LENOX — 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.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Tanglewood, July 15Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy Eichler.