Kaufmann makes an impressive Tristan debut with Nelsons, BSO

April 6, 2018 at 11:53 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Jonas Kaufmann and Camilla Nylund sang the title roles in Act II of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: HIlary Scott

Jonas Kaufmann and Camilla Nylund sang the title roles in Act II of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Hilary Scott

Surprisingly, Wagner’s music has been rarely performed in Boston; but that is beginning to change.

In late summer of 2016, Andris Nelsons pulled out of the Bayreuth Festival due to disagreements over a controversial staging of Wagner’s Parsifal. With more free time during the following summer, he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a riveting concert performance of Das Rheingold at Tanglewood. Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Nelsons brought Wagner back to the city when he conducted the orchestra and a starry lineup of singers in the second act of Tristan und Isolde.

The central act of Wagner’s resplendent music drama may not be the first choice for many conductors as the first and third acts involve some of the work’s more familiar music, such as the surging Prelude and Liebestod. But Act 2 has many remarkable music as well, not least  the Liebesnacht, a love scene between Tristan and Isolde, which offers moments of searching beauty. 

The Second Act opens with the titular characters already under the influence of the love potion. Isolde, who was brought to Cornwall to marry King Marke, waits for her beloved Tristan at nightfall. When the knight arrives, the two declare their transcendent love for one another, cursing the daylight for its cruel reality. But they are soon discovered. Marke and the knight Melot return from a nighttime hunt, and, upon seeing the two in each other’s arms, the king laments his betrayal. Tristan, ever devout, offers himself as a sacrifice and asks Isolde if she will follow him in death, foreshadowing the Liebestod of the final act. When Melot moves in to attack, Tristan drops his sword and is mortally wounded. 

Bringing these characters to life musically was a fine cast of singers. Jonas Kaufmann and Camilla Nylund were each making role debuts as the title doomed lovers.

Both are prominent Wagnerians, having performed lead roles at the Bayreuth Festival, the Metropolitan Opera (in Kaufmann’s case) and in many of Europe’s major houses. And both, too, possess a warm tone that captured a sense of stirring humanity in Wagner’s lush score. The Liebesnacht featured the two singers in some of the most poignant moments of the evening as each delivered Wagner’s soulful duet with soft yet radiant lines.

Kaufmann, who has drawn critical acclaim for his performances of Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera, also sang with power and depth in the opening of the scene between the two lovers. Bold and ringing clearly, his voice brought a genuine heldentenor quality to the role.

In the portions of the act that demand powerful singing, Nylund, unfortunately, had trouble filling the hall. Her voice is rich and brilliant but it lacked the power and intensity to cut through Wagner’s thick orchestration in her opening scene.

As Brangäne, mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura, who also made her BSO debut, had a stellar evening. Singing with a smooth yet penetrating voice that had just a hint of darkness, Fujimura floated elegant passages from offstage in the character’s night watch scene. 

As King Marke, Georg Zeppenfeld sang with a cavernous voice that brought just the right amount of sorrow to the character. Andrew Rees as Melot and David Kravitz as Kurwenal sang their brief parts with conviction.

Under Nelsons’ guide, the orchestra wove a soft tapestry of sound in support of the singers. Nelsons’ tempos were fleet in the opening scene, which brought urgency to the unfolding narrative. The elixir motive, conjured in gentle, wafting phrases, haunted the score like a ghost, reminding listeners that the two lovers are caught in a spell.

The short opener, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, set the stage for the drama to come. Written to celebrate the birthday of Wagner and Cosima’s young son Siegfried, the work unfolds like a lullaby. Nelsons coaxed lyrical playing that rarely rose above a whisper. At its most delicate, Wagner’s music seemed to cut straight to the heart.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. For the Casual Friday concert at 8 p.m. at the same location, Nelsons will lead a repeat performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 from last week. bso.org; 888-266-1200.

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