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Review: A Tantalizing Taste of Kaufmann's TRISTAN, Nylund's ISOLDE with Boston Symphony under Nelsons at Carnegie

By: Apr. 13, 2018
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Review: A Tantalizing Taste of Kaufmann's TRISTAN, Nylund's ISOLDE with Boston Symphony under Nelsons at Carnegie  Image
Camilla Nylund, Andris Nelsons and Jonas Kaufmann
with the Boston Symphony. Photo: Chris Lee

It's hard for opera singers to keep off the radar when they're dipping their feet into a new role--particularly if the role is Tristan in Wagner's great opera, or if your name is Jonas Kaufmann.

Yes, the first of the Boston Symphony's string of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, Act II concerts on their home turf last week could count as a sort of "out of town tryout" for New York, with Kaufmann, along with soprano Camilla Nylund's debut as Isolde, but they were not much more than vestal virgins being sacrificed at the altar of Opera at Carnegie Hall last night.

It gave us much to look forward to. To say the least.

Review: A Tantalizing Taste of Kaufmann's TRISTAN, Nylund's ISOLDE with Boston Symphony under Nelsons at Carnegie  Image
Camilla Nylund, Jonas Kaufmann and Andris Nelsons
with the Boston Symphony. Photo: Chris Lee

Act II of the Wagner opera--in which a Breton noble, Tristan, brings an Irish princess, Isolde, to be the bride of his uncle, King Marke of Cornwall, but falls for her in the process--is often considered the key segment of the opera, with its famed love duet ("O sink hernieder") for the title characters and monologue of betrayal for King Marke (though Isolde's Liebestod in Act III isn't exactly chopped liver). It was written during a "break" in Wagner's work on his Ring Cycle, though only Wagner could consider five-act opera a way to relax.

For much of the performance, Kaufmann and Nylund were at different sides of the conductor, though trading smiles (unclear whether in character or just in support). I guess it made sense to build the sexual tension this way, until they finally touch, but considering their newness to the roles, it might have made more sense to have them side by side.

Nylund gave us a glowing, radiant Isolde, bursting with lush sound, though she was sometimes still reading the score when it would have been nicer if she only had eyes for Tristan. At the start, she was somewhat overpowered by the orchestra, but it took little time for her to reach a higher level. Occasionally, evening dress, which was the standard for the concert, can be distracting from the drama on stage; here, the voice and the look helped form the character that Tristan fell for. Nylund isn't a regular at the Met and her performance here made me wonder why we don't see her.

As for Kaufmann, it was good to hear him in good voice and seem happy to be singing this music. The last time I heard him at the Met, it was as Parsifal; this, I think, might eventually suit him even better, with its gorgeous love scene giving him room to flex his acting muscles as well as his voice in a very masculine way. The baritonal timber of Kaufmann's voice is always so distinctive in his work and it certainly fits his characterization of Tristan (at this point, obviously, still a work-in-progress, though he has no shortage of notes at the high end of the spectrum.

Together, their voices fit wonderfully, any reluctance to let loose completely, here and there, likely a product of their inexperience with the demanding roles rather than a lack of generosity towards one another. I hope to hear them again a little further down the road as the roles get under their skin.

I was somewhat distressed to hear the first scene between Nylund's Isolde and mezzo Mihoko Fujimara's Bragane, her servant, with Fujimara's voice seeming big but rather unnuanced. This changed dramatically, however, in her off-stage warnings to the lovers--so difficult to pull off--that the night was ending (meaning the King was one his way home); here, she sounded ripe and gorgeous.

As King Marke, bass Georg Zeppenfeld has some of the most difficult music to pull off, with the famed monologue that serves as a kind of coitus interruptus to the lovers' duet. While he fulfilled the aria's dramatic needs, I found him somewhat less than compelling vocally considering he has broken one of Wagner's richest melodies to air his rage about the disloyalty of Tristan, whom he treated like a son.

Rounding out the cast nicely, as Tristan's servant Kurwenal and frenemy Melot were baritone David Kravitz and tenor Andrew Rees, creating distinct characterizations from little stage time.

Other than a few instances where the dynamics level was somewhat in question, Nelsons and the Boston Symphony provided a glowing, well-paced account of the score. The audience grew more and more effusive in its love as the curtain calls went on, armed with dozens of bouquets of flowers. They knew they'd been present at a very special evening.


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