2003 – Berlioz Bicentenary
This page presents reviews of the performances that took place in 2003. 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 Harry Saltzman
4 December 2003,conducted by James Levine
1 January 2004, conducted by Derrick Inouye
I attended both the première and the last performance of the run. At the première I was one of those who vociferously booed the director Andrei Serban. Unfortunately, as he wasn’t there to take bows at the last performance, there was no further opportunity to vent my anger. And as I was so annoyed by both performances, I just couldn’t get up the enthusiasm to write a review. But after reading a positive review on this web site by Mr. Thomas T. Field, I felt I had to respond. When discussing the negative reviews of this production he had read, Mr. Field remarked: "But the criticisms, it seemed to me, came mainly from people who either did not care for Berlioz or did not know Benvenuto Cellini, and in the end I found it hard to believe that anyone who loved the composer’s music would not enjoy this production immensely."
Upon what information does he base such a statement? Is he clairvoyant? He may find it hard to believe, but there were very many of us at the performances I attended who care for Berlioz, love his music, but did not enjoy the performance at all! I do plead guilty, however, to not knowing Benvenuto Cellini very well. I am acquainted with most of the Berlioz canon, both as a conductor and a listener, and bring to most performances I attend very strong preconceived notions as to how I would like the work to be done. But as I had only a passing acquaintance with Benvenuto Cellini, this new Met production gave me the opportunity to experience a major work by one of my favorite composers with unprejudiced ears, "unsullied" by having studied the score or by my memories of past performances.
Some aspects of a performance can be judged objectively – a singer is either in tune or not, the orchestra and chorus are in synch or not, one can hear a singer over the orchestra from an acoustically advantaged seat in the front row of the balcony or not. Tempo is slightly more difficult. There are speeds that go beyond "a bit faster or a bit slower than I like", speeds which destroy the musical structure. But one can argue about the point at which that occurs. Matters of staging can be even more subjective. Some of us want the director to follow the composer/librettist’s instructions (an old fashioned idea, I know), while others allow the director more leeway. But just as with tempo, beyond a certain point leeway becomes self-indulgent license.
And speaking of self-indulgent license, Andrei Serban’s cluttered, confusing, unfunny, overbusy, unrevelatory production is an archetypal example of this deplorable directorial trend. The stage action was ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". One kept asking, "Why is he doing this?" And who were those two buttock-bared men in fig leafs at the beginning of Act II? I guess one of them was supposed to be Perseus, whose statue Cellini was to cast later in the act. But then shouldn’t the other have been Medusa, whose bare buttocks would have appealed to a different segment of the audience?
Instead of recounting all of Serban’s sillinesses, let me discuss the production’s great directorial blunder. Four of my reviews of the Met’s production of Les Troyens appear on this web site [Les Troyens at the Met and addendum1, addendum 2, addendum 3], and this is how I ended the first: "When the Met does Benvenuto Cellini next year, will the director solve the problem of the casting of the statue of Perseus or will they just clutter the stage with extraneous business? I’m not optimistic."
My pessimism was well founded. Clutter we had, but the casting of the Perseus fizzled. The statue to be cast was in a large plastic cylinder which had a few tubes connected to it; tubes through which I assumed the molten metal would flow. Good idea, I thought. Well-executed lighting in the tubes will signify the flowing metal; this should work. The casting began. But how could we tell, as there was no glowing lighting to represent the flowing metal? Then the climax of the drama – Cellini has run out of metal! But how could we tell, as there was no change in lighting, the tubes have always been dark? He tells his workers to pour all his gold and bronze statues into the furnace. Just as we see the workers appearing on stage with the statues to be melted down, the lights in the tubes finally go on. But there is no metal flowing yet. As they head for the furnace, the tubes disconnect from the cylinder. But the workers haven’t had time to get the metal to the furnace. The cylinder is slowly inverted, opens, and the stature appears. But the time it took the cylinder to needlessly invert should have been used to get the workers off stage so that they could put the metal in the furnace. The timing was all off, the lighting made no sense, the scene’s drama was destroyed. The stage machinery was there, but Mr. Serban had no idea how to use it. Silliness and clutter may have subjective aspects to them, but the lighting and timing for such an important scene should have been learned in Elementary Stage Direction 1.1. Mr. Serban gets an F!
Mr. Field and I both saw the same production but we heard it on different nights. On the nights I attended, the Balducci of John Del Carlo was too often inaudible. I loved both the music and the singing of the two Popes I heard (Robert Lloyd on December 4th and Eric Halvarson on January 1st), and only wish that Mr. Serban didn’t demean them both by having their final exit marred by the kind of "arms in the air" victory gesture we expect from athletes or rock stars, not from Popes. Marcello Giordano was a convincing Cellini. My only objection has to do with his high notes. No, he didn’t crack once and he took them all full voice, as if he were singing "Di quella pira". The only problem was that they were all quite sharp. Why is it that most listeners don’t hear when a singer is sharp, even listeners who react viscerally when a singer is flat? The two women were wonderful. Isabel Bayakdarian was a fetching Teresa, and her first act aria, with its combination of the dramatic and coloratura, was a showstopper. She also looked great. Katharine Goeldner was a perky Ascanio. I can, however, do without her Offenbachian second act aria "Mais qu’ai-je donc?". The audience ate it up, but I find it a grating change of style, out of place, unnecessary.
I didn’t hear much of a difference between the performances conducted by James Levine and Derrick Inouye. Both had difficulty keeping the chorus and orchestra together during the Act I, Scene 2 chorus which was the basis of the fast section of Berlioz’s "Roman Carnival Overture". Berlioz marks this chorus Presto scherzando (dotted quarter note=152). Wow, that’s fast – much too fast for the cavernous Met. And the chorus just couldn’t keep up with the orchestra. Aside from this, the coordination between orchestra and the stage in both performances was fine.
Every time I hear a piece by Berlioz I’m surprised, even if it’s a work I’ve heard many times, even if it’s one I’ve conducted. Benvenuto Cellini, a work I do not know well, offered surprises in spades. I marveled at the intricate ensembles, the unique melodies, the rhythmic complexities, perhaps too complex for a theater as large as the Met. The wonderful music, however, is not always matched by a great dramatic sense. Act II has its problems. Next time I’d love to hear it in a smaller hall, with a real French tenor and an orchestra as good as the Met’s. Do I dare hope for a stage director who will be true to the composer/librettist’s intentions?
By Thomas T. Field
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by James Levine/Derrick Inouye – performance on 24 December 2003
The Metropolitan Opera in New York celebrated Berlioz’s bicentennial in style in 2003, with a new production of Les Troyens early in the year and with its very first staging of Benvenuto Cellini in December. While my wife and I had been pleased with Les Troyens last February, especially in terms of the musical performance, the staging left us unsatisfied in many ways. Cellini, however, was successful on all levels. Certainly anything as complex as this piece is unlikely ever to be perfect in the theatre, but the performance that we attended on December 24, 2003, was thrilling in nearly every way.
I had read a number of reviews of the Met’s production, and I was uncertain about what to expect, since some of them were not very positive. But the criticisms, it seemed to me, came mainly from people who either did not care for Berlioz or did not know Benvenuto Cellini, and in the end I found it hard to believe that anyone who loved the composer’s music would not enjoy this production immensely.
Musically, the Met put on a very strong show. James Levine conducted with passion and accuracy. I have never heard the goldsmith’s chorus sound so stimulating in its quirky angularity, and the end of the opera was paced stupendously: Levine raised the pressure and the tension very gradually and then held back just enough before the reprise of the great chorus. Oddly enough, the night we were there Levine did not conduct the Roman Carnival scene. In the middle of the first act, I suddenly noticed that he had disappeared and that in his place was a much younger man. My guess is that this was Derrick Inouye, who was scheduled to conduct on January 1. In any case, he was at least as good as Levine, and the performance of act I was seamless, though I wonder how the switch actually happened. With a work as complex as Benvenuto Cellini, it is impossible to believe that Levine just left his position empty, even for a couple of minutes.
