- Poëme lyrique in 5 acts
- Composer & librettist: Hector Berlioz, after books II & IV of Virgil’s Æneid
- Composed 1856-1858.
- First performed: Acts III-V (with cuts), as Les Troyens à Carthage, Théâtre Lyrique, Paris, 4 November 1863. Concert performances of Acts I-II (La prise de Troie), Paris, 7 December 1879. First staged performance (in German): Karlsruhe, Germany, 1890. First performance of both parts: Nice, 1891. Performances of both halves: La Monnaie, Brussels, 1906.
|ÉNÉE [Æneas], Trojan hero, son of Venus and Anchises||Tenor||Jules-Sebastien Monjauze (1863); Alfred Oberländer (1890)|
|CHORÈBE [Chorebus], young Asian prince, Cassandre’s fiancé||Baritone||Marcel Cordes (1890)|
|PANTHÉE [Pantheus], Trojan priest, Énée’s friend||Bass||Péront (1863); Carl Nebe (1890)|
|NARBAL, Didon’s minister||Bass||Jules-Émile Petit (1863); Fritz Plank (1890)|
|IOPAS, Tyrian poet at Didon’s court||Tenor||De Quercy (1863); Hermann Rosenberg (1890)|
|ASCAGNE [Ascanius], Énée’s young son (15 years old)||Soprano||Mme Estagel (1863); Auguste Elise Harlacher-Rupp (1890)|
|CASSANDRE [Cassandra], Trojan prophetess, Priam’s daughter||Mezzo||Luise Reuss-Belce (1890)|
|DIDON [Dido], Queen of Carthage, widow of Sychaeus, prince of Tyre||Mezzo||Anne-Arsène Charton-Demeur (1863); Pauline Mailhac (1890)|
|ANNA, Didon’s sister||Contralto||Marie Dubois (1863); Christine Friedlein (1890)|
|HYLAS, young Phrygian sailor||Tenor or contralto||Edmond Cabel (1863); Wilhelm Guggenbühler (1890)|
|PRIAM, King of the Trojans||Bass|
|A Greek chieftain||Bass||Fritz Plank (1890)|
|The ghost of HECTOR, Trojan hero, son of Priam||Bass|
|HELENUS, Trojan priest, son of Priam||Tenor||Hermann Rosenberg (1890)|
|Two Trojan soldiers||Basses||Guyot, Teste (1863)|
|The god MECURE [Mercury]||Baritone or bass|
|A priest of Pluto||Bass|
|POLYXÈNE [Polyxena], Cassandre’s sister||Soprano||Annetta Heller (1890)|
|HÉCUBE [Hecuba], Queen of the Trojans||Soprano||Pauline Mailhac (1890)|
|ANDROMAQUE [Andromache], Hector’s widow||Silent|
|ASTYANAX, her son (8 years old)||Silent|
|Trojans, Greeks, Tyrians, and Carthaginians; Nymphs, Satyrs, Fauns, and Sylvans; Invisible spirits||Chorus|
A hundred supernumerary choristers are needed.
“I have passed my life with this race of demi-gods; it seems to me that they must have known me, so well do I know them…”
Les Troyens, “a vast opera on the Shakespearean plan, based on the second and fourth books of the Æneid”, was the culmination of Berlioz’s career – and the work that would cause him the greatest pain.
It was a tribute to his literary and musical idols. He had known Virgil by heart since adolescence, and Shakespeare since early manhood. Its Classical subject – the fall of Troy and the foundation of Rome – and high-minded score recalled his beloved Gluck.
“The music,” he wrote to his sister, “is truly grand; it is, moreover, poignantly truthful, and there are several inventions that will make the ears and perhaps the hair of the musicians of all Europe stand on end, or I am pitiably mistaken. It seems to me that if Gluck came back to the world, when he heard it, he would say to me: ‘Truly, this is my son.’”
But Berlioz never saw the whole work performed in his lifetime, only an inadequately staged, heavily cut version of the last three acts. It was a critical success, but the public were bored.
