Wagner, Nelsons, BSO give Tanglewood one of its great nights

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LENOX — The arguments for and against opera in concert are simple, even if the choices aren't: The music in full, without the distraction of scenery and stage action? Or the drama in full, with the story and characters playing out their fates against a musical backdrop integral to the composer's conception?

The argument takes on added weight in Wagner, where the orchestral writing is symphonic in nature and leitmotifs are essential in telling the story.

Tanglewood has experimented with various opera formats over the years, going back to the path-breaking full productions of the 1940s-60s Boris Goldovsky era, to near-complete and partial student stagings in the Theater (now dilapidated), and to semi-staged productions by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Shed. The latest iteration was Wagner's "Das Rheingold," given single performance, mostly unstaged, Saturday night by the BSO under Andris Nelsons — all 2 uninterrupted hours of its glorious, unmitigated greed and evil.

This was obviously a project dear to Nelsons' heart. Why else would the BSO have given it five rehearsals (three more than is customary per program) and imported a cast of 14 prominent soloists, most of them from Germany? The commitment of time and expense must have put a nice dent in the budget.

Was it worth it?                                                                                                                                            

Yes, yes, a hundred times yes. This surely was one of Tanglewood's great nights. You had an eminent, Bayreuth-hardened Wagnerian on the podium, an enlarged BSO responding in molten splendor, and a first-rate cast that went well beyond stand-and-deliver mode. Though the singers were in modern dress and there was no ostensible direction - no stage director was listed - the physical, sometimes brutal interplay of characters made you all but forget there was no Nibelheim, no gold hoard, no Rainbow Bridge anywhere to be seen.                                                                                                                                                           

If these 14 singers hadn't previously performed "Rheingold" together as a cast, you'd never have known it. One of the most interesting things to come of it was that the sleazy dwarf Alberich, the thief and keeper of the gold, emerged as a tragic character, while Wotan, the head god, ostensible hero and supposed font of justice, came across as an onlooker at his own accursed fate.                                                                      

As Alberich, Jochen Schmeckenbecher sniveled, groveled and wheedled until Wotan, in a moment of sheer violence in the bowels of Nibelheim, wrested the golden ring away from him. The orchestral fury had a terrifying intensity.

Alberich's succeeding curse upon Wotan — upon the whole gang of gods — was shocking in its malevolence. It was followed by tenderness in the music for Alberich's downfall, showing him as a stand-in for all of us who place faith in gold and power. There was no allusion to current events but the message was plain to hear and see.                                                                                                                                            

Thomas J. Mayer, the Wotan, sang smoothly and even elegantly, but (perhaps as Wagner's "Wanderer") without the heft and power of such recent Wotans as James Morris and Ren Pape. Circling around Wotan, guiding his sometimes weak-kneed instincts and commands, was the Satan-like schemer and tempter of David Butt Philip as Froh. Patricia Bardon, a silver-clad Erda, warned chillingly of the troubles to come.                                                                                                                                                           

Other major roles were taken by Stephanie Blythe as a trumpet-voiced shrew of a Fricka, and Morris Robinson and Ain Anger as the booming, lumbering giants Fasolt and Fafner — the one in love with Freia, the other hungry for gold. The outcome was pure Cain and Abel, the corpse of the murdered Fasolt falling to the floor. Amid playing that was vivid, flexible and Wagnerian throughout, the stomping music accompanying the giants' presence, and the forging music in Nibelheim, had the BSO going full throttle.

"Rheingold" is the first of the four operas making up Wagner's "Ring Cycle." (Wagner actually called "Rheingold" a prelude to others.) Will Nelsons and the BSO spring for the rest? Nelsons hinted in an interview that it was possible. It's probably impractical for a symphonic festival, but if the gods can be greedy for gold, why can't we mortals be greedy for a complete "Ring"?

Sunday afternoon's concert, Nelsons' finale before a four-week hiatus, was more conventional but no less electrifying than "Rheingold."

There would seem nothing left to say about Berlioz' "Symphonie fantastique," but as Nelsons fired up the BSO in the rejected lover's opium-laced fantasies, the symphony sprang newly to life. The snarling brasses and pounding drums in the beloved's guillotining and witches' sabbath raised a raised a shattering ruckus.

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter was the soloist of the day, sandwiching the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto between shorter pieces by John Williams. The connection between composers is not as strange as it might seem. Both trade in sentiment.

The Williams was his "Markings" for solo violin, strings and harp, in its premiere, and an excerpt from "Schindler's List," played as an encore. Like the film score, the eight-minute new piece was warm-hued and lyrical, its generous spirit calling forth a like spirit from soloist, conductor and orchestra.

If the performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto had come with a road sign, it would have read: dangerous curves ahead. Fearlessly, inventively and irresistibly, with gleaming tone, Mutter found ever-new twists and turns in the old favorite, taking the BSO along with her in the wild ride.

After six taxing concerts in two weeks, Nelson has earned a good rest. He'll be back for two more weeks at the end of the season. Auf Wiedersehen.

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