The singing was extremely fine, and I have rarely seen an opera in a large and famous house where the acting was as good as it was that night. Marcello Giordani was eloquent, stylish, and illuminating as Cellini. I had always felt that Gedda (in the Davis recording) – as great as he was – seemed uncomfortable with the high tessitura of the role, but Giordani’s singing was nothing short of spectacular. There were points, for example in "La gloire était mon seule idole," where he just made music so eloquently that one held one’s breath. Giordani was also extremely believable as an actor. Isabel Bayrakdarian’s Teresa was also very successful. In a role that demands quite a bit of coloratura, plus a lot of running around, she was extremely impressive. And she looked great in the part. My wife and daughter were particularly pleased with her second dress! Kristine Jepson as Ascanio also captured the audience’s affection with her very effective acting and her impassioned singing.
Balducci and Fiermosca (John Del Carlo and Peter Coleman-Wright) were both more than satisfactory. Their singing was fine, and their acting was very convincing. Cellini’s two colleagues (Bernardino and Francesco) were stupendous. I did feel that the Pope of Robert Lloyd, whom I have admired in the past, was a bit ragged vocally, but not to the point where he dragged the level of the performance down. In any case, even the strongest proponent of Berlioz would have to admit that his music is a bit repetitive.
Much of the criticism of the Met’s production focused on Andrei Serban’s staging, and it’s true that it was very, very busy. There were commedia dell’arte characters running all over the place, as well as some very effective, brightly colored characters who, it seemed to me, represented artistic inspiration. In a very effective moment during Cellini’s first big aria, where he sings of artistic glory, he reaches up over his head and touches the outstretched hand of one of these spirits. All of the activity on stage did, in my opinion, confuse things in the first scene, where it was difficult to tell who was inside and who was outside of the house, but it made the rest of the opera very lively and humorous. I read somewhere that Serban had brought a lot of his students from Columbia in as extras, and that would explain the fact that all of these characters were far more agile and funny than the average spear-holder in Aida or servant in Traviata. In short, Serban made sure that Benvenuto Cellini was an effective comedy.
We were anxious to see how the Roman Carnival scene would be handled. I have always imagined it as somewhat chaotic, but how is the chorus to sing all of that extraordinarily difficult music, if it’s running every which way? Well here is where Serban’s masses of actors paid off, because the chorus could pretty much stay still and concentrate on the music, while all of the others created the chaos. The scene was perhaps not perfect, but it was very good. I must say, however, that from my seat I caught a glimpse of Cellini sneaking off stage to change into his bloodstained robe, while everyone else was running around.
I was worried that the veering back and forth between comic and serious parts in this opera might be a weakness on the stage, but the production we saw made things come together in a very satisfying way. I should probably admit that I have always found the second half of the work quite a bit weaker than the first (the opera was performed in two acts at the Met), and one of the questions I had before this performance was how that second act would hold up. Serban’s production did a great job of pulling it all together. The duel between Cellini and Fieramosca was not allowed to become too lurid a possibility, and the moment when Fieramosca gets put to work for his competitor was handled with comic grace.
The one detail that did seem overdone in the staging was the recurring presence of an actor representing Berlioz himself. He rambled across the goldsmith’s table, walked through the Roman Carnival, and so on, taking notes, sometimes with a pen and sometimes with a rose. Once the point was made that Berlioz saw much of himself in Cellini, it wasn’t necessary to repeat the stunt. However, I have to say that Serban found a wonderful way to wrap this all up. At the very end of the opera, after the statue has been revealed in a very dramatic way and as the goldsmiths’ chorus is coming to an end, this Berlioz figure flies down from above and crosses the whole scene. It was so unexpected and hilarious that one had to love it.
We went away that evening feeling that we had had a very special experience. There is nothing quite so satisfying as the combination of successful musical performance with creative stagecraft that serves the spirit of the work.
Thomas T. Field
By Riq Willitts
10-14 November 2003, Guildhall School Theatre, Barbican, London, conducted by Clive Timms
It is always a pleasure to attend performances at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama theatre at the Barbican in London as it is a small theatre, letting the audience see and hear the detail of the action, as well as being appropriate to young voices. It is also an opportunity to judge the quality of voices without preconceptions. I certainly enjoyed this production much more than the one done some years ago by the ENO at the Coliseum.
Béatrice et Bénédict is shortish, so is often coupled with some more or less appropriate one-acter. In this case we started with Martinu’s Comedy on the Bridge, a slight amusing piece with the common link that in marital relations the inevitable conclusion is often only reached via a tortuous route.
B & B was a good choice for the GSMD as it provides several decent parts as well as action for the chorus. Stephen Medcalf handled the prenuptial party particularly well, letting the entire cast act just the right degree of drunkenness. Manolis Papadakis as Somarone, a real extrovert as well as a good voice, really made us laugh.
Young-Hoon Heo has a good voice, and made Bénédict a convincing mixture of insecurity and bravado. Joana Thomé da Silva as Béatrice has an ungrateful part, but managed to convince us that she had a heart as well.
The duet between Héro (Katie van Kooten) and Ursule (Julie Pasturaud) was beautifully sung, though perhaps a little more pianissimo from the orchestra would have made for a more magical atmosphere.
The opera was sung in generally adequate French by the cast of many nationalities, though it was a joy to hear the genuine French speakers. After a slightly shaky start, the orchestra, conducted by Clive Timms, played very well. Overall the production looked good, and was very precisely executed, with no signs of inexperience or first night nerves.
By Sue Vernon
26 October 2003, Théâtre du Châtelet, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner
It was quite a story on its own even getting into the Théâtre du Châtelet; we were greeted by Monir and Michel at the doors when we finally made it through the security barriers, and we all eventually settled in the lovely auditorium, though sadly we were scattered around and weren’t together as we had hoped. However that lovely buzz of anticipation surrounded us and looking around it was good to see such a mix of people – and mostly French I am glad to say. I was talking to more English people around me, so many Berlioz aficionados I have met this year! It really was a high profile event and I know now that Berlioz and his music will safe forever be with his French descendants. I am so happy and emotional that France really does embrace him now as a favourite and honoured son.
As for me, I was still pinching myself, I had up to only a few days before been expecting to see a concert performance of the opera. I was so overwhelmed that I was going to see a staged performance at last.
From the very beginning of the opera when the first few bars began it was evident that this was going to be very special. I won’t even try to compare it with Sir Colin Davis’ concert performance I heard in Birmingham in August. They were two different approaches, both excellent, both worked equally well.
The orchestra was in the pit so it wasn’t possible for me to see what was going on this time, but the authentic wind and brass instruments were brought onto the stage for a time to play and they added some lovely textural sounds and a sense of drama as they trooped onto the stage, very dramatic in their way. Also we spotted an array of harps in a side balcony just out of view – Berlioz, I thought, would have been well pleased with that. Sir John Eliot Gardiner held the whole proceedings tightly in his hand; I wasn’t aware of hearing fewer instruments than at Sir Colin Davis’ Les Troyens; it seemed just right for this venue. The set was simplistic and most effective using a mirrored wall to great effect. The stage had the usual sliding panels that we often see in modern productions and in the middle a staircase, used to great effect for entrances and exits. I found the mirror also worked so well for me in particular, being somewhat short, I could watch the reflection, instead of keep trying to see around the people in front, and missed nothing. Also a very nice approach with the Trojan Horse – we saw just the head of a beautiful white stallion projected onto an opening or panel. The lighting and costumes were also quite simplistic and elegant, they were classic or classical and almost timeless – that is apart from the Greek soldiers who came in dressed in camouflage gear complete with rifles – mmmmmmmm – the one jarring note in the production, I thought.