(Based on vocal score, Choudens, Paris, and Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Fayard, Paris, 2003.)
LA PRISE DE TROIE
ACT I: The abandoned Greek camp, before the citadel, Troy
The Greeks have disappeared; after ten long years of siege, their camp is deserted. The Trojan people are overjoyed, although the memory of Achilles still terrifies them, and rumours of a curious offering to Pallas Athene, a giant wooden horse left by the edge of the river Scamander, run through the city.
Only the prophetess Cassandre, daughter of King Priam, foresees the misfortunes that will befall Troy, but nobody will believe her. She deplores the blindness of Priam and his people.
Chorèbe, her fiancé, tries in vain to dispel her forebodings. She begs him to leave Troy, but he refuses.
The court celebrates their city’s deliverance, and make offerings to the gods who protect Troy.
Andromaque, Hector’s widow, comes with her son Astyanax to lay flowers at the foot of the altar. Only Cassandre is aware of their future suffering.
Énée runs on to announce the horrible death of the priest Laocoön. He suspected treachery on the part of the Greeks, and stuck a javelin into the horse’s side; at that moment, two monstrous serpents leapt out of the sea and devoured him and his sons. Pallas has avenged herself.
To appease the goddess, Priam orders that the horse be brought with great ceremony to the Palladium, statue in the centre of the citadel.
We hear the Trojan march. Despair of Cassandre, who is present when the colossal horse enters the citadel in triumph. She tries, in vain, to make herself heard – and resolves to die under the ruins of Troy.
Act II: Scene I: Inside Énée’s palace
A scarlet light illumines the walls of Troy, but neither the light, nor noises of distant fighting can awaken Énée. The ghost of Hector orders Énée to flee. Troy is in the enemy’s hands. Énée must go to Italy to found a new empire. From Panthée, Énée learns that the Greeks emerged from the horse’s belly, and massacred the Trojans; the city is on fire; Priam is dead; but the citadel still holds. Énée will take his soldiers there.
Scene II: The altar of Vesta in Priam’s palace
The Trojan women are praying to the goddess Cybele for protection. Cassandre announces that Énée and his companions were able to reach the citadel, save Priam’s treasure, and flee to Italy. Her fiancé Chorèbe is dead, and she is ready to follow him to the grave. She exhorts her companions to die like her, rather than become the victors’ slaves. The Greeks, searching for Priam’s treasure, burst into the palace. Cassandre stabs herself; other women hurl themselves from the top of the parapet. In the distance, we see Aeneas and his companions climbing Mount Ida. The palace collapses as the women cry: “Italy! Italy!”
LES TROYENS À CARTHAGE
Scene 1: A garden room in Didon’s palace
The Carthaginian people are celebrating their queen Didon.
In the seven years since the death of her husband Sichée, king of Tyre, when she fled to the African shores, she has made the city prosper. The barbarian king Iarbas, though, wants to force her to marry him, and she entrusts her defence to her people.
Didon receives deputations from builders, sailors, and labourers, and presents emblems of their profession to their leaders.
Alone with her sister Anna, Didon is happy to have found calm and serenity. Anna tells her that a new marriage will make her forget his misfortunes; Carthage wants a king, but Didon will remain eternally faithful to the memory of Sichée.
Iopas announces the arrival of an unknown fleet that has escaped shipwreck, and which seeks asylum in Carthage. Didon grants it without hesitation. While Énée, disguised as a sailor, discreetly stands amongst the other Trojans, his son Ascagne presents their homages and gifts to the queen. “We are Trojans,” Ascagne tells her, “and our leader is Énée.” Didon is happy to welcome such a hero, whom Carthage knows and admires.
Narbal, Didon’s minister, announces that Iarbas is marching on Carthage at the head of innumerable soldiers, but her people lack weapons. Énée drops his disguise, and offers the Trojans’ support.
Didon gladly accepts his help, barely mastering the emotion she sees on beholding the son of Venus. Énée entrusts Ascagne to the queen’s generous care; and the Trojans and Carthaginians set out to exterminate the rebels.
