Robust ‘Bohème’ at Tanglewood extends Andris Nelsons’s string of opera successes
LENOX — Opera in concert is always keenly appreciated at Tanglewood, but in case a test of the public’s devotion were necessary, nature served one up on Saturday night in the form of torrential downpours that soaked the grounds during the first half of “La Bohème.” One might have expected the lawn to be completely emptied by intermission, but an impressively large crowd braved the summer storm in the name of Puccini.
Perhaps it was all in keeping with the live-for-art ethos presented in the opening act of this perennial audience favorite. After all, the poet Rodolfo, when he has no more fuel for his stove, uses the pages of his own drama to heat his frigid garret. Compared with that sort of dedication, I suppose, what’s a little rainwater in one’s merlot?
Not that this “Bohème” needed any additional dramatic input from mother nature. There has been a steady churn of extra-musical news at the festival this summer, with members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus vocally angered by changes afoot, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s principal flute suing the BSO for equal pay. Adding to the mix, this was the first appearance by soprano Kristine Opolais, taking up one of her signature roles as Mimi, since her divorce from BSO music director Andris Nelsons earlier this year.
Fortunately, all of this remained behind the scenes on Saturday as all parties pulled together for a robust and involving performance, one that extended Nelsons’s string of recent successes in this concert opera format.
Of course at this point, “Bohème” is so well-known that a semi-staged performance seemed more than sufficient for the work to hit its mark. Moreover, with less visual distraction, one could focus on the notably rich-hued playing of the orchestra.
As Mimi, Opolais’s voice had more luster than in her last appearances with the BSO, even as her portrayal emphasized her character’s fragility, bringing out an almost waifish quality from the outset. The young tenor Jonathan Tetelman stepped in at short notice to replace Piotr Beczala and made an eager, energetic Rodolfo, conveying his ardor for Mimi with a ringing, if at times slightly pressed, tenor.
Franco Vassallo’s Marcello proved a grounding and vocally generous foil. Elliot Madore as Schaunard and Luca Pisaroni as Colline were both persuasive, especially the latter’s tearful farewell to his overcoat. Susanna Phillips, in lovely voice, tilted toward substance over sass as Musetta. And Paul Plishka inhabited the roles of Benoit and Alcindoro with veteran aplomb, though at times he struggled to make himself heard above the orchestra.
For his part, Nelsons was thoroughly in his element. He drew a shapely and flexible performance from the BSO and was especially alert to the nuances in pacing that allowed the score’s final pages to play out with a crackling electricity.
It was a big weekend for the beleaguered Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which in Act II of “Bohème,” together with the recently formed Boston Symphony Children’s Choir, brought ample color and abundant zest to the Parisian streets near Café Momus. And the following afternoon, the TFC was once again in the spotlight as Sunday’s BSO performance concluded with Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms.”
Bernstein’s piece, which premiered in 1965, is a beguilingly composite work, a score that seems to reflect in equal parts the composer’s flair for showbiz and his yearning for spiritual peace. The first movement features a setting of Psalm 100, with its instruction to “make a joyful noise.” That the TFC did, with great vigor and rhythmic thrust. The second movement, built around Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd”), features an extended lilting solo for boy soprano, delivered on Sunday by Rafi Bellamy Plaice with striking poise and tonal purity. In the final movement — featuring Psalms 131 and 133 — the TFC’s focused work helped establish the music’s dominant note of hard-won tranquillity.
Sunday afternoon’s program began with a lithe, genial traversal of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony and continued with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, here given a tautly virtuosic account by soloist Yuja Wang. Not unlike Lang Lang the previous week, Wang at several junctures seemed to disregard the vast dimensions of the Koussevitzky Music Shed, playing with a hushed precision. Clearly enough of her musical intentions and sheer keyboard athleticism translated beyond the front sections of the Shed, as her performance ignited a near-instantaneous ovation.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Tanglewood, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon