2008 – 2009
This page presents reviews of the performances that took place in 2008 and 2009. We would like to express our gratitude to the authors for their invaluable contributions.
Copyright notice: The reviews published on this page are the intellectual property of the respective contributors and are subject to UK and International Copyright Laws. Their use/reproduction without the authors’ explicit permission is illegal.
By Michel Austin
Barbican Hall, London, UK
London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus,
The Choir of Etham College, Colin Lee (tenor), John Alley (Organ)
conductor: Sir Colin Davis
Date of performances: 22 and 23 February 2009
Almost nine years have elapsed since Sir Colin Davis last performed the Te Deum in London; on that occasion (2 September 2000) it was in the vast expanses of Albert Hall with appropriately large forces. The two performances he gave on 22 and 23 February this year with LSO forces, Colin Lee as the tenor soloist in the Te ergo quaesumus and the boys of Eltham College, were in the very different and at first sight improbable setting of the Barbican. Any performance of Berlioz by Colin Davis is keenly awaited, but on this occasion there was an added element of curiosity as to how the work would sound in a relatively small venue. In the 2000 performance the combined LSO and London Philharmonic choirs added up to over 350 singers with the Southend Boys’ Choir contributing an extra 100 voices, and many orchestral parts were doubled (there were 6 trombones, for example). At the Barbican the LSO chorus numbered under 160, the boys’ choir less than 30 and the orchestra was at normal strength. Except for the boys’ choir these forces were more than adequate: Berlioz himself said the work could be performed satisfactorily with 130 voices for the two main choirs, while the children’s chorus could if necessary be omitted. Chorus and orchestra acquitted themselves well on this occasion, particularly at the second performance where the singing was generally more assured, including from the tenor soloist, and dynamics were more finely graded. The smaller size of the Barbican enabled the music to register with great force and directness. One particular difficulty was presented by the antiphonal effects that Berlioz envisaged when he placed the main chorus and orchestra at one end of a large church (St Eustache in Paris for the first and only complete performance in his lifetime) and the organ at the other end. The solution devised for the organ in the Barbican performances was only partly convincing, with what sounded like amplified electronic sounds emanating from an array of loudspeakers placed on a balcony at the rear of the hall, on the left side and not centrally. But overall the result was magnificent, and Davis’ sure grasp of the work’s architecture and proportions was never in doubt. It is good to know that the performances were recorded for a future release on the LSO Live label.
Only the six choral movements were played at the Barbican, but not the two instrumental pieces that Berlioz also wrote for this work (the prelude to the Dignare and the concluding March for the presentation of the colours). A tacit convention seems to have grown up that these movements should be omitted as a matter of course, and they are invariably missing from most performances and recordings of the work (with the exception of those by Jean-Pierre Loré, Eliahu Inbal and John Nelson). Davis himself appears never to have included them in his own performances, and they are absent from the two recordings he has so far made (in 1969 and 1998 respectively). Many listeners are probably not aware of their existence, and the programme of the Barbican performances did not even mention them (the programme for the 2000 performance did).
There are admittedly arguments for omitting them from performance. Concerning the prelude to the Dignare, it appears that Liszt had expressed doubts about it which Berlioz took on board. In a letter to Liszt from mid-April 1855, not long before the first performance of the work, Berlioz writes: ‘As for the Te Deum I have simply cut out the prelude which contains the questionable modulations’ (Correspondance Générale no. 1935). One may perhaps regret that Berlioz allowed himself, not for the first time, to be swayed by the judgement of Liszt. Subsequently he did not include the prelude in the full score of the work that he published later in the year. There is a further point. On the autograph score Berlioz specified that the movement should only be performed in a ceremony commemorating a military victory or which had military connotations. If followed literally this prescription might effectively rule out any performance of the movement for the foreseeable future.
But the concluding march is a different case. Berlioz did include it in the first performance of the work and in the published score, and never suggested that it could be omitted. It does admittedly call for extra instruments not used in the rest of the work (harps and a soprano saxhorn); conductors may also feel that a purely instrumental ending after the mighty Judex crederis risks coming as an anticlimax. Yet there is a case for performing both the march and the prelude, at least occasionally, and certainly for including them in recordings. Not only do they contain fine and characteristic music, they form an integral part of the musical structure of the work. The prelude is based on the main theme of the first movement and thus links up with it. It also provides a bridge between the key of the Tibi omnes (B major) which precedes and that of the Dignare (D major) which follows: Berlioz usually preferred not to juxtapose without transition two movements in unrelated keys. The prelude also introduces a note of threat and foreboding which gives added poignancy to the Dignare which follows, and points forward to the mood of the Judex crederis. Another connection with the Judex crederis is in the use of the timbre of the side-drum, which is also heard in the final march. That march itself links up with the first movement. Its middle section develops in an instrumental fugue the main theme of that movement, and the whole work comes full circle with a final restatement on organ, brass and wind of its opening theme. Listeners surely deserve a chance to hear the Te Deum in its entirety as Berlioz originally conceived it.
