Whether by accident or design, Thomas Adès’ Boston Symphony program coincided with two pertinent dates: the first day of Spring and 25th March, Good Friday in 1300, the precise date scholars have determined Dante begins his journey into the Underworld. Stravinsky’s Perséphone is often referred to as his other Rite of Spring; Adès’ selections from his own Dante are self-explanatory. The works are further linked by dance and a crucial interplay of light and dark.

Edgaras Montvidas, Thomas Adès and Danielle de Niese
© Robert Torres

André Gide’s libretto radically alters the original myth and Christianizes its title character (not difficult since Christ could arguably be described as a “Persephone figure”). Gone the toxic masculinity personified in Pluto and Zeus (Persephone’s father!) and its contribution to the violence of her rape. This Persephone, moved by compassion for the damned, willingly sacrifices herself and descends to the Underworld, then willingly agrees to return for three months, once the consumption of a pomegranate reminds her of her life above and allows her to see the desolation her absence has caused. The melodrama closes with words echoing John’s gospel and evoking the Resurrection and redemption.

Adès illuminated the score with lean, translucent textures and rhythmic vitality, the shimmer shadowed only briefly by the eerie darkness of Persephone’s time in Hades. A radiant Danielle de Niese personified Spring in a brightly floral dress. Through color and inflection she created a vibrant personality giving to her narration a wide-eyed innocence and ethereal quality. Edgaras Montvidas’ voice has darkened and gained heft since his last visit but not at the expense of agility or expressivity. The only drawback was muddy diction which initially made the language he was singing a mystery. Highest marks go to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and The Boys of St Paul’s Choir School whose rapturous soft singing and pure, bright tones were crucial to this performance’s success.

Thomas Adès
© Robert Torres

Like Perséphone, Adès’ selections from Dante Project were deprived of the choreography which would make them complete. Fortunately Adès’ pictorial score is so fluid and boldly imaginative it dances on its own. Liszt audibly informs the phantasmagorical suite from Inferno, sometimes subtly, other times overtly as in the opening Abandon Hope and the showstopping The Thieves – devoured by reptiles, set to an orchestrated version of Liszt’s Grand Galop Chromatique which lends an “Offenbacchic” frenzy to one of Dante’s more macabre episodes and renders the closing Satan – in the lake of ice anticlimactic. Paradiso, performed in its entirety, charts Dante’s ascension to the blinding light of the Empyrean and his vision of “the love which moves the Sun and the other stars,” with simplicity, directness, and a lightening and brightening of textures as the music gradually rises to a crescendo capped by the vocalizing of the wordless chorus. Adès’ leadership was sculptural, robust and kinetic. Impressive does not begin to describe the overall effect nor explain the hunger for more. For now DVDs and CDs will have to suffice, but here’s hoping someone on this side of the Atlantic will give this masterful composition the staging it deserves.