Adès’ roiling, phantasmagoric “Dante” provides a heavenly Boston Symphony premiere

March 26, 2023
By Jonathan Blumhofer

Thomas Adès conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in excerpts from his Dante ballet Thursday night. Photo: Robert Torres

Over the years, Dante Alighieri’s Commedia has been the impetus for any number of musical works. Yet, aside from Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, few are firmly established in the canon.

So it says something of Thomas Adès’ ambition (not to mention his chutzpah) that, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Florentine poet’s death in 2021, the British composer wrote not a curtain raiser or a tone poem but Dante, a full, evening-length ballet on The Divine Comedy. 

Two excerpts from Dante—the Inferno Suite and the concluding Paradiso—made their way to Symphony Hall Thursday night, where they received their local premieres, courtesy of Adès and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

On the merits of those two sections, the composer-conductor has crafted a stirring ballet. The music reflects recent developments in his musical language: never at a loss for inventive thematic turns or creative handling of instruments, Adès has, in the last few years, seemed increasingly at ease with the idea of expressive directness and melodic primacy. Among many other things, he is that rare composer who uses key signatures without falling into the trap of sounding derivative.

That he manages this feat in Dante is all the more impressive since the score wears its influences so lightly. To be sure, there’s fun to be had attempting to pinpoint the music’s various points of reference: Liszt here, Sibelius there, John Adams—and maybe John Dowland—lurking around another corner. But all of it is filtered through Adès’ singular musical voice and, accordingly, the piece could only have come from his pen.

In the Inferno Suite, which extracts eight of Dante’s thirteen Act 1 numbers, the opening “Abandon Hope” pummels viscerally, screaming and snarling all at once. “The Ferryman” floats lyrically and the “Pavan of the Souls in Limbo” features ominously tremulous refrains.

Yet not everything is chilling. The aptly titled “The Thieves” reworks Liszt’s Grand Galop Chromatique into a riotous phantasmagoria. In the brooding “The Hypocrites,” soaring cello solos and slithering scalar lines prove soulfully affecting. Unexpectedly, the concluding “Satan–in the lake of ice” offers a resolutely diatonic final cadence.

So, less surprisingly, does Paradiso. Here Adès’ writing reflects earlier works of his like Tevot and Polaris: full of subtle motivic transformations, blazing orchestral colors, and a Beethovenian reliance on the simplest of musical building blocks. Given that Liszt famously eschewed a depiction of Paradise in his own Dante Symphony, it’s notable that Adès’ 25-minute-long movement rarely wants for something to say or a place to go.

True, it doesn’t entirely manage to avoid the curse of unstaged ballet: the repeated progressions just before the choir’s climactic entrance grow redundant without choreography. And the final peroration veers dangerously close to Hollywood bombast. But such is the assurance of Adès’ technique that he knows how to just toe the line without actually crossing it.

On Thursday, the ecstatic drive to the double bar was nothing short of cathartic. In fact, the overall reading from the orchestra and women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus seemed as much a celebration of Adès’ new score as it was of the composer/conductor’s rich, decade-plus-long relationship with the BSO. For technical security, expressive understanding, and sheer Technicolor thrills, last night’s concert was as dynamic a performance as either group has offered all season.

Prior to intermission, the pairing brought a similar focus to bear on Igor Stravinsky’s Perséphone. Commissioned by Ida Rubinstein and finished in 1934, this melodrama (last presented by the BSO in 1976) has a charged history.

Granted, Andre Gide’s libretto mutes much of the physical and sexual violence of the original Greek myth, while also heavy-handedly Christianizing the title character’s ultimate motivations. Even so, the creative team was consistently at odds about where the score’s emphasis should lie. As a result, what emerged on Thursday wasn’t, perhaps, the most compelling of tales.

The eponymous goddess—daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest—is abducted by Pluto to be his wife. Unhappy in the Underworld, she eventually returns to earth, though her destiny as queen of Hades and sympathy for those in her domain causes her to forsake her earthly husband and return to the land of shadows. This sacrifice (in the myth, she’s forced to go; Gide’s Perséphone has agency) allows her to become the goddess of spring.

Notwithstanding the bowdlerized and rather convoluted plot, Adès drew some resplendent, sensitive playing from the BSO last night. The opening of the second tableaux, for instance, overflowed with eerie beauty. Rhythms in the first danced amiably, while the orchestral explosions in the third were grand and bold.

Tenor Edgaras Montvidas delivered his multiple solos with might and agility. Though he was occasionally covered in his lower range and lost a bit of power as the piece wore on, Montvidas’ high notes rang out effortlessly and his pitch was always true.

Soprano Danielle de Niese was the evening’s impassioned reciter, while the TFC’s contributions were strong. Most striking, though, were the boys of Saint Paul’s Choir School, who brought appealing resonance and purity of tone to Perséphone’s closing scene.

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