Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 73
Berlioz: Les Troyens,
Part I: La Prise de
Troie (The Fall of Troy)
Koussevitzky Music Shed, July 5, 2008
James Levine, conductor
Cassandra - Anna Caterina Antonacci, soprano
Aeneas - Marcus Haddock, tenor
Chorebus - Dwayne Croft, baritone
Ascanius - Kate Lindsey, mezzo soprano
Hecuba - Jane Bunnell, mezzo-soprano
Helenus - Ronald Naldi, tenor
Trojan Soldier - David Kravitz, baritone
Panthus - Clayton Brainerd, bass-baritone
Priam - Julien Robbins, bass
Greek Captain - James Courtney, bass
Ghost of Hector - Gustav Andreassen, bass
Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor
Background on the Music
La Prise de Troie (The Fall of Troy) is an opera, or part of an opera, that Berlioz never heard except in his imagination. The first performance did not take place until 1890, 21 years after his death.
Virgil, Goethe, and, above all, Shakespeare were the literary figures who fired Berlioz's musical imagination. Virgil was the first of these. Berlioz first encountered The Aeneid as a schoolboy parsing his Latin, and for many years before he actually did it, he contemplated composing an opera based on the stirring story of Aeneas, the fall of Troy, the tragic fate of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the founding of Rome.
Finally in 1856, when he was 52, Berlioz embarked on the project of writing the libretto and composing the music for an epic, 5-act opera he called Les Troyens. It took him two years, and he persevered, even though he knew there was very little chance it would ever be performed at the Paris Opéra, and that few other theaters possessed the resources to perform it at all, let alone adequately.
Berlioz was a bridge-burner by temperament; he was also the most brilliant writer among composers - and an acerbic critic who was widely read. Often one of his targets was the Paris Opéra, its administration, its musical standards; above all, he had a lot to say about the inferior composers, his rivals, whose works were accepted and performed there.
For five years after he finished it, Berlioz tried to persuade the Opéra to mount Les Troyens, his largest and most important work. Ultimately he gave up and divided the work into two parts - the original first two acts became La Prise de Troie and the last three, Les Troyens à Carthage. And he settled for a heavily cut production of Part II as a stand-alone work at the Théâtre-Lyrique, which had neither the musical nor the theatrical resources to do it justice. The production was an event, and there were 22 highly acclaimed performances, but for Berlioz it was a bittersweet success, and there were no further performances during his lifetime.
The first staging of La Prise de Troie, also heavily cut, was in Karlsruhe in Germany; the company then performed Les Troyens à Carthage the following night, establishing a precedent sometimes followed in the opera house and often in concert performances. Both in Boston and at Tanglewood, James Levine chose the two-opera option, performing the two parts of the work at Symphony Hall in successive weeks - followed immediately by a matinee/evening combination offering the complete opera in the space of a single day- and at Tanglewood on successive days.
La Prise de Troie,like the larger opera of which it is a part, is an extraordinary achievement and unusual in that it is both epic and intimate. The central figure is Cassandra, Trojan princess and prophetess. She foresees the terrible fate of Troy, and tries to warn her countrymen of the dangers they face and the horrors that will follow, but no one will believe her. This is her tragedy - to understand everything, but communicate nothing; it is a personal as well as a national tragedy, because her vision destroys her relationship with Chorebus, to whom she is betrothed. At the end, after the enemy Greeks have emerged from the Trojan Horse and begun burning Troy, her only option is to lead the women of the city in a mass suicide.
The canvas is vast. There are mighty choruses and vivid musical depictions of mythic events, like Aeneas's horrifying description of the death of the priest Laocöon, strangled and devoured by sea serpents as he tried to urge his people to burn the Trojan Horse, and by spectacular scenic effects like the arrival of a torchlit procession pulling the Trojan Horse onstage. But the effect is as often intimate, as in the anguished reflections of Cassandra alone onstage or the astonishing pantomime of Andromache, the bereaved widow of the slain Trojan hero Hector; here the solo clarinet is as eloquent as any singer.