Scene 2: A forest outside Carthage
The royal hunt and storm.
Didon’s gardens by the sea
Narbal tells Anna his worries about Énée’s prolonged stay in the court. Certainly, Iarbas and his Numidians have been cut to pieces, but the queen is neglecting her duties, passing her time in hunts and feasts. The queen loves Énée, but he must go to Italy. The queen holds another party (with lots of ballet).
Iopas sings his poem of the fields…
but his stanzas don’t captivate Didon. Énée continues the tragic narrative of the fall of Troy; she learns that Andromache, Hector’s widow, has just married Pyrrhus, king of Epirus. The story has conquered Didon’s last scruples. Innocently toying with the queen’s hand, Ascagne removes the ring of Sichée, her dead husband, which Didon leaves on her couch.
Night falls; all seem in ecstasy at the serenity and peace of the evening. One by one, all go out, leaving Didon and Énée alone. “It seems to me,” Berlioz wrote (letter to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, 13 February 1857), “that there is something new in the expression of this happiness at seeing the night and hearing the silence, and in finding sublime utterance for the sound of the sleeping sea.”
Didon and Énée remember that it was on such a night that Venus followed the handsome Anchises to the groves of Ida, that Troilus came to wait for the beautiful Cressida at the foot of the walls of Troy. They hold hands, and, embracing, slowly disappear. The god Mercury appears in the pale moonlight. He strikes Énée’s shield with his caduceus, and repeats in a grave voice: “Italy! Italy! Italy!”
Scene 1: The Trojan fleet in port
The shore is covered in Trojan tents. The vessels are moored in port. Two sentries stand guard; a young Phrygian sailor, Hylas, watching from atop a mast, sings of his country.
“The young Phrygian sailor cradled high on the mast of a ship in the port of Carthage is prey to an intense nostalgia,” Berlioz wrote (letter 28 April 1859). “He remembers with longing the great forests on Mount Didymus. He loves…” The song is “a character piece, intended to contrast with the epic, passionate style of the rest” (letter to son Louis, 9 February 1858).
Panthée orders the Trojan chiefs to prepare the departure. Every day frightening omens warn Énée of the gods’ wrath. The sea, the mountains, the woods moan. Weapons shudder from invisible blows. Hector appeared, with angry eyes, followed by a chorus of shades repeating the fateful word: Italy!
The two sentinels, left alone, grumble about having to leave their Carthaginian mistresses.
But Énée is determined to leave Carthage, in spite of Didon’s despair. He trembles at the thought of bidding her farewell – but the ghosts of Priam, Chorèbe, Hector, and Cassandre appear, to tell him: “You must leave, conquer, and found your empire!”
Énée gives the order to depart at dawn. All rush to the ships, which soon begin to move off.
Didon surprises Énée in his flight. She begs him to delay his departure, but neither her supplications nor her anger can sway him. The fleet leaves the port with shouts of “Italy! Italy!”.
Scene 2: Didon’s rooms
Didon sends Anna and Narbal to find Énée and try to hold him back, if only for a few days.
Iopas announces that the Trojans have departed. The queen is enraged. At first, she wants them pursued and their boats burnt, then sends Anna, Iopas and Narbal away.
Left alone, the Queen gives herself up to the most violent despair. “I believe,” Berlioz wrote (letter to his son Louis, 9 February 1858), “that the music of these terrible scenes of the fifth act will carry heartrending conviction.” “Of all the passionately sad music that I have ever written, I know of none to compare with Didon’s in this passage and the aria which follows, except for Cassandre’s…” (Memoirs).
Scene III: A terrace overlooking the sea
The Carthaginians accompany their queen to the pyre where she will die, while Anna and Narbal curse Énée.
Didon quickly climbs the steps of the altar, seizes Énée’s sword, and prophesies the future of her people, the destruction of Carthage, and the birth of Hannibal, who will be her avenger. Then she stabs herself.
