This weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program offers contrasting ideas about love from Richard Wagner. His Siegfried Idyll, composed in 1870, celebrates his marriage to Cosima von Bülow and the birth of their son Siegfried. Tristan und Isolde, composed between 1857 and 1859, paints a darker picture; act two, which is what Andris Nelsons and the BSO presented Thursday and will repeat Saturday, is an extended apostrophe to dreamless unconsciousness. Nelsons was superb in Thursday’s Siegfried Idyll, and his Tristan, with Jonas Kaufmann and Camilla Nylund, was not too far behind.
The Siegfried Idyll premiered on Christmas morning, 1870, on a staircase just outside Cosima’s bedroom in their home in Tribschen (a district of Lucerne). The piece was a surprise gift under the title Tribschen Idyll, with Fidi’s Birdsong and Orange Sunrise, Presented as a Symphonic Birthday Greeting to His Cosima by Her Richard. (Fidi was the young Siegfried, born in June of the previous year; the “Orange Sunrise” refers to the morning sun hitting the rug outside Cosima’s bedroom. Cosima’s birthday was actually Christmas Eve but she celebrated it on Christmas Day.) The musicians, drawn from the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich, appear to have numbered 13. (There was, obviously, a limit to how many could fit on the staircase.) Playing the trumpet part, all 13 bars of it, was the celebrated conductor Hans Richter. The audience included a young Friedrich Nietzsche.
The piece was not intended for public performance. In 1877, however, the Wagners, pressed for funds, sold it to Schott. It was published the following year as Siegfried Idyll, with the orchestral forces bumped up to 35. When considering a more commercial title, Wagner would have had in mind not only his son Siegfried but also the way the piece shares themes with the third of the Ring dramas, Siegfried, which he essentially completed in 1869 and which premiered in 1876.
There is one theme that seems more appropriate to the young Siegfried Wagner than to the operatic hero: the oboe melody that enters at bar 91 (about six minutes in) appears to draw on the German lullaby “Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf” (“Sleep, Child, Sleep”). It’s as if Siegfried and Brünnhilde — or rather, Richard and Cosima — were being reminded of their parental responsibilities. Mostly, however, the Siegfried Idyll revels in ideas from the third act of Siegfried. The opening theme is the melody that accompanies Brünnhilde’s “Ewig war ich, Ewig bin ich” (“Eternal I was, Eternal I am”), where, fearful, she tries to keep Siegfried at a distance. In what could be considered the development, where the time signature switches from 4/4 to 3/4 (bar 148), we get the continuation of that idea, where she sings “O Siegfried! Herrlicher! Hort der Welt!” (“O Siegfried! Glorious one! Wealth of the world!”). Brünnhilde’s uncertainty is pointed by the piece’s persistent French-horn triplets. At bar 259, the last major theme arrives, a sidestepping downward idea for the French horns that turns up at the end of Siegfried and again as part of Siegfried’s Rhine Journey in Götterdämmerung.
Most accounts of the Siegfried Idyll run 18 or 19 minutes. Nelsons’s ran 24 and was worth every second. At some 60 strong, the orchestra wasn’t Tribschen intimate, but the reading felt intimate, Nelsons starting with a sigh and caressing the “Ewig” theme, pulling out phrases here and there while maintaining the shape of the whole. Keisuke Wakao was “Sehr einfach” (“Very simple”), as Wagner directed, in the oboe melody and later poignant playing the “Ewig” theme against the “O Siegfried” theme in the orchestra. The French horns were consoling at first, then ominous. Thomas Siders’s trumpet triplets would have pleased Richter; Richard Sebring delivered a radiant “Sehr ruhig” (“Very quiet”) French horn solo near the end, just before the music starts to sound even more like the last movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony than it already has. (Mahler borrowed the “Ewig” theme for his symphony.) And Nelsons had the measure of every mood, not just the reverent and mystical moments but the anguished, despondent ones, Wagner’s acknowledgment of everyday life. If the oboe theme is a lullaby for the young Siegfried Wagner, this Siegfried Idyll was a lullaby for his loving parents.
For Tristan und Isolde, Wagner turned to the unfinished early-13th-century account by Gottfried von Strassburg. The basic elements of the story — at least in the British Isles — go back much farther, however, to stories like Ireland’s “The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu,” in which Ulster king Conchubur claims the beautiful Derdriu for himself but she falls in love with young buck Noísiu. This pattern — old king, tribal goddess, young king — is repeated in the later Irish tale of Finn, Gráinne, and Díarmuid, and in the Round Table story of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. At the time he was composing Tristan, in the late 1850s, Wagner was enamored of Mathilde Wesendonck, and though he was two years older than her husband, he surely thought of himself as Tristan rather than Marke. Tristan didn’t premiere till 1865, and then under the baton of Hans von Bülow, whose wife, Cosima, had just two months earlier given birth to Wagner’s daughter Isolde — life once again imitating art.
Well, up to a point. Richard and Cosima did not swear eternal fidelity and die, any more than Richard and Mathilde had done. But Wagner did find a kindred spirit in Gottfried von Strassburg, for whom the morality and chivalry of court count for little against the mystic union of his Tristan and Isolde. Gottfried’s lovers spend what seems an eternity trying not to get caught; Wagner pared the story down to its essentials, omitting Tristan’s marriage to Breton princess Isolde of the White Hands and giving the opera’s second act over to a single rapturous, ecstatic tryst. His Tristan and Isolde choose night over day, death over life. Schopenhauer’s influence is obvious, but perhaps Wagner also had in mind Novalis’s Hymnen an die Nacht, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, another couple who, with no place in the daylight world, are destined for eternal night.
