It’s a truism that all of Wagner’s operas tend to elicit strong responses, pro or contra, but “Tristan und Isolde” seems to possess a proprietary voltage, a way of flooding the circuit boards — be they musical, sensual, philosophical, or spiritual — with an electricity all its own. And, especially closer to its own day, listeners have responded with commensurate zing.
“The most repulsive thing I ever saw or heard in my life” — was the crisp opinion of Clara Schumann. “A deity draped in the invisible folds of musical texture,” opined Stéphane Mallarmé. And “to this day,” confessed Nietzsche, “I am still looking for a work of equally dangerous fascination, of an equally shivery and sweet infinity, as ‘Tristan.’ ”
On Thursday night in a packed Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra offered up a generous serving of that sweet infinity. More precisely, they played Act II of “Tristan,” in a vividly energized account, the first of two keenly anticipated local performances.
Over the years Wagner has been a calling card for Nelsons, and not only in staged productions at Covent Garden and Bayreuth. During his tenure leading the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Nelsons led concert performances of “Lohengrin,” “Tristan und Isolde, “The Flying Dutchman,” and “Parsifal.”
Surprisingly, it’s taken a while for the Nelsons/BSO Wagner tap to fully open, but last summer Tanglewood audiences were treated to a concert performance of “Das Rheingold” with a cast that featured Stephanie Blythe. This week’s star power comes courtesy of the renowned German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who is singing his first Tristan, opposite the Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, also making her role debut.
The opera’s second act opens with the lovers’ rendezvous plan in motion. King Marke, whom Isolde is to marry, has been drawn away on a hunting expedition and the Irish princess, together with her maid Brangäne, restlessly awaits Tristan’s arrival, which in turn ushers in the spiraling ecstasies of their famous Liebesnacht duet. At the end of the act, Marke returns to catch the lovers in flagrante and decries Tristan’s betrayal in his own moving monologue.
In general, the best opera-in-concert performances can rival the frisson of a thrilling stage spectacle, as evidenced by the BSO’s extraordinary 2015 account of Strauss’s “Elektra,” with Christine Goerke in the title role. Thursday’s “Tristan” did not seem to strive for, nor did it reach, that level of theatrical immediacy. Standing behind music stands on opposite sides of the podium, Kaufmann and Nylund sang their impassioned duet while facing the audience oratorio-style, and both of them relied heavily on their vocal scores.
Within that scope Kaufmann delivered, despite a few less steady moments. Certainly when he telegraphed Tristan’s ardor with ringing tenorial power, or when he sang of night’s gentle charms with beautifully shaded tones that somehow combined tenderness and intensity, you sensed the winning Tristan he could eventually become. Nylund, who is also still finding her way into this daunting role, sang honorably and at her best moments, registered her character’s impatient ecstasies with bright vocal radiance.
The German bass Georg Zeppenfeld made a particularly compelling King Marke. Having sung this role at Bayreuth, and performing Thursday without a vocal score, he embodied Marke to an extent that he seemed almost out of place in this concert reading, delivering his monologue (“Tatest Du’s wirklich?”) with a dimensionality and pathos all its own. Among the smaller roles, Mihoko Fujimura was also a standout as Brangäne, singing with tonal focus and palpable dramatic commitment.
During the yearning-filled Liebesnacht, the river of sensuality in this score surges over the — let’s be honest — rather shallow banks of the opera’s text. Feeding its raptures cyclically, as both source and destination, is Wagner’s orchestra in all its hallucinogenic splendor. The BSO played superbly for Nelsons, despite some moments in Thursday’s performance when brisk tempos threatened to blur some of the opera’s brilliant instrumental detail. Also worth noting was the evening’s curtain-raiser: a spacious and coolly transparent account of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll.”
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats April 7), www.bso.org