We see in a glory the Roman Capitol, on whose pediment this word shines: ROMA. Didon raises herself. “Rome! Immortal Rome!” She falls back, and dies. While the brilliant sounds of the Trojan march are heard, the Carthaginians curse Énée and his race.
“Magnificent success: profound emotion of the audience, tears, applause continual, and one hiss when my name was proclaimed at the end. The septet and the love duet knocked them over: the septet was encored. Mme Charton [as Didon] was superb: she was transformed: no one knew she had such dramatic talent. I am stunned by so many embraces.” (5 November 1863)
On 19 Nov, to the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein: “I have just been told that yesterday’s performance was splendid and that the whole third act aroused extraordinary excitement.”
For many long years, Berlioz had, like the Greeks, laid siege to Troy, and then to the opera houses of Paris. There’s irony in the spectacle of the worthy Hector demanding only to prove his courage in the field, while frivolous Paris preferred luxury and feminine charms.
Berlioz wrote the libretto in 1856, and finished the score in 1858, encouraged all the while by the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, Liszt’s mistress. And then nothing.
Berlioz was unpopular, despite his obvious genius. His first attempt at an opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was a notorious fiasco that lasted only seven performances, and scuppered his career as a dramatic composer. La damnation de Faust, performed at the Opéra-Comique, was cancelled after two performances, leaving Berlioz bankrupt. Why should any theatre management risk staging an expensive flop?
He appealed, in vain, to the Emperor Napoléon III. The Opéra accepted the work in 1861, but the hoped-for production hadn’t materialised by 1863.
“For three years,” Berlioz wrote (5 February 1863), “I have been kept dangling at the Opéra, and I want to hear and see this great musical machine before I die. I live like a man who may die any minute, who no longer believes in anything, and yet who acts as if he believed in everything…”
At last, in desperation, he agreed to let Léon Carvalho, director of the Théâtre-Lyrique, stage the work. The theatre couldn’t perform the first two acts, showing the fall of Troy, so out they went. Very well, then, let it be the last three acts! But, alas, cut!
“The director,” Berlioz told Sayn-Wittgenstein (23 December), ” while protesting all the time that he only wanted to carry out my intentions, made me go through hell by demanding all sorts of cuts and changes. Nine numbers in all were removed. I have had enough…”
Those nine numbers included the stupendous “Chasse royale et orage” (Royal Hunt and Storm), a pantomime ballet that required the full resources of the Opéra to pull off. “Here,” Berlioz wrote in his Mémoires, “it made a wretched impression; and when it was over, there had to be an interval of 55 minutes while the scenery was changed. Next day, storm, hunt and scene were duly removed.”
Others, apparently, were cut because Carvalho had a tin ear. “In his eyes the production is not made for the music but the music for the production – as if, in any case, I had not carefully calculated my score in the light of the exigencies of the theatre as I had studied them for 40 years at the Opéra.” Out, then, went some of the most delicate pieces: two tenor arias, “Ô blonde Cérès” and “Vallon sonore”; the duet for Anna and Narbal; and the duet for Énée and Didon.
The production, which opened on 4 November 1863, was inadequate. “His theatre was not large enough, his singers were not good enough, his chorus and orchestra were small and weak,” Berlioz complained. “I paid out of my own pocket for several players that the orchestra lacked, and I cut the orchestration about in many places to make it fit the resources available.”
“The work still needed another three or four strenuous general rehearsals; nothing was running smoothly, least of all on the stage.”
The piece was critically admired, but not a hit with the public. All the theatre, Félix Clément wrote, understood, admired, and applauded three pieces immediately: the duo for the two sisters, “full of grace, originality and distinction”; the septet; and Didon and Énée’s duet “Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie”, “one of the most beautiful love duets”.
Otherwise, Clément continued, the public thought the work obscure, tormented, therefore long and boring. The true amateurs, though, serious and disinterested, wanted to hear this important work several times, and, better understanding the composer’s dialect, penetrating further into his thought, discovered at each listening unnoticed beauties, and ended by considering Les Troyens one of the most remarkable works to have appeared for 15 years.
