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The Battle for Troy

Once consigned to the desert of music history, Berlioz's Les Troyens has finally received the recognition it has always deserved. PETER G. DAVIS recalls his own personal history with the opera.

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The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy, by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (c. 1760)
© National Gallery, London/Art Resource, NY 2013
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An 1863 poster for Les Troyens at the Théâtre-Lyrique
© Lebrecht Music & Arts 2013
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Composer Berlioz, above, c. 1860
© Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy 2013

"O my noble Cassandre, my heroic virgin, I must then resign myself: I shall never hear you." When Hector Berlioz wrote those despairing lines at the end of his Memoirs in 1864, he was convinced that, despite all his efforts, a complete performance of his epic opera Les Troyens would never take place in his lifetime.

Like Cassandre's dire reading of the future — the brutal sack of Troy by the Greeks and her own death — Berlioz's pessimistic prophecy proved to be only too correct. He could hardly have foreseen the day when Les Troyens, properly framed by its two tragic heroines, Cassandre in the first two acts and Didon in the last three, would become an established masterpiece — "as astonishing a feat of the imagination as any in the history of music," to quote one of the score's most eloquent interpreters, conductor Colin Davis.

Berlioz's last years were consumed by frustrating attempts to bring Les Troyens to the stage, and the effort surely shortened the composer's life. He finally wrenched a grudging agreement from Paris's Théâtre-Lyrique to present the opera's last three acts in November of 1863, but even that torso was disfigured by cuts, alterations and musical compromises. Berlioz had not yet turned sixty and still had six years to live, but he was already defeated by the poisonous musical politics of Paris and the indifference of Parisian audiences, not to mention his own increasing ill health, constant pain and sheer physical exhaustion. The first reasonably complete performance of Les Troyens, divided between two evenings, did not take place until 1890, in Karlsruhe, twenty-one years after the composer's death. As his friend and colleague Charles Gounod ruefully observed, "Like his great namesake Hector, he died beneath the walls of Troy."

The two-part Karlsruhe performance only reinforced the myth that Les Troyens was simply too long and unwieldy to be comfortably experienced in one sitting. The opera is, in fact, no longer than most of Wagner's mature works, let alone the comparably scaled French grand operas of Meyerbeer, Rossini and Verdi. Beyond that, early Berlioz critics who had never heard or seen the score spread the legend that Les Troyens was an uneven and sprawling white elephant, little more than a curio rife with musical grotesqueries and unstageable scenic demands.

By now, all these misperceptions have been disproved and laid to rest, a process that began to gather momentum only a little more than a generation ago. I first encountered Les Troyens and most of Berlioz's other major scores as a teenager in the mid-1950s, when only the Symphonie FantastiqueHarold en Italie and a few orchestral overtures were played with any regularity. Suddenly, in the mid-twentieth century, a major reassessment of Berlioz got under way, a process that would completely transform his reputation from that of a marginalized talented eccentric into a composer of towering genius. Many audiences were probably hearing much of his music for the first time.

I was growing up in Massachusetts in those days, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra was under the direction of Charles Munch, a conductor devoted to Berlioz and determined to make the composer's works as central to the repertory as the scores of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Mozart. As a green youngster attending his first orchestral concerts, I simply assumed that the regular programming of such large-scale Berlioz works as La Damnation de Faust, the Roméo et Juliette Symphony, L'Enfance du Christ and the massive Requiem was not at all unusual. What made it so special for me was Munch's intense identification with the music, which sounded even more immediate and intoxicating when heard live than on the conductor's classic RCA recordings of the time. Indeed, sitting in the first row of Boston's Symphony Hall, I felt the Rákóczy March from La Damnation de Faust positively explode in my face.

Even Munch never risked a concert performance of Les Troyens. But Bostonians were given a taste of that most obscure Berlioz score, too, when Boris Goldovsky and his pioneering New England Opera Theater presented the North American stage premiere of the work on March 27, 1955, in the now demolished Boston Opera House. That historic event seems to have been pretty much forgotten today, and truth to tell, the performance could only be said to have made a game stab at the piece. The opera was sung in English, a strict policy for all Goldovsky productions, and the score was severely abridged. Goldovsky regretted that, but not the least of his problems in staging the opera was locating and prying free the seldom-used orchestral parts from the Paris music publisher that still owned the materials.

