One can only say that Tanglewood was incredibly lucky in landing James Levine’s distinguished counterpart at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis, to replace him for the annual TMC opera concert performance. No conductor could have managed the performance with a keener appreciation of its drama, the melancholy lyricism of its music, the lucidity of Tchaikovsky’s score, and the energy and bite of its climaxes. Sir Andrew has always shown an extraordinary ability to respond to many sides of complex works, and this past Saturday, relatively fresh from conducting Onegin at the Lyric this spring, he produced a rich and balanced reading of the score as well as astonishing playing from the TMC Orchestra. His insight and musicianship were not the only reasons that this was one of the truly unforgettable nights at Tanglewood—or nights of opera anywhere—but it is fitting to honor this extraordinary conductor and musician who is heard all too seldom on the East Coast.
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.
A young man, having outsmarted a haughty woman seeking a wealthy husband for her daughter, crows in triumph: “I guess you found your hymnal page, you sock-dologizing ole man-trap!”Hard as it may be for us to imagine, this line brought the house down every time in Tom Taylor’s 1858 hit play Our American Cousin. And appropriately so: a “sockdologer” (a corruption of “doxology”), was in American slang a decisive or knockout blow. The line might be lost to all but theater historians were it not for the fact that Taylor’s play was performed at Ford’s Theatre the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and that John Wilkes Booth used the famous line as a cue for his own decisive blow.Eric Sawyer and John Shoptaw’s new opera, Our American Cousin, revisits that night and charts the intersection of real life and that of the theater.The opera offers us a play within an opera: a recreation of the performance Lincoln was attending at Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination.Taylor’s play was a popular and cleverly-made comedy/melodrama about a distant–and rich–relative from America who appears suddenly at the estate of his titled but financially troubled English relations.The plot and characters of this largely forgotten play turn out to matter in unexpected ways, and point towards the thematic heart of the work.
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, both Jean Martinon and Seiji Ozawa continued the tradition most 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.
I find myself torn between the temptation to write at length about these fascinating stage works by Zemlinsky and my responsibility to you, our readers, to let you know about this absolutely wonderful evening at the opera, so that you can grab some tickets before they all disappear. Yes, this will have to be short, and it cannot do justice to these brilliant operas or the amazing work all of those involved have put into these splendid productions. The experience was both profound and immensely entertaining.