“The whole score is now appreciated as a conscientious, original and beautiful work deserves, and many of the Greeks of the day have become the Trojans of the morrow.”
But still the work did not hold the stage. After 22 performances, it closed.
“Never mind,” Berlioz wrote to the Princess, “these 22 performances have sowed an enthusiasm in the musical world which I would very much have liked you to see. I have never witnessed such emotions. One can only compare them with the rage of my enemies…”
“My friends and I imagined,” Berlioz wrote in his Memoirs, “that the evening would be a stormy one, and were expecting all kinds of hostile demonstrations, but there were none. My enemies were afraid to come out into the open. There was one solitary, rather subdued boo at the end, when I was called for, and that was all. The gentleman in question clearly regarded it as his duty to keep up the good work throughout the weeks that followed, for he came back with a colleague and booed at precisely the same point at the third, fifth, seventh and tenth performances. Others held forth in the corridors with comical vehemence, heaping abuse upon me, declaring that such music could not and should not be ‘allowed’. Five papers were crudely insulting, in terms nicely calculated to wound my feelings as an artist. But more than fifty articles of appreciative criticism, written with genuine enthusiasm and uncommon perception, by men like Gasperini, Fiorentino, d’Ortigue, Léon Kreutzer, Damcke, Joannes Weber and many others, appeared during the following fortnight and filled me with a happiness such as I had not known for a long time. I also received a large number of letters, some eloquent, others naïve, all expressing emotion, which touched me profoundly. At several performances I saw people in tears. During the two months that followed the first performance of The Trojans, I was often stopped in the street by strangers who wished to shake hands with me and thank me for having composed it. Was that not ample recompense for the sneers of my enemies – enemies whom I owed less to my criticism than to the style and bent of my music, and by whose hatred one can only feel honoured, for it is like the disdain of the whore for the honest woman?”
True, the royalties meant that Berlioz could retire from the “slavery” of journalism, and quit his post as music critic on the Journal des débats. But he had to resign himself to knowing that he would never hear the complete work on which he had laboured for so long.
“Ô ma noble Cassandre, mon héroïque vièrge, il faut donc me resigner. Je ne t’entendrai jamais !”
The failure, Gounod said, “finished him; one may say of him, as of his namesake, Hector, that he died beneath the walls of Troy.”
For decades, Les Troyens was considered unperformable, too long, musically uninspired, and boring.
The two halves of the opera were not performed until 1890, albeit in two nights and in German, at Karlsruhe, nearly 20 years after Berlioz’s death. It was not for another 30 years, in 1920, that the work was staged in one night, although abridged. The first complete performance was not given until 1957 – nearly a century after its composition – in London, under Rafael Kubelik, and the full score wasn’t published until 1969, a century after Berlioz’s death.
The rediscovery of Les Troyens has been left to the twentieth century, often championed by English conductors like Thomas Beecham (1947), Colin Davis (1969, 2000), and John Eliot Gardiner (2003). Today it is recognised as one of the masterpieces of the 19th century.
D’autres t’enseigneront, enfant, l’art d’être heureux ;
Je ne t’apprendrai, moi, que la vertu guerrière
Et le respect des dieux ;
Mais révère en ton cœur et garde en ta mémoire
Et d’Énée et d’Hector les exemples de gloire.
The unifying thread is the theme of man versus the inevitable: Fate, “le destin”, the historical process. History, for Berlioz, is tragedy. It rolls forward inexorably, remorselessly, like the wooden horse of Troy, crushing those who stand in its way. “Le destin tient sa proie!”
The gods decree; mortals either submit, or try to resist. Resistance, even if futile, is noble, an assertion of human dignity.
The march of history may care little about the ordinary person, but Berlioz asks that we do care. His sympathies are for the individual caught up in history: Cassandre, who foresees the doom of Troy, but cannot convince anyone, and who dies defying the Greeks, even if she cannot stop them; Didon, beloved, generous queen, abandoned by her lover; even Æneas, “monstre de piété”, compelled by the gods to sacrifice his happiness and his mistress, to found Rome, and then die.