By Christopher Follett
Monday 13 October 2008 – Wigmore Hall, London
Véronique Gens, soprano; Jeff Cohen, piano
The French soprano Véronique Gens, who has in recent years built up a solid reputation in Baroque repertoire and Mozart opera, revealed the true Gallic side of her musical talent at this all-French BBC Lunchtime Concert, delivering intense performances of vocal settings by Berlioz, Debussy and Offenbach. Whilst Les Nuits d’été – an attempt to launch the German concept of the lieder cycle in France in the 1840s – echoes Berlioz’s beloved Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in its title, the work is in fact a sequence of songs of romantic longing based on six poems – la Comédie de la Mort – by his friend, the high romantic poet Théophile Gautier. Gens, accompanied by Jeff Cohen in the original voice-and-piano version, dating from June 1841, brought out all the subtlety, restraint and sheer pain of some of Berlioz’s most sublime music, her intelligent inflection of the language, sheer vocal and emotional range and varied register pointing up the subtle nuances of the music. Gens’s voice is not large but her crisp diction and elegance of phrasing pointed the haunting nature and floating phraseology of the songs admirably, playfully folksy in the opening Villanelle and the closing L’île inconnue with its saltarello rhythms, suitably tragic in the dreamy, timeless Le Spectre de la rose. Rarely has destiny seemed so cruel and the sense of lost love and lonely desolation so poignant as in Gens’s dramatic rendering of the vibrant lament Sur les lagunes: “Ah sans amour, s’en aller sur la mer”; Absence, with its plaintive yet hopeless call: “Reviens, reviens, ma bien-aimée…La fleur de ma vie est fermée, Loin de ton sourire vermeil” was delivered with great intimacy of expression as were the twisting vocal melismas stressing the desperate finality of the tomb in Au cimetière. Gens’s performance of Les Nuits – available in the orchestral version along with other Berlioz songs on a Virgin Classics CD with Louis Langrée and the Orchestre de l’Opera National de Lyon dating from 2001 – can be said to compare very favourably with other memorable versions of this glorious song cycle, notably by Régine Crespin (whose 1963 recording under Ernest Ansermet enjoys near legendary status), Janet Baker, Susan Graham and Anne Sofie von Otter. As encores Gens (intriguingly) chose to sing little known versions of two of the Gautier poems in the Nuits d’été collection composed this time by Gounod and the great diva and muse Pauline Viardot; Gautier; Berlioz and Gounod were of course all long-term members of the Viardot circle.
By Michael Miller
Metropolitan Opera, 7 November 2008
Faust - Marcello Giordani
Marguerite - Susan Graham
Méphistophélès - John Relyea
Brander - Patrick Carfizzi
Conductor - James Levine
Production - Robert Lepage [Debut]
Associate Director - Neilson Vignola [Debut]
Set Designer - Carl Fillion.[Debut]
Costume Designer - Karin Erskine [Debut]
Lighting Designer - Sonoyo Nishikawa [Debut]
Interactive Video Designer - Holger Förterer [Debut]
Image Designer - Boris Firquet [Debut]
Choreographer - Johanne Madore [Debut]
Choreographer - Alain Gauthier [Debut]
In Collaboration with Ex Machina
The production was reconceived for the Metropolitan Opera and is based
a co-production of the Saito Kinen Festival and the Opéra National de Paris.
In reviewing the Boston Symphony’s performances of Les Troyens earlier this year, I observed that, of the live performances I’d seen, the concert performances were more rewarding than the staged productions. And Les Troyens is a work which Berlioz actually conceived for the stage. La Damnation de Faust grew from a series of eight scenes taken from the nineteen-year-old Gérard de Nerval’s translation, which Berlioz set in a burst of enthusiasm, publishing it as his Opus 1 in 1829. However public and personal dissatisfaction drove him to withdraw it and to destroy as many copies as he could. He returned to the subject only in 1845, reusing a few numbers from his early material, but, adding substantial choral parts, he crafted a much grander and more dramatic work. Still, in this version his treatment of the narrative remained fragmentary, and he seemed to feel no need to follow the geographical and temporal conventions required by the stage. Berlioz originally called it an "opéra de concert," but he later changed its designation to "légende dramatique," after the idea of refashioning the work as an opera came to him in response to an abortive plan to stage it in London. He never pursued it further. Perhaps it was too deeply rooted in his own personal impressions for him to revise into a full-blown theatrical piece. Unlike Les Troyens, La Damnation de Faust is no newcomer to audiences, and it has been staged every now and then, but it is best known in concert performances. (Boston, of course, has been especially fortunate in this respect, having enjoyed the services of Monteux, Munch, Martinon, Ozawa, and Levine.)
