Cher Public

Wine coolers are the first thing, morals follow on

Skirting the leafy, patrician Berkshires of Western Mass, and flush with wine coolers and white people, pastoral Tanglewood doesn’t much resemble the dark Nibelung settings of Norse myth. But last weekend, the music festival played host to one of Wagner’s moodiest dreamscapes: a concert performance of Das Rheingold, the first part of the Ring Cycle. 

The show came as a decorous rejoinder to the Rheingold we heard at Geffen Hall in June, the New York Philharmonic’s farewell salute to retiring Maestro Alan Gilbert. In New England, Andris Nelsons conducted an equally enthusiastic Boston Symphony Orchestra, and led a starry, international cast of Ring specialists, all in top form but none unforgettable in their roles.

This last part is particularly unfortunate, as it’s now taken your intrepid correspondent a full week to file this review and try to recall the show he saw so many days ago. I’m afraid a brand-new service job in the Meatpacking District, coupled with The Summer Cold That Just Won’t Quit, has left your boy in sad shape.

So when you read the following, try envisioning me and my co-attendee in happier times, before the onset of illness—scouring for parking in the gift shop-adjacent “Maple” lot (“You can eat behind the shed,” said our spotty-faced carhop, “But it’s really expensive”); galloping up and down the grounds’ verdant lawns; sampling the chicken fingers and various shades and encasements of chocolate ice cream at the downslope refectory…

Our selfie in front of the Koussevitzky Music Shed has immortalized the venue as this grey- and dismal-looking spot, but in truth it was a near-perfect evening last Saturday, cloaked by a midsummer sky so arrestingly deep-blue it looked almost fraudulent, with those fleecy cumulus clouds that would have moved Leinsdorf, Levine, and Ozawa, or provoked Phyllis Curtin to skinny dip, or whatever. The place is so beautiful, with a kind of coarse and earthy fanciness that feels not unlike nostalgia.

In our teens, some of us lost our virginities there. Today in my thirties, I feel somewhat more at ease locating my press seat in a mud patch.

If Tanglewood keeps the divine inspiration of the classical rep planted firmly on the muddy ground, so, too, in a sense, does Das Rheingold. The gods of Wagner’s legend make little secret of their baser instincts and human desires, with the 1869 composition as a whole reading as an earthly parable on greed. Over the course of four scenes—and two and a half hours—we get a whole lot of back story and rising action.

Quick refresher on plot: Nibelung dwarf Alberich (played by the wonderfully named Jochen Schmeckenbecher, of Hockenheim) has stolen the priceless Rhinegold treasure from the trio of Rhinemaidens who guard it. The theft eventually rouses the interest of Wotan (Thomas Mayer), lord of the gods, because Wotan is having difficulty honoring his debt to the pair of giants (Morris Robinson and Ain Anger) responsible for building his castle, Valhalla.

Parallels to a certain close-fisted American president end there, however, because the audience soon learns that this outstanding payment has recently incurred additional, familial stakes: the giants now hold Wotan’s purebred and flaxen-haired sister-in-law (soprano Malin Christensson, in somewhat reedy and unsteady voice) as ransom, and it’s up to the tricksterish demigod of fire, Loge (Kim Begley, more on him in a second), to help Wotan recover the Rhinegold-forged ring from the Nibelung in Nibelheim, reward the giants Fasolt and Fafner, win back Freia, and properly claim the kingdom as his own. Klar?

Wagnerphiles will perhaps be furious that I didn’t mention the Tarnhelm, or Wagner’s tubas underscoring Valhalla, or the 18-anvil interlude between scenes two and three, or, for that matter, any of the brilliant leitmotifs punctuating the orchestral writing, from the ascending figures representing “nature” to the descending scales meant to signal Wotan’s contract with the giants.

I won’t bore with the mechanics, but I will say that in a pared-down concert setting like Tanglewood, such symbolic musical devices greatly made up for the lack of sets, proper costumes, and theatrics. Also compensating was a respectable share of offstage drama.

Riga-born Nelsons, who has served as the BSO’s music director since 2014, had in fact been slated to conduct Parsifal in Bayreuth this summer, but mysteriously withdrew last year citing “artistic differences.” The BSO (not exactly known for its Ring cycles) subsequently announced its own dueling production of Rheingold, leading to some speculation over what Nelsons might be doing here.

As Wotan’s long-suffering but adamant wife Fricka, mezzo Stephanie Blythe stepped in as a last-minute replacement for beloved Dame Sarah Connolly, who’d withdrawn due to illness. Blythe had experience with the role—having put her stamp on it at the Met and Seattle Opera—but had not performed it since 2013. Ultimately these reservations proved unnecessary, as Blythe proved one of the noteworthier performers on stage: hers is a robust Fricka, able to knock sense into her foolish husband with easy, round tone and sumptuous sound.

Playing Wotan, Cologne-trained bass baritone Mayer was in dry voice and struggled at times to make himself heard over the orchestra, but acquitted himself well in the acting department. Schmeckenbecher’s goofy villain Alberich served some equally inaudible low notes, paired with occasional hootiness in his upper register, but these missteps were rectified by a good deal of sonic payoff in his shapeshifting scenes.

Begley’s take on rogue Loge was an interesting one: mincing and fey, clad in burgundy bowtie and scarf, he strutted across the stage like a coxcomb at a cocktail party—and I must say, I liked the effect. Loge is a jester of a character, who looks askance at his divine companions yet never denies that he is one of them: playing up his camp dimensions didn’t feel obvious; it felt inspired. “You haven’t eaten enough of the fruit today,” he warns the gods about Freia’s garden at one point. This Loge appears to have had his share.

That leaves the opera’s secondary parts. Jacqueline Echols and Catherine Martin (as Woglinde and Wellgunde) were particular standouts among the three mischievous Rhinemaidens, and in fine voice throughout. Appearing as Fasolt and Fafner respectively, the basses Robinson and Anger delivered top-shelf performances, with Robinson in particularly plush and velvety voice. With engagements at the Met and Washington National Opera, Mime has become a signature role for tenor David Cangelosi, he gave the beleaguered character some nice comic touches in this performance.

As is tradition with Wagnerian opera, the orchestra often figures as prominently as the characters, and Nelsons, conducting from a stool, led the BSO with expert command. Rare is the review of a Rheingold production that doesn’t make mention of the famous E-flat major arpeggios opening the show. But one of my favorite episodes actually comes far later on, at the opera’s end.

In scene four, the earth goddess Erda (ravishing contralto Patricia Bardon) appears suddenly in a bit part to warn Wotan of the dangers the ring will bring to those who possess it. As she sings her warning, we hear a reappearance of those E-flat major arpeggios, but taken more slowly, more gravely, and in a minor key. For the first time, we hear the ascending roulades of the Rhine begin to change course, to descend, pulling us down into the abyss as the goddess outlines the consequences of great hubris.

These are the subliminal messages a good performance of Wagner can transmit. “False and weak are those who revel on high” intone the Rhinemaidens at the opera’s finale, as the gods cross their vainglorious rainbow bridge to Valhalla. Indeed, especially in such a setting, and in such a time, one hopes that Tanglewood might continue to provide the kinds of moral lessons so many of us tend to forget.

Photo: Hillary Scott

  • Bill Strzempek

    That was a delightful read !

  • grimoaldo2

    Very entertaining report, thank you.
    Good old Kim Begley, I have been enjoying his performances in rep from G&S to Britten and Stravinsky for many years now,