Berlioz turns 200, but his opera isn't getting old

February 12, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK - Hector Berlioz was the Orson Welles of classical music - a certifiable genius, intriguingly eccentric, passionate, obstinate, way ahead of his time. Just as few people initially recognized the breadth of Welles' talent when it was first manifested in Citizen Kane, few understood the intense originality of Berlioz's first masterpiece, Symphonie fantastique.

The analogy can be drawn out a little more. Consider the way Welles stretched himself even further with The Magnificent Ambersons but had a huge amount of his vision thrown onto the cutting room floor by insensitive producers. With Berlioz, it was his mammoth opera Les Troyens (The Trojans) that got ruthlessly sliced and diced when a company finally agreed to stage it in 1863. It would take more than a hundred years before it would see the full light of day - all five acts of it - and claim its rightful place among the great epics of musical Romanticism.

The Metropolitan Opera first produced the work in 1973 and has brought it back every 10 years since. The latest presentation, which opened Monday night at Lincoln Center, is a new production that coincides with the bicentennial year of the composer's birth. Opinions will vary about the late Maria Bjornson's more or less abstract sets, Anita Yavich's distinctive costumes (the Carthaginians apparently shop at the same place Princess Leia did for Star Wars), and Francesca Zambello's animated direction - a chorus of boos mingled with cheers when the production team took a bow, 5 1/4 hours after the performance started. There are likely to be different views on the singing, too. But, on balance, this celebration of Berlioz's grand and carefully considered treatment of Virgil's Aeneid succeeds handsomely.

The wooden horse and the fall of Troy, the doomed love of Dido and Aeneas in Carthage, the prophesy of a land called Italy - it may be all Greek (or Latin) to some folks today, but it was hot stuff to Berlioz. He went positively into orbit the first time he encountered the characters, battles, heroics and passions in Virgil's poem (and he was only a boy at the time); that thrill never lost its hold on him. He sought through opera a way to animate antiquity.

Berlioz produced a score of tremendous beauty and imagination. The array of orchestral tone colors, especially from the woodwinds, is astonishing (how profound a single clarinet line can become, as in the scene when Andromache, widow of Hector, enters in grief). The composer's sense of theatrical pacing sometimes fails (not his fault when it comes to the many ballets, then de rigueur in French opera, and vibrantly danced by the Met's corps), but the music never pales.

With conductor James Levine providing momentum and lyrical nuance, the expressive peaks kept coming. Deborah Voigt's gleaming soprano made Cassandra sympathetic and arresting as she warned the Trojans of the Greek threat and got the city's women to accept a mass suicide pact. As Dido, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson sounded uncomfortable at the very top of her range, but the power and scope of her interpretation proved indelible.

Ben Heppner, the most promising Wagnerian-scaled tenor to emerge in ages, encountered serious vocal problems last year that caused him to drop out of sight for a while. His return to the stage as Aeneas was much anticipated, and much appreciated by the Met audience, despite signs of continued stress (a couple of notes cracked badly). At his best, Heppner sang with great style, sensitivity and warmth.

The many standouts in the rest of the cast included bass Robert Lloyd, tenors Matthew Polenzani and Gregory Turay (the latter singing his sailor's ballad suspended high in the air). The chorus, which Berlioz assigns a prominent role, did splendid work, as did the justly celebrated Met Orchestra.

Dominated by a nearly omnipresent curved wall made of stylized sticks, the set design is effective. Zambello's direction achieves a cinematic sweep much of the time but is not without its kitschy touches, including lots of synchronized hand gestures for the chorus, which, at one point, forms a kind of Trojan mosh pit, complete with body surfing. But there's also the rather endearing sight of two balletic lovers floating dreamily down from the rafters in Act 4, a la Cirque du Soleil.

In the end, the production is like the music itself - never a dull moment.

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