The singers were all excellent, Anna Caterina Antonacci was a superb Cassandre though not quite as dramatic perhaps as she might have been. I was sorry to see Chorèbe exit too, sung by Ludovic Tezler. I thought he had a lovely voice. Later in the second part of the opera I was worried that Susan Graham didn’t look regal enough but as she went on she seemed to grow into the role. Enée, although his voice wasn’t too strong to start with (Gregory Kunde), also redeemed himself magnificently at the end when so many "Enées" might have faltered, and some indeed do falter.
It was a heart stopping moment in the opera when the ghost of Hector was projected on a screen, first as the face of Fernand Bernardi who was singing the role, and then subtly blended into an image of ‘our’ Hector. Oh my goodness, I should have been expecting that, but when I realised what I was seeing it sent me into attacks of shivers….
The ballets were performed very gracefully, complete with acrobats, jugglers and dancers with beautiful white paper doves. Everything was just very stylishly done, nothing sumptuous or extravagant, just true to Hector’s vision. Hylas (Topi Lehtipuu) was superb singing from the top of his ship’s mast. The chorus, well, they looked good, they sounded brilliant, there were so many exquisite performers and I am sure I will never hear the music so beautifully done as I have this year, both in Birmingham and here in Paris. I think Hector Berlioz himself would definitely have approved of all this.
By Phillip Rutherford
30 June 2003
I am now finalising my plans for my big Berlioz pilgrimage around the world from late May to early July. I plan to take in at least 5 Berlioz concerts during this time, and maybe more if I’m lucky!
London, 29th May: The Trojans at Carthage – English National Opera,
St Petersburg, 2nd June : Romeo and Juliet – Mariinski Theatre
St Petersburg, 7th June: Requiem – Smolny Cloister
Geneva, 18th June: The Damnation of Faust – Geneva Opera
Paris, 20th June: Harold in Italy – Opéra Bastille
31 May 2003
Got to see the ENO’s production of The Trojans at Carthage the other night.
The production was far better than that of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which I saw two nights previously. It was still a little unusual, but very effective – on a much grander scale. The lighting especially was very effective and evocative. There was one scene in act two where Dido and Aeneas were singing their love duet on top of a house and the sky behind slowly darkened bit by bit, so it was hardly noticeable, the stars came out gently, it was all so cool! Then a scrim came down in front of them, which made it look like the two lovers were sailing through the heavens together!
The famous Royal Hunt and Storm scene started badly I thought with three dancers jumping around strangely, but the music took over and all was fine, again with unusual but effective lighting and staging. Lots of strange dancing throughout the opera...
The chorus was fantastic as were all the main leads. I am ashamed to say I really struggled to stay awake during Dido’s final lament before she dies. So many people have written about this being some of Berlioz’s most beautiful and touching bit of music, but maybe the day was catching up with me! Otherwise I was thrilled with the opera. I went in with much lower expectations that with the Wagner, as the previous production of The Capture of Troy was rubbished by reviews. Why companies are still splitting this opera in two I will not know. I wish I could see the whole thing.
I will enjoy the Requiem in St Petersburg on the 7th of June.
6 June 2003
I went to the St Petersburg’s Rimsky-Korsakov Museum today, and found all sorts of interesting things there, including a photograph of Berlioz, which Rimsky-Korsakov had in his study when he was composing. There were also quite a few other famous composers of the day, but it was good to see Berlioz there. The attendant couldn’t tell me whether the two had met on Berlioz’s second trip to St Petersburg – it is possible, as Rimsky-Korsakov would have been in his early 20s...
I also got to play on his piano, which was also played by Stravinsky,
Scriabin, and Tchaikovsky!
9 June 2003
Got to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, the Mariinksy Chorus and St Petersburg Chorus perform Berlioz’s Requiem in the Mariinsky Theatre (The Kirov) in St Petersburg last Saturday night.
It was great to see one of today’s foremost conductors performing in one of the top halls in the world – it promised so much, depending on whether the visiting Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra could live up to the task, and the chorus could mix in with obviously little rehearsal with the orchestra. It was close to a full house, with TV cameras and visiting dignitaries (St Petersburg just celebrated its 300th birthday);so expectations were high.
The opening movement was a major disappointment. I felt like crying for the wrong reasons. It didn’t sound like Berlioz, like my favourite piece of music! There was no flow of ideas, no intensity in the playing or in the singing. I was mystified, and dreading how badly the rest of the work would be botched up if this continued. I don’t know if it was nerves from the orchestra, or the lack of rehearsal of the two groups together, or Gergiev’s interpretation (I liked most of his tempos, though one of two slow sections I felt he rushed). Anyway, he went straight into the movement I almost know by heart, the Dies Irae. The celli and double basses played the opening phrase with an air of grace, not with the tension that I believe the opening deserves, and lost the whole effect of the opening IMHO. The chorus started to pick things up by the second key change, the second ‘tightening of the screws’, and the first tenors did a good job on their high obligato... When the brass and percussion came in for the Tuba Mirum, things had started to pick up. They did an admirable job, but the whole work was far from saved.
The whole work suddenly came to life at the opening chord of the Rex Tremendae – the chorus sounded as if they had finally come to a section they felt comfortable with, and they enjoyed and understood what they were singing; everything was basically wonderful for the rest of the performance. Maybe it took close to 20 minutes before the two groups felt comfortable with the hall and each other.
The Lacrymosa movement was very precise except for the timpanists getting fractionally out of time with each other (it’s hard for five or six players to hit a loud note precisely together, or so it seemed), and was really on the ball as to the style and feeling. Now Berlioz the dramatist was coming to the fore! The Offertorium was very nicely played by the orchestra, for most of it anyway, a little untidy in the winds towards the end, but otherwise nicely done.
The Hostias was very beautiful – the men in the chorus were splendid, and the trombones and flutes were spot on in intonation and balance. Gergiev was weaving his magic now!
The Sanctus was very nice also, but Gergiev rushed the Hosanna in excelsis a bit, and it sounded like the women thought so too. The tenor soloist was very nice without moving me to tears.
The biggest surprise of the night for me personally was how the opening simple chords of the final movement, the Agnus Dei moved me almost to tears. The simplicity but beauty of orchestral colour was just superb, and the orchestra were spot on the money – bravo violas and winds! The rest of the movement was wonderful, which showed to me that the music was not the problem in the first movement, but it was just a rather shaky start.
The ovation lasted for nearly 10 minutes! Gergieve came out around 10 times. The clapping only stopped when the orchestra walked off stage. So, by the sound of it, Berlioz won some more admirers last Saturday.
A satisfying performance if you omit the first 20 minutes or so, but I was a little disappointed that I was put off so much. Still, I hadn’t heard the Requiem live since a magnificent performance under John Nelson in 1996, so I was glad to hear it again
(Am in Barcelona today – quite a bit warmer than St Petersburg, which had a
cold snap while I was there!)
15 June 2003
I finally made it to La Côte! I was so thrilled, I didn’t even mind the 41 degree heat (over 100 in old scale). But I was to be sorely disappointed. The Musée Berlioz was still closed for renovation!!!!! I could have cried. I saw on their website a while back "opening June 2003", so I assumed it meant the month of June – it doesn’t open til the 28th of June. So I tired to not curl up in a corner and went out to explore the town. We saw the Place de Berlioz, the Avenue Hector Berlioz, the Lycée Berlioz (high school), the Halles where they perform the Berlioz festival, the graves of Berlioz’s parents and there was even a Berlioz stamp exhibition! But it was small consolation to the Musée Berlioz being closed.
We were in Monte Carlo the day before and we happened to walk across a statue of Berlioz near the casino, celebrating the centenary of his birth... cool!
I’ll being seeing a staged Damnation in 3 days time in Geneva, (I am in the
shadows of Mont Blanc in Chamonix now!)
24 June 2003
I have seen so much Berlioz in the last week I don’t know where to start! So much good and a few average moments. I’ll start by telling you of the Damnation of Faust production at the Geneva Opera last week.
