LENOX, Mass. — Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts at Tanglewood this weekend featured something old: pieces by Thomas Ades and Ravel paying homage to Couperin; something new: a premiere by John Williams performed by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, for whom it was composed; and something borrowed: Wagner’s complete “Das Rheingold,” Saturday’s centerpiece of the weekend.
All were bold undertakings of music director Andris Nelsons, who conducted. “Rheingold,” 2 1/2-hours with no intermission, was a trailblazer showing that concert staging can work — when there are titles, clever acting direction, mostly magnificent voices and a committed conductor. The Latvian-born Nelsons, who started in opera and has led performances at Bayreuth, had not previously shown Tanglewood this side of him. He conducted with insight and focus — and both hands.
Voices were big, clear and operatic. Several singers are regulars at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala in Milan. Some were resonant, starting with Thomas J. Mayer, who has often sung Wotan in his native Germany. Stephanie Blythe, now a Tanglewood faculty member, stepped into her familiar role on short notice when Dame Sarah Connolly fell ill. She bickered with the lying, cheating Wotan as if she had been putting up with him forever, but couldn’t do much besides complain.
Wotan is obsessed with money, power and women. He makes terrible bargains, assuring Fricka that he doesn’t intend to keep his word. Some of the other gods aren’t troubled by his immorality. His quest for the power-giving ring forged from the Rhinegold is abetted by Loge the half-human fire god, played for humor by the nimble tenor Kim Begley.
Stage lighting for Loge was orange, Wotan’s turned red, and the Rhine River, where the precious gold guarded by Rhine maidens was stolen by someone who renounced love, was blue. All — Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin and Renee Tatum — were Americans singing German, and they made a scrumptious trio, worshipping the gold and taunting Alberich (Jochen Schmeckenbecher — really), the ugly dwarf able to steal the gold by renouncing love, who puts a curse on the ring forged from it when the wily Wotan and Loge steal it from him.
More cast members deserve mention, but the full Boston Symphony, in new territory as a Wagner opera orchestra, was downright exciting. This is probably the orchestra the composer wanted, rather than a stripped-down pit band. Much of the orchestral writing is related to objects and relationships in the plot, so it becomes a character and narrator as well.
The applause seemed almost endless. The giddy audience stumbled out, aware that they had just seen something, and been part of a true event.
Friday’s highlight was Mozart’s familiar “Elvira Madigan” Piano Concerto, K. 467, performed by the prodigiously talented Russian, Daniil Trifonov, who won both the Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein competitions at age 20. In 2013 he played in Tanglewood’s smaller Seiji Ozawa Hall only. Not making that mistake again, management added Friday’s Koussevitzky Music Shed appearance under Nelsons. Trifonov’s approach to the piece was casual, almost reflective. Others may play it as well as he, but none better.
On Sunday afternoon, before the glamorous Anne-Sophie Mutter performed Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, she introduced “Markings,” which the venerated John Williams composed for her. It perfectly illustrated what’s great about Williams and what is not. Every film score he writes is an enduring hit, but try as he may, he can’t make his other scores come out that way.
The audience listened politely to the generic, tuneless “Markings,” but when after the Tchaikovsky, Mutter played an encore of the melody from “Schindler’s List,” the audience sighed with collective pleasure. At 85, Williams can do what he wants, but don’t we wish for another film.
By the way, the afternoon sky? Something blue.