Mass live, Apr 6, 2018
By Ken Ross
Wagner: Konzert, Boston, 5. April 2018 (Tristan, 2. Akt)
Review: BSO, opera singers outstanding in all-Wagner program
What's the recipe for a memorable classical music concert?

Start with Boston's beautiful Symphony Hall.

Add the outstanding Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Mix in a few world-class opera singers.

Set the program to all Wagner music and sit back and enjoy for the next two and a half hours.

If that sounds like all the ingredients for an outstanding concert, you would have felt right at home at Thursday's BSO performance of Siegfried's "Idyll" and Act II of "Tristan and Isolde."

And don't worry. If you weren't at Thursday's concert, you can catch the same, stellar program Saturday night at Boston's Symphony Hall.

The BSO's music director, Andris Nelsons, conducted Thursday night's program. Nelsons has had a lifelong love affair with Wagner's music, he explained during an interview last year with me before the BSO's performance of "Das Rheingold" at Tanglewood.

"I simply love Wagner's music," the Latvian conductor said last year. "That actually started very early. He was the first composer I was exposed very much to because my parents introduced me to Wagner's music very early. I was only five years old when they took me to 'Tannhauser' to the opera in Riga."

Nelsons' passion for Wagner's music was clearly evident throughout Thursday's BSO performance. During the concert, Nelsons often seemed to lose himself completely in Wagner's haunting music.

The first piece on the program, Siegfried's "Idyll," was originally written as a standalone piece and a birthday present for Wagner's second wife, Cosima. Wagner then later incorporated parts of this gorgeous piece of orchestral music into his opera, "Siegfried," the third opera of his four-part "Ring" cycle.

Siegfried's "Idyll" remains an intimate, melodic piece of music. On Thursday, the BSO brought a sensitive, warm touch to Wagner's lush, tender music. Especially during the quieter moments, Nelsons gently guided the orchestra through these idyllic musical passages.

After a brief intermission, the BSO and the stellar ensemble of opera singers assembled on stage performed a haunting rendition of Act II of "Tristan and Isolde" featuring soprano Camilla Nylund as Isolde and tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Tristan.

One of the more dramatic acts in Wagner's repertoire - and that's saying a lot! - Act II features the doomed lovers finally succumbing to their uncontrollable passion for each other, despite constant warning signs that this is a horrible idea. Then again, that could be the plot for many of the most popular, classic operas.

On Thursday, the BSO brought Wagner's intense music vividly to life. The same was true for many of the opera soloists on stage. However, I was slightly disappointed at times with Nylund and Kaufmann in the lead roles. Sometimes, I found myself straining to hear their voices, especially near the beginning of Act II. Maybe it was because the orchestra was right on stage instead of in an orchestra pit as in most opera houses. But the voices of these two outstanding soloists often failed to rise above the sound of the orchestra.

Fortunately, Nylund and Kaufmann did seem to eventually find their stride and appeared more at ease on stage as the performance progressed. And both sounded outstanding near the finale of Act II.

Meanwhile, I had absolutely no trouble hearing the two standouts in Thursday's performance - mezzo soprano Mihoko Fujimura in the role of Brangane, Isolde's maid, and bass Georg Zeppenfeld in the role of King Marke.

Fujimura's rich, powerful voice easily filled the concert hall and she brought a fiery intensity to her brief but memorable scenes. Then near the end of Act II, Zeppenfeld stole every scene he was in with his tender yet potent rendition of the king betrayed by Tristan. Listening to Zeppenfeld, I had to wipe away a few tears listening to him breathe life into this haunting role.

Hearing these singers also made me crave hearing the entire Wagner opera, which remains one of his best more than a century later. That's often the problem with performances like these featuring only part of a great opera. Afterwards, I found myself craving to hear the opera's mesmerizing Act I overture as well as all of Act III.

Fortunately, Nelsons will surely conduct many more Wagner concerts for many more years to come, including hopefully a complete "Ring" cycle at Tanglewood, the perfect setting for such a magical masterpiece.

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