For this reason, La Damnation de Faust is especially tempting material for any director eager to experiment with dramaturgy or design. Since there is no established stage tradition and the work has proven inherently intractable on the stage, audiences are more inclined to approach it with an open mind. Fewer patrons will walk out in disgust, like our own Huntley Dent at Robert Lepage’s production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at Covent Garden this past summer. Unlike the Rake, Berlioz’s thoroughly French, intensely personal, even eccentric treatment of Nerval’s translation is almost a tabula rasa for that renowned theatrical jack-of-all-trades. The new production at the Met, which first saw light in Japan in 1999, is, typically for Lepage, the fruit of long-term collaborative work through his production company, Ex Machina of Québec City. Peter Gelb saw the production in evolved form at the Bastille, and approached Lepage to bring it to the Met, offering him additional funds to realise the digital components of the production in the most advanced possible way. Cutting-edge technology is, in fact, the trademark of Ex Machina’s multimedia approach to theater, not to mention the strapping young aerobats who dance—if that is the word for it—suspended from the rafters by cables. I noticed that The Big Apple Circus was already open next door. What we saw on the stage of the Met Friday evening made their efforts look like pretty tame stuff. My only reservation is that Robert Lepage and his associates may have done the same for Berlioz’s opéra de concert.
Video projections of all sorts have been a part of theatre for quite a few years now, and when we see digital animations so seamlessly worked into an edgy, but most definitely mainstream production like Rupert Goold’s Macbeth, it is obvious that the medium is mature. It is no longer authorised to feel any bit subversive in attending a performance of the kind. A production like Lepage’s Faust is long overdue at the Met, and one can well ask whether M. Lepage is enlivening the Met, or is the Met conferring its own very serious brand of respectability on Lepage, not that he isn’t very securely established on his own turf, which includes Japan and the Bastille, but only now the Metropolitan Opera, where his next step is to direct a new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, a rather more difficult task, I’d say. Otto Schenk’s 1989 production for the Met has held a place dear to Wagnerians around the world as the last of the "traditional" productions in the major opera houses. Many of them will miss it, and they are a far more vocal than the much larger group who have never seen a staged Damnation de Faust. The show was hugely entertaining and offered a valid and compelling interpretation of the work, which was based on a researched and thought-through premise. I can’t wait to see it again. On the other hand, I most definitely had the impression that I was witnessing two events which were happening simultaneously: a solid, mostly excellent performance of Berlioz’s opéra de concert and an electronic stage extravaganza, neither of which necessarily supported the other.
The stage design consisted of a transformable grid recalling the steel frame of an apartment building, which formed the background of the shallow stage space which is now a commonplace in contemporary drama and opera. However, within the squares of this architectural grid, we were able to see digital clouds of a Robert Burke-like realism, and flocks of swooping birds, also digital, recalling a familiar motif, used a few years ago to splendid effect by Treliński and Kudlička in their Warsaw production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame...and a good many of the other things there are to see in the world and in our minds, that is, in cinema, which is Lepage’s expressed aesthetic model. (He has had extensive experience in that medium as well.) Narrow slots appear at the bottom and top of the grid to reveal partial friezes of human activity: revelers in a tavern, praying folk in church, the damned in hell, the blessed in Heaven...humanity in general, in other words. Among the projected "sets" the water effects were quite beautiful, and the animated landscape of gnarled trees, which swayed and writhed through Faust’s Invocation of Nature and his ensuing exchange with Mephistopheles (Part IV, scene xvii).
Within the blocks we also see human dancers, as well as digitised shadows, picked up in real time and distorted in loose clouds resembling charcoal smears; underwater effects, and Muybridge-like animations of Faust and Mephistopheles on horseback, to name only a few. Over the grid, Lepage’s trademark aerobats defy gravity, swinging, twisting, dancing, and simply walking up and down the wall. (Yes, there was too much of it.) Amidst all the fun the most impressive feature of this vivid and imaginative, but—obviously—extremely pretentious production was the work of the corps de ballet and choreographers Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier, both of Montreal. The quirky, off-centre movements of the dancers were to my mind truly original, and poetic in their effect. Of all the visual stimulants not available to the imagination, these ballets were the most valuable.
Should I even mention good taste? Berlioz himself had his limits, after all. During Faust’s religious interlude in Part I, no fewer than five crucified Jesuses appear, all impersonated by living "aerobats," who produced an effect much creepier than any wax figures or the Sacro Monte of Varallo itself. You could go down to the biggest Bible park in the Heartland and only see the usual Christ and two thieves! (Lepage was most likely inspired by Philippoteaux’s gargantuan Cyclorama of Jerusalem in Ste.-Anne-de-Beaupré near Québec City, which includes a scene of Calvary.) The meaning of this escapes me, but when they all scarper double time at Mephistopheles’ appearance onstage, I think I got it. And that was not the only place where there was some interpretive intervention on M. Lepage’s part. The soldiers who march off so jauntily to the Rákóczy March in Part I return far worse for wear by the sight of them than the music implies. In fact they have suffered so excessively that they must be hauled up and down repeatedly on cables into the laps of their concerned women, where they assumed pietà-like attitudes. As sympathetic as one might be to Lepage’s message, Berlioz himself was no pacifist. He composed (or arranged) some rousing patriotic marches in his time, and he was in any case sympathetic to the cause of the Hungarian rebels, who inspired the Rákóczy March. It might be a good thing, if opera directors were compelled to belong to a union which docked them 10% every time they failed to resist the temptation to stick in some commendable message. I should add that the soldiers marched off in reverse, and that is also most definitely part of the message, but it hit home, seeing as we’ve all been watching soldiers march backwards for most of the past eight years.
