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Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens, Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, conductor

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Dido Observes the Departure of the Trojan Ships, from the Vatican Vergil, III-IV Century A.D.
Dido Observes the Departure of the Trojan Ships, from the Vatican Vergil, III-IV Century A.D.

Berlioz, Les Troyens, a Concert Performance and a Symposium

(For a review of the Tanglewood performances, Jul 5 and 6, 2008, click here.)

Boston Symphony Orchestra Symphony Hall, Boston,
James Levine, conductor

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens, Part 1 (The Capture of Troy)

Sunday, May 4, 2008, 3pm

Marcello Giordani, Tenor (Aeneas)
Yvonne Naef, Mezzo-Soprano (Cassandra)
Dwayne Croft, Baritone (Chorebus)
Julien Robbins, Bass-Baritone (Priam)
Clayton Brainerd, Bass-Baritone (Panthus)
Kate Lindsey, Mezzo-Soprano (Ascanius)
Jane Bunnell, Mezzo-Soprano (Hecuba)
Ronald Naldi, Tenor (Helenus)
David Kravitz, Baritone (Trojan Soldier)
James Courtney, Bass-Baritone (Greek Captain)
Eric Owens, Bass (Ghost of Hector)

Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, conductor

Les Troyens, Part 2 (The Trojans at Carthage)

Sunday, May 4, 2008, 6.30 pm

Marcello Giordani, Tenor (Aeneas)
Anne Sofie Von Otter, Mezzo-Soprano (Dido)
Kwangchul Youn, Bass (Narbal)
Christin-Marie Hill, Mezzo-Soprano (Anna)
Kate Lindsey, Mezzo-Soprano (Ascanius)
Eric Cutler, Tenor (Iopas)
Philippe Castagner, Tenor (Hylas)
Clayton Brainerd, Bass-Baritone (Panthus)
David Kravitz, Baritone (First Trojan Sentry)
James Courtney, Bass-Baritone (Second Trojan Sentry)
Yvonne Naef, Mezzo-Soprano (Ghost of Cassandra)
Dwayne Croft, Baritone (Ghost of Chorebus)
Julien Robbins, Bass-Baritone (Ghost of Priam)
Eric Owens, Bass (Mercury; Ghost of Hector)

Tanglewood Festival Chorus
John Oliver, conductor

Les Troyens is so widely accepted as Berlioz’s greatest work, that the progress of the Berlioz Renaissance is punctuated by performances of it in the opera house and in concert, beginning, arguably, with Sir Thomas Beecham’s moderately abridged 1947 BBC broadcast. Now Boston music-lovers may consider the Berlioz Renaissance to be something of a noble fiction, since his music has had its own secure place in the Boston Symphony repertoire for many years, maturing with Charles Munch’s arrival in 1949. During his tenure he and the BSO performed and recorded several of Berlioz’s most important works, and the recordingsare still considered among the best. Later, Seiji Ozawa continued the tradition rather capably, and Berlioz has been one of James Levine’s great enthusiasms since early in his career. Expertise in Berlioz seems to be a prerequisite for the job. Yet, this is the first complete performance of Les Troyens by the foremost Berlioz orchestra in America, which in the past has only played brief excerpts, above all the “Royal Hunt and Storm” from Act IV. Hence these concert performances of Parts I and II on following weeks, culminating in a complete performance on Sunday May 4, are in fact landmarks.

If the Berlioz Renaissance is in some respects a noble fiction, it remains true that Berlioz’s music is not performed as often as that of other composers of equal stature, and Berliozians tend to become infected with some of the Master’s own divine rage and are entitled to claim him as a cause or a crusade. There are reasons. For one thing, he was intelligent, supremely intelligent, both as a writer and as a musician. He eschewed formulae and followed an individualist’s path in structure, harmony, and orchestration, and therefore his music requires concentration. Even the most fanatical among us would admit that Les Troyenswould only be trivialized, if it were to become, like Aida, an annual fixture in the repertory of the major opera houses. Just as Berlioz and his Aeneas share some measure of heroism, whoever champions the opera can claim some reflection of the heroic aura.

