Berlioz / Les Troyens / Paris (Théâtre du Châtelet) 2003 – 2

[Parts one, two, three and four.]

As noted, this sounds very much as you would expect an opera by Hector Berlioz to sound. Much of it has that feverish quality that is characteristic of his music, e.g. in Cassandra and Chorebus’s duet from Act I, particularly after 5.40 or so. Don’t get too attached to either of these characters, because they will both shortly be dead. I could make an argument here that this variety of dramatic discontinuity is an effort by Berlioz to force us to focus on the music alone, but I think what is really happening is that when you adapt bits of the Aeneid into an opera, it is hard to work the thing so that no one ends up dead before the end of whatever section of it you’re adapting. Like Schubert, Berlioz sometimes struggled with the limitations of his source material. Anyway, here is the duet:

But offering a duet as a representative sample of Les Troyens is misleading. This next section is more characteristic, in that we have an octet with a great big chorus behind it. This is “Châtiment effroyable,” also from Act I. Laocoön has just been devoured by serpents and everyone except Cassandra concludes that this must mean that taking the horse inside the city is a good idea. The blond man in the blue overcoat is Aeneas (Gregory Kunde), the woman in the white veil is Hecuba, the older fellow with the beard is Priam, and the mezzo in the blue coat that matches Aeneas’s is his son, Ascanio (Stephanie d’Oustrac). There are a few other people with names in this scene, but it doesn’t matter because the Greeks will kill all of them in about forty minutes.

I actually really liked this octet/chorus, and I will explain why in a minute. But first, there is the obvious point to make here that a person might reasonably fear that this opera is rather big and sprawly and perhaps even disjointed. And in some ways it is.

The continuity in the drama rests with Aeneas, who is the only main character who is there from beginning to end. And even he departs for Italy halfway through Act V, leaving Dido and the Carthaginians to wrap things up. In other words, no one we meet at the beginning of Act I is still there by the end of Act V. Except Cassandra, whose ghost returns as Clio, the muse of history, to state the obvious, in Latin, at the end: “fuit Troja – stat Roma!” (And because Berlioz is Berlioz, her “Stat Roma!” is echoed by two additional extra people, in case we missed it the first time.) The libretto actually specifies only Clio, but many performances recycle Cassandra just as this one does, because it makes a gesture at tying the thing together.

One of the reasons, of course, that this opera hangs together is that we know the story, and the story comes with a presupposition of hanging together, so most of us are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

But there is more to it than that. The thing that really leapt out at me when I watched this is that although it is sprawly as far as the drama goes, musically it works. Berlioz does not have the type of scale issues here that you might expect, because the small scale and the large are often folded very neatly and beautifully into one another. Choral singing is not normally one of my favorite things, but Berlioz does some nice things with it here. Often the soloists converse with the chorus, e.g. Dido and her Carthaginian subjects at the beginning of act III, or, here at the end of Act II, where (most of) the Trojan women resolve to die with Cassandra:

There is a negotiation between the large scale and the small that really works. Another example, this time from the orchestra, is at the transition between the ensemble towards the end of Act IV and Dido and Aeneas’s subsequent duet. It’s also at the transition between the one video and the next, but we can think of that in terms of highlighting the transition rather than interrupting it. It’s the little moment in the woodwinds beginning at 8.48, which is both atmospheric and a little unsettling, and would not be nearly so much so if not for the much larger scale of a lot of what came before and a lot of what comes afterwards.

So in musical terms, this opera is a lot of fun.

But the production. The production is one of those where with any given detail you can usually understand right away what is intended and what the thinking is behind it. It has a kind of coherence to it. That said, there are some parts of it that work better than others.