But these touches are trivial in themselves. If in a work as important as this one a production lacks a real vision of what the creator wished to express, it all amounts to nothing more than gimmickry. However, I had the impression that M. Lepage was in fact guided by a serious conception of the work, and this was what gave it its substance, more than the elegance of the technology or the beauty of the visuals. Nerval and Berlioz’s response to his francisation of Goethe’s play stand at the core of Lepage’s vision. Berlioz benefited from a hardier psychic make-up than poor Nerval, and he was less inclined to spiritualism, but he was not immune to the emotionalism and the drugs which pushed the poet over the brink. Lepage presents Berlioz’s disjointed distillation of Faust as a dream, an hallucination, in which soldiers can march backwards and walk up walls, and Faust can perform his obeisance to his Saviour with quintuple vision. For that matter Goethe’s "légende" can only be fully realised in such a dream world.
As I said, I enjoyed the show immensely and can’t wait to see it again, but it was undeniably pretentious and overbearing. Ironically, it was the music that carried the evening, above all the Torontoan bass John Relyea’s expansive, vividly sung and acted Mephistopheles (Relyea contrasted his strong, dark lower register and the sweeter, more lyrical region of his voice to great effect, not to mention his impressive stature, clad as he was in a red leather suit and peaked cap with two enormous feathers, M. Lepage’s homage to the operatic kitsch of our grandfathers.), and Susan Graham’s full-voiced, but intimate and deeply touching Marguerite, a classic example of the very best our time can offer. Marcello Giordani’s Faust was altogether something else. He is blessed with a fine, virile tenor through a good part of his range, but he concentrates so much on sound that he is unable to give form to Berlioz’s eloquent lines. It’s a question of style. What stirs us in Alfredo or Rodolfo is irrelevant to the elegant phrasing required of a Berliozian hero like Faust or especially Aeneas. My objections to Giordani’s Aeneas was based on national style, which, I venture, is more crucial in Berlioz’s Gluckian opera seria than in his Goethean choral drama, but at least he was in good voice back in the spring. In Faust, his approach to the role, which is as difficult dramatically as it is musically, was not only dull and wooden, he suffered from severe constriction and thinness in his upper register and occasional difficulties with pitch. However, to his credit, he came around in Part IV and delivered an impressive Invocation à la Nature and well-sung final scenes with Mephistopheles. Patrick Carfizzi did a fine character turn as Brander, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, crucial in this largely choral work, were at their magnificent best. Maestro Levine (who performed the work in concert with the BSO and the great Vinson Cole as Faust in the 2006-07 season) produced energetic and committed playing from the orchestra and all the flow and drama one could wish for, falling just short of the discipline and vision of his very best work.
In dramatic terms, although I was watching the stage effects with rapt interest, the opening scenes with the scholarly Faust eventually grew a trifle tedious, and Mephistopheles’ entrance came as a most welcome diversion. After the break, Susan Graham raised the level even higher and essentially carried the last two parts on her own shoulders, as excellent as was the work of most of her colleagues.
Theatre is trickery of a dimension that can make cinema, with its flow of manufactured images, seem naive. Lepage, by claiming to find the aesthetic of cinema in Berlioz’s seemingly random but trenchantly insightful fragments, and hiding them under a vast technological apparatus, is trying to distract us into believing that it is a real opera, which most definitely it is not. (Even the Met programme notes collude in the deception.) The result is distraction—a distraction belonging to our electronic, typically contemporary aesthetic of distraction and overload. What is especially fascinating is that Lepage could not overcome either the power of Berlioz’s mind or the power of music. There is no space here to discuss in sufficient detail either Berlioz’s odd dramatic structure or Lepage’s "cinematic" dramaturgy. Both are in their own way compelling subjects, but they are separate ones. One should exercise caution when theorising proleptic manifestations of art forms or media before any hint of them existed. (Although I think Max Klinger is a striking example of an artist who would have made films, and great ones, if he’d been a decade or so younger.) Could Berlioz have imagined the art of Pastrone, Gance, Eisenstein, and Lang? Or is Lepage thinking more of the cinema of Resnais, Fellini, and Lester? Lepage presents us with a flat checkerboard of simultaneous actions, many of them "cropped" into a fragmentary vision, and so forth. My impression is that this constricts, but fails to overwhelm Berlioz’s even more idiosyncratic method, which can breathe, expand, and fully engulf us only in the setting Berlioz worked with in his time, as David Cairns has wisely observed: "The Damnation as we have it, and as Berlioz himself described it, is ‘an opera without décor or costumes.’ It is an opera of the mind’s eye performed on an ideal stage of the imagination, hardly realizable within a framework of live drama. We see it more vividly than any external visual medium could possibly depict it, except the cinema (which Berlioz seems at times to be anticipating). As John Warrack has said, ‘the pace is different, the arena impalpable, and too varied, the dramatic logic not that of the theatre but of an imagination able to free itself from physical surroundings and to course with the composer in a flash of thought from scene to scene or dwell upon a held mood of hilarity or tenderness or terror.’ In its fluidity and swift succession of moods, in the abruptness of its transitions from light to dark, from earthy brutality to the most translucent beauty, in its sense of heightened reality, it has the character of a dream."
