As the Tanglewood season closed last weekend, Kristine Opolais joined Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for two concerts in the Koussevitzky Music Shed.
A favorite at the Met since 2013, Opolais shone in two excerpts on Saturday, August 15. The arias by Verdi (the famous “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” from Act IV of Otello) and Boito (the contemplative “L’altra notte in fondo al mare” from Act III of Mefistofele) were apt pieces to showcase Opolais´s silky, relaxed delivery. She and her husband, Andris Nelsons, teamed up for the BBC Proms two years ago with the same music by Verdi (accompanied by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), and they received raves for their “fresh, intricately textured and unusually probing account.” Opolais and Nelsons met in their 20s at the Latvian National Opera when she sang “Musetta´s Waltz” from Puccini´s La Bohème at a solo audition for Nelsons. [story here]
One of the reasons the Opolais name is on everyone´s lips is due to her uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time (and prepared to step in when a need arises). In 2010, she replaced Nina Stemme in the title role of Martin Kusej´s controversial production of the Bayerische Staatsoper´s sometimes shocking (and gratuitously violent) Rusalka. She distinguished herself as a marvelous singing actor and her riveting performance is featured in the company´s 2011 DVD [here].
In 2013, she stepped into Nicholas Joel´s 2009 Met staging of the role of Magda in Puccini´s La Rondine (a soprano who falls in love, but leaves her tenor for another man) after the original Magda (Angela Gheorghiu) announced that she was divorcing her tenor husband (Roberto Alagna). Life imitates art…
Opolais then went down in the history of the Metropolitan opera when she made two role debuts in 2014 within 24 hours: on Friday, April 24, she sang the title of Puccini´s Madama Butterfly, and then stepped in as Mimi (replacing the indisposed Anita Hartig) for the Met´s live HD television broadcast of Puccini´s La Bohème on the very next afternoon. Then in November-December 2014, the Met released her from her contract for six performances of Bohème so that she could replace Anna Netrebko in the same role at the Staatsoper (who withdrew for artistic reasons); and Opolais returned to the Met for the final three (January 2015) Mimis. She and Nelsons starred in the recent PBS Great Performances broadcast from Symphony Hall [article here].
While she has established her name at the Bayerisches Staatsoper, the Royal Opera House, and the Met with racy, wild stagings of Manon Lescaut, this concert showed a more subdued and subtle side of Opolais´s personality. The Telegraph has called her “the leading Puccini soprano of today,” but if we want to hear her sing Puccini, we´ll have to make the trek down to the Met next season. Highly charged phrases with floating high notes weren´t the only goal of long sections: the clarity and focus of her voice triumphed through understated moments that demanded control. The Boito selection was propitious, as Opolais is preparing for two more role debuts at the Staatsoper next season: Helen of Troy and Margherita in Boito´s Mefistofele (opening on October 24). Opolais will also travel with the BSO in May 2016
Nelsons separated the two vocal works with a much-appreciated bit of Puccini (the emotional and stormy Intermezzo predecing Act III of Manon Lescaut). He encouraged portamento slides from the strings and used long, sweeping, circular gestures to extend supple melodies. Puccini´s heartbreaking tunes make us forget that the heroine of the tale was ready to be locked away in prison at the end of Act II; he transports us right into the heart of the love story, crushing sweetness (the strings) with harsh tragedy (the brass doubling the strings while changing the mode). The BSO brass were convincing as villains, but their balance and beauty of tone made us wish the Intermezzo could conclude and we would not find Manon behind bars.
The BSO did yeoman´s work in framing Verdi, Puccini, and Boito with two modern masterworks: Samuel Barber´s Second Essay for Orchestra (1942) and Richard Strauss´s difficult tone poem Ein Heldenleben (1898-99), both of which will be featured on the BSO´s tour of eight European cities this week and next.
Strauss´s music comes from a turbulent period, as headlines trumpeted the assassination of Austria´s Empress Elizabeth, the Russian´s cracked down on the Finnish Parliament just after Sibelius´ first setting of Finlandia, and Strauss´s friend (and rival) Gustav Mahler took the helm at the Vienna Philharmonic. Although Strauss eschewed printed programs for most of his orchestral works, the seven headings, corresponding to seven sections of the work, provide a biographical (or perhaps even autobiographical) narrative. The highlights of this performance included Nelson´s command of the variety of onstage trios and duets and the virtuosic playing of concertmaster Malcolm Lowe as soloist. Lowe´s double-stops, squeals, and mini-cadenzas tore through the work (which can seem to drag on after the third section entitled The Hero´s Companion).
Nelsons added a whole measure of silence between the fifth and sixth sections and directed his attention to bringing out nuances and hidden melodies in the complexly-scored Hero´s Escape. Robert Sheena´s many gorgeous English horn solos providing much-needed moments of haunting lyricism and serenity. The work concluded with an extended fanfare added by Strauss in early 1899, Nelsons controlled the final decrescendo by dividing the orchestra into four groups, each with its own diminuendo al niente.