Despite a minuscule budget, the production benefited from clever lighting schemes and a resourceful arrangement of sets drawn from stock to give a fairly reasonable idea of how Les Troyens should look, but the singers left rather too much to the imagination. My youthful memories of the vocal work were confirmed recently after replaying a long-forgotten home tape-recording of the occasion, taken off a local Boston FM broadcast by an obliging college roommate while I attended the performance.

As he so often is in a performance of Les Troyens,Énée is the principal casualty. The music is a severe challenge for any tenor — even Plácido Domingo sounded taxed by it and quickly dropped the role after a few Met performances in 1983 — and Arthur Schoep, Goldovsky's Énée, is barely adequate. Schoep was a trusted member of the closely knit company whom Goldovsky felt he could always count on, but to ask an unglamorous voice with such a husky, baritonal placement to survive a grueling tenor role such as Énée seems like wishful thinking. Among Schoep's other varied assignments for Goldovsky that season was Dr. Bartolo in Rossini's Barber of Seville!

Énée has glorious music to sing, but Berlioz's heart clearly lay with his two magnificent heroines, and the score tells us all we need to know about them. Only the greatest artists will do, and I fear that my first Cassandre and Didon — Eunice Alberts and Mariquita Moll — barely suggested the possibilities. Alberts was a reliable staple of Boston's musical life for decades, but the mysterious Moll is rather more obscure. She was a vestigial presence at the Met in the mid-1950s, singing twelve performances of two minor Wagner roles. Moll and Alberts are only workmanlike, but at least their markedly different voices and temperaments provide the crucial contrast that places the characters quite literally in separate worlds, musically and dramatically. They never meet, of course. That and Berlioz's ability to create two such individualized operatic personalities no doubt misled early commentators to think of the work as two independent operas.

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Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre in David McVicar's Covent Garden Les Troyens, 2012
© Robbie Jack/Corbis 2013

Berlioz's penetrating and detailed conception of Cassandre and Didon — and indeed the entire opera — reflects the influence of those special creative giants the composer adored, and whose spirits are woven into so much of his own work. There was Virgil, of course, the Latin poet whose works the composer had read avidly from childhood, and whose vision of human destiny at its most monumental, tragic and solitary colors his libretto. The theatrical wildness of Shakespeare is also there, as well as the Bard's ability to cross social boundaries and portray the complexities and ambiguities of his characters' inner lives with such cutting economy. Berlioz's own bold musical imagination is definitely that of a high Romantic, but even his most extravagant inspirations are tempered by the grounded emotions and Classical purity of Gluck, the opera composer he revered perhaps more than any other.

Cassandre's imposing first entrance is an especially arresting moment, cannily prepared. The opening chorus depicts the jubilant Trojans celebrating their liberation from the Greeks in joyful but almost manically hectic music, with its jaunty choral phrases and bubbly woodwind accompaniment. The crowd leaves, and suddenly the massed strings well up from the orchestra for the first time, unmistakably spelling out stark tragedy — an upward surge of an E-flat-major scale building to a mighty fortissimo before gradually subsiding into the nervous dotted rhythms that so vividly depict Cas­sandre's apprehension and wild, troubled appearance.

The opening recitative immediately establishes Berlioz's ability to charge his vocal writing with remarkable declamatory power, shaping the words into musical phrases that dig deeply into a character's emotional state. Here Cassandre's anxiety is expressed in broken phrases that dissolve into a hypnotic monotone as she muses on Hector's spirit pacing the Trojan ramparts. Her vision is set against the stumbling tread of repeated two-note figures in the winds and the menacing snarl of muted horns — striking instrumental devices Berlioz uses throughout the opera to signify the presence, real or imagined, of ghostly fallen heroes.

In the aria that follows, Cassandre reflects on how the approaching doom of Troy will crush her entire world, and she examines the catastrophe from everyone's perspective — her father, King Priam, her people, herself, but most especially Chorèbe, her betrothed. Each of these tragedies is considered within a separate, individualized musical context, and the most poignant phrases are reserved for Chorèbe, whose fate is lamented in soaring string phrases and weeping clarinet figures. For all its expressive variety and thematic richness, this classically organized aria can still be strictly parsed and analyzed: Berlioz's Gluckian model and operatic paradigm hovers over all, wherever the composer's own vibrantly Romantic impulses may take him. "I feel that if Gluck were to return to earth and hear it," the composer wrote to his sister Adèle, "he would say of me, 'Behold my son.'"

