Berlioz’ Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

The Metropolitan Opera revives Hector Berlioz’ truly epic opera, Les Troyens, like clockwork every ten years since it finally the presented the opera in 1973. This is perhaps to atone for ignoring the work since its original premiere a century before in Paris in 1863. Even then, it was in truncated form, with only the second half, “The Trojans at Carthage,”  of this five-hour opera performed. The composer never saw it fully staged. The opera’s first part, “The Fall of Troy,” was finally united on stage with its second part in 1890 in Karlsruhe, Germany. Since then, it has rarely been produced in the United States; only slightly more frequently in Europe.

The opera’s importance and beauty and its significance to one’s musical education is belied by this rather sad and spotty record. I myself had waited almost four decades to see it, having fallen in love with its grand and tragic yet sensuously beautiful music at the tender age of 12 (I discovered the imposing boxed set of LPs of Colin Davis’ classic recording with Jon Vickers at the local public library).

In point of fact, it has taken the mid-twentieth century’s Berlioz revival to bring it—along with many of the composer’s other masterpieces—to the appreciation of a wider public, taking its place as one of the musical landmarks of Western Civilization. This is due not only to the myth it is based on, but Berlioz’s incredibly inventive orchestration, dramatic flair, modal synthesis, and his impulse toward modern music, avant la lettre. Indeed, while Richard Wagner’s seamless music dramas of the later 19th century still appear to us today to be essentially modern, his innovations are to some degree heralded by Berlioz and his Trojans.

Wagner spent time in Paris beginning in 1839; he produced a revision of Tannhäuser  with ballet music for the Paris Opera (de rigueur for that house and its audience) in 1861. He and Berlioz eventually met and began a decades’ long, rather fraught relationship; Wagner all too keenly aware of Berlioz’ importance (and a little envious) and Berlioz jealous to the point of ignoring and sometimes belittling Wagner. Even so, in 1858 at one particular meeting in Paris, Berlioz read to Wagner his libretto for Les Troyens; Wagner certainly knew Berlioz’ groundbreaking work.

It was inescapable two weeks ago as I sat there on the opening night of the current Met revival of The Trojans, not to ponder the congruence between Les Troyens and Wagner’s Ring cycle. Both are epic, based on fundamental myths of their respective cultures. Both are seamless music dramas which synthesize and invent new musical forms. Both Berlioz and Wagner worked on their respective works beginning in the 1850s, composing their own texts, although Wagner didn’t complete the four opera Ring cycle until 1869 to ’70, with the cycle’s premiere at the opening night of Bayreuth in 1876. Berlioz completed both his libretto and composition by 1858. Virgil’s Aeneid—following the fall of Troy in Homer’s Illiad with the Trojan Aeneas’ flight thence to Carthage and on to Italy to establish the city of Rome—is one of the supreme founding myths of Western Civilization. Likewise, the Norse legends, the Nibelunglied, form the basis for Wagner’s Ring. As it represents the Germanic or Northern European tradition, Les Troyens represents the Southern European or Mediterranean one. Wagner, Berlioz’ and their respective epics mirror the millennia-old loaded North-South relationship that continues to this day, an intertwined relationship that Thomas Mann summed up in Death in Venice, the North’s Aschenbach in thrall to the South’s Tadzio, and their assured mutual destruction.

The present Met revival, heard the 13th December and running until the 5th January 2013, premiered in 2003 when Deborah Voigt sang the role of Cassandra, as so she does in this run. Voigt has performed this role for decades, recording it with Charles Dutoit in 1993. Sadly, I suspect this is probably her last time to assay the role. I am a great fan of Voigt—having been converted to her cause at her now legendary performance of Isolde at the Met in the ill-fated revival of Tristan and Isolde in 2008 opposite Ben Heppner, a production revived especially for the two of them. However, because of illness and accident, neither sang together until the fifth, final performance. I was present for that last evening: Heppner and Voigt left nothing on the stage, the audience was completely consumed by the full-throated, star-crossed lovers. Since then Heppner’s voice has almost completely broken down, and sadly, at the opening of Les Troyens, Voigt was largely inaudible in her mid and lower range. There were still thrusting, gleaming top notes, but the lower register is largely gone. Despite the inherent drama of her very first line—“Les Grecs ont disparu!”—Voigt’s presence on stage sagged, perhaps undermined by her vocal difficulties.  Her usual enthusiastic and engaging acting style, such as she demonstrated as Brunnhilde in the Met’s new Ring cycle (which she shall reprise this spring), was undone.

Cassandra’s husband, Coroebus, sung by Dwayne Croft, also reprising his role from the 2003 production, struggled valiantly, but was discernibly ill as was announced from the stage. He has subsequently withdrawn from some of the revival’s performances.