Robert Lepage took this up as a challenge, and, if he did not entirely succeed, it is only because dramatic works of Berlioz are so deeply embedded in the imagination. As such they are unique treasures, and our present-day aesthetic of technology, distraction, and overload cannot change that. Still, Lepage’s Damnation de Faust is a step forward for the Met, a welcome and even inevitable one, if the Met’s conservatism is not to lapse too far into provincialism. It was smart of Peter Gelb to take it on, and he shows himself ahead of the country as a whole in rejoining the rest of the world. But what about the Ring? Robert Lepage is obviously intelligent enough to let Wagner have his say, but ...? La Damnation de Faust was a triumph for Canada, in any case.
On the other hand, perhaps Lepage should have scratched Berlioz’s score altogether and commissioned a new one, leaving the old one to the stage of Symphony Hall, where it has been performed so beautifully so often.
*David Cairns, Berlioz, II, Servitude and Greatness, p. 357. For a true revolution in Berlioz reception, compare Davis’ 1973 recording with Monteux’s 1962 BBC performance. They are both good; they only come from different worlds.
10 November 2008
Note: Michael Miller is the publisher and editor of The Berkshire Review for the Arts, where his review originally appeared on 10 November 2008. We are delighted to reproduce the review here at Mr Miller’s request.
By Michel Austin
Usher Hall, 12 August 2008
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra:
conductor: Gustavo Dudamel
Those who have seen and heard Gustavo Dudamel on the podium will know that here is a new and exciting talent of exceptional vitality: Dudamel knows how to inspire both orchestra and audience and command their attention. It was therefore with keen anticipation that one looked forward to his reading of the Symphonie fantastique with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra which he performed at the Edinburgh Festival to conclude his concert at the Usher Hall on 12 August (he repeated the work the following night in London at the Proms). But anticipation soon turned to mixed feelings. It was as though Berlioz had joined hands with Tchaikovsky. This was a reading which suggests that Dudamel does not as yet regard the Fantastique as a serious work, but more as a vehicle for display and effect. He needs to undertake the deeper and wider study of Berlioz and his music that is essential to master his distinctive idiom, as Colin Davis, Roger Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner, among others, have demonstrated.
Dudamel’s handling of basic musical elements reflected his approach to the work. Tempo was the first problem. Berlioz, as is known, insisted on a clear and consistent pulse in conducting his music, and other music as well, and was critical of the freedom that marked, for instance, Wagner’s conducting style. The first movement was all over the place, with frequent changes of gear that are not to be seen in the score. Accelerandi were introduced time and again to whip up excitement, especially towards the end of movements, as with the Ball, near the conclusion of the March to the Scaffold, and at the end of the Witches’ Sabbath (taken faster than Berlioz indicates). The slow movement was dragged out at excessive length, in disregard of Berlioz’s metronome mark (well over a minute longer than Davis, Norrington and Gardiner). Dynamics too were liable to be exaggerated. The crescendo roll of timpani at the end of the third movement was too loud, suggestive of an actual storm rather than the much more ominous echo of a distant one which also conveys a sense of inner turmoil. In the last movement the Dies Irae in the brass swamped the theme of the Sabbath in the strings when the two are joined together near the end of the movement. Rhythms, essential in giving Berlioz’s music its character, often lacked finesse, spring and articulation; in the finale a number of syncopation effects went for little. And generally the tone colour applied by the orchestra seemed inappropriate, a rich blend of sound rather than lean and lucid sonorities. To his credit Dudamel included the solo cornet part in the Ball, and had genuine large church bells for the finale, though these were too loud. But he then played the last chord of that movement with two cymbals, not a single cymbal, struck with a soft stick, as specified in the score.
After that last chord the audience erupted, and were rewarded for their enthusiasm with two encores, to the last of which they were encouraged to contribute rhythmic clapping as directed by the conductor. An exhilarating evening, perhaps, but it was hard not to be reminded of the saying of the Athenian orator Demosthenes which Berlioz was fond of quoting: ‘Le peuple applaudit, aurais-je dit quelque sottise?’ [‘The crowds cheer; did I say something silly?’]
By Michael Miller
Symphony Hall, Boston
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
conductor: James Levine
chorus conductor: John Oliver
Les Troyens, Part 1 (The Capture of Troy)
Sunday, 4 May 2008, 3.00pm
Marcello Giordani, Tenor (Aeneas)
Les Troyens, Part 2 (The Trojans at Carthage)
Sunday, 4 May 2008, 6.30pm
Marcello Giordani, Tenor (Aeneas)
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 recordings are 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.