For an epic opera, Les Troyens is surprisingly small-scale and intimate.
Tellingly, it is a “poème lyrique”, and not, unlike La damnation de Faust, a “légende dramatique”. Berlioz’s concern is not with drama and external action, but with depicting emotional states through music.
“The principal object of the work,” he wrote, was “the musical rendering of the characters and the expression of their feelings and passions” (letter to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, 20 June 1859).
Many of the events happen offstage, as in Greek tragedy; we hear of, but do not see, the death of Laocoön; the Greek soldiers pouring out of the horse and ransacking the city; the Trojans’ misadventures at sea; and the battle against Iarbas. The event (what happens) is less interesting than how it affects people. And so the opera jumps from act to act, rather than following the conventions of the well-made play.
Berlioz’s concern for musical expression over stage effect can, therefore, all too often make Les Troyens seem a great opera with stretches of tedium, or a mediocre opera with a score of genius.
His musical inspiration often outstrips his theatrical instinct; he had an innate understanding of, and sympathy for, his characters, but he lacked the dramatic sense of such men of the theatre as Meyerbeer, Verdi, Puccini, or his own master Gluck.
(This was, remember, his second performed opera, and the first for which he wrote the libretto.)
La prise de Troie is the most dramatically compelling part of the opera. It moves, as Berlioz said of Spontini‘s Vestale, in a gigantic crescendo, from the rejoicing of the Trojans and the despair of Cassandre to the mass suicide of the Trojan women, as the city burns and collapses around them.
The Carthage acts are dramatically slacker. Act III, in particular, seems to be marking time until the Trojans arrive, with processions, prize-givings, and a near-fatal attack of ballet. Act IV, too, is theatrically inert, with another long stretch of ballet and Iopas’ aria, which is beautiful – but by this point the story hasn’t moved for at least half an hour! For much of the act, we watch Énée and Didon, sitting on a couch, watching a divertissement or listening to other characters sing.
Berlioz’s aesthetics, though, are not those of 19th-century opera, with its growing concern for tight, well-knit plots. For all its musical innovations and rich imagination, Les Troyens is a fundamentally conservative work. It looks back to Gluck and Spontini, if not to the opera-ballets of Rameau and Lully with their emphasis on spectacle.
Hence his antipathy to Wagner, the “musician of the future”.
Les Troyens is, arguably, a response to Wagner’s through-composed music drama, an aesthetic Berlioz found aberrant.
Berlioz insisted on the primacy of formal structure, unlike Wagner, who subordinated music to his ideal of drama, replacing closed forms with “continuous melody”.
“The great difficulty throughout,” Berlioz wrote to the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein while composing the work (12 August 1856), “is to find the musical form – that musical form without which music does not exist, or exists only as the abject slave of the word. There lies Wagner’s crime: he wants to dethrone music and reduce it to expressive accents. This is to outdo the system of Gluck, who most fortunately did not succeed in following his own impious theory. I am for that kind of music which you yourself call ‘free’ – free, imperious, all-conquering. I want it to seize everything, to assimilate everything, and for it to have no Alps or Pyrenees. … To want to take music back to the old recitation of the antique chorus is surely the most incredible folly (as well as being, fortunately, the most futile) in the history of art.
“To find the means of being expressive, and truthful, without ceasing to be a musician: rather, to endow music with new means of action – that is the problem.”
He defends the age-honoured numbers of opera – arias, duets, ensembles, ballets – and shows that he can not only write traditional forms with aplomb, but make them sound fresh and compelling. (As, by the way, Wagner did with the quintet in Meistersinger.)
The magnificent score has, of course, some enormous, imaginative pieces: “Châtiment effroyable”, the octet with double chorus; the entrance of the horse into Troy; the rousing martial Act III finale; and the Royal Hunt and Storm, with its blues-y theme on the horns and rain-lashed chorus.
