But there is more to this quintessentially romantic composer, whose two-part opera "Les Troyens" opened the Boston Symphony Orchestra season at Tanglewood over the weekend. There's the tender love music of the "fantastique" and "Faust," the reverential awe of the Requiem and "L'enfance du Christ."
"The Trojans" is all of these things are more. In a program note, BSO director James Levine described the five-hour epic as "jaw-dropping." And jaw-dropping it was, in both conception and execution, as Levine led 14 soloists, the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in a complete concert performance Saturday night and yesterday afternoon.
The BSO took a huge leap in opening the season this way. Never before had a Tanglewood opening been spread over two programs. "Les Troyens," moreover, is not your everyday iPod music, and the two-part format meant that some listeners who might have taken a chance on one part wouldn't bother with either part.
But Levine, who had closed the Boston season with the opera and who is nothing if not ambitious wanted it for Tanglewood.
Whether by design or coincidence, the BSO, with its long Berlioz tradition, picked up where it left off last summer. Like "La Damnation de Faust," a 2007 closer based on Goethe, "Troyens" is soaked in mythology. "Troyens," completed in 1858, is taken almost verbatim from Virgil's account of the fall of Troy (Part I) and the love affair between Aeneas and Dido in Carthage (Part II).
The conception is so grand that the opera was never performed complete in Berlioz' lifetime, and still in the modern era receives only sporadic performances. Staged, it consists of a series of tableaux rather than continuous action; the battle and Trojan Horse scenes are reported rather than enacted. A concert version works well.
On the whole, Part II came together better than Part I. But Levine, looking hale and vigorous in a black suit, wielded firm command and loosed an awesome display of vocal and orchestral firepower. On Tanglewood's tight rehearsal schedule, the project clearly benefited from the series of Boston programs in the spring.
Berlioz doesn't make life easy for his sopranos. Both Cassandra and Dido have big, taxing parts. Tanglewood had the right singers for both.
Cassandra dominates Part I. Anna Caterina Antonacci, clad in black as if for a funeral, was terrifying in the role especially so when drawing on her throaty low register as she rained down prophecies and curses on the Trojans, who think themselves safe from the Greek invaders. Even Chorebus, her lover, wasn't spared.
The Dido and Aeneas story takes over in Part II, which runs for well over three hours. This is the stuff of tragedy.
As the forsaken queen, Anne Sofie von Otter, with her silvery yet commanding voice, made herself vulnerable to Aeneas' advances and compassionate to his son. When he left her, she was shattering heartbreaking in one of the great farewell and immolation scenes in all opera. A singer can put no more into a role than this.
The Aeneas, Marcus Haddock, was almost overpowered by an outpouring like this. Rather than the typical warrior-hero, Berlioz' Aeneas is a plaything of the gods as he dithers between his love for Dido and his god-given destiny to found of a new Troy in Rome. Singing the part for the first time, Haddock, a Tanglewood alumnus, brought a winning modesty and lyric approach to a role that would probably gain from more dramatic force.
The supporting cast was strong all the way through. Outstanding contributions came from Christin-Marie Hill, a third-year Tanglewood student, as Dido's imploring sister Anna; Kristinn Sigmundsson as Dido's minister Narbal, who warns her against Aeneas (he's a Cassandra in his own right); and Philippe Castagner as Hylas, a homesick Trojan sailor. James Courtney and Julien Robbins lent comic relief as a pair of sardonic Trojan sentries, suggesting that soldiers are the same throughout history.
Singing from memory in the many choral passages, John Oliver's chorus was a potent force as both Trojans and Carthaginians. It, too, could warn and mourn.
Like Wagner in "Tristan," Berlioz has a sound and mythos all his own the sound so brilliant yet melting, so romantic yet classic, that there is nothing like them. Offstage brass bands lend drama to the martial passages.
Berlioz would not be Berlioz if the orchestral writing weren't full of striking effects, and the BSO was generous with them. One of the most effective moments was clarinetist William R. Hudgins' extended solo, over a softly complaisant orchestra, mourning the death of Hector.
For the rest, there were snarls, growls, sobs, sighs and throughout passion and sumptuous playing. The hunt and storm scene, while the lovers disport themselves in a cave, set the tone for the drama to unfold during Part II. And who could resist such effects as a set of jangling Turkish bells beating out the rhythm of the Trojan March at its first statement?
That march, ending the opera as Dido calls for the death of the departing Aeneas and his Rome and then kills herself, will resound across the Tanglewood grounds for a long time after an epochal event like this.
The audiences cheered loudly and lustily. Will the rest of the season be an anticlimax? That's doubtful.