If the Berlioz Renaissance is in some respects a noble fiction, it remains true that Berlioz’s music is not performed as often as that of other composers of equal stature, and Berliozians tend to become infected with some of the Master’s own divine rage and are entitled to claim him as a cause or a crusade. There are reasons. For one thing, he was intelligent, supremely intelligent, both as a writer and as a musician. He eschewed formulae and followed an individualist’s path in structure, harmony, and orchestration, and therefore his music requires concentration. Even the most fanatical among us would admit that Les Troyens would only be trivialised, if it were to become, like Aida, an annual fixture in the repertory of the major opera houses. Just as Berlioz and his Aeneas share some measure of heroism, whoever champions the opera can claim some reflection of the heroic aura.
In this case the glory was shared by a considerable body of people, not only James Levine, John Oliver, the soloists, and a very fully populated BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, but the body of scholars assembled by the BSO, the Minda de Gunzberg Center for European Studies, and the Harvard University Department of Music for a May Day afternoon of instruction and discussion: “Perspectives on Berlioz’s Les Troyens.” Since I was not to hear either part until they were both performed together on Sunday, May 4, this aroused a keen anticipation for this towering stage work which I had not heard live since the Met revived it in 2003, the bicentenary of Berlioz’ birth. That was five years ago. The dust has settled since. There was no occasion for the Boston performance other than that the BSO and James Levine were ready to do it together. However, the performance and the Harvard symposium coincided with a third initiative, an excellent collection of twelve essays edited by Peter Bloom, Berlioz, Scenes from the Life and Work. This was intended as a response to and reflection on the Berlioz year, just published by the University of Rochester Press as the latest instalment in their distinguished series, Eastman Studies in Music, to be reviewed on another occasion. Although none of the essays addressed Les Troyens directly, Professor Bloom’s introduction is extremely helpful in putting this performance in context. And context is all-important in regard to Les Troyens. Like Melville’s leviathan, Moby Dick, Les Troyens is not so much a work of the century in which it was composed as a work of the twentieth century – the post war years, in fact – during which it found an audience. Financial constraints forced Berlioz to premiere only the last three acts of the work, the second part, known as Les Troyens à Carthage, and even that fragment was severely cut. The performance was no more than a modest success, and Berlioz, dispirited by the compromises he had to make, discouraged its revival during his remaining years. Its public life began in truth with Beecham’s 1947 performance, followed by Rafael Kubelik’s more complete Covent Garden performance of 1957. Even more crucial was the publication in 1969 – the centenary of Berlioz’ death – of a critical edition of the score, with variants, by Hugh Macdonald, who both spoke at the symposium, along with Peter Bloom, and provided a brilliant contribution to the essay collection on Berlioz’ lost version of Roméo et Juliette. That year the Scottish National Opera under Alexander Gibson and Colin Davis, who had performed it complete in concert the year before, gave Les Troyens its first complete stage performances. The performance tradition, then, as we know it (i.e. reasonably complete and unaltered performances), barely extends beyond forty, fifty, or sixty years, depending on how one looks at it.
Although the splendid video recording from the Théâtre du Châtelet under Sir John Eliot Gardiner – with his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique providing historically informed orchestral support – shows how well a relatively simple staging serves the opera, I could see the point, when symposium speakers expressed their gratitude for a concert performance. The preening egos of contemporary stage directors have not been any kinder to Les Troyens than they have been to any other opera. Much was said about the visualising power of our imaginations, and all of it was borne out by the engulfing power of the work as aural spectacle. I have yet to hear a staged performance of Les Troyens that could approach a concert performance in discipline, sweep, and projection of structure, and clearly Mr. Levine, who has conducted the work both ways, was clearly eager to make the most of his opportunity.
Before commenting on the performance, however, I should say a word about the symposium, organized by Harvard musicologist Thomas Forrest Kelly, since it was an integral part of the Boston Symphony’s presentation, and indeed without the work of Peter Bloom, D. Kern Holoman, and Hugh Macdonald such a performance would not have been possible. The session which included these leading scholars, the third of four, was the high point of a symposium which was, from a scholarly point of view, largely retrospective, but which also served the goal of informing an educated audience of musicologists, musicians, BSO patrons, and music-lovers, some of whom used the question-and-answer sessions to evoke past performances, notably the first American staged performance, Sarah Caldwell’s with the Opera Company of Boston in 1972. Richard Thomas’ lucid discussion of Berlioz the librettist’s treatment of his Virgilian and Shakespearean sources, a double homage to two poets who were especially dear to him, was an especially valuable introduction to the key issues of this remarkable work. Harvard English professor Daniel Albright proceeded to place Les Troyens in a broad dramatic and critical context.
