When Andris Nelsons was 5 years old, his parents brought him to the Latvian National Opera to hear his first live performance of an opera. The work that night was Wagner’s “Tannhäuser,” and he was transfixed both by the music and that mysterious man standing in front of the orchestra with a stick.
Nelsons has often said it was this early encounter that first planted the seeds of his desire to become a conductor. It also apparently left him with a lasting affection for Wagner’s score. He led its overture on his first concert as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and on Thursday night he returned to “Tannhäuser,” Wagner’s fifth opera, devoting a full program to the Overture and Bacchanale of Act I alongside the entirety of Act III. With so few local opportunities to hear Wagner’s operas in live performance, let alone with singers of the caliber that appeared on Thursday night, it was a memorable evening, albeit one that took some time to coalesce.
Nelsons may have been reaching for expansiveness and gravity in his account of the overture, but his tempos in the solemn Pilgrims’ March tended toward the static and labored. As the overture develops, Wagner introduces the more active, sweeping music of the Venusberg, the subterranean abode of the goddess Venus, and here the orchestra’s playing gained in dimensionality, texture, and life. The sensual, surging music of the Bachannale (castanets and all) had still more of the requisite energy and technicolor with violinist Elita Kang, evidently one of the orchestra’s internal candidates for the concertmaster position, contributing incisive solos.
But it was the second half of this program that really came alive, thanks in part to the arrival of the four vocal soloists and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, in fine voice. The opera’s plot centers on the tension between carnal love and spiritual purity, with Tannhäuser, a minstrel, caught between the two realms. In Act III, the character’s pilgrimage to Rome has failed to yield absolution, and he returns ready to re-embrace his sinful ways only to then be saved at the last moment through the redemptive purity of the love of a woman, Elisabeth.
Amber Wagner took on this important role on Thursday night, singing with a dark luster and supplicatory fervency. The sweet-toned tenor Klaus Florian Vogt was ardent and self-possessed as Tannhäuser, recounting his journey to Rome with a rapt intensity. And mezzo Marina Prudenskaya capably navigated the role of Venus.
The evening’s standout singer, however, was Christian Gerhaher as the knight Wolfram, Tannhäuser’s friend. Renowned as a performer of German lieder, Gerhaher deployed his mahogany baritone with unerring eloquence and a well-honed mastery of diction. His aria “O du, mein holder Abendstern” (Song to the Evening Star), decanted with a liquid beauty, was a high point of the performance.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus (James Burton, conductor) made an impressive showing, singing with finesse and clarity even at the lowest volumes. And there were plenty of solid contributions from the orchestra, most notably the articulate storytelling of John Ferrillo’s oboe and the radiant warmth of William Hudgins’s clarinet. The performance repeats on Saturday night.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Feb. 4)
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.