Music / Opera

Opening Night at Tanglewood: Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens— Boston Symphony Orchestra

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Anne Sofie von Otter sings Dido in Berlioz' Les Troyens at Tanglewood, photo Michael Lutch
Anne Sofie von Otter sings Dido in Berlioz’ Les Troyens at Tanglewood, photo Michael Lutch

Opening Night at Tanglewood:
Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens
Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, Conductor

Berlioz,  Les Troyens, Part 1 (The Capture of Troy)
Saturday, July 5, 8:30 pm

Marcus Haddock, Tenor (Aeneas)
Anna Caterina Antonacci, Soprano (Cassandra)
Dwayne Croft, Baritone (Chorebus)
Clayton Brainerd, Bass-Baritone (Pantheus)
Kate Lindsey, Mezzo-Soprano (Ascanius)
Jane Bunnell, Mezzo-Soprano (Hecuba)
Ronald Naldi, Tenor (Helenus)
David Kravitz, Baritone (Trojan Soldier)
Gustav Andreassen, Bass (Ghost Of Hector)
Kirk Eichelberger, Bass (Greek Captain)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, Conductor

Berlioz, Les Troyens, Part 2
(The Trojans at Carthage)
Sunday, July 6, 3 pm

Marcus Haddock, Tenor (Aeneas)
Anne Sofie Von Otter, Mezzo-Soprano (Dido)
Kristinn Sigmundsson, Bass (Narbal)
Kate Lindsey, Mezzo-Soprano (Ascanius)
Christin-Marie Hill, Mezzo-Soprano (Anna)
Matthew Plenk, tenor (Iopas)
Philippe Castagner, Tenor (Hylas)
Clayton Brainerd, Bass-Baritone (Pantheus)
Anna Caterina Antonacci, Soprano (Ghost Of Cassandra)
Dwayne Croft, Baritone (Ghost Of Chorebus)
David Kravitz, Baritone (Trojan Sentry 1)
Gustav Andreassen, Bass (Ghost Of Hector
And The God Mercury)
Kirk Eichelberger, Bass (Trojan Sentry 2)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, Conductor

An hour before Part I of Les Troyens was to begin, I found myself wandering peacefully and somewhat aimlessly among the trees. The grounds were still unpopulated and quiet, providing an exceptionally favorable atmosphere for music. The first two acts of Berlioz’ epic masterpiece which awaited us are hardly what one would call contemplative music, but a contemplative mood seemed the right preparation for the violent, burning sweep of Berlioz’ romantic tableaux of the fall of Troy. It gave me an hour of so to forget whatever baggage I had brought with me, which amounted to some scepticism as to whether a Tanglewood reprise of the massive, impressive, but flawed effort of late April and early May would make much of a difference.

Les Troyens may still remain something of a connoisseur’s opera, but there are plenty of people who are fascinated with it—Hector Berlioz’ forgotten masterpiece, a vast stage work which only found any real currency with Hugh Macdonald’s publication of a scholarly edition of the score in 1969. I believe I first heard about Les Troyens in the early 60’s in high school, where I was experiencing my first immersion in the Greek and Roman classics. I think many classicists, however conscious they may be of a certain dryness in the air of their studies and of the cobwebs and dust lurking in its darker corners, yearn for some full-blooded modern or near-modern realization of the ancient body of myth and letters, which is directly accessible to all too few. Most classicists were perhaps more accustomed to hiding their romanticism behind constrained tittering over broken columns, togas, and balding men of deathly seriousness. I heard about Les Troyens in a lecture, either by a visiting scholar or one of my fellow students. The speaker may have even played a few excerpts, but performances and recordings were largely inaccessible or non-existent. Berlioz’ masterwork of Wagnerian proportions remained an Eldorado. Colin Davis’ 1969 set based on his Covent Garden performances proved the first fulfillment of a reasonably complete and excellent recording. I was in America for those Covent Garden performances and in Britain for Sarah Caldwell’s Boston Opera production. It would be many years before I was able to see it on the stage or in a live concert performance. As I learned more about the Berlioz and his work, I came to harbor an affection for the image of Berlioz as a boy, listening raptly to his father reciting Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid for him. Through the nineties I attended Levine’s Met performances whenever I could, but they never seemed to come up to a concert performance at the Barbican I heard under Sir Colin in the early nineties. I could understand why Levine was so eager to perform it in concert. Les Troyens has an inherent flow and connectivity which is hard to capture in the house with all the distractions of costumes, lighting, and enormous sets to be moved. Moreover, in Boston it also meant the installation of this great work into the repertoire of the great American Berlioz orchestra.

For background I’ll refer the reader back to my review of the Symphony Hall performances, which I attended on Sunday, May 4, in order to hear both parts as continuously as possible. After some years of enduring his own struggles with illness, Maestro Levine had to manage with the sickness of others, primarily the late spring colds which were making the rounds at the time. Under the circumstances there were no understudies, and both Dwayne Croft and Yvonne Naef had to sing with bad colds. Mr. Croft had recovered by then, but I can say the Mme. Naef as Cassandra sang magnificently in spite of her illness. She set her thoroughly French stamp on The Fall of Troy. On the other hand, as impressive as the playing of the BSO and the singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was, as intense as Levine’s devotion, the pieces just didn’t quite fit together. Some singers, like Marcello Giordani, were obviously miscast, and especially puzzling was Anne Sofie von Otter’s Dido, in which she seemed something of a cold fish, and her voice forced in the louder passages, although her fine musicianship came through in the more lyrical sections. Also Mr Levine’s enthusiasm occasionally seemed to push his performance closer to bombast than the supremely intelligent composer woudl have liked.

