Opening Night at Tanglewood, BSO, Dutoit in an Italian Opera Potpourri

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Giulia Grisi as Norma in Bellini's Opera
Giulia Grisi as Norma in Bellini's Opera

Opening Night at Tanglewood
Friday, July 8, 8:30 p.m. Shed
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Angela Meade, soprano
Kristine Jepson, mezzo-soprano
Roberto DeBiasio, tenor
James Morris, bass-baritone
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, conductor

Bellini – Excerpts from Act 1 of Norma
Rossini – Overture to William Tell
Verdi – Trio from Act 3 of I lombardi
Respighi – Pines of Rome

The Boston Symphony Orchestra opened this year’s Tanglewood season July 8th with an Italian program planned by James Levine—now resigned from Boston—and taken over pretty much intact by guest conductor Charles Dutoit. The program book declared the evening “La Prima di Tanglewood.” I would call the concert only half a success, but the best part was the second half, and the huge audience seemed very well pleased at the end.

First came the overture and long opening scene—really a series of little scenes—from Bellini’s Norma (1831)—roughly an hour of music. This tale of a Druid priestess crossed in love and, with her people, crossed with Roman occupiers,  amounts to a grand tragedy of private passions and public politics—akin to Beethoven’s Fidelio somewhat earlier (not finally a tragedy) and to numerous operas of Verdi coming later—Trovatore, Don Carlo, Aida… The difference is that feeling in Bellini, and especially in his heroine Norma, is expressed in a sinuous, delicately inflected vocal line reminiscent, as many have noted, of the upper-voice decorated piano line in Chopin—say, the Nocturnes. Beethoven and Verdi are more four-square and forthright. Even Bellini’s “bel canto” contemporaries Donizetti and Rossini are plainer and more robust. A Bellini figure is a Proustian hyper-sensitive sufferer, singing her (and sometimes his) heart out in subtle deliquescent harmonies all created in the ongoing line as intervals and embellishments fall in unexpected ways. The Tanglewood performance was too much like Beethoven or Verdi, bold and big, and thus blurring what is distinctive in Bellini, quashing its real power and beauty. The orchestral and choral elements had an oom-pah quality. Dutoit did not coax clear, sharp, totally-togeher enunciation from the unaccountably large chorus. Angela Meade, the Norma, has a commanding presence and a strong voice—good low notes, a strong though clouded-sounding middle, and, yes, a remarkable ability to float gorgeous, clear high notes. But she sounded and seemed more like Beethoven’s Leonora than Norma. The subtle fluctuating line, which should open depths of feeling, was not a real presence—it was sung, of course, but seemed filler—one’s attention went too much from one big emphatic word and long note to the next. Mezzo Kristine Jepson was dramatically involved and generally fine as Adalgisa, Norma’s subordinate in the religious cult and a rival for her lover’s affections. The lover is the Roman proconsul Pollione—ostensibly an enemy. Tenor Roberto De Biasio in this role was the best of the singers—he has a strong, attractive voice and came across with considerable passion. Veteran bass-baritone James Morris sang  the part of the chief Druid  and Roman-hater Orovesco without his full commanding voice of earlier years and without full dramatic focus.

After intermission Dutoit opened with Rossini’s Overture to William Tell, which here sounded colorful, fresh, and inspired. The slow opening with five cellos, led by Jules Eskin, was quite beautiful, as was the ensuing storm and then the meadow scene with woodwind solos. The familiar charge of the Swiss troops to oppose the Austrian overlords was brought off with panache. A Verdi overture, as originally scheduled by Levine, might have been more appropriate, since Verdi was to follow—but no matter, it was good to hear the Rossini, and it added variety and color to a varied and colorful program. The ensuing Verdi was the great trio from his early opera I Lombardi, about Italians in the First Crusade. The trio presents a scene of deathbed conversion of a Muslim hero in presence of his Christian lover, with a local Hermit performing the rites. This trio was quite effective, better than the Norma excerpts, with De Biasio as the Muslim, Ms. Meade right in her element as a tragic Verdian, and Morris human and commanding as the Hermit. This vivid number shows Verdi’s genius at putting across in simple, strong terms the conflict of feelings and their evolution in a group of individuals under pressure. The piece features an extended violin solo representing, one feels, the spiritual and transcendent dimension to what is going on. The solo was beautifully played by BSO Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, strong of tone, soaring and singing—the best voice of the occasion, really. The evening ended with Respighi’s tone poem The Pines of Rome, a brilliantly orchestrated and highly atmospheric work with brass instruments coming and going, an organ, a recorded nightingale, and much else in the way of color. Boisterous children at play, the spirit of medieval music seeping from a catacomb at twilight, the deeper night when the nightingale sings, and the growing strong light from dawn to noon—all is rendered vividly, ending in a tremendous crescendo with a repeated rhythmic figure. The orchestra played really well, and Dutoit paced and controlled things in a masterful manner.

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