Nelsons, stellar cast bring out the human drama in “Walküre” conclusion at Tanglewood

July 29, 2019 at 11:55 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

James Rutherford as Wotan and Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde embrace at the conclusion of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” with Andris Nelsons conducting the. TMC Orchestra Sunday at the Tanglewood Festival. Photo: Hilary Scott

In the final two acts of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, Wotan is mired in a family crisis.

The god hopes that his mortal son Siegmund will defeat Hunding in battle and ultimately reclaim the magic ring that he had lost to the giant-turned-dragon Fafner. But his wife Fricka, goddess of marriage, orders him to abandon Siegmund and uphold Sieglinde’s union with Hunding. As a result, the battle will cost Siegmund his life.

To further complicate matters, Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favorite Valkyrie daughter, disobeys his orders to carry out Fricka’s wish. Chasing her down in anger, Wotan punishes Brünnhilde for her actions by robbing her of immortality and putting her to sleep on a mountaintop, never to interact with the gods again. In choosing power, it seems, Wotan loses everything he has loved.

That was the all-too-human drama conveyed Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Shed, where Andris Nelsons, a stellar cast of singers, and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra offered a concert performance of Acts 2 and 3 of Die Walküre, following Act I on Saturday night.

Bass-baritone James Rutherford sang with authority and sensitivity as Wotan. His full, oaken voice captured the depths of the god’s fury over Brünnhilde’s actions. By opera’s end, Rutherford found a tender lyricism as anger melted into anguish. His performance of his farewell to Brünnhilde was a scene of poignant regret.

Leading Wagnerian soprano Christine Goerke made for a sympathetic and charismatic Brünnhilde. Her voice is lustrous and nimble, and the singer executed the leaping octaves of her Act 2 entrance with assurance. When the character first learns of Wotan’s plight, Goerke’s soft lines sought to sooth the god’s pain. In Act 3, her weighty phrases conveyed Brünnhilde’s confidence that she was acting according to Wotan’s will. But as Wotan imposed his punishment, her singing became a plea for mercy, the melodies tinged with just enough vibrato to relay her fear.

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe was the very epitome of the betrayed and frustrated Fricka. With a clarion voice that soared over Wagner’s thick orchestral textures, Blythe built the strains of “Wenn blinde Gewalt” in Act 2 to impassioned heights. Her low notes also resonated clearly, effectively expressing her rage over Wotan’s deception.

As Sieglinde, Amber Wagner maneuvered between feelings of rapture and remorse. In Act 2, the character believes that her loveless marriage to Hunding has forever spoiled her for Siegmund, and Wagner, with her beaming soprano, channeled the character’s fear over the loss of innocence. After Siegmund’s death, Wagner’s portrayal tipped towards darkness, and her singing swelled intently to capture Sieglinde’s horror and grief.

Simon O’Neill’s performance as Siegmund in Act 2 was heroic and defiant even as the character faced death.  Displaying the firm, heldentenor that highlighted Act I on Saturday, O’Neill sang with conviction that sought to calm Sieglinde’s fears that he will die. Even when Brünnhilde tells that his battle with Hunding will end in his demise, O’Neill’s Siegmund expressed underlying courage with hushed intensity.

As Hunding, bass Franz-Josef Selig cast a robust vocal presence. Sopranos Kelly Cae Hogan, Jessica Faselt, and Wendy Bryn Harmer joined mezzo-sopranos Renée Tatum, Ronnita Miller, Eve Gigliotti, Dana Beth Miller, and Mary Phillips as the Valkyrie sisters, all contributing to an exuberant  “Ride of the Valkyries.” 

Sunday’s performanc showcased the singers in simple but effective staging. Goerke and Rutherford had particularly convincing chemistry in their Act 3 scene. Seated and rubbing his forehead, Rutherford was the very image of a conflicted father, even pulling away from Goerke’s gentle hand gestures as he fumed to himself. At the conclusion of the act, the two warmly embraced before Wotan put her to sleep.

The latter acts of Die Walküre contain some of the most familiar music of the entire Ring Cycle, and Andris Nelsons deftly guided the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra through every subtle transformation of the Valkyrie and Valhalla themes and their various shades of emotion. Under his guide, the young musicians blossomed into a surprisingly formidable Wagnerian ensemble. The dark and plush string sound relayed both the beauty and tension locked within this music, and the brass—crisp and precise even in the most exposed parts of the score—projected the “Ride of the Valkyries” with round tone and palpable force. The “Magic Fire Music” and “Slumber Theme” shimmered in the strings at opera’s end, providing fleeting solace in an opera that deals with struggle and, ultimately, loss.

The Tanglewood Festival will present pianist Paul Lewis in music by Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms 8 p.m. Tuesday at Ozawa Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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