Magnificent Production of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz at Tanglewood's 2008 Opening Night

James Levine Brings BSO's Rare Concert Version of the Opera to the Berkshires

By: - Jul 06, 2008

Tanglewood Tanglewood Tanglewood Tanglewood

    Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram; multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem, inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum, Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae.

         These are the first lines written in dactylic hexameter at some time between 29 and 19 B.C. by the Roman epic poet Virgil. During junior year at Boston Latin School we translated the work. The teacher, however, informed us that we would not read or discuss in class the passage regarding Dido, the Queen or Carthage, and Aeneas the exiled Trojan leader, in the Cave. Where, it was assumed, they consummated their love in racy terms. For most of us sanguine schoolboys it was the only Latin that we read which was not assigned as homework.

            It was only later as a freshman in college that I encountered the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer for which the Aeneid was a Latin sequel. It conveyed the tragedy of the Trojans in their ten year long war with the Greeks. Virgil claimed Aeneas as a founder of the people who became the Romans.

                 Last night, at the end of the first act of "Les Troyens" by Hector Berlioz, the phenomenal opening of  Tanglewood 2008 under artistic director, James Levine, the enormous Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under conductor John Oliver, sang "Italia, Italia, Italia." That conveyed the essence of the motive of Virgil to provide his nation and Empire under Caesar Augustus with a mythology and cultural tradition to rival that of  the Greeks. The Romans had reduced the Greeks to occupation, used their women as household slaves, and Greek scholars as tutors for their children. The political agenda of the Aeneid may have involved payback for the ancient barbarism of the Greeks.

              Anna Caterina Antonacci,  the soprano who performed the role of Cassandra, the prophetess who was ignored by her fellow Trojans, was powerfully poignant in vilifying the atrocities of the Greeks. She urged other noble women to join her in a mass suicide to avoid being raped and enslaved. It was her final act to deny the Greeks the spoils of victory. Just as Aeneas managed to escape with the treasures of Troy.  Priam's treasure would form a dowry for the founding of Rome.

                  In the Iliad the tragic events occurred in consequence of the abduction of Helen, the wife of King Menaleus, by Paris, the son of Priam, and a prince of Troy. The pretty boy Paris was depicted as cowardly opting to fight from afar with a bow and arrow (like the crafty Odysseus) where his brother Hector fought with sword and spear hand to hand. But in "Les Troyens" we hear Cassandra praise the hero Paris for ridding the Trojans of the arrogant tyrant Achilles. The arrow of Paris was guided to the heel of  Achilles by  the goddess Aphrodite who loved him.

             The two hour performance, without intermission, was so absorbing that it went by in a blur. While it was clearly Antonacci who was the focus of a powerful rendering of Cassandra, throughout the opera there were fine performances by tenor, Marcus Haddock, as Aeneas, and other roles.

                  It was James Levine who brought together the many elements to mesh as one great and complex, multi valent, nuanced work. Just the physical view of so many musicians, chorus, and soloists densely packed on the stage was daunting. To create out of all these many elements a single work with power, passion, and grace was an epic achievement. In the brief tenure as artistic director Levine, with his personal vision and conviction,  particularly a devotion to opera, has raised the paradigm for Tanglewood as far beyond summer camp for the BSO. He has refreshed and revitalized a great tradition which was on cruise control in the final years of the BSO under Seiji Ozawa. Levine appears to be far more invested and committed to using Tanglewood as a setting for great works and new ideas.

                   Last night, it was abundantly clear that the Berkshire audience is the direct beneficiary of that artistic vision. There has been some speculation that there might be too much focus on opera this season. But if last night is a preview of what to anticipate all we can say is bring it on. Rarely have we ever experienced such a profound aesthetic experience.

                In program notes Levine wrote that "Â…Berlioz's amazing, jaw-dropping Les Troyens is something altogether different, an opera on an astonishing scope and scale, and a work that, except for a number of excerpts the BSO has previously performed in Boston or Tanglewood, is entirely new to the orchestra's repertoire. Given the extraordinary opportunities I've had to work on Les Troyens over the years (on stage at the Metropolitan Opera  many times and in several concert settings) and given how much I love it, it's a thrill for me to conduct it here this weekendÂ…Les Troyens is one of the most amazing works ever created  by anyone, so any chance to experience it is specialÂ…"

           During the summer long Tanglewood season what a difference a day makes. On the previous evening we packed a picnic basket and managed to find a patch of green on the densely populated lawn for a performance by local musician James Taylor. Most encouragingly that occasion brought out families providing an all important exposure of the Tanglewood experience to a younger audience. It was a birthday party for Taylor and there were surprise guests joining him on stage including Carole King, actor John Travolta, and cellist Yo Yo Ma. Taylor informed the audience that Tanglewood is his favorite place to perform.

                   Let us hope that many of those families return for other evenings under the stars. Weather permitting, on Friday night, and an all Beethoven program, we plan to join friends for a festive picnic. On Friday nights during the season lawn tickets are just $9 which is the price of movie and a lot more fun. On Tuesday, Keith Lockhart will conduct a concert version of a musical by Stephen Sondheim. Last summer he presented a very successful concert of Carousel. This is a far more satisfying experience than a medley of Pops hits. We get to hear a classic Broadway show with a truly great orchestra and superb soloists. It will be a great treat to enjoy an evening of Sondheim. And, in the area of contemporary music, we will to be exposed to a week devoted to the work of Elliott Carter. The Tanglewood Festival has a mandate to educate its audience. Levine appears to be particularly devoted to that agenda.

                 It is this constant variety and blending of elements that makes Tanglewood such a unique resource. For a lot of us, in addition to world class, art, theatre, and dance, it is why we live in the Berkshires..