Of all of opera's greatest masterworks, Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens (The Trojans), completed in 1858, is by far the least performed and least well known. It is a massive work, exceeding four hours in length without intermissions, and requires a huge orchestra, chorus, as well as extremely talented singers with high stamina to interpret the principal roles. It is because of these reasons that the work was never performed in full in Berlioz's lifetime; rather, the opera, which is based on Vergil's ancient text, The Aeneid, was divided into two parts and performed separately. Those two parts are: La Prise de Troie (The Capture of Troy), in which the Greeks cleverly destroy Troy using the Trojan Horse, and Les Troyens a Carthage (The Trojans at Carthage), in which the Trojans who escape Troy find safe haven with the Carthaginian queen, Dido, who falls deeply in love with the leader of the Trojans, Aeneas, only to be betrayed by him when he leaves Carthage to fulfill his people's destiny by settling in Rome. Berlioz intended the works to be performed as an integrated whole, inspired by Wagner's conception of the Ring Cycle, but because of the difficulties associated with performing it, above all its massive scale and its demands on any opera company, the task found no takers willing to produce the work in its entirety. The work was performed mostly in fragmented versions of one variety or another, until a definitive performance was given at London's Covent Garden in 1957, almost a hundred years after its completion and 88 years after its composer's death. This text has been the one used by opera companies in the subsequent years, but it has still been rarely performed and is limited to the world's largest opera companies. In addition, only three commercial recordings of the opera have ever been made. New York's Metropolitan Opera is staging a revival of Les Troyens this season, using the production it debuted 10 years ago and has not used since. Fortunately, the January 5 presentation of Les Troyens at the Met was transmitted to theaters worldwide as part of the Met's Live in HD Series.
In perhaps the leading book on opera, Kobbe's Opera Book, one of its authors, The Earl of Harewood, points out that “there is no doubt that Berlioz has put many obstacles between score and public, some of them probably unavoidable. There is equally little doubt that the work ranks among the major operas.” Les Troyens is a work worthy to stand aside the greatest of Mozart, Beethoven's Fidelio, Wagner's Ring and Tristan und Isolde, and Verdi's Otello and the great works of the 18th Century composer Gluck, whose music was the primary influence on Berlioz during the writing of the opera. The opera's dramatic scope is virtually unequaled, save for the Ring: the two stories cover a variety of episodes, taken from Vergil, beginning with the doom of Troy foretold by Cassandra (in the Met's production, soprano Deborah Voigt), whose prophecies go unheeded and the Trojan Horse, secretly filled with Greek soldiers, destroy much of the Trojan forces. However, some of the Trojans, led by Aeneas (tenor Bryan Hamel), manage to escape with the Trojans' treasures, guided by the appearance of the ghost of their great warrior, Hector, who instructs Aeneas to move the remnants of their civilization to Rome. The Trojan women, left to the mercy of Greek soldiers, choose to follow Cassandra's example and commit suicide en masse. In the opera's second part, Aeneas seeks sanctuary in Carthage, whose queen Dido (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham) has been lamenting the loss of her husband for several years. The arrival of the Trojans allows them to provide defense of the city, which is under imminent attack. After the Trojans win the victory, Dido and Aeneas fall in love, but Dido is apprehensive nonetheless until she and Aeneas share a spectacular duet, “Nuit d'Ivresse,” in which the pair reach a state of enraptured bliss. This bliss does not last for long, as the Trojans pressure Aeneas to fulfill their destiny and leave for Italy, which he reluctantly but heroically does. Dido, humiliated by the betrayal of her lover, kills herself, but not before she foretells the future, in which the conflict between the Trojans and the Romans will be settled in a great war, with their people led by Hannibal. Like Wagner, Berlioz wrote his own libretto, and like Wagner, was inspired by mythology. However, the similarities between the two composers end there, as Berlioz's music lacks the intensity of Wagner's, but is more melodic.
The Met's cast is excellent. Cassandra is a role that has long been a mainstay for Deborah Voigt; in fact, she sang the role on one of the few recordings of the opera, made in 1994. She is in command of the role, but her voice seemed a bit overwhelmed by the vocal demands and she was often drowned out by the orchestra. As Dido, the tall, striking Susan Graham is physically impressive in her powerful role; vocally, her performance is very effective, though not highly individualized until her big aria in act V, “Adieu, fiere cite”, when her characterization becomes fully realized and powerfully emotional. The most impressive member of the cast is tenor Bryan Hymel, who stepped into the role of Aeneas after Marcello Giordani backed out. He is in full command of the very difficult dramatic tenor role, with particularly impressive high notes. His voice is reminiscent of a young Placido Domingo's, though without the exceptional lyricism that made the latter's voice especially distinctive. His Act V aria, “Inutiles regrets,” brought the house down in a way that I had never heard before. The Met's chorus deserves special recognition, too, as they were highly active in the opera from its opening bars. The chance to conduct Les Troyens is a rare and prestigious assignment, so it is not surprising that the task went to Fabio Luisi, the Met's principal conductor; in previous productions, it would have gone to his predecessor, James Levine. I have now had a chance to hear Luisi conduct Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera and Aida, and now Les Troyens, all in the past month, and he has done an exceptional job in all three. His handling of Berlioz's score does a magnificent job with the marathon conducting, with the Met's great orchestra beautifully handling the long melodic lines.
The production was also highly impressive. Directed by Francesca Zambella, with sets designed by Maria Bjornson and costumes by Anita Yavich, the look of the opera was quite striking. The Trojan sets were dark and scary, with a backdrop that was used throughout the opera. The Carthaginians were dressed largely in white, with Dido and Aeneas donning purple robes in the wake of Aeneas's military victory. They stood in stark contrast to the dark colors worn by the Trojans, indicative of the fall of their society, the war that has made them so wary, and the doom prophesized by Cassandra that they refused to believe. The chorus, impressive as their vocal contributions were, were asked to perform too many movements and seemed silly at times given the amount of expression they were expected to show. The opera's one longueur came in the fourth act, when the main characters sat around watching a ballet, ballet being a convention of 19th Century Parisian opera that even Berlioz couldn't evade. I dislike the way the ballet took away from the dramatic momentum of the opera, and wish it could be excised, though the music was superb.
I strongly urge anyone interested in opera to try to see Les Troyens. The Met's Live in HD broadcast will be re-transmitted Wednesday, January 23, at 6:30 PM local time. If you are unable to see the HD broadcast, I highly recommend tracking down a video or audio recording, particularly the 1969 recording on Philips conducted by Colin Davis featuring the incomprable Jon Vickers as Aeneas.
Photo credits: Metropolitan Opera