Das Rheingold

Andris Nelsons
Boston Symphony Orchestra
15 July 2017
Koussevitzky Music Shed Tanglwood
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
WotanThomas J. Mayer
DonnerRyan McKinny
FrohDavid Butt Philip
LogeKim Begley
FasoltMorris Robinson
FafnerAin Anger
AlberichJochen Schmeckenbecher
MimeDavid Cangelosi
FrickaStephanie Blythe
FreiaMalin Christensson
ErdaPatricia Bardon
WoglindeJacqueline Echols
WellgundeCatherine Martin
FloßhildeRenée Tatum
The Classical Review

Nelsons leads a superb cast in Tanglewood debut of “Das Rheingold”

Concert performances of opera are a Tanglewood tradition that have long drawn stars of the operatic stage. Four years ago, Andris Nelsons led a captivating performance of Act 3 from Wagner’s Die Walküre, which starred Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Katarina Dalayman as Brünnhilde. Terfel returned to Tanglewood in 2015 to perform the role of Scarpia in Act 1 of Puccini’s Tosca, led by Bramwell Tovey with Sondra Radvanovsky resplendent in the title role.

Saturday night at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Shed, Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a cast of superb soloists in the festival’s first performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. As with concert opera performances in recent years, this was an event that will linger in the memory.

The shortest work in Wagner’s Ring cycle, Das Rheingold sets the stage for the story to come in the ensuing music dramas. In order to pay two giants for constructing Valhalla, Wotan, lord of the gods, ventures to Nibelheim to confront Alberich, a dwarf who has constructed a magic ring from the Rheingold, a mystical treasure he has stolen from the Rhinemaidens. Wotan succeeds in stealing the ring, but decides to keep the ring for himself. Only when he comes to understand the ring’s curse does he turn it over to the giants.

Many in Saturday’s cast have made names for themselves in their respective roles at Bayreuth, the Metropolitan Opera, and English National Opera, among other prominent venues for Wagner’s works. The singing was consistently excellent, although a few problems of balance crept in to mar an otherwise fine performance.

As Wotan, Thomas J. Mayer ranged from singing of cool reverence to passages of power and conviction. Early in the drama his voice was sometimes lost beneath waves of instrumental accompaniment. But Mayer seemed to warm into the role. In the scene where he argued with Loge, his singing rang with intensity.

Due to illness, Sarah Connolly had to withdraw from the performance. Taking her place as Fricka was Stephanie Blythe, who delivered some of the finest singing of the evening. Her voice had focus and energy, her lines soaring easily over the orchestral passages as she sang of the virtues of marriage.

The other standout was Jochen Schmeckenbecher, who sang the role of Alberich with palpable weight and drama. Schmeckenbecher’s voice had a smoky quality, and his scene in Nibelheim revealed singing that fully captured the character’s cruelty and greed. When he curses the ring later in the opera, he conveyed Alberich’s rage with poignant depth.

As Freia, soprano Malin Christensson couldn’t quite match the power of the other singers. While her high notes had a ringing clarity, her singing in the middle range was often lost in the orchestral textures.

Kim Begley, as Loge, provided comic relief through clever one-liners and prancing stage action. The tenor possesses a smooth-toned voice that managed to float freely over Wagner’s colorful and thick orchestration.

As the giants Fasolt and Fafner, basses Morris Robinson and Ain Anger delivered phrases of chilling power. Robinson’s singing took on a poignant grace when his character sang of Freia, the goddess whom he longs to possess for himself. Anger captured the greed and ruthlessness of Fafner in his final scene in the drama.

David Butt Philip and Ryan McKinny made for strong vocal presences as Froh and Donner respectively. When Donner summons the weather to reveal the rainbow bridge at opera’s end, McKinny’s singing rang fully in the Shed’s copious space.

Rhinemaidens Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum sang with equal parts grace and strength. Patricia Bardon’s singing of Erda had a dark glow. And David Cangelosi’s performance of the dwarf Mime had a bell-toned and clarion quality to capture the character’s fear.

Wagner’s music drives the emotion and symbolism of the story line, and Andris Nelsons led a committed and muscular performance of the score. Tempos were lively where appropriate, and the performance showed the BSO musicians in some of their finest playing of the year. The brass provided a rosy glow to the Valhalla motive, and the descent into Nibelheim rattled with metallic energy from the percussion and strings.

Concert operas, of course, don’t require staging. But the singers proved effective actors and made limited use of the stage to tell the story. The ring was conjured with closed fists that were thrust outward or up in the air. Fights between Wotan and Alberich and Fasolt and Fafner were conjured through aggressive motions. Stage lights cast an orange glow for the gods’ realm and a red tones for Nibelheim. In the scene where Alberich transforms into a large snake and a toad, Mayer and Begley made clever use of the space to bring those invisible elements to life in the listeners’ minds. Wagner, as this performance showed, remains a theatre of the imagination.

Aaron Keebaugh | July 17, 2017

The Daily Gazette

Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts at Tanglewood this weekend featured something old: pieces by Thomas Ades and Ravel paying homage to Couperin; something new: a premiere by John Williams performed by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, for whom it was composed; and something borrowed: Wagner’s complete “Das Rheingold,” Saturday’s centerpiece of the weekend.

