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Nelsons Turns Tanglewood Into Bayreuth-in-the-Berkshires


Anne-Sophie Mutter performed at Tanglewood on Saturday with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons.

Hilary Scott

LENOX, Mass. — Andris Nelsons is absent from the Wagner festival at Bayreuth again this season. It’s the second year in a row that this devoted Wagnerian has withdrawn from performances there, after a spat — sorry, a “differing approach in various matters,” as he said — with Bayreuth’s music director, Christian Thielemann.

Exile has its benefits, though, for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which retains the services of Mr. Nelsons, its chief conductor, for a considerable part of its Tanglewood festivities.

The orchestra’s response? Call it Bayreuth-in-the-Berkshires.

At least that title fit on Saturday night, when Mr. Nelsons led a supple, uncomplicated account of “Das Rheingold” that included among its cast two singers who will be on duty at Bayreuth later this summer. It is a logical shift away from Strauss and toward Wagner in the operatic repertory that has become so central to the Boston Symphony’s identity in recent years, a turn that will also include an act of “Tristan und Isolde” sung by Jonas Kaufmann in April, the highlight of an uninspiring coming season back at Symphony Hall. On this evidence, hope that still more is in store.

This was Wagner of a rarefied kind, rarefied above all because of its simplicity. At his best, as here, Mr. Nelsons has a talent for letting music emerge seemingly untouched, as if unsullied by interpretation. That doesn’t mean he lacks ideas or industry or intensity on the podium. Rather, he cultivates a middle way between extremes, in which everything sounds natural, ordered, correct. It’s an approach that relies on a rare ear for transparency married to superior orchestral playing — a resource available in abundance from the Boston players, from the tempting, timeless glow of the horns, to the individuality of the principal woodwinds, to the depth and glamour of the strings.

It relies, too, on a cast that knows what it is doing. This one did. Thomas J. Mayer’s Wotan was humane and accurate but clearly an equal to Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s devious, snarling Alberich. Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka was a little worn, but not Patricia Bardon’s stately Erda, Malin Christensson’s charming Freia or the Rhinemaidens, Jacqueline Echols, Renée Tatum and Catherine Martin (a singer of particular promise). As the giants, Morris Robinson (Fasolt) was dignified and Ain Anger (Fafner) rightly more malevolent and hot-tempered. Best of all was Kim Begley’s cheeky, conniving Loge.

Like the Boston Symphony’s other forays into opera, this one credited no director. Andrew Eggert, listed as the production assistant, did the blocking; the rest emerged from the singers’ experience and insights. Everything felt improvisatory. There were no props — not even a spear for Wotan — only chairs set out in front of the orchestra.

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