Any performance of Tristan has to negotiate between text (that is, intelligibility) and music. It’s the music, in a sense, that the opera is headed for; music is night to the text’s day. But act two, even though it’s set at night, finds the lovers still divesting themselves of day and its illusions. They have trusted their friend Melot to take King Marke away on a hunt so they can be alone; Isolde’s maid Brangäne warns that Melot will prove false, and by the end of the act he does. The lovers also have to work through everything that happened in the first act and before: Tristan’s slaying of Isolde’s fiancé, Morold, in battle; Isolde’s failure to revenge herself on Tristan when he came to her for healing; Tristan’s willingness to see her married to Marke; Isolde’s attempt to kill them both with a death potion. Not only are they journeying toward night, they’re looking to obliterate the “und” in “Tristan und Isolde” so that they can be “ewig ein”: “eternally one.” By the end of the opera, in Isolde’s “Verklärung,” the music can take over. But in act two, the words still count.
Thursday, they counted as much as you could expect from a concert performance in a big hall. Nelsons did have his singers ranged on either side of him: Nylund (Isolde) to his left and Mihoko Fujimura (Brangäne) to his right to start, then Kaufmann (Tristan) replacing Fujimura. Once Georg Zeppenfeld (Marke) and Andrew Rees (Melot) entered, Kaufman moved over to join Nylund, but even then there wasn’t much dramatic interaction on stage. Nylund and Kaufmann sang from scores placed low on stands; they did a decent job of singing to the audience but barely glanced at each other. (Granted, Nelsons was in the way.) Fujimura might have had a score but she hardly looked at it; her Brangäne was that much the better. Zeppenfeld sang without a score, transfixing the audience; his was the best acting of all.
Nelsons gave everyone — both singers and orchestra — plenty of room. A standard second act of Tristan runs 70 to 75 minutes; Nelsons took 84, and the result sounded quite natural. He was turbulent and impulsive where Wagner asked him to be without sacrificing clarity: in that moment at the beginning when Isolde insists to Brangäne that she can hear the murmuring stream over the call of the hunt, the hunting French horns just melted into the watery clarinets. When he slowed, it was to underline the drama. In the love duet, which takes up the second of the act’s three scenes, he was bright and vibrant as Tristan and Isolde remonstrated with “false day” and with each other. Then he became hushed and magical as they sank (“O sink’ hernieder”) into their night, to the “Verklärung” music with which the opera will end.
Neither Nylund nor Kaufmann was quite as prepossessing. Hers was a mature, grand Isolde, secure throughout her vocal range but restrained in affect. She had the power to ride the orchestra but without much color or characterization. That was true of Kaufmann as well. He is a reasonable heldentenor who can really sing; his Tristan had both vocal beauty and intelligence. What he lacked was romantic ardor. I’d like to think that, in an actual staged performance, he and Nylund would have been more animated. Nylund was intense in inviting “Frau Minne” (“Love”) to shine bright; there was scorn in her voice when she called Tristan “eitler Tagesknecht” (“futile servant of day”), and she sank to a reproachful whisper when asking how Tristan expected her to bear her marriage to Marke. And Kaufmann gave heroic weight to his “Mein Tag war da vollbracht” (“My day was extinguished”), and to the lead-in to “O sink hernieder.” They floated through the conclusion of their duet, rapture without words (which at this point weren’t needed), and Nelsons managed not to cover them — a feat not to be taken for granted.
Fujimura’s Brangäne was strong but not strident; she gave a vivid, perceptive observation of Melot’s jealousy, spitting out the final “Jägerslist” (“hunters’ cunning”). Brangäne’s watcher’s song from the tower, delivered from offstage, is a highlight of the opera. Here it was haunting but not as ghostly as it might have been; I wonder whether Fujimura should have been farther away from the stage door. Zeppenfeld was for me the vocal star of the evening. Marke’s sorrowful soliloquy, in which he upbraids Tristan and reflects on his marriage to Isolde, runs some 12 minutes, and in the past it’s been subjected to cuts, but this is Wagner’s salute to day, to the damage Tristan and Isolde’s union will leave behind. Backed by Craig Nordstorm’s earthy bass clarinet (which had spoken up as early as bar 9 of the act’s Prelude), Zeppenfeld radiated dignity as the king who has made Tristan his heir and who so reveres Isolde that he has not yet consummated their marriage. Zeppenfeld also had the best enunciation of the cast; you could actually make out the German text of the soliloquy. Here again, Kaufmann should have been standing next to him, looking abashed, and not on the other side of Nelsons.
Melot has very little to do in act two, and Andrew Rees made the most of it. Tristan’s faithful companion Kurwenal has even less, just three words: “Rettet dich, Tristan!” (“Save yourself, Tristan!”). Full credit to David Kravitz, who sported full evening dress for an appearance of barely five seconds, as he sprinted in from the stage door, delivered his part, and sprinted off.
Given the current state of staged opera in Boston, any concert Wagner from the BSO is welcome. If this isn’t the act two Tristan of your dreams, it’s at least one to rival anything you’re likely to hear in broad daylight.
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.