LENOX — The Boston Symphony Orchestra bit off big chunks of unfamiliar repertoire at Tanglewood over the weekend, going from a major choral work by Rossini on Friday night to half of Verdi's "Aida" on Saturday.
After a three-week hiatus, Andris Nelsons returned to conduct a concert version of Acts I and II of "Aida," bringing along his wife, Kristine Opolais, to sing the title role. As the blockbuster attraction of the BSO season, it was less than a complete success, suggesting oratorio more than opera as singers stood, delivered and sat back down.
Nelsons has spoken of doing more opera at Tanglewood, but this attempt suggested problems ahead if it is to be concert opera in the Shed. The BSO director, who has conducted "Aida" in opera houses with Opolais, clearly had a grip on the score. The Tanglewood cast ranged from good to superior. The BSO played well and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was resplendent in response and sound.
But concert opera is only half opera. This was not a performance with musical strengths to make up for the absence of acting, dancing and scenery. When Aida and Amneris face off in rivalry while facing the audience, when the Triumphal Scene (elephants or no elephants) creaks along instead marching grandly by, something isn't right.
Two soloists generated real heat in spite of the static production. Opolais, sparklingly sequin-gowned, blended high passion and torment as the slave-girl heroine, her high notes ringing clear and true. Morris Robinson was stentorian and commanding as the King of Egypt.
The rest of the cast — Violeta Urmana as Amneris, Andre Caré as Radames, Alfredo Nigro as the Messenger, Franco Vassallo as Amonasro, Kwangchul Youn as Ramfis and Bethany Worrell as the High Priestess — put themselves into their roles but projected with less character.
On limited rehearsal, the BSO didn't have the music in its fingers, lips and blood as a seasoned pit orchestra would. The chorus, prepared by James Burton, was a consistent presence as troubled citizens of Memphis. Welcome as Nelsons' return was, an "Aida" may have been too ambitious along with everything else on the BSO agenda near the end of an intense season.
Nelsons topped off the weekend yesterday afternoon with an extra-long, Shakespeare-themed program keyed to the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death.
Robert Sheena, the BSO's English horn player, showed high artistry in George Tsontakis' "Sonnets," four tone poems based on Shakespeare's verses. A BSO commission, the piece capitalizes on the instrument's haunting sound, which played out against an atmospheric orchestral backdrop.
Also channeling Shakespeare, Nelsons brought drama — at first light-hearted, then tragic — to Berlioz' "Beatrice and Benedict" Overture and a suite from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" ballet. The BSO responded to its leader with verve.
The exception to the theme was Saint-Saens' Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Egyptian," harking back to "Aida" but suggesting Egypt only in a cryptic slow movement. Croatian-born Dejan Lazic, making his BSO debut, played the solo part with flair.
A big cheer went up in the Friday audience as Menahem Pressler, now 92, was helped onto the stage to play Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, K. 488. The accolade recalled his 53 years as the founder and only pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio, which played its debut and American farewell at Tanglewood.
The return as a BSO soloist was part of what Pressler is calling his "second career." Alas, while you could hear echoes of the wonderful musician he once was, the years have not dealt kindly with his fingers. The performance went by as a whisper, soft and a little unsteady.
The BSO, under Charles Dutoit, who was completing his Tanglewood tour of duty, was the stronger partner in this match-up. Pressler took an encore, Chopin's Nocturne No. 20.
You can't take opera out of an opera composer. Joined by the festival chorus and four soloists, the BSO completed the program with the first Tanglewood performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater. It is a work on a grand scale, a setting of liturgy depicting Mary grieving at Jesus' cross. Often, like Verdi's Requiem, it seems to have stepped out of an opera with its flowing melodies and dramatic choruses.
Under Dutoit, the performance was alternately hushed and rich in sound and consistently ardent in its devotions. In a quartet of capable soloists, mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato stood out for the fervor her pleas. The others were soprano Simona Saturova, tenor Pavol Breslik and bass Riccardo Zanellato.
Dutoit launched the evening with a bubbly run through Mozart's overture to "The Marriage of Figaro."