I went into this ‘opera’ with mixed feelings – I had seen a concert performance before, which was wonderful, and with all the talk of the San Francisco production, I didn’t know what these guys would get up to.
Well, firstly they used a symphony orchestra in the pit – the Suisse Romand Symphony Orchestra, and they were impeccable – just the right sense of shape and flow – a shame they were in the pit, but it was a great sound.
As for the singers, Faust (Jonas Kaufmann) was fantastic – he looked the part and sang wonderfully well. Méphistophélès was very good – rather comic, which was interesting, but that could be the production. Marguerite was not my favourite – strong, but not sweet,. again the production could be the problem here
Now, to the production – there was quite a lot of male nudity in this production, but it was artistically treated, not pornographically. I think much of it was silly, but at least they were trying to be artistic. In Faust’s first aria and the first chorus they tried to show his disappointment with religion, so they did an Adam and Eve (naked of course) and during the Hungarian March a mock crucifixion of a naked Jesus. This annoyed me somewhat as it had nothing to do with the music, and really took away from the fine playing.
Méphistophélès came in as a nineteenth century photographer, very suave and very comic – it was good. When it came to Brander and the song of the rat with all his friends, things got just a little strange again – Brander wore a ballet dress. Then when all the students got up to sing their mock Amen fugue, they all got these silly dresses on – trying to do a sarcastic ballet. It was funny, but strange. So, Méphistophélès has to outdo them by dressing up in a lovely evening gown and wig, and Faust does so later. Again, rather funny with a bit of slapstick, but strange.
There were one or two dances where the use of lighting effect and dancers behind screens were simply wonderful. Then there was the will o’ the wisps, with 7 naked men dancing around with fire lamps on their heads, trying to play havoc with Marguerite etc... This was starting to get out of hand, but it settled down again.
Marguerite’s treatment was the most disappointing to me, as she was more like an Ophelia – crazy, wondering, insane. She started with a white dress, and when Faust starts in with their duet she rubs against the wall and suddenly her dress is all strained... symbolic yes, but not following the music’s intentions... She even came out with a baby in a pram, then drowned her own child (I assume hers and Faust’s child)!!!!
The Ride to the abyss was well handled without following the true plot. Faust is on a raised platform with Méphistophélès with shadows of horses on a carousel going around, whilst on the ground Marguerite is being hanged. The scream by the nuns now came at the moment when they hanged Marguerite. It actually worked, but....
The singing of the demons was fantastic! The final action of blood being spurted on a white sheet and a carcass being attacked was a bit gruesome, but in some ways worked.
Suddenly all the stairs flipped a piece of gold over them and the lovely chorus of women, children and some men sang beautifully in the shining brilliance. All of a sudden a naked woman started to ascend the stairs behind them – Marguerite. Beautifully done, but no need for a naked Marguerite.
Musically this production was brilliant. I loved it. The production had many fine moments, most of which I didn’t mention, but the strange decisions they made all took away from the production somewhat. Symbolism is good, but how to bring about this symbolism, is another matter.
The singers and orchestra were given a huge ovation, until the director came
out to take a bow, and there was a mixture of cheering and booing and hissing –
most interesting. I feel that Berlioz won out on the night, which is the most
26 June 2003
Since I have just spend six days in Paris at the end of my Berlioz pilgrimage (I’m in the States for 3 weeks now), I thought I’d share with you a few stories.
Missing Monir and Michel was a blow, as Anna and I had so looked forward to it! (they were in Paris at the time to hear Harold in Italy at the Bastille.) Still, I, and truly enjoyed listening to Harold.
There was also a Berlioz Festival going on in Paris, which for some reason I thought was going to be more discussions (in French) than concerts, so I didn’t fuss too much. By the time I got round to checking the details, I had missed the first day of the festival, which had, amongst other things, a round table with David Cairns, Peter Bloom and D Kern Holoman. What a combination! To see those 3 Berlioz masters would have been something, whether I got five words of their discussion or not! Also D Kern Holoman was conducting his UCDavis Orchestra on tour that night, which again was a shame to have missed.
On the next day I was ready for action now that I had the information. We went to the Sorbonne for a series of short concerts that afternoon. These were very poorly attended in many ways, which was a shame. Firstly we heard the sermon from Benvenuto Cellini played on piano (four hands) from a transcription by Liszt, the Roman Carnival also for piano and four hands, which was a little better, and various other piano duos – the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was probably the highlight. There was some Moscheles, which was ghastly boring! (I forgot to mention this festival was ‘Berlioz and his contemporaries’, so only partly Berlioz.)
Next we rushed around the corner to another amphitheatre to hear a young wind orchestra play a march by Lesueur (I hadn’t heard any of his music before), a wind orchestra piece by Mendelssohn, which was cool, and the Funeral and Triumphal Symphony of Berlioz. This wind orchestra was composed of many youngish people, and a few times the intonation struggled, but actually by the time they got stuck into the Berlioz they really got going.
This was the first time I had heard this piece live, and it really made an impression. The 1st movement, I think, dragged a little in the middle, but the climax gave me goose bumps! The 2nd movement, with great solo for trombone was also great (though not quite as moving as I thought, being a part-time trombonist). The 3rd movement was simply stunning. By now we had warmed to the sound of the wind orchestra (not my favourite medium) and the climax of the apotheosis was absolutely brilliant. We were swept away by such a wonderful huge sound – major goose bump time!
The next concert straight afterwards was by a violinist and a pianist, playing the Reverie and Caprice, which was very pretty – nice sound from the violinist too. We left the concert after this to catch our breath.
The next concert was a choir singing La Mort d’Ophélie, which was OK – not the best performance. A Baritone solo of The Origin of the Harp was very well sung, but the rest of the concert struggled to make much of an impression. The singing at times was good, but the conductor looked rather apologetic and hardly smiled. Again, maybe 100 people in the audience.
Through the 6 days of playing tourist, I was visiting various Berlioz sites. On the 21st, the original day when Berlioz was to be moved to the Panthéon, we went to the Panthéon in his honour, which was an interesting building. No one there seemed to know much about it though. They just kept saying, "rumour has it the next person to enter the Panthéon may be a musician"! We next went to Montmartre to check out Berlioz’s current grave. Very pleased to do so, and to see someone had left a rose there (we actually thought it might have been Monir!) I thought more would be made of his wives. Their names were engraved on the edge of the tomb down the bottom. If you didn’t look hard you may have missed it.
Enjoyed seeing Berlioz’s last residence with a little plaque on the wall, and up the street the ‘Square Berlioz’, which is a small oval shape with a slippery dip with young kids, a bunch of mothers looking after toddlers and a few pigeons making a mess of Berlioz’s statue there.
Found many of the churches/cathedrals Berlioz works were performed in – Les Invalides, St Roch, St Eustache. But the weirdest things of all was the old Conservatoire. After much confusion, and eventually helped by Monir’s great site, I found the old Conservatoire building and asked to go in the hall there. There was a drama performance going on in there, but there were at intermission, so I could take a quick peak inside. So I did, and the hall was very small! I was told it seats 1000 people, but this hall would have seated maybe 200 maximum. Did I have the wrong hall? No, this was the only hall in the building. Did I have the wrong building? No, right building. So I guess the hall has been renovated for the Drama School now located there. A shame really, unless I was missing something.
Anyway, went to one more Berlioz concert – a good quality youth orchestra plus some older helpers made the last night gala something huge – this time the Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne was packed full, so we were sitting very high away from the stage. Among the pieces we heard were the Roman Carnival Overture (definitely a favourite of people these days), the Eight Scenes from Faust, which was very interesting to hear a week after hearing the Damnation in Geneva, Sara la Baigneuse and the Tempest Fantasy – another work I was hearing live for the first time. It was so much fun to hear these works fresh, and the orchestra and choir overcame some weaknesses technically and rhythmically in their enthusiasm for what they were doing.
