Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

Dulwich Opera’s Carmen

Dulwich Opera Company’s Carmen was a convincingly successful show.  This was mainly due to succinct musical direction and rigorous dramatic direction.  It also meant that the proximity of the action was a fascinating treat, and by the artists being young, and easy on the eye.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):