Despite three other buzzworthy opera premieres simultaneously occurring elsewhere on the Upper West Side, a heady audience had instead months ago paid top price to pack Carnegie Hall Thursday for just 80 minutes of unstaged Wagner. 

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s second act of Tristan und Isolde was this season’s hottest ticket because Jonas Kaufmann would be taking on one of its daunting title roles for the first time in a return to opera in New York after four years away. While the recently fugitive tenor did not disappoint, the evening became much more than “the Jonas show” as conductor Andris Nelsons and his top-notch ensemble conjured both a rapturously intoxicating Liebesnacht and its soul-crushing fallout.

While the first act might be said to be all about Isolde and the third about Tristan, the second devotes much of its span to the und of Wagner’s illicit pair exploring at great length their obsessive night- and death-drunk passion. When the BSO released a clip of one of last week’s concerts I was struck that Camilla Nylund and Kaufmann were singing on opposite sides of the conductor.

Shouldn’t opera’s greatest lovers be side-by-side? But the concert ultimately convinced me of the efficacy of that arrangement; being more easily able to follow the English titles than in the opera house I was particularly struck Thursday by how abstracted and self-involved the pair are. This notion was furthered by both singers’s peculiar refusal to even glance at one another during nearly the entire act. Nelsons’s unusually languorous pacing of the normally driving climax of the duet too failed to summon up the expected heat of coitus: each remained lost alone in his or her own metaphysical fever-dream.

That said, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more sensuous or haunting “O sink hernieder” during which Kaufmann tempered his previously stentorian address with a transporting softness and Nylund answered with a bewitched enchantment. Miraculously Nelsons’s floating and diaphanous accompaniment transported the pair to the otherworldly bliss they longed for, only to be overwhelmed by Mihoko Fujimura’s booming yet prosaic off-stage warning.

The Japanese mezzo may have appeared locally before but I had never heard her until last fall in Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Israel Philharmonic. As I did then, I found her introverted performing manner oddly off-putting.

A veteran of many seasons at the Bayreuth Festival in all the expected roles, she embodied Brangäne with more dramatic involvement than the score-bound soprano or tenor but her heavy, square voice wasn’t always ideally steady and was occasionally challenged by the climaxes unlike pungent Welsh tenor Andrew Rees who punched out Melot’s vicious denunciations.

Another Bayreuth regular Georg Zeppenfeld made a rare New York appearance and his big buzzy bass turned Marke’s challengingly long monologue into a riveting and harrowing self-examination of betrayal at its more devastating. We’ve gotten used to the mellow beauty and anguished resignation of Rene Pape’s interpretation over the years but Zeppenfeld offered a more openly wounded reading, raw with pain and anger. Like Fujimura and Rees he performed from memory and was that much more effective for it.

Like Kaufmann, soprano Nylund was venturing her role as the Irish princess for the first time in these BSO concerts which may have also been her first appearance in New York where she will eventually return to make her Met debut as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Though she’s an engaged and vivid performer, her cool soft-grained voice didn’t provide much cut in the exciting “Frau Minne” pages that precede Tristan’s entrance and the top of the voice only just managed Isolde’s soaring climaxes without commanding them.

I had dutifully listened to the live broadcast of Saturday’s concert from Boston and found Nylund strained and colorless, but in Carnegie’s enveloping acoustic she sounded warmer, more settled and nuanced. I’m not sure she’d be very suited to Isolde’s first-act music but this was a worthy first attempt though I suspect the Strauss role will suit her better.

And what of the opera world’s superstar tenor? If one listened with one’s eyes closed, it would have seemed a very good night for Kaufmann. However, he appeared to be markedly uncomfortable much of the time, vigorously chugging most of three bottles of water, tugging at the collar of his tuxedo shirt and staring intently at his score. If he was nervous and/or unwell, at least he didn’t sound like it confidently and majestically ravishing the ear particularly in the challenging pages of the uncut duet that threaten to strangle many other tenors.

Not having heard him in person since his Met Werther, I was initially concerned as he sounded even darker and more baritonal than before but the cloud soon lifted. At Marke’s entrance he moved to next to Nylund where his piercingly lovely “O König” provided the evening’s most moving moments. Although I’ve admired him in Italian and particularly French roles, my Kaufmann-admiration peaks in Wagner.

Although perhaps he wasn’t at his absolute peak as either Siegmund or Parsifal (in my hearing at least), his Lohengrin and Walther (which admittedly I’ve only heard on recordings and videos) seem to me unmatched these days. This tantalizing dip into Tristan was more than promising and encouraged my fervent hopes for a future complete Tristan provided a worthy Isolde can be found—I’m not sure it would be Nylund. If not, then whom?

I would certainly vote for Nelsons to conduct it particularly after this Tristan act and their previous collaboration for a sublime Lohengrin at Bayreuth. I continue to be impressed by the Latvian conductor after experiencing his Pique Dame at the Met and BSO performances of Elektra, the Beethoven Ninth and acts two of both Tosca and Tristan.

His next two operatic ventures with the BSO though strike me as less inviting—both Puccini and both starring his ex-wife Kristine OpolaisLa Bohème at Tanglewood this summer and Suor Angelica in Boston next February. Rather more intriguing than even his approaching Covent Garden Lohengrin (yet again with Opolais, alas) might be a complete Weihnachtsoratorium with the BSO in November, no doubt a by-product of his other position as music director of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. But unfortunately the Bach won’t travel to New York, but presumably Kaufmann will for the Met’s Fanciulla in October!

Photo: Chris Lee