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Hector Berlioz
13 May 2008

Les Troyens in Boston

Thirty-six years after Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Company of Boston presented the first complete staged performances in the United States, Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens returned to Boston in triumph in a series of concert performances presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Levine to close the BSO’s 2007-2008 season.

Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens

Marcello Giordani (Aeneas), Anne Sofie Von Otter (Dido), Kwangchul Youn (Narbal), Kate Lindsey (Ascanius), Christin-Marie Hill (Anna), Eric Cutler (Iopas), Philippe Castagner (Hylas), Clayton Brainerd (Panthus), Yvonne Naef (Ghost of Cassandra), Dwayne Croft (Ghost of Chorebus), Julien Robbins (Ghost of Priam), Eric Owens (Ghost of Hector; Mercury), David Kravitz (Trojan Sentry 1), James Courtney (Greek Captain; Trojan Sentry 2), Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver (conductor), Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine (conductor).

All photos by Michael Lutch courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra


Written to his own libretto between 1856 and 1858 when Berlioz’ reputation was at its nadir among France’s musical establishment, the composer was devastated when the Paris Opéra, the only theater in Paris then capable of mounting the work, refused to mount the five act opera. In an effort to present the work elsewhere, Berlioz divided it into two parts, with the first two acts of the opera comprising The Capture of Troy becoming Part 1 and the last three acts comprising The Trojans at Carthage becoming Part 2.

Although in format written in strict conformity with the requirements of mid-nineteenth century French grand opera, Berlioz’ idiom was decades ahead of its time, and the composer met only very limited success in having the work staged — he lived to see only a truncated version of Part 2 performed in his lifetime. Thereafter, as noted by Hugh Macdonald in the BSO’s program notes, attempts to stage parts of the work were sporadic, and for nearly one hundred years the opera was universally regarded as more or less unperformable. So it remained until the fabled revival of Les Troyens at Covent Garden under Rafael Kubelik in 1957. Since then and aided with the publication of the critical score, the work has been recognized for the masterpiece that it is. It is now periodically performed throughout the world, as one of the Everests among operas, when the demands of the score can be met.

The Boston Symphony followed Berlioz’ revision in presenting Les Troyens in two parts. Three performances of Part 1 were given commencing April 22, and two performances of Part 2 given commencing April 30. The series culminated on Sunday May 4th when both parts were presented at 3 pm and 6:30 pm on the same day, allowing for a very civilized two hour break for dinner. This is a review of the Sunday performances.

This was the first time in the BSO’s 127 year history that it presented the complete work. It was also the first time that the orchestra gave two complete performances on the same day. Every effort was made to meet the demands set by the composer, with the work presented absolutely complete, the BSO’s normal player contingent increased by 27 players, and meticulous attention paid to Berlioz’ requirements for offstage bands.

The success of Part 1, The Capture of Troy, rested upon the shoulders of mezzo Yvonne Naef as Cassandra and the members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. It was announced before the performance that Naef was suffering from a serious cold, and when she wasn’t singing it was obvious that she was in physical distress. But none of this was reflected in her performance. As the daughter of Priam given the gift of prophecy but then cursed by the god Apollo so that no one will believe her, Naef fully met the stentorian demands of the role with a beautiful and luxuriously-toned voice that clearly and without apparent effort time and again soared over the orchestra and chorus. This is a voice to be reckoned with.

Les-Troyens---Michael-Lutch.pngTanglewood Festival Chorus and (l to r) Kate Lindsey, Jane Bunnell, Ronald Naldi, Marcello Giordani, Yvonne Naef, Dwayne Croft, Clayton Brainerd and Julien Robbins.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is made up of members who donate their services. Founding conductor John Oliver cannot be overpraised for his work in the preparation for these performances. Singing from memory without a score, the Chorus’ opening lines nearly blew the rear wall off of Symphony Hall, and that was just for a start. This is a large chorus that sang with clarity as a single voice. As with the orchestra, dynamics, shading, and suppleness were the watchwords of the day. One often pays lip service to the chorus as the other star on the operatic stage, but in this instance the designation was fully deserved.

