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Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Little Ado

How to Conduct Yourself Dept.: Erich Leinsdorf was an assistant to Toscanini in Salzburg, music director of the Boston Symphony, author of some fascinating books about music, and, once he put Boston behind him, a freelance conductor around the world. He made regular visits to Saratoga to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I phone-interviewed him in advance of one such visit in 1984. It was a wide-ranging talk that ended too soon. “Come and see me while I’m here,” he insisted, so we met at the Gideon Putnam Hotel, where he was staying.
Erich Leinsdorf

Among the many topics we discussed was the issue of opera in English, for which I’m a strong advocate when on these shores. “I don’t know that I agree,” he said, “unless it’s a comedy.”

“I have a good example of that,” I said. “I just saw ‘Beatrice and Benedict’ at Tanglewood. It was in French, so only a fluent speaker of that language could follow it.”

“Who was conducting?” he asked sharply.

“Ozawa,” I said.

“Ah,” said Leinsdorf. “Then he was conducting it in Flench. That’s what he does over there in Renox.”

Here’s my review.


At the end of the first act of Hector Berlioz’ opera “Beatrice et Benedict,” Hero and her friend Ursule sing a duet, a celebration of the beauty of the night (“Vous soupirez, madame?”). As sung by soprano Sylvia McNair and mezzo-soprano Janice Taylor Saturday night at Tanglewood, it was a sublime moment in a most excellent production of the opera.

Seiji Ozawa
This was a fully costumed presentation for which the Tanglewood stage was raked and set as a carousel, the orchestra sitting amidst the various colorful animals. Beatrice and Benedict (Fredericka von Stade and John Garrison) pursued one another around the horses, tiger, lion and so on. The whimsical set gave the opera an impromptu feeling of the period.

ltalo Tajo, as the dipsomaniacal composer Samarone, threatened to steal the show in the “Grotesque Epithalmium,” in which he instructs the chorus and orchestra in wedding music he has written. He displaced conductor BSO conductor Seiji Ozawa, who watched the proceedings from a carousel horse.

Other members of the small cast were David Parsons and John Ostendorf, as Benedict’s friends (who trick him into falling for Beatrice) and William Young as the town’s governor.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Tanglewood Choir were conducted by John Oliver, the production was conceived and directed by David Kneuss, who did a marvelous job with what could have been a very crowded space.

The biggest disappointment was hearing the opera sung in French. There must have been some particularly funny lines, especially from Samarone, but they were lost to this unilingual reviewer.

It is a snobby custom in this country to present every opera in its native tongue, which keeps the operas inaccessible unless you slavishly memorize them beforehand. No non-English speaking country does this, which seems to show us as being ashamed of our language.

It could be argued that a culture’s music is an outgrowth of the language, thus accommodating pitch and stress, but a sensitive translator/versifier could accomplish an English version fairly intelligently.

– Albany Knickerbocker News, 7 August 1984

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