In years to come, Sunday's big, blazing, two-concert, five-hours-plus-a-dinner-break, season-ending account of Berlioz's Les Troyens by the Boston Symphony Orchestra will probably not acquire quite the "I was there, man" stature of, say, James Brown's 1968 show at the Garden, but it certainly felt like an event, certainly the biggest event yet of James Levine's tenure as music director, and certainly one of the biggest events in Boston classical music in quite a while. It was, in fact, enough of an occasion that I think the BSO could have raked in some extra cash selling commemorative, rock-tour-style t-shirts.
I totally would have bought one of those.
Whenever Levine conducts music he really loves, he gets more energetic, as if the performance is a generator that he's plugging into. So it's worth noting that he was as kinetic as I've ever seen him in Boston. Levine did right by the opera in casting: the only qualm was Marcello Giordani, who ran out of steam in the fifth act—more shouting than singing—but even he was impressive for four-fifths of the day, giving Aeneas a ringing charisma. Anne Sofie von Otter's mezzo-soprano is perhaps a touch ethereal for Dido, but she didn't try and compete with the orchestra, instead confidently drawing the drama to her, with a stage presence and an unfailingly intelligent musicality that anchored the human dimension of Part II. (This was a fun-loving queen, too, if her exuberant toe-tapping during Act IV's dances of Egyptian girls and slaves was any indication.) Her two duets, with Giordani and with (I predict) future star Christin Marie-Hill, as Dido's sister Anna, were ideal demonstrations of Berlioz's penchant for grand-scale intimacy.
Eric Cutler was a crowd favorite, negotiating Iopas's song with ease. I also liked Philippe Castagner's ardent memories of Troy at the opening of Act V, after which David Kravitz and James Courtney held their own in the opera's only bit of comic relief, wishing to stay in Carthage for reasons far less exalted than Aeneas. The comparatively terse spectacle of Part I doesn't offer as much opportunity for vocal treasure—Yvonne Naëf, as Cassandra, sang through a head cold—but as Chorebus, Dwayne Croft's trombone-like baritone ideally suited his ardent, persistent rationalization of Cassandra's warnings. (It struck me that Part I is, in a way, an enormous proof of the rule that one's fiancée is always right.)
In the midst of some ravishingly meticulous sounds from the orchestra, the surprise was how much power they were able to unleash: from the second balcony, parts of Part I were possibly the loudest things I've ever heard in Symphony Hall. The playing not only demonstrated the depth of the BSO, but the depth of Boston's freelance community, as the stage doors kept drawing open to reveal yet another offstage ensemble. The orchestra has an institutional affinity for Berlioz that somehow gets passed down in Lamarckian fashion, but Les Troyens is a horse of a different color, as it were; the performance seemed to mark the transition from Levine's honeymoon period into a new era at the BSO.
A century-and-a-half on, Berlioz's stubborn ambition still causes polarized reactions. I've been on a real music-and-cinema tear lately, which explains my latest hypothesis: being a fan of Berlioz is strongly correlated with being a fan of David Lean movies. If you're the type that responds to the luxurious pace and painterly compositions of Doctor Zhivago or The Bridge on the River Kwai by wishing that David would just get on with the story already, you're probably best off sticking with Rossini. But if your idea of a good time is rearranging your work schedule to make room for a two-hour drive to catch a screening of a 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia, then Hector's your man. Les Troyens is the Lawrence of Arabia of operas; there might be grander or even longer operas in the repertoire, but none of them can quite match Berlioz's magnum opus in the way it uses its epic pace and canvas to draw you in, to give you the room to absorb atmosphere and notice detail, to shape the human drama with such richly-apportioned care.
One last thought, for any and all prospective divas out there: do you think you can pull off a regal presence while wearing what is essentially a purple silk bathrobe? Because Anne Sofie von Otter can. Let that be the standard to which you aspire.