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Review: ‘Die Walküre’ Brings the Thunder to Tanglewood

LENOX, Mass. — Richard Wagner put an obsessive amount of effort into portraying the natural world in the “Ring,” both in his music and how he wanted it staged. Rivers run and rainbows shine in “Das Rheingold.” Forests rustle and murmur in “Siegfried.” And in “Die Walküre,” the second of the four “Ring” dramas, storms howl and rage.

Real storms, if you were at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in the Berkshires here, on Sunday. As the Valkyries saddled up and the conductor, Andris Nelsons, settled down to open the third act of a perfectly solid concert performance of “Die Walküre” that stretched over two days, a mighty thunderclap crashed around the hills with impeccable timing and grandeur.

Not that the performers in this “Walküre” needed much help bringing the atmosphere — they needed more help bringing an audience to Tanglewood’s Shed, which was rather sparsely attended over the weekend. One or two Valkyrie helmets patrolled the grounds, but Wagnerians seem on the whole to have stayed away from this second step, two years after “Das Rheingold,” toward what we can hope eventually becomes a complete “Ring” from these forces.

Surely the crowd didn’t stay away on account of the cast. Christine Goerke was here, after all, in her glory. A soprano surely destined to be the dominant Brünnhilde for years to come, she sang here with commanding authority, surpassing delicacy and total commitment to the text. She is a singer of inordinate communicative gifts: Take the last “Hojotoho!” of her entry at the start of Act II, which was indomitable, devoted and even coy, all in four syllables.

I would walk through fire to hear her again, just as I would for the spectacular Sieglinde of Amber Wagner, overflowing with power and wrenching in her vulnerability. If the other singers could not match the intensity of these women, James Rutherford proved a fine, movingly human Wotan; Simon O’Neill, an ardent Siegmund; and Franz-Josef Selig, a smart Hunding, properly banal in his evil.

It was a courageous decision to set aside the might and manners of the Boston Symphony proper and hand this — arguably the main event of the summer season — to the trainee players of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. But what players these young instrumentalists are! Between 18 and 29 years old, and here for a couple months’ intensive instruction, they gave a furiously dedicated, technically adept performance.

Much of that was owed to Mr. Nelsons, no doubt. An accomplished Wagnerian, he apparently remains exiled from the Bayreuth Wagner Festival after a falling-out three years ago, and the “Ring” he was said to be in line to conduct there in 2020 has gone instead to a rookie, Pietari Inkinen. So the Boston Symphony gets the brunt of his Wagnerian efforts; its coming season at Symphony Hall includes performances of Act III of “Tristan,” with Jonas Kaufmann the star attraction.

In “Walküre,” Mr. Nelsons was on his usual, supple form, much as in “Das Rheingold.” Perfect was the pace, perfect were the balances, perfect was his support of singers who could easily have been overwhelmed. Exciting if rarely excitable, at its best this was simply gorgeous Wagner — the lavish lullaby with which Wotan lulls Brünnhilde to sleep being just one lush moment among many.

But on the whole, this was practical rather than visionary work — perhaps a little too practical. Much of Mr. Nelsons’ tenure in Boston has turned out that way, to my ears. He arrived at the start of the 2014-15 season to a good deal of fanfare and set out his approach in an interview four years ago: “I don’t want to change anything.” Mission accomplished.

There have been awards for recordings; there have been memorable performances, especially of opera; there have been premieres. Mr. Nelsons, still just 40, has succeeded in just the way this most stately of American orchestras must have hoped. On the evidence of the performances I have heard in Boston during his tenure, indeed, there can be few surer hands marking time today.

But a music director of Mr. Nelsons’ stature does not stand or fall on stability alone. If you’ve expected more — innovation, risk, the unexpected — your hopes may not have been met. At least not yet.

Die Walküre

Performed on Saturday and Sunday at Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass.

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