LENOX — The Koussevitzky Music Shed was chilly enough on Saturday night for some members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to wear down jackets and scarves on top of their concert attire, but the evening’s performance had plenty of fire.
BSO music director Andris Nelsons led an operatic showcase centered on Act II of Puccini’s “Tosca,” featuring soprano Kristine Opolais (his wife), bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel, and the perennially excellent Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
This opera gala represented an opportunity to see three-quarters of a “Tosca” that might have been. Nelsons had been slated to conduct “Tosca” at the Metropolitan Opera with Opolais as the titular diva, Terfel as Scarpia, and tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi later this year, but all but Terfel, a veteran Scarpia, have since withdrawn.
The vocal and physical chemistry between Opolais and Terfel was exhilarating. Scarpia, a would-be rapist, sings some of the opera’s loveliest melodies, and Terfel glossed each phrase with poisoned honey. He played the character to the hilt, sneering his way onstage through the cellos, pouring himself a glass of blood-red wine as the orchestra tuned, and echoing the audience’s applause after Opolais’s plaintive “Vissi d’arte” with a mocking slow clap.
The way Opolais clawed at her face and clutched her heart was a touch excessive, but her voice carried through, from her soaring offstage hymn at the beginning to her throaty, desperate pleas for Cavaradossi’s life near the end. Her unwieldy long gown seemed apt for a woman trapped. And after stabbing Scarpia, she didn’t waste time with prayers over his body as the stage directions dictate; she grabbed her dropped wrap and didn’t let her dress trip her on her way out.
Tenor Russell Thomas, who was announced to be battling a throat infection, valiantly soldiered through as Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, without a low end. He completely spent himself on the high B flat of “Vittoria! Vittoria!,” after which he was largely inaudible. (It may have lent a bit of unwanted realism to the character, who is tortured offstage.) Matthew DiBattista was by turns earnest and terrified as the spy Spoletta, and Douglas Williams made a fine BSO debut as Sciarrone. The orchestra slowly ramped up the dramatic tension, with even a cheerful gavotte quickening the pulse.
The stentorian Tanglewood Festival Chorus battled six antiphonal trumpets for sonic dominance during the “Entrance of the Guests” from “Tannhäuser,” and the brass won out. Terfel then re-appeared for an introspective, nuanced performance of Hans Sachs’s “Flieder-Monologue” from “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.” Opolais’s “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s “Rusalka,” in which she recently starred at the Met, was marked by some arrested phrases but flowed with ease elsewhere.
Those signature solos for the singers led up to selections from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” an opera in which the two will in all likelihood never appear. Each jazzy choral sigh and banjo pluck was right on cue, but the stage couldn’t have been further from Catfish Row. Vytas Baksys’s “Jasbo Brown Blues” upright piano solo was rigid. Opolais’s “Summertime” was sweet but over-gestured. As for Terfel, his charismatic charm all but evaporated during “I got plenty o’ nuttin” and the duet “Bess, you is my woman now,” which highlighted the awkwardness of having white musicians sing in dated African-American vernacular. On this evening of high notes, this tone-deaf programming choice fell flat.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the end. Terfel, Opolais, and Nelsons returned to the stage for a cute and cheeky rendition of “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The soprano flitted back and forth between Nelsons and Terfel as the bass-baritone played the seducer, even shoving Nelsons off the podium to “conduct” the orchestra at one point until the maestro pushed him right back, reclaiming his place and in the end, winning back his wife as well.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.