In this case the glory was shared by a considerable body of people, not only James Levine, John Oliver, the soloists, and a very fully populated BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, but the body of scholars assembled by the BSO, the Minda de Gunzberg Center for European Studies, and the Harvard University Department of Music for a May Day afternoon of instruction and discussion:“Perspectives on Berlioz’s Les Troyens.” Since I was not to hear either part until they were both performed together on Sunday, May 4, this aroused a keen anticipation for this towering stage work which I had not heard live since the Met revived it in 2003, the bicentenary of Berlioz’ birth. That was five years ago. The dust has settled since. There was no occasion for the Boston performance other than that the BSO and James Levine were ready to do it together. However, the performance and the Harvard symposium coincided with a third initiative, an excellent collection of twelve essays edited by Peter Bloom, Berlioz, Scenes from the Life and Work. This was intended as a response to and reflection on the Berlioz year, just published by the University of Rochester Press as the latest installment in their distinguished series, Eastman Studies in Music, to be reviewed on another occasion. Although none of the essays addressed Les Troyens directly, Professor Bloom’s introduction is extremely helpful in putting this performance in context. And context is all-important in regard to Les Troyens. Like Melville’s leviathan, Moby Dick, Les Troyens is not so much a work of the century in which it was composed as a work of the twentieth century—the post war years, in fact—during which it found an audience. Financial constraints forced Berlioz to premiere only the last three acts of the work, the second part, known as Les Troyens à Carthage, and even that fragment was severely cut. The performance was no more than a modest success, and Berlioz, dispirited by the compromises he had to make, discouraged its revival during his remaining years. Its public life began in truth with Beecham’s 1947 performance, followed by Rafael Kubelik’s more complete Covent Garden performance of 1957. Even more crucial was the publication in 1969—the centenary of Berlioz’ death—of a critical edition of the score, with variants, by Hugh Macdonald, who both spoke at the symposium, along with Peter Bloom, and provided a brilliant contribution to the essay collection on Berlioz’ lost version of Roméo et Juliette. That year the Scottish National Opera under Alexander Gibson and Colin Davis, who had performed it complete in concert the year before, gave Les Troyens its first complete stage performances. The performance tradition, then, as we know it (i.e. reasonably complete and unaltered performances), barely extends beyond forty, fifty, or sixty years, depending on how one looks at it.

Although the splendid video recording from the Théâtre du Châtelet under Sir John Eliot Gardiner—with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique providing historically informed orchestral support—shows how well a relatively simple staging serves the opera, I could see the point, when symposium speakers expressed their gratitude for a concert performance. The preening egos of contemporary stage directors have not been any kinder to Les Troyens than they have been to any other opera. Much was said about the visualizing power of our imaginations, and all of it was borne out by the engulfing power of the work as aural spectacle. I have yet to hear a staged performance of Les Troyens that could approach a concert performance in discipline, sweep, and projection of structure, and clearly Mr. Levine, who has conducted the work both ways, was clearly eager to make the most of his opportunity.

Before commenting on the performance, however, I should say a word about the symposium, organized by Harvard musicologist Thomas Forrest Kelly, since it was an integral part of the Boston Symphony’s presentation, and indeed without the work of Peter Bloom, D. Kern Holoman, and Hugh Macdonald such a performance would not have been possible. The session which included these leading scholars, the third of four, was the high point of a symposium which was, from a scholarly point of view, largely retrospective, but which also served the goal of informing an educated audience of musicologists, musicians, BSO patrons, and music-lovers, some of whom used the question-and-answer sessions to evoke past performances, notably the first American staged performance,  Sarah Caldwell’s with the Opera Company of Boston in 1972. Richard Thomas’ lucid discussion of Berlioz the librettist’s treatment of his Vergilian and Shakespearean sources, a double hommage to two poets who were especially dear to him, was an especially valuable introduction to the key issues of this remarkable work. Harvard English professor Daniel Albright proceeded to place Les Troyens in a broad dramatic and critical context.

In the second session, Robert Dennis, Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Librarian at Harvard University, Mark Mandel, program annotater of Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Yvonne Naef, who sang the part of Cassandra, offered a polished critique of recorded interpretations of the past, going back to the days of the Edison cylinder. While Mr. Mandel situated the excerpts in the plot, Dr. Dennis provided incisive accounts of the historical background of the recordings, and Mme. Naef sensitive interpretive critiques, in which her gestures were as eloquent as her excellent English. Her repeated lament over the lack of a truly great tenor in the French heroic style for the part of Aeneas was especially pointed. The session offered one great discovery in the eloquent singing of Marisa Ferrer, virtually forgotten today, who sang both Cassandre and Dido in Beecham’s 1947 performance, which has occasionally been available on disc, but, unfortunately, not currently.