But many of its beauties lie in the less grandiose moments: the duet for the two sisters; Narbal’s aria “De quels revers menaces-tu Carthage”, in the line of Gluck; the quintet and septet, where the grace of Mozart seems to breathe over the score; and the two tenor arias “Ô blonde Cérès” and “Vallon sonore”.
Les Troyens may work better as a concert presentation or on CD – particularly since most modern producers want to set it in modern dress, or even in outer space, with the Trojan Horse as a computer virus. (Is there any production that honours Berlioz’s careful stage directions?)
A friend, a Berlioz enthusiast, writes:
“How unified a work is Les Troyens? Is it really a kind of shaggy monster of a work, with too much going on for the composer, or subsequent producers, to control? How many stories are there in the legend? Well, there’s the fall of Troy; Aeneas’s escape and wanderings; the betrayal of Dido; and as an adjunct, the founding of Rome. Can you put all of that into one opera? My suspicion is – probably not. Perhaps the most successful Troy-ish work ever written is Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which focusses on one distinct part of the epic, and lasts about an hour. Few subsidiary characters, and the ability to concentrate on the drama and emotions of one single episode. The action, therefore, is unified.
“Berlioz, on the other hand, doesn’t know when to cut – doesn’t know what to leave out – your comment about him not having the theatrical understanding of Verdi, etc, applies here. It’s also interesting to see what he does later with Béatrice et Bénédict, where he avoids the sub-plot complications and pares everything down to the central story – so it is easy to hold together. Whereas Berlioz’s original producers weren’t entirely wrong – there are two distinct operas here, and there is nothing to unify them except a sequence of events in time. Well, you could have included the abduction of Helen at one end and the assassination of Julius Caesar at the other, if you wanted to stretch the timeline far enough. So looking over the whole – The Fall of Troy would make a perfectly good, discrete opera in itself; and so would the events at Carthage, but omitting everything before the Royal Hunt and Storm, thus omitting the material about Sichée, the arrival of the fleet and the threat from Iarbas. It would deal with the essentials of the love-story and the injunctions of the gods. It’s simplicity and clarity that tends to glue works together.
“As an aside, the flaw in a lot of French opera (those that I know) from this period, is precisely that they lack some sort of unifying glue to keep them together. They are held together by time, by the sequence of events, rather than by any imperative that is internal to the characters. Take Aida, for example: it is the love of Aida and Radames that drives the action – events unfold because of the choices that the characters make. That is true of Traviata, of Tosca, of Rosenkavalier, of Figaro and Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. It is a matter of whether people act, or are acted upon. So in Les Troyens, in the second part, only Aeneas ‘acts’ – the other characters are passive.
“The other point about Berlioz is that, as a good Romantic, he was always looking for new forms in which to express his ideas – hence Lélio, and Roméo et Juliette. In this he was no different from Beethoven, Liszt, Field, Chopin, and Wagner to some extent. Similar artists are to be found in literature (from Dickens to Browning to Chekhov), in the plastic arts (Rodin, Malliol), in painting (the Impressionists and the Pre-Raphaelites), and in criticism. Like Ruskin, Berlioz wanted to find ways to embrace ‘the wider world’. That is an eminently respectable wish, but the world won’t necessarily be contained within an artist’s aspirations.”
The best recording is William Nelson’s Strasbourg recording (2017), starring Michael Spyres (Énée), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Cassandre), and Joyce DiDonato (Didon). Idiomatic, lyric singing; excellent French; and attention to the score’s kaleidoscopic colours make this the go-to version, even replacing Colin Davis’s much-loved classic 1969 recording.
There are various DVDs available, but none I’ve seen honours Berlioz’s intentions. Several are in modern dress, and the staging is often dull. The Met’s 2013 broadcast has a gripping Prise de Troie, then collapses into tedium.
I have used these translations:
A Life of Love and Music: The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz 1803 – 1865, translated and edited by David Cairns, The Folio Society, London, 1987.
Hector Berlioz: A Selection from His Letters, selected, edited, and translated by Humphrey Searle, Vienna House, New York, 1973.
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