Jonas Kaufmann Is “Pure Magic”

Review of BSO Concert

Andris Nelsons conducts Wagner, Mascagni, Puccini, and Respighi; September 29, 2014, with Tenor Jonas Kaufmann and Soprano Kristine Opolais

Without a doubt, the single hottest ticket of the season was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s recent gala concert, which featured two high-profile guest artists, Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais, along with our resident orchestra and its breathlessly awaited music director, 35-year-old Andris Nelsons. The opening-night program of the previous week played the usual three performances and, in retrospect, was a carefully planned prelude (Mozart, Villa-Lobos, and Beethoven) to the following week’s main event. For whatever reasons, the superlative guest artists were available for only one concert, and so the previous week’s fine but ho-hum program did not steal the spotlight from this special and keenly awaited gala. There were only a few remaining tickets for this one-time event, a regular Saturday evening subscription concert at gala prices; they were quickly snapped up within the first two days they were made available to donors and subscribers.

This concert will long be remembered by those fortunate to have attended. Those who were less fortunate can listen to the concert on demand the entire year on www.whbg.org/995. There will also be an opportunity to see the concert on PBS sometime this season.

For once, your reviewer is at a loss for words to adequately comment on the superb music making. Where to begin? Despite three years in the wilderness without a music director, the extraordinary instrument that was totally retooled by the previous music director remains a sonic wonder. Maestro Nelsons has inherited quite a machine. What remains to be seen is how he drives it and where he will take it and us. Only time and the next few seasons will tell. Meanwhile, I can happily report that the overall musical health of this extraordinary collection of superb instrumentalists is good. We in Boston have long been spoiled by this orchestra, which is simply incapable of producing an ugly sound. No matter who stands in front of it, we are assured of tonal beauty at all times. When one hears excellence such as this day in and day out, one is really spoiled.

The concert began with a tremendous ovation of seldom-heard quality as soon as Maestro Nelsons entered. The TV cameras made for an even more palpable sense of occasion. (Unfortunately, a few seats on the floor had to be removed to accommodate the camera on a boom. Those of a certain age will remember a program called Evening at Symphony, as well as regularly telecast concerts from Sanders Theatre when the BSO had a Cambridge Series. How come those fine TV tapings were made with fewer seats having to be removed?) Maestro Nelsons, the youngest music director of the BSO, officially inaugurated his tenure with a stirring and deeply felt Tannhäuser Overture. To some ears, his opening tempo might have seemed stodgy, despite gorgeous playing by the winds and horns. I enjoyed his tempo of the Pilgrims’ Chorus, and I quickly thought, probably prematurely, of Celibidache, Knappertsbusch, and, even more prematurely, Furtwängler. The proper gravitas was certainly there. Things picked up with the Venusberg music, and here Nelsons captured all the inherent sensuality and virtuosity built into the score. It is impossible to sufficiently praise the exemplary work of the solo winds, or the unforced power of the brass section and the creamy playing of the strings throughout.

And then there was Jonas Kaufmann! This listener stands in awe of this artist, the world’s greatest tenor today (at least in certain roles). I had been to Carnegie Hall last February (and I was fortunate to greet him one-on-one afterward when he autographed my Parsifal vocal and piano score), and so I already knew what to expect. And, indeed, all the trademarks of this unbelievably gifted artist were there. Soft and beautifully floated high notes, plus power and strength, were abundant. But even more, Kaufmann seemed, in his all-too-brief “In fernem Land” [Lohengrin], to conjure up an entirely foreign and faraway world. Unworldly sounds emanated from his throat, and during those brief minutes Lohengrin himself was onstage. Pure magic from start to finish. The perfect intonation of the massed BSO strings provided a plush cushion of sound with faultless harmonics throughout. One did not want it to end.

The concert continued with the Tristan Prelude and Liebestod. Maestro Nelsons built up a carefully controlled prelude that had one true climax, as it should, but which does not always happen. Again, it is impossible to adequately praise the playing of this orchestra. It was such a pleasure to hear and experience all the harmonic tension that Wagner had built into the score.

As for Ms. Opolais, all I can say is that this music is simply not for her. She was almost inaudible at the climax, and even at the beginning one really had to strain to hear her. She might have found a Wagnerian role more appropriate for her somewhat slender sound. And to add insult to injury, the final note, the F# on “Lust,” was no match for the Flagstad/Furtwängler version, which is still the “Lust” of reference. To be fair, subsequently I heard rumors that she was indisposed.

After the intermission, the vocal works included a powerhouse selection from Cavalleria rusticana, delivered to perfection by Mr. Kaufmann. This was followed by a competent but by no means stellar, festival-quality “Un bel di, [Madama Butterfly] (which replaced the aria from La Wally). Ms. Opolais could be heard here with virtually no problems. The orchestra gave the singers a brief rest while they proceeded to knock out of the ballpark a gorgeously played Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana. How nice to hear the recently renovated organ blend so subtly with the strings. And how beautiful was the string playing!

The dramatic duet from the second act of Manon Lescaut followed. Here, both artists seemed to sing as one, perhaps because they reprised these roles from their Vienna concert a few months earlier. This is a fine duet, but it gives the tenor little to do. Mr. Kaufmann was exceedingly modest and generous to his colleague and let the spotlight fall on Ms. Opolais. She was clearly in her element at last and did a splendid job. Perhaps the best duet of the evening was the surprise encore, the end of Act 1 of La bohème. Mr. Kaufmann graciously let Ms. Opolais take the high C at the end while he sang what Puccini had written. Instead of walking slowly offstage, the two simply turned around and faced the orchestra. This listener, for the first and probably only time, heard the closing orchestral postlude as written by Puccini, which is almost never done except in studio recordings.

After innumerable bows and no further encores, the concert closed with the always-reliable orchestral blockbuster, Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Offstage brass on both sides of the upper balcony added special excitement, as did the organ. This provided a suitably high-powered close to a high-profile musical event, the concert of the season.

Jeffrey Brody

Jeffrey Brody, the Music Advisor of the Boston Wagner Society, is a composer, pianist, and coach and the Music Director of Longwood Opera.