All were bold undertakings of music director Andris Nelsons, who conducted. “Rheingold,” 2 1/2-hours with no intermission, was a trailblazer showing that concert staging can work — when there are titles, clever acting direction, mostly magnificent voices and a committed conductor. The Latvian-born Nelsons, who started in opera and has led performances at Bayreuth, had not previously shown Tanglewood this side of him. He conducted with insight and focus — and both hands.

Voices were big, clear and operatic. Several singers are regulars at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala in Milan. Some were resonant, starting with Thomas J. Mayer, who has often sung Wotan in his native Germany. Stephanie Blythe, now a Tanglewood faculty member, stepped into her familiar role on short notice when Dame Sarah Connolly fell ill. She bickered with the lying, cheating Wotan as if she had been putting up with him forever, but couldn’t do much besides complain.

Wotan is obsessed with money, power and women. He makes terrible bargains, assuring Fricka that he doesn’t intend to keep his word. Some of the other gods aren’t troubled by his immorality. His quest for the power-giving ring forged from the Rhinegold is abetted by Loge the half-human fire god, played for humor by the nimble tenor Kim Begley.

Stage lighting for Loge was orange, Wotan’s turned red, and the Rhine River, where the precious gold guarded by Rhine maidens was stolen by someone who renounced love, was blue. All — Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin and Renee Tatum — were Americans singing German, and they made a scrumptious trio, worshipping the gold and taunting Alberich (Jochen Schmeckenbecher — really), the ugly dwarf able to steal the gold by renouncing love, who puts a curse on the ring forged from it when the wily Wotan and Loge steal it from him.

More cast members deserve mention, but the full Boston Symphony, in new territory as a Wagner opera orchestra, was downright exciting. This is probably the orchestra the composer wanted, rather than a stripped-down pit band. Much of the orchestral writing is related to objects and relationships in the plot, so it becomes a character and narrator as well.

The applause seemed almost endless. The giddy audience stumbled out, aware that they had just seen something, and been part of a true event.

Leslie Kandell | July 17, 2017

The Boston Globe

At Tanglewood, BSO wades into the watery depths of Wagner’s ‘Ring’

The opera world, you might say, holds true to its own kind of chaos theory. Last year a butterfly flapped its wings in Bayreuth — and on Saturday night, a tornado of Wagner hit Tanglewood.

Andris Nelsons had been scheduled to spend a large portion of this current summer conducting “Parsifal” at the Bayreuth Festival, Germany’s shrine to the operas of Wagner. But the conductor withdrew from the production last year, citing undisclosed artistic differences, and he later added some of the released weeks to his time at Tanglewood. What’s more, the orchestra then announced a complete Tanglewood performance of “Das Rheingold,” the first installment of Wagner’s colossal four-part “Ring” cycle.

So there was a sense of anticipation in the air on Saturday, especially since, without a properly scaled opera house — or at least one where opera is actually performed — Boston does not get to hear a lot of Wagner. And Nelsons and the orchestra did not disappoint. This was a cogent, organically paced performance that held a large Shed audience firmly in its grasp, hour after hour.

Indeed, “Rheingold” is a marathon for all involved. Nelsons conducted from a stool, at one point managing to rehydrate from a plastic water bottle at the same time as he cued the brass.

That said, Wagner wastes no time in, shall we say, immersing the listeners in the sound world of the “Ring”. The opening prelude begins with a sustained E-flat major chord that builds up slowly from the double-basses and crests over the entire orchestra. We are in the watery domain of the Rhinemaidens, who guard over the precious Rheingold. On Saturday night, the prelude’s wash of sound glittered as it should, like water pierced with sunrays.

Saturday’s cast was uniformly strong if rarely exceptional. The German baritone Thomas J. Mayer gave us a dignified, vocally burnished Wotan served with an extra dollop of Weltschmerz. Yet in the role of his wife Fricka, Stephanie Blythe brought a sonic penetration and a depth of characterization that lifted her performance to another level altogether. Furious that Wotan has bartered away her own sister in payment for the building of his new castle, Fricka lays into her husband: “Is nothing sacred to you men in your craving for power?” On Saturday night, as Blythe sang this line, her combined pathos and indignation sliced through the orchestra. In that moment you also felt the, ahem, timelessness of Wagner’s parable.

Jochen Schmeckenbecher was a self-possessed Alberich, the dwarf whose theft of the gold sets in motion the entire drama. And Kim Begley’s Loge was a campy mix of trickster and bon vivant. In the second scene, as fearsome giants and hammer-wielding gods stood locked in a tense stand-off over Freia’s fate, Begley made a well-turned comic entrance, sashaying nonchalantly onto stage as if from a different opera, seemingly concerned less with the fate of this teetering Wagnerian world than with the drape of his festive neckwear.

Morris Robinson and Ain Ainger superbly embodied, in tone and spirit, the giants Fasolt and Fafner. Ryan McKinny as Donner, Malin Christensson as Freia, David Cangelosi as Mime, and David Butt Philip as Froh, all sang honorably. So did Rhinemaidens Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum. And Patrica Bardon was chilling as the earth goddess Erda, halting the action on a dime with her prophecy rendered in a dusky contralto, laden with sadness.

At the true glowing center of the drama, however, was the orchestra itself under Nelsons’s baton, reflecting and refracting the tragic clashing of all those love-seeking, power-crazed dwarfs, gods, and giants in which the composer clearly wanted us to recognize the echoes of a world closer to home.

Jeremy Eichler | July 16, 2017

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 216 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast of a concert performance
Stephanie Blythe replaces Sarah Connolly as Fricka.