The modern history of Les Troyens probably begins with a concert performance of most of the opera led by Sir Thomas Beecham and broadcast by the BBC in two parts in 1949. Boris Goldovsky, founder of the opera program at Tanglewood, gave the American premiere of the opera, performed on a single evening, but with many cuts, in 1955, with his New England Opera Theatre in Boston, using many singers he had trained at the Tanglewood Music Center. In England, a famous production of Les Troyens two years later at Covent Garden was the first staging of the opera by a major opera house, although the work was not performed complete. Rafael Kubelik conducted, and the cast was headed by Jon Vickers as Aeneas and Blanche Thebom as Dido; the opera was sung in an English translation. It wasn't until 1969 that Colin Davis led the first absolutely complete staged performances at Covent Garden, after which he conducted the famous first complete recording. The first complete staging in America was by Goldovsky's Tanglewood assistant and protégée, Sarah Caldwell, whose Opera Company of Boston produced the work in 1972, a year before the opera entered the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera.
In the Caldwell production Cassandra was sung by Maralin Niska, the Desdemona in Erich Leinsdorf's Tanglewood performance of Verdi's Otello, an earlier download in this series, and Régine Crespin sang Dido, a role she had sung in abbreviated productions in Paris, San Francisco, and South America, sometimes doubling as Cassandra. She also sang Dido under the baton of the young James Levine in concert performances of Les Troyens à Carthage at the Cincinnati May Festival in 1977 and in a complete performance of Les Troyens that he led in 1978 at the Ravinia Festival. Levine went on to conduct the complete opera at the Met in 1983 and in revivals in 1993 and 2003 - 26 performances in all at the Met. Most likely Levine has led more performances of the opera than anyone in the work's history, and by now the opera is in the repertory of every company large enough, and financially stable enough, to produce it.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra's concert performances with Levine in Boston in May 2008 and at Tanglewood in July were major events. The BSO, famous for generations for its performances and recordings of the other principal works of Berlioz, had played only short excerpts from Les Troyens; now, for the first time, it was performing the complete opera under the direction of the most experienced conductor of the work. In conjunction with the Boston performances there was a scholarly symposium on the opera at Harvard University, but there were reasons to prefer the Tanglewood performance. By that point, the orchestra had the previous series under its belt, and there had been an additional rehearsal period; both the orchestra and the magnificent Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed with increased confidence, brilliance, and involvement at Tanglewood. And Levine's control of every dimension of the work was masterly - there was almost unbearable tension, excitement, and tragic weight, but Levine was also patient in allowing every dimension of the work to unfold on its own terms.
There were also a number of cast changes for Tanglewood, and at least two of the major performers in the Berkshires were superior to their counterparts in Boston - Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra, and Marcus Haddock as Aeneas. Also, baritone Dwayne Croft (Chorebus), who had suffered from a heavy cold during the Boston run and even cancelled one performance, was in more characteristically direct, solid, and heartfelt form at Tanglewood. His appearances as Chorebus at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood were the only BSO performances to date by the prominent Metropolitan Opera baritone.
Antonacci is one of the most imaginative and compelling singing actresses active in opera today, and Cassandra was only the third role she had performed in this country, where she has rarely appeared. She is a woman of great personal beauty, and a powerful actress with a haunting and individual voice and a rare sense of text. She began her career in the chorus of the opera in Bologna, Italy, and her rise to prominence was slow - she can been seen in comprimario roles in DVDs of Verdi's Macbeth and Puccini's Madama Butterfly and sang her first leading role in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1986. In the first part of her career she sang in a dozen Rossini operas as well as in earlier operas by Monteverdi and Gluck, and bel canto pieces by Bellini and Donizetti. Later she added Baroque roles, particularly in Handel. A major milestone in her career was her first Cassandra in Les Troyens in 2004. For advice, she went to Régine Crespin; she became a close friend of the great French soprano in the last years of her life. Antonacci's triumph as Cassandra in Paris led her to restudy her technique and to explore a whole new French repertory, including Carmen,Rachel in La Juive, Charlotte in Werther, and Marguerite in Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, as well as recital and orchestral literature formerly associated with Crespin. She has subsequently returned repeatedly to Cassandra, a part she invests with unforgettable passion and pain. She has learned the art of binding word to tone, and of suffusing superb public declamation with private emotion. One does not listen to her so much as experience her. One forgets her voice or even the fact she is singing; her singing is always about something other than itself. When she performs, she shares states of being. She earned one of the great Tanglewood ovations, and Levine himself brought her forward.