I was especially surprised with the Eight Scenes from Faust. I had recently read in David Cairns’ biography of Berlioz that much was kept for the Damnation, but I certainly didn’t recognise at all large chunks and even whole movements, not even in changed form. t I wonder why he didn’t keep a few lovely melodies. I could go into more detail, but this is a very text already, and I apologise for taking so much of your time, but I was excited to share with you some of my experiences of my Berlioz Pilgrimage! Now it’s playing tourist and visit old friends for me, then back to Australia to spend a year paying this trip off!
By Alastair Bruce
Paul Daniel – English National Opera Orchestra & Chorus
London Coliseum – Thursday 8 May 2003
This was the most dismal experience I can recall: a travesty of Berlioz’s masterpiece, and an almost unbearable ordeal for a lover of Berlioz. Far from being a worthy tribute to the composer in his bicentenary year, it does him the great disservice of reinforcing old prejudices about The Trojans: that it is too long, that its inspiration is intermittent, that it is boring.
Even more than in Part I (The Capture of Troy) in January – where the production was equally disastrous, but the music was decently done – the entire raison d’être of the piece was cast aside, with nothing put in its place. Dido sounded (and looked) nothing like a Queen; Aeneas nothing like the heroic leader of a proud and warlike people; never for a moment could we believe they were passionately in love; never did we care a jot what happened to them. Far from being "Virgil Shakespeareanised", it was neither Virgilian nor Shakespearean, and certainly not Berliozian.
The set for Act 1 consisted only of a wall with a bit of overhanging ceiling on which was a half-finished fresco of a woman’s face. In the ensuing "Royal Hunt and Storm", quite clever use was made of a series of drop-curtains which progressively isolated Aeneas and Dido from their companions; apart from that it was undistinguished. For Act 2 the stage was empty, but garishly coloured with an orange floor and bright blue walls; a large open box on wheels (almost everything seemed to be on wheels) served as Dido’s room, complete with giant green-gold lizards on the wall and roof. The first scene of Act 3 was dominated by the huge steel hull of a Trojan ship, with a small door at the bottom which must have seriously jeopardised its seaworthiness. Dido’s room returned for the next scene, without the lizards. At the end, inevitably, we were treated to a backdrop of a ruined city: New York’s "Ground Zero" after 11 September 2001, although it might just as well have been Baghdad.
Costumes were uniformly contemporary and uninteresting. But contrasting with this minimalist approach to sets and costumes was an enormous amount of distracting "business": constant running to-and-fro across the stage, portentous arm gestures, run-of-the-mill "balletics", and a whole series of irrelevant props. These included four orange tables (two large and two small) which were regularly rearranged in different configurations, an elaborate "build your own model city" kit, complete with flowing water feature, numerous bombs (left over from Part I) brought on in chests (wheeled, of course) by the Trojans, and even a portable electric fan to blow about the floaty scarves of the dancers (with nipples and pubic hair painted on their shifts) in the Act 2 ballets. At least the third ballet provided relief from the meaningless posturing of the first two, with some relaxing film of dolphins taking the place of Berlioz’s Nubian slave girls.
Other critics seem to have found some compensations in the music. Alas, even with my eyes closed I found it impossible to feel anything of its power or passion. The orchestra played efficiently enough: the notes were all there, but the meaning within them, that ‘expressiveness’ which was so all-important to Berlioz, seemed absent. A deep sense of pointlessness hung like a pall over everything.
In such a production, the singers stood little chance. Susan Parry and John Daszak, as Dido and Aeneas, made suitably heroic efforts, and might have been fine interpreters of their roles in other circumstances. None of the other singers rose far above the stifling constraints of the production – not the Anna of Anne Marie Gibbons (standing in for Anna Burford, who was lucky enough to be indisposed), not Clive Bayley’s ludicrously eye-patched Narbal, not Colin Lee as a mincing Iopas, not Iain Paterson as Pantheus or Victoria Simmonds as Ascanius, not the Trojan Sentries, not even the Hylas of Christopher Saunders.
The chorus ran around a lot, and sang with a will, but could not disguise the production’s lack of coherence. I can say nothing about the quality of Hugh Macdonald’s new English version of the text, since hardly any of the words were audible from my seat in the Upper Circle.
Unbelievably, I sat through the entire evening without once feeling the kind of thrill that hearing The Trojans usually produces again and again. I can think of no redeeming features of this production, and it is a deeply depressing prospect that it is due to return in 2004 as the second half of a series of complete performances of the opera. Could it improve with time? Only marginally, I fear, since nothing could fill the conceptual and expressive void at its heart.
If this was the work Berlioz had written, it would have deserved its reputation as a ‘problem piece’, to be dredged out of a bottom drawer and set apologetically before the public, with as many visual and other distractions as possible, every twenty years or so to mark a landmark such as a bicentenary. But what we saw was emphatically not Berlioz’s opera, and no-one who loves the work – or who hears Sir Colin Davis conduct it at the Proms in August – would recognise it as such.
In the composer’s bicentenary year, and in the country which has done so much to promote better understanding of his music, this was an utterly dispiriting occasion. In June 1853 Queen Victoria described Benvenuto Cellini, which she had seen at Covent Garden, as "one of the most unattractive and absurd operas I suppose anyone could ever have composed". If she had been referring to this production of The Trojans in Carthage, I could only have agreed with her.
(see also Mr Bruce’s review of acts 1 and 2)
By Harry Saltzman
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis, conductor
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
Harold en Italie and Symphonie Fantastique
with Paul Silverthorne, viola
Tuesday, March 4, 2003 at 8 PM
Roméo et Juliette
with London Symphony Chorus; Sara Mingardo, contralto; Stuart Neill, tenor; Alastair Miles, bass
Friday, March 7, 2003 at 8 PM
La Damnation de Faust
with London Symphony Chorus; Petra Lang, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Neill, tenor; Alastair Miles, bass; Jonathan Lemalu, bass
Sunday, March 9, 2003 at 3 PM
What a week this has been for New York Berliophiles – three magnificent concerts, three informative lectures, and a spirited symposium bringing together five prominent Berlioz scholars and the conductor of the London Symphony, Sir Colin Davis.
Before I get into the music, some words about the audience, the hall, and the printed program. I was surprised to see empty seats at the first concert. No, more disappointed than surprised. Berlioz is still not an easy sell in New York, and I doubt if subsequent performances of Les Troyens would have sold out without the New York Times’ misguided rave review of the not sold out premier. But I’m pleased to say that there were only a few empty seats for Roméo et Juliette and a packed house for La Damnation de Faust. And appreciative they were, each concert ending with cheers and a standing ovation. But why must the applause so often begin as soon as the music ends? During the Damnation one bravoer seemed to begin even before the sound of the final brass chord of the Hungarian March dissipated. (Was he the same person one hears at same spot on John Eliot Gardiner’s live recording?) Even worse were those enthusiasts who would not allow even a moment of silence to follow the pianissimo ending of Marguerite’s Apotheosis. (Conductors can solve this problem by keeping their arms raised in conducting position for as long as they wish to maintain the silence following the end of the music. Then, by slowly lowering them – the increase in the intensity of the silence is palpable when this happens – the conductor signals to the audience that the applause may begin only after his arms are down.)
About Avery Fisher Hall: it is an acoustical disaster. The sound has no warmth, there is no reverberation, and balances are hard to achieve (especially in the loud passages, where the brass always drown out the strings). One could imagine the impact these great performances would have made in a warmer, more reverberant space such as Carnegie Hall.
Along with the program, the audience was given a complete libretto (in French and English) for both Romeo and Juliet and The Damnation of Faust. The house lights, however, were not bright enough to enable one to read without strain, something that occurs at many of New York’s vocal recitals. But before the house lights were lowered for Romeo and Juliet, one could easily read the libretto’s cover. Too bad! Inexplicably, the tenor who sings the Queen Mab Scherzetto was listed as Romeo, and the mezzo-soprano who sets the scene in the opening Strophes was listed as Juliet. Utter nonsense, in light of the words they sing, and certainly not the composer’s intentions as he calls them tenor and mezzo-soprano in the score. The New York Times critic, who obviously doesn’t know the score, repeated this misinformation for all who read his review.
