We felt a bit of cognitive dissonance at seeing more than 200 musicians on stage for a Bellini opera, and though we know that Wagner admired Bellini, what was Wotan, in the person of James Morris, doing there? Well, what they were all doing was providing nothing less than high drama for the 6,000 opening night gala attendees in the Koussevitzky Shed—gala and generous the performances were!
James Levine “proposed” and Charles Dutoit “disposed” the overture and first act of Bellini’s Norma for the entire first half of the concert. The amazing Tanglewood Festival chorus was on hand for something like its 900th BSO engagement. Performing from memory as is their wont, they were hair-raising when in full cry, to the extent that they covered the opening utterances of James Morris. But their introduction of Norma’s “Casta diva” was masterful, and soprano Angela Meade was able to soar above the combined forces of chorus and orchestra with ease. Her singing in fact banished recollections of Joan Sutherland or just about any other diva in the role.
Even more ardent was the Pollione, Sicilian tenor Roberto De Biasio. His was real bel canto singing, but with power and deep dramatic involvement, and he sounded like a young José Carreras. One would like to see De Biasio on stage. The polished contribution of the dramatic mezzo Kristine Jepson as Adalgisa was wrenching.
Rossini’s Overture to William Tell is a chestnut that the BSO has been trumpeting since its second season in 1883. Jules Eskin made the most of the solo cello introduction, even though the audience was taken a bit by surprise by his quiet eloquence. Perhaps a better signal for the audience from the conductor was needed here. By the time cellist Martha Babcock joined him for their bel canto duet, decorum was restored. But when the trumpet intoned the familiar da-da-dum da-da-dum, da-da-dum-dum-dum theme, there were many elbows, titters and guffaws in the audience —though one assumes those were from New Yorkers, not sophisticated Bostonians! Dutoit even permitted himself some knowing smirks.
The trio from Act III of Verdi’s I Lombardi also begins with quiet subtlety — this time from concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. His opening extended solo was brilliant and carried convincingly in the shed. The orchestra played just fine for Dutoit, but Verdi’s “big guitar” accompaniment was provided as a mere courtesy to the excellent trio of vocalists. This time we could hear James Morris as Pagano quite well. We are happy to declare that he can still stand and deliver sonorous and dramatic tones over a wide range. The years have been very kind to his instrument. The other soloists, soprano Angela Mead as Giselda and tenor Roberto De Biasio, as Oronte, in their second appearances of the evening gave something extra — dramatic impersonation of character and engagement with each other.
The evening ended with a rousing yet well detailed performance of Respighi’s Pines of Rome. The acoustics of the shed are known to be remarkable. Pianissimos of soloists carry clearly and bloom wonderfully in the two seconds of reverberation. The chirping of birds and other coloristic effects also made their desired effects, and the piece proceeded with Bolero-esq inevitability. The ending was properly enormous, though one regretted being unable to hear the organ that James David Christie was mightily stoking. Its loss of power is perhaps a casualty of its placement behind the otherwise successful Bolt, Beranek and Newman “cloud” shell from 1959.
The evening had begun at 6 pm in Seiji Ozawa Hall with one of Tanglewood’s trademark Prelude Concerts, which the BSO provides gratis before every evening Symphony performance to anyone with a lawn pass or shed ticket. This represents both good PR and good crowd control, inasmuch as it encourages some of the audience to arrive early enough to avoid delays in parking and admission. In last night’s concert there were certainly some real pleasures.
For me, in fact, the highlight of the entire evening’s opening festivities was Schubert’s heavenly Quintet in C for two violins, viola and two cellos op D.956, dispatched with sovereign command by Alexander Velinzon, violin; Tatiana Dimitriades, violin; Steven Ansell, viola; Jonathan Miller, cello; and Owen Young, cello. While it some ways the piece is a concerto for first violin and string quartet, on another level it requires a tremendous discipline of ensemble to bring off. It has all the best of Schubert, from poignant melancholic musings to lively German dances. And this performance had performers of the highest caliber who were well rehearsed yet who permitted themselves great freedom of expression and who took obvious delight in the proceedings.
The Schubert was preceded by a performance of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello — his modernist attempt to meet Debussy halfway. Cellist Jonathan Miller and violinist Tatiana Dimitriades tossed it off with comparative ease, though with some tuning issues probably related to humid, summer festival, conditions.