Central to Part 2 are the roles of Dido, Queen of Carthage, that was sung by mezzo Anna Sofie von Otter, and Aeneas, hero of Troy and soon-to- be founder of Rome, that was sung by tenor Marcello Giordani. Von Otter is an accomplished and well respected singer who has sung the role of Dido elsewhere to acclaim, but she was overparted by the forces assembled in Boston. Even the fabled acoustics of Symphony Hall were unable to help. She was wise enough not to force her voice to meet the demands of the music, but that decision left her nearly inaudible when the orchestra played forte. This was frustrating because she was excellent when she could be heard. Von Otter’s performance was like going to a fine French restaurant for dinner. The food arrived exquisitely prepared and beautifully presented, but many of the portions on the plate weren’t large enough to satisfy.

Marcello Giordani gave an acceptable but not outstanding performance as Aeneas. While not a particularly long role, it has two major challenges that are critical to the opera. The first is in Part 1 when Aeneas interrupts the Trojans’ celebration to bring news of the death of the priest Laocoon, an evil omen requiring that they appease the goddess Athena by bringing the horse into the city. This scene should have the impact that Verdi later achieved with Otello’s “Esultate” and be a show stopper. Giordani barely slowed it down. In Part 2, “Inutile regrets” is one of the great dramatic soliloquies in all of opera. Here Aeneas debates with himself as to whether he should stay with Dido in Carthage or fulfill prophecy and sail to Italy to found the City of Rome. Giordani lacked the heroic ring that the scene requires and instead gave us routine. There was little if any evidence of French style, but even Italian style would have been welcomed if Giordani had been more involved in the proceedings. It is unfair to compare singers of today with those of the past. But the problem is, to be completely successful, the role of Aeneas needs the voice of a Georges Thill or Jon Vickers singing the part, or at least a tenor who seeks to emulate their type of voice, involvement, and passion.

Les-Troyens-%28Michael-Lutch%29.pngIn other roles, baritone Dwane Croft was outstanding in Part 1 as Cassandra’s fiancé , Chorebus; and bass Eric Owens sang well as the Ghost of Hector. In Part 2, mezzo Christin-Marie Hill performed with distinction as Anna, Dido’s sister; and bass Kwangchul Young sung the role of Narbal, Dido’s minister, with deep and dulcet tone. Iopas’ Part 2 aria can bring the house down, and so it did when sung by tenor Eric Cutler who was warmly applauded for his reverie. The qualities of Cutler’s performance were such that they made one wonder if he should have instead been singing the role of Aeneas. Tenor Philippe Castagner showed that, in the right hands, there is no such thing as a small role in opera. His few lines as Hylas, a young Trojan sailor longing for home, were exquisitely sung and he received a well deserved accolade from the audience at the end of the performance.

If you want to give James Levine an impossible task to perform, ask him to conceal his love of Les Troyens. This was in evidence during every moment of the performances. So was his knowledge and complete mastery of the opera. Conducting while seated on a swivel chair, one rarely witnesses such physical involvement from a conductor, and the orchestra and chorus responded in kind. Under Levine’s direction, every detail in the complex score was made clear while balance and perspective were maintained throughout. One of the difficulties when you have a large orchestra is that the sound can get mushy. It’s one thing to have eight double bass on stage. It’s another to have them play with millisecond accuracy as one instrument. But this is what Levine achieved. One must also note that the BSO is not an opera orchestra accustomed to playing for long stretches at a time. Consequently, the task of playing not only the ninety minutes of music of Part 1 but also the two hours and forty minutes of Part 2 on the same day was a daunting one. Not only did the BSO meet the challenge, every section of the orchestra played to perfection from start to finish.

This was a performance where the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Opera lives because it joins the talents of the past with the talents of the present. Notwithstanding deficiencies among some of the soloists, these performances were a rare example where the genius of Hector Berlioz joined with the genius of James Levine and the individual members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well as the genius of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to give us close to a perfect storm of Les Troyens.

Raymond Gouin © 2008

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