The Aeneas of tenor Marcus Haddock is also remarkable, even in Part I (his greatest opportunities don't arrive until Part II). Haddock, an alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center, had built a substantial international career as a reliable singer and actor in a wide range of important roles in the great theaters, but Aeneas may have presented the biggest challenge of anything he had tackled up to that time. Haddock rose to the challenge with secure musicianship, strong technique, and meaningful vocalism; it may have been his finest hour. Since then he has faced an even greater challenge: in 2009 he suffered two serious strokes that left him partially paralyzed and unable to sing. Since then he has worked unremittingly at recovery, and earlier this year made his first appearance since his strokes, singing a few arias at a benefit concert, an act of courage and determination that represented a greater victory than triumphing as Aeneas at Tanglewood.
This was Antonacci's only performance with the BSO, apart from singing the few phrases of the ghost of Cassandra in Part II. Haddock had made his debut with the orchestra in 1983 in scenes from Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen and had appeared in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at Tanglewood, once with the BSO and once with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.
A few other members of the cast had previously appeared with the BSO. Clayton Brainerd made his debut in Puccini's Madama Butterfly in 1999 and returned in Stravinsky's Oedipus rex in 2006. Jane Bunnell had appeared with Levine and the BSO in Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer in Boston and with Levine and the TMC Orchestra in Act III of Wagner's Die Götterdämmerung at Tanglewood. James Courtney appeared in Seiji Ozawa's semi-staged performances of Mozart's Idomeneo and Verdi's Falstaff at Tanglewood in 1991 and 1993, respectively, and in 1992 stepped in for an ailing colleague in a single performance of the Verdi Requiem in Symphony Hall. The versatile Boston-based baritone David Kravitz has sung with the BSO in works by Bach, Mendelssohn, and Schoenberg. In addition to her performances in Les Troyens in Boston and at Tanglewood, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay appeared in the world premiere of John Harbison's Symphony No. 5 in Symphony Hall as well as in the repeat performance at Tanglewood.
"This is a score Mr. Levine loves, and you could have heard that in his performance here even if you didn't know his long history with it . . .In performances as taut and emotionally charged as the ones Mr. Levine led here, it is easy to understand why the work has such committed partisans. Berlioz's vocal writing is technically demanding and unremittingly intense. But the soloists don't have a monopoly on the spotlight. The citizens of Troy and Carthage have a great deal to say, and do so by way of Berlioz's magnificent choral writing, which the Tanglewood Festival Chorus brought to life with a thrilling robustness. The orchestral writing is equally crucial; you hear it less as support for the singers than as a distinct force within the work, an evocation of the powers that push these characters toward their destinies. And its coloristic ingenuity makes Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique seem like a student exercise. The Boston players appeared energized by the score's challenges: the brasses, kept busy on and off stage. performed with a gleaming solidity, and the strings and woodwinds had ample opportunity to produce a seductively sumptuous sound . . .Cassandra, the doomed prophetess, is often sung by a soprano with a dark, weighty tone that magnifies the role's portentousness, but Anna Caterina Antonacci's portrayal benefited instead from a bright, clear timbre and a fine ear for both nuance and vehemence. She conveyed Cassandra's apocalyptic vision with convincing terror, frustration and resignation. One almost wishes Mr. Levine had also cast her as Dido, as is sometimes done . . . Marcus Haddock's Aeneas was better than serviceable and less than stellar, but he summoned ample power and fluidity when he most needed to. . . Dwayne Croft brought both heft and agility to Chorebus . . ."
-Allan Kozinn, New York Times
"Much of the weekend's performance felt
more polished, more deeply grounded, and more vividly imagined than
the early forays I heard in Symphony Hall this spring. In Part I,
the daunting role of Cassandra was handsomely sung by Anna Caterina
Antonacci, a stylish Italian singer whose career has been built
almost entirely in Europe. Her voice is not large, but she deployed
it with terrific subtlety and boatloads of charisma. Dwayne Croft
was sturdy and compelling as Chorebus, her fiancé. Marcus Haddock
made a respectable Aeneas with a tenor that was generously scaled
and appealing in tone quality, though sometimes short on dramatic
presence . . .The numerous smaller roles were capably filled out by
a strong ensemble cast. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang with
impressive power and a certain earthy immediacy not often heard in
Symphony Hall with its silk-lined acoustics. Levine was completely
in his element, swiveling away on his tall chair and drawing out a
focused, supremely clear and well-placed performance. Berlioz's
orchestral writing brimmed with drama, elegance and empathy for his
characters' plights. The BSO sounded well-rested and often
brilliant. William R. Hudgins floated the big Act I clarinet solo
with uncommon grace."
-Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe