Tanglewood had a blockbuster weekend plan: violinist Joshua Bell would perform on Friday and cellist Yo-Yo Ma on Sunday. Between those concerts was Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin” in concert, starring the soprano Renée Fleming and the tenor Ramon Vargas, conducted by James Levine, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
But Saturday’s centerpiece suffered a quake: Levine, who conceived the lineup is away recuperating from kidney surgery. Tenor Ramon Vargas had a sore throat, and of course it rained before the concert, shrinking the lawn crowd.
“Eugene Onegin,” performed with international opera stars and students of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, was the well-named Leonard Bernstein Memorial. Bernstein loved those bright eager musicians and had scheduled a European tour, ruled out by his sudden death in 1990. Levine loves it too, and is giving it a chance at opera repertory, his strong suit.
Sir Andrew Davis, music director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, stood in for Levine, earning thanks for a fine job. He doesn’t create the buzz and excitement that Levine does, but he’s only human, and it’s beginning to look as if Levine is something more.
If “Onegin,” based on a Pushkin novel, were written today, it would be a soap opera. It’s a small-screen domestic drama about a country girl, Tatiana, who falls for a bored, cynical young man, writes him a love letter and is pompously rebuffed. They meet years later, after she has married into high society. He realizes he loves her after all, but she, upholding her marriage vows in anguish, turns the tables on him.
Acting was minimal but not absent, and hoorah for the little difference. Performers interacted, singing without score, responding to each other’s words, touching, embracing, even turning away from the audience, which knew it was seeing something special. The orchestra’s light tone kept it away from the voices and in good balance.
Making his Tanglewood debut as Onegin was the tall, dark and handsome Swedish baritone Peter Mattei. Thank goodness for the supertitles because few Americans know Russian, but the strong-voiced Mattei had a natural delivery style as he sauntered around the stage, obviously saying real words that tell the story.
Fleming was a regal, glamorous stage presence, floating her vowels instead of putting words across. A famously hard worker, she took her acting seriously but was probably not pleased with all of her high notes. After her “Letter” aria (when she writes Onegin of her passion), she took bows, kissed the conductor, bowed some more, and lost any spirit of staying in character.
The American tenor Garrett Sorenson replaced Vargas as Onegin’s poet friend Lenski, fiancé of Tatiana’s sister, whom Onegin shoots in a needless duel. Sorenson, with tightly spun voice, went all out on the Russian, with some success. (The sister, Ekaterina Semenchuk, who had a powerful low register, was the only Russian in the cast.) The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang with ringing tone and crisp musicianship.
The weekend’s music evoked a Russian-French connection. Friday, Peter Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony and the Caramoor Music Festival, was like a kid in a candy store, lively and enjoying every piece.
After Ravel’s sensual and showy “Alborada del gracioso,” Bell played Chausson’s “Poeme” and Saint-Saens virtuosic “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso,” which he had done here once under Charles Dutoit. Bell has fortunately outlasted his childhood stardom, as was seen in his substantial playing of the flashy Saint-Saens, whose finale is faster than Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Oundjian led a skillful discreet accompaniment.
More than a dozen men have tried their hand at arranging Mussorgsky”s “Pictures at an Exhibition” — even Duke Ellington — but Ravel’s orchestration is by far the most successful and frequently heard. It is also linked to the Boston Symphony, because Ravel’s publisher thought so little of Mussorgsky that he made Ravel promise that his brilliant arrangement, with glittering harp and high percussion, would be solely for the use of his friend Serge Koussevitzky. (Koussevitzky must have loved that.) And even though Friday’s conductor was a guest, the orchestra projected a sense of ownership, with gentle French horn solos and spectacular trumpet processionals.
Sunday’s conductor, Carlos Miguel Prieto, directs orchestras in Mexico and the South, but his hugs with Ma and their mutual deference at curtain calls indicate that Ma must have noticed the younger man when Prieto was concertmaster at Harvard.
After Prieto began the program with an Albeniz orchestral arrangement of his piano suite from “Iberia,” Ma played Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D Minor, a Tanglewood first. It wasn’t as interesting as the program notes promised, but any piece lucky enough to be played by Ma has a fair shot at fame, even if spiced up by an unruly bird (acknowledged from the stage) and the obligatory downpour.
As the two previous concerts had, Sunday’s concluded with something Russian: Rachmaninoff’s colorful “Symphonic Dances.”
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