Tanglewood 2019 Review: Die Walküre

Christine Goerke Lead A Marvelous Cast Across A Full 24-Hour Immersion Into This Wondrous Work

By Matt Costello
(Credit: Hilary Scott)

Let’s start stating – to me – the obvious. The cast that Tanglewood put together for its first complete performance of a Wagner opera could not reasonably be improved upon.

Every voice was stunning in its own way. Every character from the hoary mythos was carefully and movingly delineated. The staging of this opera was simple yet brilliant, so much so that I’d want to see more Wagner operas performed like this.

And throw in the beautiful Berkshire mountain weather after the previous week’s suffocating heat and humidity, and musically I’d suggest that there could not have been a better place to be than Tanglewood.

Bernstein’s Spirit

This was The Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert, and they call the clear crisp night, balmy days “Bernstein weather.” One could easily feel the famed maestro’s spirit on the grounds, in the shed, and – yes, to be sure—with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra; the advanced students played this masterpiece with a bravado and passion that was wonderful.

Each act was a separate concert, with Act one on Saturday night, Act two on a balmy Sunday afternoon after, and the final Act early Sunday evening.

That meant one could devote one’s attention to the world created in that act, and then return refreshed, even excited for the following acts. In my mind, it matches the Bayreuth schedule (with its dinner break) — and in fact betters it. For the 24 hours, you are in the world of “Die Walküre” and that amazing music.

The staging and the acting were unusually beautiful and effective. In direct contravention of what Wagner did (i.e. hiding the orchestra in a sunken pit so the audience would focus on the staging and drama), here the orchestra surrounded the singing actors.

As motifs weaved their way from one section to another, the singers would respond to the music and the orchestral performers as if they too are part of the story being told (because they most certainly are.)

At one point, Simon O’Neill’s Sigmund turned to the cellos and double basses as if they are somehow informing him of what he is really feeling and thinking.

A Strong Opening Trio

The trio of Act one’s Sieglinde (Amber Wagner), Siegmund (Simon O’Neill) and Hunding (Franz-Josef Selig) created a dramatic and emotional tension that just never let up.

Amber Wagner’s voice was a wonder, with a rich, warm beauty that made her love for her brother palpable. It was a Sieglinde to cherish, with the ample power to gorgeously fill the shed.

Her singing was well-matched with the impassioned tenor of O’Neill. His performance grew in steely strength, so much so that one waited expectantly both for his crystalline “Winterstürme,” as well as the absolute fierceness of his retrieving the promised sword, “Nothung.”

And with a deep, ominous sound that foreshadowed the challenge and battle facing Siegmund in the next act, Selig made Hunding both a figure to be feared but also appreciated, his bass a mighty instrument.

The singers were matched with a precise and detailed conducting by Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director, Andris Nelsons. While the Tanglewood Music Centre Orchestra probably can’t be totally compared to the seasoned, historic Boston Symphony under Nelsons, the young players made this music come alive, with a nary a problem facing any of the demanding solo sections.

From percussion, to brass, to the strings (with a special nod to the sumptuous playing of principal cello for Act One, John Lee) one could not ask for more vibrant and impassioned case to be made for Wagner’s music.

On To Valhalla

Bass-baritone James Rutherford was a wry, wily and even humorous Wotan. He makes his long monologue in Act two, something which could easily turn tedious, absolutely gripping. His acting conveyed the terribly human side of this god in a dilemma.

Brünnhilde was thrillingly sung by Christine Goerke. Staring with her ringing “Hojotohos,” the soprano captured the committed, youthful energy of the rebellious Valkyrie and her difficult relationship with her father. Goerke’s fabulous voice was matched by equally well-crafted acting. She was a Brünnhilde and Valkyrie for our times.

In the role of Wotan’s challenging wife Fricka was Stephanie Blythe. Any attempt by Rutherford to overcome here during their confrontation was quickly –and literally  — silenced. When she commands Wotan to “abandon the Volsungs,” you could see how impossible it would be for her husband even think of saying ‘no’. Blythe’s upper end had all the shimmering beauty you’d want, and the lower end was a deep force of nature.

All of the above were joined by the perfectly coordinated full corps of Valkyries, as they see that their Brünnhilde — in rescuing Sieglinde — would soon face Wotan’s wrath.

This concert-by-concert presentation — in my opinion – led the audience to not only deliver a sustained, standing ovation for each act, but also one had the sense that the opera — staged this way — left the audience more expectant and so eager to return.

And I do hope that this first full Wagner opera encourages Nelsons and the team at Tanglewood.

A “gold” of a different type than that sought by gods was revealed this past weekend, with every element a musical gift. Let’s hope plans continue for more such performances, staged this way and perhaps, a full “Ring of the Nibelungen” in the equally magical Berkshires.


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