Falstaff’s impatience with his drunken compatriots whom he is cajoling to deliver letters to Alice Ford and Meg Page in which Falstaff begs for financial assistance to be wheedled from their rich husbands. The cronies refuse, claiming that to do this would be dishonorable. This recalcitrance drives Falstaff into a rage decrying the foolishness of honor. Terfel growled, grunted, shouted and sang his way through this remarkable scene with great vigor and panache, totally believable as the portly complainer of Shakespeare’s immortal play. Once again he triumphed, and the audience sprang to its feet. The BSO and Tovey were with him all the way, enjoying every minute. There is no denying that Mr. Terfel manages to believably inhabit virtually every role he sings.

The concert’s second half was the entire Act I of Puccini’s Tosca. The question on many people’s minds was: will this performance equal the fondly remembered reading that Seiji Ozawa had led July 26, 1980 with Shirley Verrett and Sherrill Milnes?

From the depth and volume of the low and foreboding “Scarpia” chords that began the act it was evident that something truly remarkable was afoot. Tovey’s pacing was perfect, limning the agitated music accompanying the prison escapee Angelotti’s frantic efforts to elude capture, and bridging from that to the humorous music illustrating the Sacristan’s blustering entrance. Angelotti was impressively sung by the engagingly named Ryan Speedo Green, bass-baritone. He had been heard earlier in the Salome performance that Andris Nelsons had led in Symphony Hall last March. Bass-baritone John Del Carlo made what he he could of the somewhat thankless buffo role of the Sacristan. As the music and action transitioned to the appearance of the painter Mario Cavaradossi we were introduced to the dulcet tones and engaging acting of tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who had been called upon at the last minute to substitute for Gwyn Hughes Jones, who had experienced “unanticipated visa-related problems” as the BSO program book put it. Once again Tony Fogg’s immense and seemingly infallible Rolodex must have come into play.

No worries! Jovanovich sang beautifully, ringingly singing his big aria Recondita Armonia and his love duet music with his inamorata Floria Tosca. A TFC member told me that the ladies of the chorus were all aflutter about Jovanovich, and I could see and hear why; he is a handsome guy, ideally suited to his role, and has a wonderfully sweet yet powerful tone.

Tosca is first heard offstage, calling “Mario, Mario” from the wings. The rich and darkly colored voice of Sondra Radvanovsky augured for a fiery and emotion-laden Tosca, and that she was, sweeping in from stage right in a beautiful green gown (the color of jealousy, btw…), anxiously looking for a supposed rival for Cavaradossi’s affections. He calms her—temporarily—and the two launch into one of Puccini’s most luscious love duets. Radvanovsky and Jovanovich were perfectly matched to the music and to each other, together creating a believable couple distractedly in love.

The Sacristan reappears, rejoicing in the defeat of Napoleon in a nearby battle, and rallies his Acolytes and choirboys, engagingly sung by the sopranos, altos, and tenors of the TFC and their young compatriots, members of Voices Boston, a youth chorus directed by Andy Icochea Icochea. Their tumult is interrupted by the arrival of arch villain Baron Scarpia, chief of the secret police and a notorious womanizer. He vehemently silences the crowd, chastising it for misbehaving so raucously “in church,” an ironic comment at best, coming from such a lascivious creature. Terfel, once again through his admirable arsenal of vocal and interpretive gifts was totally believable as a cunning and despicable villain. Tosca, who has arrived in the church looking for Cavaradossi, becomes easy prey for Scarpia, and he plants the seed of jealousy in her by brandishing a lady’s fan, and suggesting that Cavaradossi and the mystery lady had been interrupted in flagrante and hastily fled. Tosca, bewildered and heartbroken, sobs that she has been betrayed, and Scarpia is only too happy to comfort her. Radvanovsky played this perfectly, collapsing into Scarpia’s arms, and then recoiling as she realizes why Scarpia is being so accommodating.

All of this action occurs as the townspeople and the church members assemble to sing a hymn of joy and thanksgiving (irony, again!). As Scarpia gloats that he has won the heart of Tosca, it dawns on him that this illicit act has transpired in the house of God. He falls to his knees, and with the entire multitude on stage, sings Puccini’s powerful setting of the Te Deum.

The mighty wave of sound that cascaded from the stage was stunning. Led by all of the soloists and joined by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Voices Boston and most of the BSO brass section, all in unison, the audience was almost lifted out of its chairs.

The cheering at the end went on and on. As I left the Shed in an admitted elevated state, I heard a passing attendee say “Who needs the Met?” and another wished for more . . . “Why no Act II?”


John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 34 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 40 years.

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