When I first started working for the Boston Symphony as program annotator in 1980, I was struck by the fact that Daniel Gustin, then the director of the Tanglewood Music Center, referred to the TMC Orchestra as “the annual miracle.’ Late each June 100+ musicians would assemble from all over the world, fewer of them having ever seen each other before, and within a week, or little more, they would play a first concert at a level close to that of established professional ensembles. The “annual miracle” was more than usually in view over the weekend of August 27-28, when the, for the annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert, Andris Nelsons led the TMC Orchestra, six leading opera singers, and eight female vocalists of the Tanglewood Music Center, in a remarkable performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, the most frequently-performed part of his gigantic four-part Ring des Nibelungen.
At the same time, the new Tanglewood Learning Institute (TLI) demonstrated one way that it will function: offering a focused series of lectures, interviews, and master classes related to a weekend with a specific focus. In this case, a Wagner weekend offered on Die Walküre and the whole Ring cycle, a discussion of the particular “Wagner voice” by Jane Eaglen, now retired from singing the big Wagner roles, a discussion of “power vs love,” the key theme of the entire cycle, a presentation of Wagner’s brass instruments and their contribution to his sound, and a presentation on “Wagner and Humor,” all interspersed between concerts and open rehearsals.
But the performance, quite correctly, dominates the weekend. Because Die Walküre, like all Wagner’s operas, runs considerably longer than most, and because this is surely the first time that the youthful members of the TMC Orchestra have ever performed a complete Wagner opera, steps were taken to prevent overstrain on the part of anyone, as well as to spread the experience to everyone. First, the opera was performed in three separate stages to allow extensive breaks between the long acts, each of which includes about a much music as a normal symphonic concert: Act 1 runs 65 minutes, Act 2 runs 95 minutes, and Act 3 runs 75—totaling just short of four hours. Of course a traditional performance in one go adds two intermissions, making the entire allotted time close to five hours.
Last weekend, Act 1 was heard on Saturday evening, Act 2 on Sunday afternoon at 2;30, and Act 3 early Sunday evening at 6:30. Moreover the concertmaster and principal players in all the instrumental sections were rotated between acts, to increase the number of performers who took a leadership role in their section. And the whole orchestra was organized so that no player had to take part in more then two of the three acts, which reduced stress especially during the period of rehearsals, given how much music, in all, had to be learned and rehearsed. And they had the distinct advantage of rehearsing with an experienced opera conductor, who, even before the arrival of the singers in late rehearsals, was able to indicate such details as the constant adjustment of tempo that comes from matching the phrasing and stress of the singers, and such expressive niceties as slowing the expressive close of a phrase so that the text is properly emphasized, and then picking up the tempo as the final melodic note is reached in the vocal line.
The resulting performance from the orchestral of view was remarkable. Any orchestra required to learn such a large quantity of challenging music for the first time and to mount a credible performance of it in a week would be hard put to exceed the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in technical prowess, ensemble, or expressive range in color and dynamics, all of which are the qualities with which Wagner hypnotizes his audiences.
Then, on top of the carefully shaped orchestra part, some leading singers appeared to play the crucial roles in the story. This was a concert performance, without sets or action, though small gestures, an occasional step one way or another, and changing facial expression suggested the interaction of formally dressed lovers or combatants.
Amber Wagner as Sieglinde (the only character to appear in all three acts) projected a firm, clear soprano through her progressive situations as unhappy wife, newly aroused lover, despairing woman at the death of her lover, and, at the very end, newly hopeful mother-to-be. Simon O’Neill was the Siegmund, a somewhat flinty-voiced tenor, rose to the occasion of his big monologue “Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond.” Franz-Josef Selig had the strong bass to carry the threat of Hunding against Siegmund.
The second act is the only place in the Ring in which Wotan’s wife Fricka gets to make a strong appearance (she is in Rhinegold but there is mostly querulous). Stephanie Blythe is a magnificent Fricka, strong and determined to make her husband see that he is fooling himself if he thinks his plan to create Siegmund as a “free hero” will not work because his own creation cannot be free. The scene is a closely argued debate in which Fricka simply will not let Wotan evade the situation, not only pinning him down in argumentation but also assuring that his promised future behavior cannot be slipped out of. Blythe’s forceful questioning is one of the most intense scene in the entire Ring, even though nothing but speech takes place.
Wotan’s response, in the person of James Rutherford, was superbly delineated. He avoided answering her questions as long as possible, but eventually he was forced to respond; his voice and manner matched Blythe’s in intensifying the scene. In the rest of the opera, his forceful countermanding of his order to Brünnhilde (to save Siegmund in the coming battle with Hunding), his rage at her when she disobeys the order, and the deeply moving closing scene in which he loses his beloved daughter because of her misbehavior by making her mortal and leaving her on a mountaintop surrounded by magic fire—Rutherford’s vibrant, warm, committed singing showed the art of a significant Wotan.
That Christine Goerke is one of the most highly regarded Brünnhildes in the world today was readily apparent in her performance, ranging from her bold warning to Wotan of Fricka’s angry approach and her empathetic reception of Wotan’s explanation of why he had to change his instructions, ordering her not to protect Siegmund in the forthcoming battle with Hunding. Her slowly-achieved decision to defy Wotan is another of those scene that is intensely powerful, yet almost entirely without action on stage. Goerke and O’Neill sustained the tension leading up to their fateful decisions very effectively. And finally Brünnhilde’s fear of Wotan’s rage turned from a powerful Valkyrie to a frightened girl. In all of these moments Goerke sang with great expressive effect.
The third act contains the most popular orchestral passage in the entire Ring, the orchestral introduction called “The Ride of the Valkyries.” In concert performance it is presented as a purely instrumental passage, one of the most exciting in the whole of musical literature. But in the opera, it includes the arrival of Brünnhilde’s sisters, the other eight Valkyries. On this occasion, the passage was of special interest because these Valkyries were vocal Fellows at Tanglewood this summer: sopranos Jessica Faselt, Wendy Bryn Harmer, and Kelly Cae Hogan; and mezzos Eve Gigliotti, Dana Beth Miller, Ronnita Miller, Mary Phillips, and Renée Tatum. Their participation, with its clean yet excited singing, added an element of excitement that is missing from a purely orchestral performance.
Wagner got his due, the audience got a thoroughly well-presented Wagner fix, and the members of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra got an educational and musical experience that would be hard to beat.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.