Now it is definitely harder to fall into bombast under the vast Koussevitzky Music Shed than it is in Symphony Hall. At Tanglewood Les Troyens seemed immensely grand, but not excessive, and the pieces did fall into place, almost perfectly. This performance was the true realization and the reward for the all-too-apparent hard work of the spring. The two month’s break most likely played its role in allowing the music to sink into the musicians’ and singers’ already highly accomplished muscles, nerves, and lungs. Now ensemble and balance were so secure that the complex score, as richly colored as any of Delacroix’s monumental canvases, sounded as transparent and perfect as Mozart. The Fall of Troy was still as lightning-driven as at Symphony Hall. Levine’s concept and detail had not changed, but some important things had. The marvelous Yvonne Naef, whose full Gallic mezzo voice, and whose interpretation brought a thoroughly appropriate Gluckian dignity not only to her tragic role, but to both of the acts in which she reigned, was gone, replaced by an equally splendid singer with a radically different technique and approach. Anna Caterina Antonacci was one of the glories of the 2003 Châtelet production, and her achievement was on the same glorious level here. Hers is an up-to-date, intensely dramatic Cassandra, nervous, desperate, but clear of vision. She is totally immersed in the immediate emotions of the disastrous situation, and her dignity, never compromised, is something assumed in the inner balance provided by her noble birth and upbringing, but there is little trace of Alceste in her. While The Fall of Troy has lost much of its connection to stylistic tradition, it has gained in urgency, and this worked within Mr. Levine’s scheme as well as or better than Mme. Naef’s equally admirable approach. There was absolutely no sense of strain in Antonacci’s singing throughout the two acts. The power and beauty of her voice remained solid, whatever desperate emotion she projected. Antonacci also brought exceptional charisma and personal beauty to the stage, projecting a commanding presence, even in her position behind the orchestra.

Anna Caterina Antonacci sings Cassandra in Les Troyens, Part I, at Tanglewood, photo Michael Lutch

Another newcomer to the cast, Gustav Andreassen, created with his dark, steely bass a truly chilling portrayal of Hector’s Ghost, so vivid, that one could almost see the terrible presence of the dead hero. Meanwhile Dwayne Croft, strong as ever in his rich and capacious baritone, gained added intensity from his interchanges with the dramatic Signorina Antonacci. Beyond that, the integrity of Berlioz’ structure, the balancing of recurring motifs, like the serpentine figure evoking the strangulation of Laocoön and his sons, was especially clear.

In the second part, Les Troyens à Carthage, Levine clove to the basic forward-driven pulse of Part 1, but he allowed considerable flexibility in tempo, always sounding secure and natural, but affording the most poignant expressiveness when needed, and in this Anne Sofie von Otter was finally able to show the full measure of her artistry. As uncomfortable and strained as she seemed back in May, she was now sufficiently relaxed to give herself over to her part with all her musicality and imagination. There was no sign of forcing in her production, even in the much more difficult circumstances of the Music Shed. Moreover, her conception of the part and its projection was now consistent and organic. She seemed absolutely right as the regally poised Dido in her public role, while moving into the warm, vulnerable woman following her conversations with her sister Anna and her encounter with Aeneas. Her duets with both could not have been more beautiful and affecting. Von Otter’s exquisite phrasing and production was totally absorbed in the creation of a character of great dignity and emotional truth. This was surely one of the greatest portrayals I have heard in opera, and compared with what I heard in Boston, it was a miracle. One can only express one’s awe and gratitude for Anne Sofie von Otter’s unforgettable performance.

Marcus Haddock didn’t have much opportunity in the first part to make himself known, but in the second he made a fine impression. His voice lacks the size and range of color of a Vickers, Gedda, or Heppner, but its dark, appealing tone, and his strong characterization and respect for the score were winning. He was perfectly convincing as the dour heroic Aeneas in public, but he was at his very best in his sensitive phrasing and expression in the more intimate scenes of the fourth and fifth acts. He was fully equal to his counterpart in the great love duet, and, earlier, his address to Ascanius, “Viens, embrasser ton père,” was beautifully sung and most affecting, as were Aeneas’ thoughts of final adieux to Dido in Act V.

Newcomer Kristinn Sigmundsson was a truly outstanding Narbal, richly voiced and possessed of the all of the character’s substantial emotional range. Matthew Plenk was not as poised and lush of voice as Eric Cutler, who sang Iopas in Boston, but he sang well and pleased the audience greatly in his pastoral song for Dido. He and Maestro Levine adopted an extremely broad tempo in this, delving deeply into its poignant nostalgia. Of the singers who returned from Boston, Kate Lindsey was splendid as before, as was Philippe Castagner. Christin-Marie Hill as Anna was much improved from her earlier performance, making the most of her sumptuous and unusual mezzo voice with its occasional flashes of brilliance on top. Her interpretation had also improved, but was still somewhat under-characterized, if very attractively sung.

The flow of the three acts seemed just right, as in the first part, elucidating the dramatic and compositional structure. The function of the comic duet of the Trojan sentries in Act V was clear: it pointed out the inevitability of Aeneas’ decision by showing the alternative to his heroic acceptance of fate and duty in the full knowledge of the heroic death awaiting him in Italy. Also the wavering of Aeneas and above all Dido made its full dramatic point.

Les Troyens is all about an end and a beginning (still in the future as the final curtain falls), and the BSO has also presented it as the conclusion of its 2007-08 season, and, to greater effect, as the inauguration of Tanglewood. On the latter occasion, all concerned finally achieved a successful performance, as well as a beginning of another sort, the introduction of Berlioz’ greatest work into the Boston Symphony repertoire. I hope all of us who have heard both the end and the beginning appreciate the magnitude of both the effort and the accomplishment.


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