Now on to the performances! Let me state at the outset that this was music making on the highest level and my comments, especially the critical ones, are highly personal. I loved these performances, even if I might spend a sentence on a compliment and a paragraph on a complaint.
The chorus was alert and responsive. I would have liked a more robust sound from the women who, as in all English choirs, sounded like boys. The men sounded like men, but there weren’t enough of them to balance the full brass of the orchestra. (There never are enough devils in Berlioz’s Pandemonium.) And speaking of Pandemonium, if the women, after singing "Sancta Marguerita" during the Ride to the Abyss could give out a blood curdling scream, why couldn’t the men give us convincingly snake-like sibilant sounds on the word Has? But my main objection to the choral singing has to do with articulation. Final consonants were often not sharply articulated and short notes, as in dotted rhythms and dactylic figures, were hard to hear. Much of this was because of the hall’s awful acoustics, but these problems should have been picked up at the first rehearsal and corrected.
The soloists were uniformly wonderful. Even though she sang for but a short time, my favorite was contralto Sara Mingardo, who sang the Strophes at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. What a voluptuous sound! Stuart Neill negotiated the difficult role of Faust with ease and Petra Lang was a moving Marguerite. Alastair Miles’ transformation from the stolid Friar Lawrence to the demonic Mephistopheles was astounding; you would have thought you were hearing two different singers.
What can one say about the viola soloist in Harold in Italy? I guess that the reticent sound of the viola is as good as any to portray a moody romantic wandering through the Italian countryside. But for me, the whole thing just isn’t very convincing no matter how "well" the soloist plays. And the orchestra’s principal violist, Paul Silverthone, did play well, even after a popped string caused the performance to stop just after his first entrance.
That brings me to the stars of these concerts, the magnificent London Symphony Orchestra and their conductor, Sir Colin Davis. These performances were a showcase for this virtuoso orchestra – brilliant brass, fleet-of-foot winds, thrilling percussion, and what is so rare, entire string sections fully involved in every note they played – all under the total control of Sir Colin Davis. This was exceptional conducting, both on the micro and macro levels. In particular, I was impressed by Sir Colin’s choice of tempi.
These concerts were quite a fantastic voyage, and we New Yorkers are fortunate that Sir Colin Davis will be taking us to one more port of call next month – a concert version of Béatrice et Bénédict with the New York Philharmonic.
By Harry Saltzman
New York Philharmonic, Westminster Choir
Paul Groves, tenor
Charles Dutoit, conductor
Friday evening, February 14, 2003 at 8 PM
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
One of life’s greatest pleasures is attending a superb performance of a work one knows and loves. Such a performance took place at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall on Friday evening, February 14, 2003. Great orchestral playing, powerful and expressive choral singing, a mellifluous tenor, a conductor in total control; all combining in the service of one of the 19th century’s most extraordinary scores.
And what a score it is! But the conductor must be able to bring out the many magic moments without distorting the work’s overall shape. And here Maestro Dutoit succeeded brilliantly. Detail after detail was lovingly shaped, the structure of each movement made clear. Equally as striking was the pacing. The hour and a half seemed to fly by, and not because of too fast tempi. One important reason was the way Dutoit treated the pauses between movements. He played the silences like a virtuoso, never letting the forward motion lag. Berlioz divides the liturgical Dies irae text into five separate movements, but by slightly shortening the pauses between them, Dutoit created a mighty structure which hightened the contrast between loud and soft, between large and small performing forces.
And for once in my experience, the supplementary performing forces were placed near where Berlioz intended. In the score he states: "The four small orchestras of brass instruments must be placed one at each of the four corners of the main choral and instrumental group." As the stage at Avery Fisher Hall is too small for this, they were placed in the first and second tiers, as close to the stage as possible. (The music critic for the NY Times complained, however, that the "supplementary brass groups…were unfortunately placed near the rest of the orchestra.") Many conductors now place the brass orchestras as far away from the stage as possible in a misguided attempt to surround the audience with "stereophonic sound". Not only does this go against the composer’s explicit instructions, it also causes great ensemble and acoustical problems. No such problems on February 14th. And having the brass orchestras near the stage places all the performing forces in front of the audience, making each tutti very, very loud.
I can’t end a review of the Berlioz Requiem on the word loud, because loud is only a small part of this magnificent work. What about the plaintive Quid sum miser, the flute b natural marking the change from minor to major in the Offertory, the growl of the low trombone below the high flutes in the Hostias, the soft cymbals in the Sanctus, the harmonic progressions on the final amen?
There are Requiems that are easier to listen to – the operatic Verdi, the gentle Fauré, the Mozart. But none is as much of an adventure as the Berlioz. Thanks to Charles Dutoit and his performers for taking us on that adventure.
By Harry Saltzman
Metropolitan Opera, Premier of New Production, 10 February 2003
The Met’s eagerly awaited new production of Les Troyens had its first performance on Monday evening, 10 February 2003. For many of us in attendance it was a major disappointment. It was, in a word, boring! How can such a word be used to describe this incredible score? Sadly, a large part of the blame must be placed upon the conductor. It is commonly agreed that Maestro James Levine has turned the Met orchestra into one of the world’s great ensembles, whose performances of the "big works" (Wagner, Strauss] have been thrilling high points in the musical life of New York. Nevertheless, Monday’s performance lacked musical shape, energy, and dynamic contrast. The musical line had no forward thrust and the climaxes were weak. This is not to say the playing of the orchestra was poor. They dispatched this difficult score with their usual skill, but they never "dug into the music." The playing was facile but shallow. One exception was the gorgeous clarinet playing of Ricardo Morales during Andromache’s Act I pantomime.
The singing was better, but still disappointing in many respects. Berlioz wrote the role of Cassandra for a mezzo-soprano. Deborah Voigt sang beautifully, but she’s a soprano and much of the music is just too low for her. Not always, but too often, one missed a mezzo’s richness in the lower register. Dwayne Croft’s Coroebus was all you could ask for. How wonderful it’s been watching this American baritone getting better and better each year.
Ben Hepner, almost unrecognizable in his slimmed down form, was a thrilling Aeneas. He looks great and sounds wonderful. Those of us who witnessed his grave vocal difficulties during last year’s Met Meistersinger were so relieved to hear that the voice is healthy again, the upper register thrilling. Yes, he did crack on one or two of the high notes, but none of them were climactic. They were on what one might call "throw away high notes"; easily sung by the special kind of high French tenor for whom Berlioz wrote, but almost impossible for the weightier voices who sing the role today. (Listen to Jon Vickers struggle with them on his magnificent recording under Sir Colin Davis.)
Didon is the most complicated role in the opera and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s performance was successful most of the time. She is an intelligent singing actress whose lovely voice is well suited to Didon, the benevolent Queen of Carthage and the woman in love with Aeneas. But the opera ends with Didon, the woman betrayed and abandoned by Aeneas, and here Ms. Hunt Lieberson couldn’t generate the rage and fury implicit in Berlioz’s fantastic music. In a great performance one should be actually frightened by her outburst and this just didn’t happen.
With the exception of mezzo-soprano Elena Zaramba’s wobbly portrayal of Didon’s sister, Anna (it was often hard to tell what pitch she was singing), the minor roles were all well sung. Bass Robert Lloyd (Narbal), and tenors Matthew Polenzani (Iopas) and Gregory Carfizzi (Hylas) each have one moment in the spotlight. I loved Narbal’s growly aria, but the two showstoppers were the songs of Iopas and Hylas. Both were beautifully sung, but with the magic moments ruined by unnecessary and distracting stage action.