In the second session, Robert Dennis, Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Librarian at Harvard University, Mark Mandel, programme annotator of Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Yvonne Naef, who sang the part of Cassandra, offered a polished critique of recorded interpretations of the past, going back to the days of the Edison cylinder. While Mr. Mandel situated the excerpts in the plot, Dr. Dennis provided incisive accounts of the historical background of the recordings, and Mme. Naef sensitive interpretive critiques, in which her gestures were as eloquent as her excellent English. Her repeated lament over the lack of a truly great tenor in the French heroic style for the part of Aeneas was especially pointed. The session offered one great discovery in the eloquent singing of Marisa Ferrer, virtually forgotten today, who sang both Cassandre and Dido in Beecham’s 1947 performance, which has occasionally been available on disc, but, unfortunately, not currently.
It would be excessive to recount every interesting or important point which emerged in the aforementioned third session, but I shall mention one, the question of Berlioz’ relations with the Emperor Napoléon III and the variant endings of Les Troyens. Either from sincere conviction or hopes of patronage or a mixture of both, Berlioz wrote a longer ending, in which figures from the subsequent history of Rome, celebrating its progress from city to empire, appeared. I found this politically charged finale especially interesting, since it parallels Virgil’s own ambivalence in regard to the public and private aspects of his Aeneid. Berlioz found himself in a situation similar to that of his model, although he was singularly less successful. It is also crucial to be reminded that Berlioz particularly disliked Aeneas, whom he often referred to as a hypocrite. As heroic as Aeneas’ manner, upbringing, and values may be, he is not, as a human being, a hero at all. (This is not the place to discuss such definitions, however.) In the last session James Levine, John Oliver, and Dwayne Croft, who sang Choroebus, discussed the performance. Mr. Levine’s enlightened pragmatism as a musician was amply apparent, as was his acute comprehension of the complexities of performing Les Troyens. He is equally sure of his beliefs, having no doubt concerning Berlioz’ wishes regarding the ending: the commonly performed finale, with its terrifying prophetic chorus of hatred, clearly represents his final wishes, according to Mr. Levine. This is, however, in fact Berlioz’s simplification of his original treatment in which the chorus of hatred has its own music, as Peter Bloom has pointed out. Also, since Levine was not present at the earlier sessions, the concordance of his remarks with those of particularly the previous session was remarkable. Everyone agreed that Berlioz, as seasoned critic and conductor, was possessed of a canny understanding of orchestra, singers, and stagecraft and that his indications in the score are universally intelligent and precise. Hence, as Mr. Levine emphasised, one ignores them at one’s peril.
So, finally, what was the result of this heroic effort? I have already mentioned how all-absorbing it was as an experience. From the first note to the last I felt totally surrounded by Berlioz’ Virgilian world, as if I had descended into the cave of the Sibyl itself, and from the silence of the audience, I knew I was not alone. The power of those two imaginations, working in sympathy across almost two millennia, was such that the toys of stagecraft could only be distractions. The credit for this lies almost entirely with Berlioz, but the intensity of Levine’s direction and the quality of the Boston Symphony’s playing and the singing of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus made both the music and the drama as immediate and accessible as could be. Considerable efforts were made over the effect of the offstage bands, and this proved very effective in Symphony Hall. Freed from stage mechanics, Levine pursued Berlioz’ continuity with terrific energy, while allowing dynamic contrasts their true value. The Boston forces produced tremendous climaxes as well as delicate pianissimi in which the matchless BSO principals elicited the full feeling and evocative power of Berlioz’ scoring. This interpretation was all about energy and drama. One’s sense of the whole emerged more from the forward thrust of the execution, than from any conscious pointing of the structural elements of its architecture. Overall, the performance evoked reminiscences of Munch’s great Berlioz performances of the 1950’s, showing Mr. Levine’s keen awareness of the tradition behind the present event. However, seen from another point of view, it reflected nothing of the lighter, more nuanced approach of Davis, or Gardiner’s efforts to duplicate Berlioz’s original scoring, which calls for several obsolete or rare instruments. The grandeur and melodrama of Levine’s concept of Les Troyens is in principle fully founded by the composer’s ambitions. However, his reading is not without its moments of bombast – a quality which can and should be avoided in Berlioz.
Berlioz has cast the chorus, whether as Trojans, Greeks, or Carthaginians, as a fully participatory character in the drama, as much as Benjamin Britten’s people of the Borough in Peter Grimes. Their perceptions, delusions, and desires are as much a part of the action as Dido’s or Aeneas’. In fact, they are usually considerably more in grasp of free will – actually harmony with destiny – than any of the individual characters. Hence Mr. Oliver and his chorus faced problems of operatic characterisation as demanding as any faced by a seasoned opera chorus. Their choral acting was as accomplished as any I have heard, never compromising their customary precision or tonal beauty. Their French diction was close to flawless, surpassing as a group some of the individual soloists.
