The Phoenix Network:
About  |  Advertise
Adult  |  Moonsigns  |  Band Guide  |  Blogs  |  In Pictures
CD Reviews  |  Classical  |  Live Reviews  |  Music Features

Epic undertaking

Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the BSO; Opera Boston attempts Verdi’s Ernani
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  May 12, 2008

MORE ORATORIO THAN OPERA So James Levine decided to program Les Troyens in concert,
and the result was overwhelming.

I just got home and I’m still shaking. Along with about 2000 other concertgoers, I spent this Sunday afternoon and evening at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s full performance of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens — his operatic dramatization of Virgil’s sprawling story of the Trojan War and its aftermath, one part dealing with the fall of Troy, the other with the Trojans at Carthage and centering on the doomed love affair between Aeneas, the surviving Trojan prince, and Dido, the widowed queen of Carthage. Les Troyens is one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of opera, and it has some of Berlioz’s most adventurous, powerful, and unbelievably gorgeous music. The act four sequence of quintet, septet, and love duet is non-stop musical orgasm (which is what it’s supposed to represent). In 1972, Sarah Caldwell presented the first complete American staging. This was Boston’s first chance to hear it since.

James Levine has led Les Troyens numerous times; that includes two Metropolitan Opera productions, the last of which, in 2003, featured the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s towering Dido and Ben Heppner’s glorious Aeneas. (Their love duet had some of the most sublime singing I’ve ever heard.) But this BSO performance may have been even closer to his heart. He seems to have solved all his problems with the orchestra, which was with him every inch of the way, “the way” encompassing some five hours of music separated by a dinner break. And John Oliver’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus outdid even itself in precision, dramatic responsiveness, and passion. There were separate evenings devoted to each part. But this complete performance was the one the true Berlioz lovers came to be overwhelmed by.

At Levine’s press conference for the 2008–2009 BSO season a week ago Monday, a highlight of which is Verdi’s brooding political opera, Simon Boccanegra, the question came up about opera in concert. We enjoy opera on the radio and on CDs, he replied, so why not in concert, especially if it’s an opera with powerful orchestral scoring rather than a lot of scenic effects or dramatic action you want to see play out. Les Troyens certainly fits that category. Berlioz’s own libretto, borrowing some radiant poetic language from Shakespeare, seems almost more oratorio-like than operatic. (It’s not in “scenes” but in “tableaux.”) Caldwell’s staging was memorable, but the two inadequate Met productions distracted from rather than added to the experience. At a day-long symposium at Harvard, Levine talked about how much more vivid the Trojan Horse of our imagination is than any stage image could be.

In this BSO concert version, the orchestra provided its own Technicolor and Cinemascope. Ominous warnings coiled inexorably around our chests; love music transported us into ecstasies. Strong soloists helped. Last year, French mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef, eyes glued to her score, seemed to give little more than 10 percent as the tormented Marguerite in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust. But as Cassandra, and fighting a severe cold, she gave 110 percent — she was gripping, heartfelt, and heroic. (The only signs of illness were her handkerchief and the china mug from which she sipped.) Some of Dido is too big for Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, but she sounded better than in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde a few weeks ago, and she offered such a full and convincing portrayal, the chancier details played only bit parts. Met tenor Marcello Giordano’s Aeneas was both elegant and powerful, though his loudest high notes tended to lose texture. Dwayne Croft gave Chorebus, Cassandra’s lover, an importance the part’s brevity would seem to preclude.

Role after smaller role was admirably and eloquently filled. Tenor Eric Cutler (the Nemorino in Boston Lyric Opera’s recent L’elisir d’amore) deserved the huge hand he got for Iopas’s ravishing pastoral aria, and Canadian-American tenor Philippe Castagner, the sailor Hylas, sang his homesick lullaby exquisitely. Boston baritone David Kravitz and bass-baritone James Courtney were delightful as sailors having too good a time in Carthage to leave. So was Met mezzo Kate Lindsey (impressive in John Harbison’s new Fifth Symphony) as Ascanius, Aeneas’s young son. Korean bass Kwangchul Youn resonantly grounded the bottom of the scale. And so on down the line.

But it was Levine and the orchestra who held me in thrall. The playing, from William R. Hudgins’s quiet clarinet solo depicting the widowed Andromache to the chilling bass tremolos, was never less than astonishing, conveying layer upon layer of meaning and emotion — and scenery. Levine, swirling in his new revolving chair, waved his arms as if he were more magician than musician. In Les Troyens he was both.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: Lift every voice!, Granduer and intimacy, Magic bullets, More more >
  Topics: Classical , David Kravitz, Entertainment, Richard Dyer,  More more >
  • Share:
  • Share this entry with Facebook
  • Share this entry with Digg
  • Share this entry with Delicious
  • RSS feed
  • Email this article to a friend
  • Print this article
Epic undertaking
I believe the photo has the wrong caption, or vice versa. That's the soloists and chorus from Part I of Les Troyens.
By Tim Jarrett on 05/08/2008 at 9:59:04
Epic undertaking
With the Berlioz as well as Levine's magnificent Saturday night performance of the Brahms 3rd Symphony,not to mention his other-worldly Mahler 9th,it should be clear to critics that he has put Boston back onto the world stage. This orchestra, to this listener, has surpassed the Berlin Philharmonic, at least in its current state.
By Dr. Marc on 05/08/2008 at 8:21:34

Best Music Poll 2009 winners
Today's Event Picks
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   MICHAEL MAZUR, 1935 - 2009  |  August 27, 2009
    "He was so alive ," a friend wrote to me a few days after Michael Mazur died, on August 18.
  •   MIDSUMMER MADNESS  |  August 18, 2009
    After a relatively quiet summer, I saw Boston Midsummer Opera's Cosí fan tutte at BU's Tsai Center. Then I raced out to Tanglewood for a Mark Morris program accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, a BSO matinee with Ma, and all six concerts in the annual Festival of Contemporary Music.
  •   MICHAEL STEINBERG, 1928-2009  |  August 03, 2009
    Michael Steinberg, who died of cancer last Sunday morning in Minneapolis, was one of the great voices raised in defense of high culture, and Boston was lucky that he was based here for so many years.
  •   FRENCH KISS  |  July 10, 2009
    Productions I attended at the Opéra and Opéra Comique would be rare in New York, let alone Boston — though some of the performers would be familiar.
  •   SPRINGER VS. NERO!  |  June 10, 2009
    Two opera productions overlapping at the Calderwood Pavilion exploit exploitation.

 See all articles by: LLOYD SCHWARTZ

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed 

  |  Sign In  |  Register
Phoenix Media/Communications Group:
Copyright © 2009 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group