This brings me to the worst aspect of the performance – director Francesca Zambello’s cluttered, distracting, often silly, concept of the opera. Where to begin? The major problem is that Ms. Zambello trusts neither the power of Berlioz’s music nor the ability of the audience to listen to this great music without being "entertained" with extraneous and uncalled for stage business.
Out of many examples, I’ll describe but a few. Aeneas makes his thrilling Act I entrance and tells the crowd how two monstrous serpents came out of the sea and killed the priest, Laocoön. What follows is the Trojans’ reaction to this horrific news; a massive ensemble for double chorus and octet, full of the unexpected harmonies and strange melodies that those of us who love Berlioz treasure. Time stops and our entire attention is on the text and the great music. But not great enough for Ms. Zambello, who places a writhing mass of dancers up stage (sea serpents?), giving us what must be meant to be a reenactment of Laocoön’s death. Unnecessary and distracting.
Writhing people on the ground seem to be a leit motif in this production. We find them there during Iopas’s Hymn to Ceres and during the song of Hylas, the homesick sailor. His writhers are necking couples and a few more adventurous groups of three. Why? I presume it is to show us that some of the Trojans are enjoying Carthage and don’t want to go off to Italy; information which will be given to us by Berlioz in the duet which follows. Oh, I forgot to mention that Hylas is suspended in a basket about twenty feet above the stage which, during the aria, moves from stage left to right.
Bad enough that in these examples Ms. Zambello adds distracting stage business where Berlioz has called for none. Far worse is that she often goes against Berlioz’s explicit instructions. The stage direction that follows Act IV’s ravishing septet states: All except Aeneas and Didon move off gradually. Moonlight. But Zambello abhors a vacuum. The five other members of the septet do leave, but the stage is filled with many couples on the ground (not writhing, this time) who never leave. What are they doing there? Why is the ecstatic love duet Nuit d’ivresse et d’exstase infinie sung to an audience on the stage?
The lovers wander this way and that, assisted by the stage’s turntable ("we have one, let’s use it."). But the final stage direction does ask them to move: Embracing, they walk slowly to the back of the stage, then disappear from view. As they do so, Mercury appears…The lovers have exited and will consummate their "night of ecstasy" unmindful of Mercury’s arrival and the message he brings. The music turns from major to minor. Mercury intones Italie, Italie, Italie! But he is singing to us, the audience, for the happy (for now) lovers are gone. Ms. Zambello chooses, however, to keep the lovers on stage. After hearing Mercury’s cry, Didon unhappily looks at Aeneas. The curtain falls. This willful disobeying the composer/librettist’s instructions destroys the dramatic irony that was obviously his intent. I could go on and on.
A great opportunity was missed here. The vast technical resources of the Met could have been used to give us an awe-inspiring entrance of the Trojan Horse and a Royal Hunt and Storm true to the composer’s vision. When the Met does Benvenuto Cellini next year, will the director solve the problem of the casting of the statue of Perseus or will they just clutter the stage with extraneous business? I’m not optimistic.
The Met’s Les Troyens
Addendum to my review of the 10 February premier
Based on the broadcast of 22 February
by Harry Saltzman
I’ve just listened to the radio broadcast of Acts I and II of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Les Troyens. Anyone who listens to this broadcast and reads my review of the premier will not believe that we both heard two performances of the same production. This afternoon the orchestra and chorus sound fantastic and James Levine is in great form. The textures are crystal clear, the climaxes thrilling, the forward momentum inexorable. It’s a great performance thus far. Deborah Voigt’s lower register also sounds much better on the air – mike placement?
The intermission will be over soon. Let’s see… No! I mean, let’s hear what the rest of the afternoon brings. It is a pleasure not having to look at the production…
Acts III and IV continue on the same high level. I was especially impressed by the textural clarity of the orchestra during the dances.
I do hope that Ms. Hunt Lieberson shows me that she can portray the abandoned Didon…
Act V has just ended. Ms. Hunt Lieberson’s monologue and prayer was very moving, especially those descending thirds on the syllable Ah! Although her expression of rage in the previous scene still didn’t "frighten me", on balance, she was a fine Didon. The Carthaginian’s angry final chorus, which seemed so pallid on February 10th proved to be a perfect ending to this great performance. And Maestro Levine solved the problem of the rather short orchestral ending with a beautifully wrought retard and brilliant sounding final chord, held a bit longer than usual.
Is this the same conductor and orchestra I heard on the 10th? During that performance I spoke to many friends sitting in different parts of the theater and we all agreed that this was not up to the standard we have grown to expect from James Levine and the Met orchestra. Other friends attending the performance on February 14th concurred. The difference in sound can be partially explained by the difference between being in the hall and hearing the performance on the radio. But I am at a loss to explain why the premier was so boring musically.
As a person who goes to the opera wanting to be thrilled and moved, I can only hope that the first few performances of this new production of Les Troyens were aberrations and that all future ones will be up to the standard set on February 22nd. I’ll be at the Met again on March 20th to hear.
The Met’s Les Troyens
Addendum to my review of the 10 February premier and the 22 February broadcast
Based on the performance of 20 March
by Harry Saltzman
Fascinating! Hearing (and seeing) this production again reinforces my impressions of the first two performances.
1. As on the February 22nd broadcast, the orchestra and chorus were superb, and Maestro Levine was again in fine form. The poor performance on opening night was an aberration.
2. Deborah Voigt’s first aria was thrilling, but she again sounded somewhat weak in the lower register. This became especially apparent in her final scene where most of the music has a low tessitura (low, for a soprano, that is). That this wasn’t apparent on the broadcast must be ascribed to the wonders of microphone placement.
3. All but one of the minor roles (same singers as before) were sung beautifully. Elena Zaremba, however, had better do something about that awful wobble.
4. The less said about Francesca Zambello’s production the better; it is beneath contempt! In my first review I commented on the excessive and unnecessary stage action, and on Ms Zambello’s disregard for the composer’s explicit stage directions. Here I will just repeat the candid observations of my brother and cousin, who had never seen the work before and came to the performance with no preconceptions. They loved the music, but thought the staging was "sophomoric, distracting, and just plain silly."
And what about the new Didon and Aeneas? Michelle DeYoung was a most compelling Didon. Both Ms. DeYoung and her predecessor, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, were regal in their opening scenes. Ms. Hunt Lieberson sang a more moving lament, while Ms. DeYoung expressed the fury and rage I missed in the first two performances. I just wish she didn’t so often sing sharp. (One also hears this on her LSO recording under Sir Colin Davis.)
The less said about tenor John Horton Murray the better. He has a most unpleasant voice, is quite unmusical, and is a wooden actor. But if cracked high notes are your concern, the score was Murray 0 – Hepner 2.
New Yorkers have two more opportunities this season to hear this extraordinary opera. (Unfortunately, they will also have to look at it.) Both will feature a new Cassandra, a new Anna, and Ben Hepner will return as Aeneas. I’ll be thereon March 27.
The Met’s Les Troyens
Based on the performance of 27 March
by Harry Saltzman
First the pluses
1. Ben Hepner was back as Aeneas. Although he seemed to tire during his Act IV duet, he recovered and sang a thrilling Act V.
2. With Wendy White replacing the wobbly Elena Zaremba, we finally could enjoy Anna’s ravishingly beautiful Act III duet with Didon. Ms. White is one of those Met regulars from whom one always gets a fine performance.
Then the minuses
1. Before this performance, I had never heard Sue Patchell sing. Although most in the audience were disappointed that they weren’t going to hear Deborah Voigt singing Cassandra, I, for one, was looking forward to finally hearing a mezzo in the role. Imagine my horror when it became clear that Ms. Patchell was almost inaudible in the lower register, and when she was audible her voice had none of the richness one expects from a mezzo. During the first intermission I looked at the Met roster and found that she is also a soprano! There are 43 mezzo-sopranos on the Met’s roster. Why then do they insist on giving the role of Cassandra to a soprano? Deborah Voigt has a huge rich voice and, although one wanted more from her lower register, she could at least be heard. Poor Ms. Patchell – she didn’t have a chance in the world. And shame on the Met for putting her in this position.