It would be excessive to recount every interesting or important point which emerged in the aforementioned third session, but I shall mention one, the question of Berlioz’ relations with the Emperor Napoléon III and the variant endings of Les Troyens. Either from sincere conviction or hopes of patronage or a mixture of both, Berlioz wrote a longer ending, in which figures from the subsequent history of Rome, celebrating its progress from city to empire, appeared. I found this politically charged finale especially interesting, since it parallels Vergil’s own ambivalence in regard to the public and private aspects of his Aeneid. Berlioz found himself in a situation similar to that of his model, although he was singularly less successful. It is also crucial to be reminded that Berlioz particularly disliked Aeneas, whom he often referred to as a hypocrite. As heroic as Aeneas’ manner, upbringing, and values may be, he is not, as a human being, a hero at all. (This is not the place to discuss such definitions, however.) In the last session James Levine, John Oliver, and Dwayne Croft, who sang Choroebus, discussed the performance. Mr. Levine’s enlightened pragmatism as a musician was amply apparent, as was his acute comprehension of the complexities of performing Les Troyens. He is equally sure of his beliefs, having no doubt concerning Berlioz’ wishes regarding the ending: the commonly performed finale, with its terrifying prophetic chorus of hatred, clearly represents his final wishes, according to Mr. Levine. This is, however, in fact Berlioz’s simplification of his original treatment in which the chorus of hatred has its own music, as Peter Bloom has pointed out. Also, since Levine was not present at the earlier sessions, the concordance of his remarks with those of particularly the previous session was remarkable. Everyone agreed that Berlioz, as seasoned critic and conductor, was possessed of a canny understanding of orchestra, singers, and stagecraft and that his indications in the score are universally intelligent and precise. Hence, as Mr. Levine emphasized, one ignores them at one’s peril.

So, finally, what was the result of this heroic effort? I have already mentioned how all-absorbing it was as an experience. From the first note to the last I felt totally surrounded by Berlioz’ Vergilian world, as if I had descended into the cave of the Sibyl itself, and from the silence of the audience, I knew I was not alone. The power of those two imaginations, working in sympathy across almost two millennia, was such that the toys of stagecraft could only be distractions. The credit for this lies almost entirely with Berlioz, but the intensity of Levine’s direction and the quality of the Boston Symphony’s playing and the singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus made both the music and the drama as immediate and accessible as could be. Considerable efforts were made over the effect of the offstage bands, and this proved very effective in Symphony Hall. Freed from stage mechanics, Levine pursued Berlioz’ continuity with terrific energy, while allowing dynamic contrasts their true value. The Boston forces produced tremendous climaxes as well as delicate pianissimi in which the matchless BSO principals elicited the full feeling and evocative power of Berlioz’ scoring. This interpretation was all about energy and drama. One’s sense of the whole emerged more from the forward thrust of the execution, than from any conscious pointing of the structural elements of its architecture. Overall, the performance evoked reminiscences of Munch’s great Berlioz performances of the 1950’s, showing Mr. Levine’s keen awareness of the tradition behind the present event. However, seen from another point of view, it reflected nothing of the lighter, more nuanced approach of Davis, or Gardiner’s efforts to duplicate Berlioz’s original scoring, which calls for several obsolete or rare instruments. The grandeur and melodrama of Levine’s concept of Les Troyens is in principle fully founded by the composer’s ambitions. However, his reading is not without its moments of bombast—a quality which can and should be avoided in Berlioz.

Berlioz has cast the chorus, whether as Trojans, Greeks, or Carthaginians, as a fully participatory character in the drama, as much as Benjamin Britten’s people of the Borough in Peter Grimes. Their perceptions, delusions, and desires are as much a part of the action as Dido’s or Aeneas’. In fact, they are usually considerably more in grasp of free will—actually harmony with destiny—than any of the individual characters. Hence Mr. Oliver and his chorus faced problems of operatic characterization as demanding as any faced by a seasoned opera chorus. Their choral acting was as accomplished as any I have heard, never compromising their customary precision or tonal beauty. Their French diction was close to flawless, surpassing as a group some of the individual soloists.

