Opening night at Tanglewood was intended to be a vehicle for James Levine — an Italian evening of 19th-century opera excerpts and a showstopping orchestral extravaganza by an Italian composer on an Italian theme. Few conductors in the world would be better suited to lead such a program; few who would have greater familiarity with the musical style or better access to the best singers. Even the non-operatic piece, Respighi's PinesofRome, the odd-man-out on this program, makes some sense with Levine. He most conspicuously conducted it in Disney's Fantasia2000, the sequel to Disney's most famous animated treatment of classical music, his 1940 Fantasia (though in Fantasia 2000, the animated images had nothing to do with Rome let alone pine trees — for some incomprehensible reason the Respighi segment was about whales). So it was especially sad that Levine, who cancelled his entire Tanglewood season and then resigned as BSO music director as of September (he just underwent another major surgery on his spine), couldn't lead this particular program. Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, a longtime BSO guest conductor, was a plausible substitute.
The highlight should have been the performance of the opening scene of Bellini's Norma, perhaps the greatest of all operas in the bel canto ("beautiful singing") tradition — one that makes overwhelming demands on its performers. The BSO has previously performed only the opera's most famous aria, "Casta diva," — the Druid priestess Norma's sublime invocation to the goddess of the moon — but not since 1900. Now we were getting the entire first scene, which introduces all four major characters and one of the great bel canto duets, along with Norma's famous aria.
But Dutoit turns out not to be a master of bel canto style, or Italian opera. He rushed the music, so Norma's entrance sounded less like an approach to a mystic solemnity than her arrival at a party. It sounded less like Bellini than Offenbach, lightweight French operetta. The music lacked grandeur and gravity.
Most of the singing wasn't satisfying either. Young American soprano Angela Meade — a Metropolitan Opera auditions winner four years ago who has won countless big prizes — has been taking on major roles, including Norma. But perhaps like the late Greek soprano Elena Souliotis, who in the '60s wrecked her voice singing Norma and similarly demanding roles before her mid-30s, Meade isn't sufficiently prepared technically. Her voice is big but without much individuality, and she pushes it very hard. She's certainly audible, at least in her uppermost reaches, but so is a big wobble at the climaxes. She seems to have forgotten the meaning of the words "bel canto." And in this role — priestess, warrior, lover, mother — the soprano also has to be a great actress (it was one of Maria Callas's signature roles), and Meade has not yet acquired anything like Callas's dramatic nuance or sense of lyric line.