LENOX — Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons finished his monthlong Tanglewood residency with a bang: Just as the conductor raised his baton to begin Act 3 of Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre” in concert on Sunday evening, a sudden clap of thunder rattled the Koussevitzky Music Shed. Nelsons was unshaken. He led the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra soaring through the famous “Ride of the Valkyries,” and when the Valkyries united in their war cries, the sky unleashed a downpour that sent lawn-sitters sprinting for shelter at the back of the Shed. Thunder and rain persisted through scenes of the approach and arrival of the furious storm god Wotan, and gradually abated along with his anger. It was an unforgettable moment in this not quite flawless but mostly fabulous “Walküre.”
Nelsons’s affinity for Wagner is well-documented, and since assuming the BSO music director position, he’s done a healthy heap of Wagner with the orchestra, including a 2017 Tanglewood performance of “Das Rheingold,” the “Ring” cycle’s first and shortest installment. “Walküre” includes around four hours of music, which this performance split up into three concerts across two days, one for each act. The TMC Orchestra, which is mostly composed of undergraduate and graduate students, rotated its seating across acts to split up the workload.
Overall, the young players applied themselves heroically under Nelsons’s direction, doing everything a Wagner orchestra needs to do — hinting at the unspoken thoughts of the characters, adding extra emphasis to the opera’s numerous leitmotifs, and illustrating plot points that this concert performance either didn’t stage or awkwardly mimed. (No one expected Siegmund and Hunding to cross swords, but who decided to put them on opposite sides of the orchestra during their duel to the death?) A few entrances were rough, and some longer scenes seemed like they were on cruise control, but all around it was a fine showing.
Acoustics-wise, the Shed isn’t a terribly opera-friendly space. One can get a balanced earful in the central sweet spot, but even slightly off to the sides, it’s tougher to hear singers on the opposite side of the stage from your seat, especially with a beefy Wagnerian orchestra firing on all cylinders. This was most evident during the “Ride of the Valkyries,” with its puissant octet of women; those singers on my side of Nelsons’s podium all sounded much clearer than those on the other.
In this respect, soprano Amber Wagner as Sieglinde was the performance’s MVP, consistently clarion no matter where she stood. Big, round notes resounded in all strata of her voice, seeming to flow as naturally as speech. With her expressive face and superb control of vibrato and pitch, she conveyed the character’s fearfulness and timidity while sounding neither fearful nor timid. I had the fortune to be seated directly in front of mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe when she made her single appearance as Fricka, but somehow I doubt her mighty, muscular voice got lost on the other side of the stage.
Soprano Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde didn’t entirely avoid the acoustics sinkhole from my seat — her exuberant whoops of “Hojotoho!” in her first scene were subsumed under the orchestra — but her energetic magnetism in both voice and stage presence made up for the sonic pitfalls. As Wotan, bass-baritone James Rutherford’s verbal spar with Blythe’s Fricka was electric, and his farewell to Goerke’s Brünnhilde encompassed a spectrum of complex emotions, but his long narrative scene was underwhelming and his lower notes rarely punched through the orchestra. Portraying Siegmund, Simon O’Neill unleashed a gleaming, live-steel tenor, and Franz-Josef Selig’s plutonic bass made for an imposing Hunding.
Crowds looked thin compared to this summer’s previous weekends at Tanglewood, especially on Saturday evening. Separate tickets were sold for Saturday’s performance of Act 1, which is the opera’s shortest and involves the fewest characters; it seems logical that more people wanted to get the most bang for their buck with a combined ticket for Sunday’s Acts 2 and 3.
From this listener’s perspective, all three acts on the same day would have felt more fun. There are obviously practical factors to consider, especially in accommodating the unique challenges of Wagner, but perhaps the BSO could draw on some ingenuity to make his operas feel more at home at Tanglewood. If that thunderstorm was any indication, Wotan’s already on the orchestra’s side.
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Andris Nelsons, conducting
At Tanglewood, Lenox, July 27-28
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. 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.