Among these, Yvonne Naef as Cassandre and Dwayne Croft as Choroebus stood out for the consistency of their vocalism, musicianship, and sense of French style. Naef’s Cassandre was conceived and executed on a grand scale, both vocally and dramatically, and was beautifully sung, in spite of a severe head cold, as announced at before the performance. Also impeccable were Philippe Castagner as Hylas and Eric Cutler, whose elegant poème des champs earned him a well-deserved ovation from the audience. I don’t believe I am playing the pedant if I assert that this is pretty much a necessity in Les Troyens. As fine as Marcello Giordani’s phrasing was, as powerful and handsome his voice, and as convincingly heroic his portrayal, his training and interpretation were thoroughly Italian, entirely right for Radamès or Otello, but disconcerting in a role in which Georges Thill excelled. Giordani’s singing and characterization were both outstanding, but casting him as Aeneas was a mistake, nothing more than a well-intentioned but ultimately perverse experiment. While Giordani certainly has an understanding of the heroic—an elusive art these days, if seems, from performances like Deborah Voight’s Isolde this season at the Met—Anne Sofie von Otter failed to project this quality in her Dido, partly, perhaps, from an anachronistic view of the part and partly from the limitations of her voice, which was too bright and not sufficiently full or weighty. She was at her best in her quieter, more reflective lines, in which her voice was free from strain, her phrases beautifully shaped, and her vulnerability at least superficially convincing. Her love duet with Mr. Giordani was beautifully phrased and sung, and both singers phrased with elegance, but was Giordani perhaps showing some fatigue? Was it excitable expressivity I heard, or effort? Christin-Marie Hill’s Anna, weakly characterized and sung, was almost inadequate. This is one case where Anna’s presence on stage helps reinforce this important secondary role, but Ms. Hill lacked the means to compensate for it. By contrast Kate Lindsey made a vivid impression in the smaller role of Ascanius, both as a presence and for her fine voice and style. The rest of the cast proved strong and consistent throughout.

This was an impressive and all-absorbing performance of one of the monuments of nineteenth-century music and theater. (At least Les Troyens was conceived and created in the nineteenth century, even if it did not make its somewhat limited entry into the operatic repertoire until after Wozzeck and Peter Grimes. For years Les Troyens was shrouded in mystery, a ghostly presence much yearned-for by Vergilians, who wanted to see their poet’s powerful epic foreshadowing translated into staged drama. Berlioz commands our admiration for his supreme intelligence as a librettist and composer. As intense, expressive, and evocative as his language could be, both on the stave and in French, there was always his fully conscious intellect behind it. He was also sincere, and Les Troyens would not be the great work of the imagination it is, if he hadn’t been so deeply moved as a boy by his father’s recitations from Aeneid IV. It is as much a work of feeling and emotion as it is an intellectual edifice—a critique of the French opera of the mid-nineteenth century and its tradition, to borrow Daniel Albright’s phrase. In restoring the Gluckian tradition, Berlioz created something entirely different, a work which was both retardataire and revolutionary, replete with evocations of Alcestis and Orphée and ringing with brilliant innovations all at once. With Berlioz’ equally intelligent, imaginative, and moving response to his manifold antecedents, Les Troyens is an intertextualist’s dream. He brought Gluck back to life on the stage of Meyerbeer and Halévy—with little success in his time. His directness and intelligence compromised his ability to stand up beside those theatrical Goliaths. He belonged to the same Paris as they and necessarily borrowed some of their language, but his work should never evoke the cynical smirk with which we can enjoy their lesser achievements today. In that way, the occasional flamboyance and bombast of Levine’s reading was its most grievous flaw—along with the miscast soloists mentioned above.

Levine’s cultivation of the traditional Boston sound is consistent with his work with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic. It was not Boston, but the Philadelphia Orchestra that was called the “Cadillac of Orchestras” —by its own music director, Eugene Ormandy. Maestro Levine can hardly be blamed for restoring its former glory—all eight cylinders of it, and more. But it is true that he is motivated by a sense of tradition and excellence, which in itself deserves only respect. However Les Troyens only fully saw the light of day in the second half of the twentieth century, and Davis’ and Gardiner’s interpretations are more typical of the progressive aspects of the age in which the opera was fully born. One has only to see the Châtelet production to realize how conservative American music-making and opera production can be. Mr. Levine’s polished and buffed readings of new, commissioned works by American composers does not refute the fact that conductors like Daniel Barenboim, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and occasionally Loren Maazel have been more engaged in keeping American audiences in touch with musical creativity in the world at large. It would be an error to confuse traditionalism with retardatairism, but there is no doubt that James Levine’ s work with the BSO is conservative, which is good and necessary, given the state of the orchestra when he arrived. On the other hand Levine’s intelligence and enthusiasm and the virtuosic execution of musicians and chorus compensated more than adequately. Moreover we should not forget that Berlioz himself was an even more passionate custodian of tradition. In retrospect, these performances of Les Troyens in Symphony Hall seemed rather like Aeneas’ destined goal in Latium—a homecoming to a place where he had never before been present.


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