Leon Botstein Continues His Exploration of Off-the-Beaten-Track Opera with Concert Performance of D’Indy’s Fervaal, with American Symphony

Following Unanimously-Praised Production of Meyerbeer’s Grand Opera Les Huguenots at Bard SummerScape

Wall Street Journal Calls Bard’s Huguenots, “A Triumph for Conductor Leon Botstein”

Each summer at Bard SummerScape, and each season at Lincoln Center, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra explore the forgotten byways of operatic repertoire with often-revelatory results. In recent seasons, they have given concert performances of such rarities as Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers – which the New York Times called “a bang up performance, one of the best [Botstein] has ever put on”; Édouard Lalo’s Le roi d’Ys; and a double bill of one-act operas by Italian modernist Luigi Dallapiccola that left a critic for ConcertoNet “astonished by what [Botstein] brings to light – sometimes radiant light.” Following a performance by Botstein and the ASO of Franz Shreker’s Der ferne Klang, veteran critic Peter G. Davis wrote for Musical America, “Botstein’s sympathy for the score was apparent everywhere… The spirit and sweep of the music could scarcely have been more fully captured.”

But perhaps no opera performance by Botstein and the ASO has captured the imagination of the public and critics as much as the fully staged production of Meyerbeer’s grand opera, Les Huguenots, a highlight of the 2009 Bard SummerScape festival, which is dedicated to “Wagner and His World” – the theme of the 20th annual Bard Music Festival. Producing this supposedly unstageable opera (“Too tough for the singers!” and “Too long!” are but two long-held criticisms) was clearly a risk for Botstein – despite once having been enormously popular (it was the first to receive 1,000 performances at the Paris Opera), Les Huguenots went on to drop like a stone into obscurity, last being performed at the Met in 1915. And yet, as the Wall Street Journal reported, “Bard’s gamble paid off… [Botstein] capably balanced the grandeur and the intimacy of the score and fused its varied musical styles into a grand, architectural sweep.”

Other critics agreed. A five-star review in the Financial Times reported, “Les Huguenots in Bard’s staging is a thriller from beginning to end. ... Leon Botstein made the right preliminary decision by settling on an ample performing text ... and, leading the American Symphony Orchestra and an excellent chorus, holds it all together with complete assurance.” According to the New York Post, “The large cast of young American singers, although lacking superstar vocal glamour, rose to the virtuoso vocal moments. ... Les Huguenots may not be a masterpiece, but Botstein conducts it with the fire and precision befitting one,” while Musical America noted, “Let’s not forget Meyerbeer’s imaginative and colorful orchestration, which Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra showed to full advantage in their wholly persuasive performance.” Praising the “sweep, style, and energy” of the performance,” the New York Times concluded, “This production was a chance to enter into the cultural mind-set of a rich era in opera history. The time may be right for a Met revival. Until then, Mr. Botstein once again deserves credit for an overdue rescue job.”

Opera lovers needn’t wait until next summer to join Botstein and his intrepid orchestra on another voyage of discovery (although there’s no harm in being excited about Bard SummerScape’s plan to stage Schreker’s Der ferne Klang in summer 2010). Instead, they can plan to attend the first of six concerts to be given by the American Symphony Orchestra as part of the 2009-10 Great Performers series at Lincoln Center , where, on Wednesday, October 14, Botstein will lead the ASO in Vincent d’Indy’s Fervaal, Op. 40 (1893) at Avery Fisher Hall. D’Indy’s great opera was inspired by Wagner’s epics, but composers such as Debussy and Dukas thought Fervaal soared to even greater heights.

The concert performance of Fervaal sheds much-needed light on another gem from the golden age of French opera, a period that Botstein and the ASO have mined with superb results, including the 2008-09 season opener by Lalo (Le roi d’Ys), and, in previous seasons, Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue and Chausson’s Le roi Arthus. Botstein recorded the latter two works to great acclaim with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for Telarc, with the Chausson release selected by Gramophone for “Editor’s Choice” distinction. “Botstein clearly loves this score,” noted the magazine’s editor, “and he makes the most convincing case yet for it.”

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