2. Michelle DeYoung still tends to sing sharp on climactic high notes.
To sum up
Even though I abhorred this production and had some reservations about the singing, what a thrill it’s been to experience this truly wonderful opera. If past history is a guide, it looks like we’ll have to wait another ten years to hear it again. (The Met’s first complete performance was in 1973, with revivals in 1983 and 1993.) One can only hope that by 2013 the Met can find a mezzo-soprano to sing the role of Cassandra. As for that far distant new production (2033?), may it be uncluttered with extraneous stage business, respectful of the score, and include a Royal Hunt and Storm true to the composer’s intentions.
All three Berlioz operas will be presented in New York this year. The Met’s first ever performance of Benvenuto Cellini will take place on December 4th, just a few days before the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The NY Philharmonic’s concert version of Béatrice et Bénédict, conducted by Colin Davis, took place in early April and later this month the Manhattan School of Music presents a fully staged production. What a feast!
By Alastair Bruce
Paul Daniel – English National Opera Orchestra & Chorus
London Coliseum – Friday 24 (working rehearsal) and Monday 27 January 2003
Berlioz never heard The Capture of Troy performed. Now these first two acts of his operatic masterpiece, The Trojans, have been mounted separately as the first instalment of English National Opera’s celebration of his bicentenary year. The remaining three acts will be performed by ENO in May as The Trojans at Carthage, with the entire opera finally coming together during 2004. So what would Berlioz himself have made of this first part?
He would surely have been thrilled by his music, and the quality of its performance. It is so utterly different from most of what we are used to hearing in the opera house, with its wonderfully limpid orchestration, its magnificent choral scenes, its striking contrasts between the mood and behaviour of the Trojan people en masse and the dilemmas facing the individual protagonists within it, notably Cassandra, Chorebus and Aeneas. All of this was successfully conveyed: by Paul Daniel, conducting a strong rendering with an orchestra on generally good form; by the chorus, not allowing concerns over their future employment prospects at ENO to detract in any way from their commitment to the work in hand; and by the soloists, led by Susan Bickley as Cassandra, Robert Poulton as Chorebus and John Daszak as Aeneas. Cassandra’s extended scene in Act I, and then her duet with Chorebus, were impressively sung, while Aeneas’s initial entry and aria were suitably heroic.
We must hope that Berlioz would have been sufficiently enthralled by these musical aspects to listen with his eyes firmly shut. Because otherwise I have little doubt that he would soon have been on his feet in the auditorium, shouting with fury and frustration at the utter failure of the Director (Richard Jones) and his team to convey anything of the work’s expressive intention. On the contrary, the production had a powerful tendency, not just to obscure, but to undermine and contradict Berlioz’s aims.
I have nothing at all against updating the time and place of the action, or performing the work in modern dress, so long as it serves to convey a meaning and emotions that are not totally at odds with Berlioz’s own. This was successfully achieved by the joint Opera North, Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera production of The Trojans in the late 1980s. ENO’s approach, by comparison, was a hectic agglomeration of trendy references – to the assassination of President Kennedy, to the events of 11 September 2001, to fears of international terrorism – imposed without logic on a work with totally different themes.
Ever since seeing it – twice, at a ‘working rehearsal’ on 24 January and again at the first night on 27 January – I have been trying to work out what it was meant to be about. The Financial Times review on 29 January made a brave attempt to explain it in terms of "western society’s fear of the enemy within – the Trojan horse of civil strife, of fanatical terror": surely not what Berlioz had in mind.
How could the composer ever have imagined a Cassandra dressed in a (rather dowdy) powder-blue office suit who appeared to be suffering from some sort of mental affliction requiring the administration of sedative injections to control? Who was she, anyway? She, Priam, the skin-headed Aeneas and other members of the Trojan royal family and court were all in suits, as opposed to the jeans, shorts, T-shirts, track-suits and trainers of the chorus. But they lacked any dignity or authority, and certainly had no royal status. Were they meant to represent the political leadership (if so, it seemed to be somewhere on the level of a President and Mrs Marcos)? Or were they members of a Mafia-like crime syndicate operating within the state?
Totally absent was any sense that their fate and that of the Trojan people were inescapably bound together, and under deadly threat. There was no meaningful relationship between the ‘family’, as one was tempted to see them, and the people – not even that very modern relationship between celebrities and their fans (and this Cassandra was certainly no Princess Diana). So did we care when we heard that most of the Trojan leaders, including Chorebus, had been killed by the invading Greeks (whoever they may have been – invading al-Qaeda terrorists?), with only Aeneas and his small band managing to escape? Did we care when Cassandra and the women around her prepared to leap off the roof of the skyscraper where they were trapped, clutching bombs? Did we Hell, if you’ll excuse the expression.
I have discussed the production at length both because I found it deeply frustrating in its determination to be "modern" and "interesting", and also because of the opportunities missed to do just this in a way much truer to Berlioz’s work. Where were his themes of the end of a great city and its people, of escape to a new future, of heroic but unavailing resistance, of doomed love, of public duty versus private passion? There could have been resonances with Kosovo, or Israel, or Iraq, or other places where the futures of whole peoples have been under threat in modern times, and where their leaders face wrenching conflicts of duty and personal feelings. But can we seriously put America, or any Western nation, in that category, as this production sought to do? Come off it, Mr Jones!
And this frustration was if anything compounded by the fact that the production was by no means slapdash or half-hearted or poorly realised: far from it. I have already mentioned its musical merits, offset though they were by the impossibility of our being genuinely moved by the plight of a Cassandra and a Chorebus allowed so little dignity or pathos. There were only a few moments of shaky first-night ensemble, and several passages of true Berliozian magic: the Act I ‘Pantomime’, featuring Andromache in the guise of Jackie Kennedy, was genuinely affecting, the Octet with double chorus following Aeneas’s entry to announce the death of the priest Laocoon was superb, as was the scene with the Ghost of Hector, his suit liberally spattered with blood – here Jones really hit the mark. Although the Trojan March at the end of Act I never quite seemed to achieve lift-off, there was, wonder of wonders, a real, giant-sized wooden horse to be dragged across the stage, accompanied by trolley-borne brass players and circus cowboys and Indians – I don’t know what it meant, but it was good to have it. Another plus was the audibility of most of the words, in Hugh Macdonald’s fine English version.
The sets were of a piece with the costumes; though minimalist, they were striking and effective. The opening featured the burning fuselage of a crashed plane, while the next scene took place in a stadium. At the start of Act II we found Aeneas in a small, cramped room, which was rather neatly transformed into an equally confined space just below the roof of a skyscraper in a New York-like city for the final scene with Cassandra and the Trojan women.
There were various jarring bits of ‘business’. Why did Cassandra keep turning around in circles and getting the shakes? Why did her sister Polyxena seem to have constant rows with her (I hadn’t previously realised that Polyxena featured as a character at all – she appears to do nothing except accompany the first sopranos in the final scene and stab herself after Cassandra)? Why did Helenus force a series of kisses on Andromache (the widow of his brother Hector) as he went to help her after she stumbled from grief? Why were the Greek terrorists in the same small room as the Trojan women at the end, but unable to prevent them from climbing to the roof to jump off? (I did rather like the women’s guitars, though, in place of the lyres specified in the score.)
There were many fine things in this production, especially those that were closest to Berlioz’s own vision – the music, the structure, the pacing, the underlying themes (if you could ignore those interposed by the production). It was never less than absorbing, and musically often thrilling. No-one reading this should be tempted not to go and see it – it confirms the magnificence of Berlioz’s conception, and the brilliance of its realisation in his music, and it whets the appetite for further Berlioz performances during the bicentenary year – even including the second part of ENO’s Trojans in May.
(see also Mr Bruce’s review of acts 3, 4 and 5)
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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