Les Troyens demands a great Aeneas in the heroic mold of Jon Vickers, who essentially created the modern incarnation of this role in the groundbreaking Covent Garden production of the complete version in 1969, or the incisive lyric model of Nicolai Gedda.  Alas, Marcello Giordani, something of the Met’s house tenor these days for the standard Italian roles, bravely attempted Aeneas, but couldn’t seal the deal. His is a ringing Italian tenor with commensurate top notes, but that is not what one thinks of for this role. While Giordani had a discernibly nasal French accent in some passages, he struggled with the tessitura of the role. His was nowhere near the heroic yet effortless style in the best French tenor tradition (my standard being fond memories of Gedda—even so the mature singer—in Berlioz’ other regrettably neglected operatic masterpiece, Benvenuto Cellini at Carnegie Hall in 1983). By the opera’s second half, “The Trojans at Carthage,” he sounded strained while trying to soldier on with something of a heroic sound. That however didn’t suffice for the lyrical love music, that remarkable moment in Act IV, where in some of the most suave music ever written, a quintet becomes a septet, and then climaxes in a duet with Aeneas and Dido. (Giordani has just withdrawn from the present production after the third performance and is being replaced by Bryan Hymel. He sang the role this summer at Covent Garden, at the time replacing to positive reviews the ailing Jonas Kaufman. I myself was impressed with Hymel’s robust yet lyric French tenor sound as Faust at Santa Fe in 2011.)

Susan Graham‘s performance as Dido, Queen of Carthage, represented the absolute zenith of the evening. Graham commanded the stage, both physically and vocally. While her elegance as a singer and an actor is well known, she outdid even herself that evening, rescuing an otherwise musically inconsistent production. Graham’s versatility as a musician is also well known; I am fortunate to have witnessed her performing the other great Dido role, that in Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Disney Hall with the Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque, several years ago. Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was a most resonant Anna, sister to the Carthaginian queen.

Berlioz’ score is richly inventive, colorful, and simultaneously grand yet intimate. The Metropolitan Opera’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi’s direction,  while capturing its grandeur, lacked the energy, the propulsion, to keep the energy of this gargantuan production going.

Berlioz' Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera, 2012.

Berlioz’ Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera, 2012.

On the other hand, visually the production generally struck the right chord. Francesca Zambello directed, and Maria Bjornson’s handsome unit set was timeless and yet evoked the Late Bronze Age of Homer’s Troy, bronze metallic strips woven to form a disc-like sculptural frame for the action. (In this production Trojan King Priam’s wife Hecuba was adorned in a gold headdress modeled on that Heinrich Schliemann excavated at Troy in the 1860s, who thought it had actually belonged to the ill-fated Trojan royal couple. The Soviets seized the treasure from Berlin during the war, and the headress and other gems can be seen today at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.) As Aeneas heeds the call to sail for Italy while the dying Cassandra and the Trojan women cry “Italie!,” Act II’s final tableau sees the Roman Pantheon’s coffered ceiling slide into the stage’s disc-shaped frame, from Bronze Age to Imperial Rome all at once! As effective is the beautiful stage picture of Dido and Aeneas meeting and falling in love as framed in the disc-shaped void, while below while the exquisite Royal Hunt and Storm music played. Unfortunately, Doug Varone’s choreography here was banal—as it was throughout—not surprisingly comprising the Trojan warriors “hunting” the Carthaginian women. The costumes—by Anita Yavich—for the Greeks and Romans were appropriate, but in the opera’s second half, the Carthaginians were distractingly dressed as if starring in a Star Trek episode, all flowing, futuristic and pastel.

Zambello’s direction ranged from the inexplicable—in the Act IV love scene Dido and Aeneas during their love music bed down with the group, their intimate music spoiled by the director’s implication of an orgy—to searing pathos in the final and fifth act. Here Dido on the pier frantically looks for Aeneas as he and his men prepare to embark for Italy, tossed about by the crowd of sailors and is momentarily lost from our sight. The crowd dissipates and all of a sudden we spy Dido on a heap of rope like a discarded piece of flotsam, precisely as Aeneas has treated her. It immediately foreshadows Dido’s funerary pyre of the next and final scene. Zambello effectively used the chorus—who sang with their usual intensity—as a traditional Greek chorus, moving as one, fully inhabiting their singular character, as witness to the narrative. The opera ends as it began with the chorus piled up on the stage, from defeated Trojans to mourning Carthaginians.

Berlioz’ Les Troyens ultimately comprises epic contrasts: love and loss, tragedy and more light-hearted moments. The story is bookended by Cassandra, aware of her doom, begging her husband to leave without her and Aeneas abandoning Dido to her death. Perhaps Berlioz’ grand opera is—as I  ponder not only the Met’s current revival but peruse reviews of earlier performances from ten, twenty, and forty years ago—just too grand, too vast, to be successfully produced in its every aspect. Well, we can always hope…and wait for the next decade.

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