I had cause recently to think about smut, specifically smut in music. Because I have the mind of a twelve-year-old it led me to mentally review all the ways that I have seen the erotic depicted in opera. Sometimes things remain in the realm of the metaphorical. Such as the Marschallin and Octavian’s plates of pie, for example, or Donna Elvira’s cigarette and general air of satisfaction. I believe that if we were going to get picky, Donna Elvira’s cigarette is a metonym rather than a metaphor, but this is an opera blog and not Literary Criticism Smackdown, so probably we don’t care all that much one way or the other.
Anyway. There are productions that handle sex via metonymical cigarettes and there are productions that are more direct. I’m sure we can all think of one or two of those. But I am not going to talk about them. I ended up recalling what may be the most cringe-inducing representation of sex in any DVD of opera ever, and as a result I decided to write about Berlioz.
Here is the scene. It’s from Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens. This is the beginning of Act IV. It’s the part of the story where Dido and Aeneas are out hunting, and when a storm comes they take shelter in a cave and fall into one another’s arms. Dido is Susan Graham, who deserves better in terms of stage direction, and Aeneas is Gregory Kunde. The orchestra is the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, which seems appropriate for Berlioz, with the Choeur du Théâtre du Châtelet, under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner, who looks creepily like George H. W. Bush from certain angles. There is also a horse, but probably the less said about that the better.
But this is an awkward moment in what is otherwise a good production. It is not representative of the production as a whole, and neither is it representative of the opera as a whole, because it is only nine minutes long. The actual whole opera is five hours and twelve minutes long, and there are so many people in it that even though three or four main characters die by the end of the second act, it doesn’t really put much of a dent in the thing.
Normally, a production involving a double mixed chorus and at least ten or fifteen soloists, plus actors, dancers, acrobats, tumblers and jugglers would be pretty much guaranteed to rub me the wrong way. This doesn’t.
But before I get into why it doesn’t, I should explain what it’s like.
This is Berlioz telling the story of the fall of Troy that begins in Homer’s Iliad and continues in Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil was a Roman, and in his poem Aeneas, a refugee from Troy, journeys westward through the Mediterranean from Asia Minor to Italy and founds Rome. Aeneas makes a stop in Carthage, however, and there things get sticky. Aeneas and Dido, the Queen of Carthage, fall in love, but fate impels Aeneas to leave her to go to Italy. At his departure Dido commits suicide. (Later in the poem, when Aeneas goes down into Hades for reasons I forget, he sees Dido again among the shades there, and she won’t meet his eyes. This section of the poem is very beautiful and very sad and I strongly recommend Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of it into English. But none of this Hades part is in Berlioz’s opera, so never mind.)
The opera begins with the Trojans celebrating the end of the war. But the Greeks have left something behind. They have left behind a large wooden horse. Cassandra (Anna Caterina Antonacci) warns her fellow Trojans that the horse will bring about their doom, but they don’t believe her. Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but because she spurned his advances, he added a twist: she is always right, but no one ever believes her. So, Cassandra knows that something is up with the horse. The other person who tries to warn the Trojans, the priest Laocoön, is promptly eaten by snakes, so no one believes him either. Troy falls to the Greeks, Cassandra and the other women die in the temple, and that is the end of Act II.
Acts III, IV and V are set in Carthage. In Act III, Dido is the outwardly happy queen of Carthage, but as she confides to her sister Anna (Renata Pokupic), she feels a longing that she can’t banish. Dido has been married before, but out of concern for her kingdom and loyalty to her late husband she is reluctant to marry again. Aeneas shows up and by Act IV Dido has changed her mind, although as Aeneas and Dido walk off together at the end of Act IV (fortunately without the horse this time) we hear the voice of fate saying, “Italy! Italy!”
Act V begins with one of Aeneas’s sailors singing of how he misses his home. Impelled by fate Aeneas leaves for Italy, and Dido kills herself. And that is the end.
Berlioz does the type of thing you would expect him to do with this. It’s very big, and it’s very grand, and it requires an awful lot of people to perform. I like it far more than I thought I would – more on why tomorrow.