Although I cannot call myself a Berliozian (but rather the opposite of that), I couldn’ t help checking the Boston Symphony Orchestra’ s concert with the first part of Berlioz’ s gigantic rarely performed opera Les Troyens. I have to say that my first positive experience with that work involved James Levine’ s DVD from the Metropolitan Opera in spite of the exotic (if impressive) cast and seeing that he would conduct the work again tonight was the decisive element to make me buy my ticket. As in his New York performance with Jessye Norman and Tatiana Troyanos, Levine resisted the temptation of presenting too turgid a view of this pseudo-classic work. On his hand, Les Troyens is a matter of Musikdrama, often shown in almost late-Romantic intensity – and that’ s all for the better. In that sense, the BSO was the main feature of this concert. This orchestra’ s lush, full yet light sonorities never get in the way of soloists and chorus and also involve the necessary clarity that ensure that Berlioz’ s woodwind effects hit home as they should. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus also deserve compliments for their powerful yet disciplined contribution.
Levine has the habit of seating his orchestra in a rather exotic manner, which might be effective to balance the sound of violas with the remaining strings. However, I will never be convinced that having the soloists standing in the end of the orchestra right in front of the chorus is a reasonable idea. In the three times I could witness this arrangement, it has always been perverse to singers, who seem understandably nervous having to take pride of place in the sound picture when they are not in the front of the orchestra. Especially when you have lightweight soloists.
Taking the crucial role of Cassandra, Yvonne Naef displayed an exquisite middle-weight mezzo-soprano that makes me think of another Yvonne – Minton – although the Australian singer had a brighter edge to her sound. I am used to more incisive and intense portrayals of this role and I took some time to understand that it was not only a sensible but a sensitive idea for Naef to opt for a more feminine and vulnerable approach, since her creamy sensuous voice was a bit stretched by the more exposed top notes and tested by having to sing over a full chorus. That said, no ugly sound came out of her throat during the whole evening, not to mention that her diction is crystalline and her phrasing is musicianly and elegant.
Announced to be indisposed, Dwayne Croft still could produce a most praiseworthy performance. His dark baritone is supple enough for Berliozian phrasing and only the occasional bleached out mezza voce and also some coughing showed that this reliable singer was indeed ill. Curiously, it was Marcello Giordani who seemed not to be in his best shape. He was entirely grey-toned during the first act and regaining the brightness of his sound for the second act did not prevent the sensation of effort.
In the whole, Levine’s theatrical approach aided by the exquisite orchestral playing and the unconventional yet touching Cassandre of Yvonne Naef made me think I would gladly listen to the second part after a 20 min intermission (alas, this will be possibly only for those who – unlike me – will be in Boston on May 4th), even if I have doubts about Giordani’ s Aeneas right when he has a lot to sing and most of all about Anne Sofie Von Otter’ s Dido, especially placed behind the orchestra. Last time I saw her, Levine was the conductor who chose to seat her like that in the Gasteig Concert Hall for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and I can tell you she had a bad time trying to be heard from the remote spot on stage reserved for her.