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Epic Verdi and a shining night

James Levine leads the TMC Orchestra, John Botha, James Morris, Zeljko Lucic, and Patrice Racette in 'Don Carlo.' James Levine leads the TMC Orchestra, John Botha, James Morris, Zeljko Lucic, and Patrice Racette in "Don Carlo." (Hilary Scott)

LENOX -- Tanglewood at this time of year is like a matryoshka doll, with festivals nested inside of festivals. Beyond the very public labors of the BSO, which performed on Friday night and yesterday, there is a constant buzz of activity at the Tanglewood Music Center, where about 150 young professional musicians come each summer to hone their craft. James Levine, since taking over as music director of the BSO, has made an annual tradition of working with the TMC fellows to prepare and perform an opera in concert, with high-caliber soloists imported to sing the major roles. The eagerly anticipated results of this year's collaboration were on display Saturday night with a rousing, high-octane performance of Verdi's spellbinding opera "Don Carlo."

A complex work about ruthless power politics, illicit love, and oedipal struggle set against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, "Don Carlo," even in the four-act version performed here, is a demanding score for vocalists and orchestra alike, and it was an extremely ambitious choice for a one-off concert performance. The BSO fielded a strong cast of soloists, but it was the dramatic transformation of the young TMC fellows into an im passioned and exacting opera orchestra that made this performance a triumph.

The excitement of the musicians was palpable from the opening scene. In this version, we first meet Don Carlo as a man unhinged after his betrothed bride, Elisabeth of Valois, has been taken by his father, King Philip II, to be his own wife. Don Carlo meets his friend Rodrigo, who presses him to join the fight for the liberation of Flanders. On Saturday, as the two men pledged eternal loyalty, singing "Dio, che nell'alma infondere amor," one of the justly famous moments of this opera, you could look across the string section and see the players laying into their instruments with everything they had.

This level of commitment became the norm across all four acts, and while the playing was far from flawless, this was an accomplished, lucid performance of a very challenging score. For his part Levine was in excellent, vigorous form, evidently feeding off the energy of these youthful musicians, and relishing the details of a work that is obviously close to his heart. You would never have guessed that health concerns had caused him to cancel two performances at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland just a week earlier.

The powerful tenor Johan Botha sang the title role with a ringing voice and richly expressive phrasing. Anyone who caught the Met's staging of "Don Carlo" this past season may find his image of King Philip forever haunted by the German bass René Pape, who gave an astounding performance in that role. On Saturday night, James Morris was less grand but still compelling in his subtle portrayal of the internally tormented king. He began "Ella giammai m'amò" with a kind of primal whimper, building in intensity to convey the sorrow and desperation of a man who rules over the multitudes but cannot compel the love of his own wife.

As Elisabeth, Patricia Racette sang with radiant tone and gave a sensitive, deeply felt performance. Luciana D'Intino's mezzo-soprano felt almost like two voices sutured together -- a lighter, creamier top and a deep, almost raspy bottom -- but she deployed both with old-school theatricality and nearly stole the show as Princess Eboli. Zeljko Lucic was solid and dependable as Rodrigo, if seldom inspiring; the same could be said for Paata Burchuladze as the Grand Inquisitor. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus did itself proud, singing with flexibility and precision. After four hours, when Verdi's sweeping opera finally pulled into harbor, all the performers were given a grateful and prolonged ovation.

The weekend began with the more sober ministrations of Kurt Masur, leading the BSO in works by Prokofiev and Beethoven. Masur, who just turned 80, has struggled with health problems in recent years, but on Friday night he looked hardier and more robust than he has in some time. His program touched on two of his strengths: the core Austro-German repertoire, by way of Beethoven's First Symphony, and 20th-century Russian music, by way of Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony" and the Violin Concerto No. 1, with Joshua Bell as soloist.

Perhaps by necessity, Masur has pared down his podium gestures to the most essential, but he drew taut and vibrant performances of both symphonies, and the orchestra sounded sparkling. Bell threw himself into the surging, rhapsodic lines of the Prokofiev concerto with impressive ardor, though the violinist's near-constant tossing around of his upper body also proved distracting. His performance left one wondering whether Bell, if he had channeled his expressive energy more directly into tone production, could have generated as much light as he did heat.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

'Related'

Don Carlo by Verdi

James Levine, conductor

Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra

At: Tanglewood, Saturday night

Prokofiev and Beethoven

Kurt Masur, conductor

Boston Symphony Orchestra

At: Tanglewood, Friday night

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