The Boston Symphony Orchestra has placed the Italian conductor Daniele Gatti on anniversary duty this year, engaging him to mark the bicentennials of both Verdi and Wagner. The Verdi tribute came in January with performances of the Requiem, while the all-Wagner program, consisting of excerpts from five operas, was introduced Thursday night in Symphony Hall.
That Gatti is also returning next week with yet another hefty program, Mahler’s Third Symphony, suggests just how keen the BSO is to develop this relationship, toward what destination exactly we do not yet know.
Gatti’s Wagner resume has been burnished at the Bayreuth Festival and, more recently, the Met, where he conducted a new staging of “Parsifal,” leading the entire score from memory. Here in Symphony Hall, he conducted once again from memory the entirety of Thursday’s program, projecting a kind of unflashy yet firm authority in excerpts from “Götterdämmerung,” “Tannhäuser,” “Parsifal,” “Lohengrin,” and “Tristan und Isolde.”
At the same time, Gatti’s chemistry with the players felt circumscribed, and the evening did not add up artistically to more than the sum of its often virtuosic parts.
Gatti’s meticulous control of orchestral textures — the way they are layered, transformed, dismantled, and rebuilt over a single span of music — was the most impressive aspect of his podium work in both opening selections from “Götterdämmerung” (Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, as well as Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March).
It was easy to marvel at the clarity of detail in, for instance, the slow unveiling of a cello line from within a brass chord or the threading of woodwind melodies like tendrils into the vast orchestral canopy.
The Prelude to Act I of “Lohengrin” likewise beautifully showcased the BSO violins, as Gatti elicited subtly shaped and diaphanous waves of sound.
Yet the Prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan” proved a real disappointment, as Gatti’s mastery of texture was not matched here by an equally essential ability to harness and sustain this music’s smoldering intensity, its endless spiral of yearning.
Part of this may have hinged on Gatti’s tempo choices, but not all of it; you might recall the surging expressive power James Levine could draw from this score even with glacial tempos.
Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was the evening’s vocal soloist in the Liebestod, as well as in portions of Kundry’s narrative from Act II of “Parsifal.”
Her voice had all the requisite power and an appealingly dark coloring, though one might have wished for a fuller and deeper inhabiting of her roles.