A Richard Strauss afternoon at Tanglewood features Renée Fleming’s artistry

United StatesUnited States Tanglewood Festival 2024 [1] – Richard Strauss: Renée Fleming (soprano), Boston Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor). Koussevitzky Shed, Lenox, Massachusetts, 7.7.2024. (ES-S)

Andris Nelsons conducts the BSO at Tanglewood © Hilary Scott

R. Strauss – Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten, Op.65; ‘Ständchen’, Op.17 No.2; ‘Befreit’, Op.39 No.4; ‘Gesang der Apollopriesterin’, Op.33 No.2; ‘Träumerei am Kamin’ from Intermezzo, Op.72; ‘Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding’ and ‘Da geht er hin’ from Der Rosenkavalier Op.59; Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op.59. Encore: ‘Cäcilie’, Op.27 No.2

The first Sunday afternoon concert of the 2024 Tanglewood Festival was dedicated to the music of Richard Strauss. The enthusiastic audience in and around the Koussevitzky Shed did not necessarily have the opportunity to listen to his most distinguished works, but the performance was nonetheless a testament to the special place the German composer’s music holds in Andris Nelsons’s repertoire.

The program had a symmetrical-concentric structure. At its center was one of the orchestral interludes from a lesser-known opera, Intermezzo. Before the interlude, Renée Fleming interpreted several songs for soprano with orchestral accompaniment and, after it, a couple of monologues from Der Rosenkavalier. Two orchestral suites extracted from Die Frau ohne Schatten and Der Rosenkavalier bookended the afternoon.

‘Träumerei am Kamin’ (‘Dreaming by the Fireside’), the second of the four orchestral interludes that more or less define Intermezzo, is imbued with a melodic nostalgia reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier and other later works by Strauss. However, this small segment isn’t representative of the wit, self-deprecation and boldness that characterize much of Strauss’s writing in Intermezzo, a ‘bourgeois comedy’ based on autobiographical moments. Nelsons and his instrumentalists delivered the music with considerable warmth, even voluptuousness. They underlined the lyrical arches that form the piece’s sonic framework and highlighted the subtle way in which the wind instruments repeatedly emerge from the tapestry of strings.

Strauss composed the Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten during his self-imposed, post-World-War-II exile in Switzerland, decades after the original opera’s premiere. He condensed the three-plus hours of music into a twenty-minute potpourri, omitting many segments that illustrate librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s preoccupation with mythological and symbolic themes, and focused instead on the music associated with the mortal pair, Barak the dyer and his wife.

After the initial attention-grabbing, brass-intoned evocation of the three-syllable name of Keikobad, the fearsome yet never-seen God, the music is mostly lyrical, with few of the full-of-tension and daring sonorities that permeated the original score. Conjuring ephemeral visions of happiness, the strings sounded luxurious under Nelsons’s direction, while the winds seemed somewhat constricted, even in the final orchestral climax. Substituting for the baritone in Barak’s aria ‘Mir anvertraut, daß ich sie hege’ (‘Entrusted to me, so that I may nurture her’), Toby Oft’s trombone sounded unbelievably human, full of longing and tenderness.

Usually credited to conductor Artur Rodziński, the afternoon’s other orchestral suite, the one from Der Rosenkavalier, is a pale evocation of the original opera’s riches. Nonetheless, the music and the libretto’s meanderings are much more familiar to the public, hence expectations are higher. This rendition was warmly received and had no major issues, yet it was by no means outstanding. The overall lavishness of the orchestral tapestry was somehow muted. The erotically charged horn calls at the beginning were rather lackluster, and the sweetness of the strings in the glorious ‘Presentation of the Silver Rose’ was too syrupy, while the farcical aspect of the waltzes was insufficiently brought forward.

Renée Fleming sings an all-Strauss program at Tanglewood © Hilary Scott

Right before the suite, the audience had the chance to hear the great Renée Fleming interpret, with assurance and confidence, two extracts from the opera, years after she last performed her signature role of the ‘Feldmarschallin von Werdenberg’ in a fully staged production. She displayed a remarkable command of her (possibly unnecessarily amplified) voice across the entire span, fully embodying the character’s grace, wisdom and emotional depth. Discreetly accompanied by Nelsons and his instrumentalists, Fleming, as fine an actress as ever, imbued ‘Die Zeit, die is ein sonderbar Ding’ with great nostalgia as well as humor and undiminished hope.

Her lyricism and subtle eloquence were also evident in the suite of songs for soprano and orchestra that she performed before intermission. She had difficulties sustaining longer lines in ‘Befreit’ and was less convincing in conveying the fervent intensity of the protagonist in the ‘Gesang der Apollopriesterin’. At the same time, she handled with agility the anticipatory octave leaps in ‘Ständchen’ and displayed true passion in the brief ‘Cäcilie’, her only encore. There is little doubt that Fleming’s voice has lost some of its weight and sheen, but it was an unexpectedly successful performance, and the public responded enthusiastically.

Edward Sava-Segal

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