Among these, Yvonne Naef as Cassandre and Dwayne Croft as Choroebus stood out for the consistency of their vocalism, musicianship, and sense of French style. Naef’s Cassandre was conceived and executed on a grand scale, both vocally and dramatically, and was beautifully sung, in spite of a severe head cold, as announced at before the performance. Also impeccable were Philippe Castagner as Hylas and Eric Cutler, whose elegant poème des champs earned him a well-deserved ovation from the audience. I don’t believe I am playing the pedant if I assert that this is pretty much a necessity in Les Troyens. As fine as Marcello Giordani’s phrasing was, as powerful and handsome his voice, and as convincingly heroic his portrayal, his training and interpretation were thoroughly Italian, entirely right for Radamès or Otello, but disconcerting in a role in which Georges Thill excelled. Giordani’s singing and characterization were both outstanding, but casting him as Aeneas was a mistake, nothing more than a well-intentioned but ultimately perverse experiment. While Giordani certainly has an understanding of the heroic – an elusive art these days, if seems, from performances like Deborah Voight’s Isolde this season at the Met – Anne Sofie von Otter failed to project this quality in her Dido, partly, perhaps, from an anachronistic view of the part and partly from the limitations of her voice, which was too bright and not sufficiently full or weighty. She was at her best in her quieter, more reflective lines, in which her voice was free from strain, her phrases beautifully shaped, and her vulnerability at least superficially convincing. Her love duet with Mr. Giordani was beautifully phrased and sung, and both singers phrased with elegance, but was Giordani perhaps showing some fatigue? Was it excitable expressivity I heard, or effort? Christin-Marie Hill’s Anna, weakly characterised and sung, was almost inadequate. This is one case where Anna’s presence on stage helps reinforce this important secondary role, but Ms. Hill lacked the means to compensate for it. By contrast Kate Lindsey made a vivid impression in the smaller role of Ascanius, both as a presence and for her fine voice and style. The rest of the cast proved strong and consistent throughout.
This was an impressive and all-absorbing performance of one of the monuments of nineteenth-century music and theatre. At least Les Troyens was conceived and created in the nineteenth century, even if it did not make its somewhat limited entry into the operatic repertoire until after Wozzeck and Peter Grimes. For years Les Troyens was shrouded in mystery, a ghostly presence much yearned-for by Virgilians, who wanted to see their poet’s powerful epic foreshadowing translated into staged drama. Berlioz commands our admiration for his supreme intelligence as a librettist and composer. As intense, expressive, and evocative as his language could be, both on the stave and in French, there was always his fully conscious intellect behind it. He was also sincere, and Les Troyens would not be the great work of the imagination it is, if he hadn’t been so deeply moved as a boy by his father’s recitations from Aeneid IV. It is as much a work of feeling and emotion as it is an intellectual edifice – a critique of the French opera of the mid-nineteenth century and its tradition, to borrow Daniel Albright’s phrase. In restoring the Gluckian tradition, Berlioz created something entirely different, a work which was both retardataire and revolutionary, replete with evocations of Alcestis and Orphée and ringing with brilliant innovations all at once. With Berlioz’ equally intelligent, imaginative, and moving response to his manifold antecedents, Les Troyens is an intertextualist’s dream. He brought Gluck back to life on the stage of Meyerbeer and Halévy – with little success in his time. His directness and intelligence compromised his ability to stand up beside those theatrical Goliaths. He belonged to the same Paris as they and necessarily borrowed some of their language, but his work should never evoke the cynical smirk with which we can enjoy their lesser achievements today. In that way, the occasional flamboyance and bombast of Levine’s reading was its most grievous flaw – along with the miscast soloists mentioned above.
Levine’s cultivation of the traditional Boston sound is consistent with his work with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic. It was not Boston, but the Philadelphia Orchestra that was called the “Cadillac of Orchestras” – by its own music director, Eugene Ormandy. Maestro Levine can hardly be blamed for restoring its former glory – all eight cylinders of it, and more. But it is true that he is motivated by a sense of tradition and excellence, which in itself deserves only respect. However Les Troyens only fully saw the light of day in the second half of the twentieth century, and Davis’ and Gardiner’s interpretations are more typical of the progressive aspects of the age in which the opera was fully born. One has only to see the Châtelet production to realise how conservative American music-making and opera production can be. Mr. Levine’s polished and buffed readings of new, commissioned works by American composers does not refute the fact that conductors like Daniel Barenboim, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and occasionally Loren Maazel have been more engaged in keeping American audiences in touch with musical creativity in the world at large. It would be an error to confuse traditionalism with retardatairism, but there is no doubt that James Levine’s work with the BSO is conservative, which is good and necessary, given the state of the orchestra when he arrived. On the other hand Levine’s intelligence and enthusiasm and the virtuosic execution of musicians and chorus compensated more than adequately. Moreover we should not forget that Berlioz himself was an even more passionate custodian of tradition. In retrospect, these performances of Les Troyens in Symphony Hall seemed rather like Aeneas’ destined goal in Latium – a homecoming to a place where he had never before been present.
Note: Michael Miller is the publisher and editor of The Berkshire Review for the Arts, where his review originally appeared on 16 May 2008. We are pleased to reproduce the review here at Mr Miller’s request.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; Reviews of live performances page created in 1999; completely reorganised on 25 December 2008.
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