Cassandre's subsequent duet with Chorèbe is heartbreaking in its extremes of tenderness and despair, but her most riveting moments come at the conclusions of the first two acts that make up the Trojan sections of the opera. If Berlioz knew instinctually how to stage manage an effective entrance for his heroine, he pulled off her exits with even more theatrical flair.

Near the end of Act I, after the Trojans dash off en masse to greet the arrival of the wooden horse, Cassandre commands our full attention until the curtain falls. She is at first alone, her heart in her throat, uttering broken phrases against a pulsating string accompaniment as she sees her dreaded premonition coming true. The tension increases as the crowd drags the horse onstage to the triumphant strains of the Trojan March. When all have departed, Cassandre is left alone, her baleful prophecy soon to be completed. "Sister of Hector, go," she orders herself; "die beneath the ruins of Troy!" and she rushes off, carried on the crest of a thrilling final orchestral outburst. When we last see her at the end of Act II, Cassandre has collected her courage and shining resolve, urging the Trojan women to commit mass suicide in the face of the advancing Grecian army. One wonders how a Paris Opéra diva of the 1860s, had she but seen the score, could resist demanding that management give her such a tremendous role, virtually guaranteed to drive audiences wild.

Berlioz's theatrical instincts seldom desert him, and he has prepared another musical coup to introduce us to the entirely different world of the civilized and peace-loving Carthaginians in Act III. The dark, nervous intensity that courses through the first part of the opera suddenly evaporates as we enter the prosperous, sun-drenched, peaceful world of Carthage under the benign rule of Didon, whose caressingly phrased opening address to her "chers Tyriens" immediately establishes her gracious nature, feminine warmth and inner strength.

Cassandre is a tortured creature in extremis, living on the edge every moment she is onstage. Didon, by contrast, continually evolves, at first emerging as an independent, self-assured reigning queen and grieving widow, then gradually turning into a woman passionately in love, as her involvement with Énée grows. When he must leave to fulfill his destiny, Didon's rage drives her to the point of madness until a mighty final act of will purges all her bitterness as she destroys the mementoes of her love and meets death in a state of grace. Like Cassandre, Didon dies with a vision of the future — the momentary triumph of the hero Hannibal, followed by the total destruction of Carthage, ground into dust before the might of immortal Rome.

The performance history of Les Troyens has necessarily been rather short. After all, the famous 1957 production at London's Covent Garden was the first that ever did the work full justice, nearly a century after Berlioz completed the score. Even at that, every admirer of the opera lucky enough to see performances since then — invariably special occasions, given the formidable musical and scenic challenges that Les Troyens will always present — has already stored up memories of great singing actresses performing the roles of Cassandre and Didon.

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Judith Blegen (Ascagne), Jon Vickers (Énée) and Christa Ludwig (Didon) in Nathaniel Merrill's 1973 production of Les Troyens at the Met
Metropolitan Opera Archives

To my mind, only one Cassandre has completely embodied the possibilities of the role, and that judgment, I admit, only comes from a video of the performance. Anna Caterina Antonacci gave a searing impersonation when a complete Les Troyens, typically under the direction of a British conductor (John Eliot Gardiner),finally reached Paris in celebration of the composer's bicentenary in 2003. The metallic glint of Antonacci's far-ranging voice, impossible to classify as either soprano or mezzo, cuts right to the center of Cassandre's prophetic declamations and inflects them with hair-raising verbal specificity. Her vocal prowess is matched by her physical plasticity, attuned to reflect and communicate every musical gesture in the score. 

The first time a performance of Didon totally captivated me was when Christa Ludwig sang the role at the Met in 1974. Later, I was astonished to read in Ludwig's autobiography that she was rather "cool about the role because I felt indifferent to a lot of Berlioz's music." One would never have guessed. Perhaps Ludwig's professed discomfort with idiomatic French pronunciation partially interfered with a comfortable inner connection with the role, although none of that occurred to me as she spun out Didon's arias, solo interjections and crescendo of emotions with that creamy, seamlessly integrated voice and expressive commitment. Luckily the vocal element of this distinguished interpretation has also been preserved, on the Met broadcast of March 16, 1974.

Les Troyens and Wagner's Ring cycle stand as the nineteenth century's two monumental operatic epics, but the German composer's achievement, staged by opera houses large and small the world over, long ago established its performance traditions. Legendary interpreters of the principal roles stretch back to the world premiere in 1876, in a theater specifically designed and built by Wagner to accommodate his vision. Berlioz was never capable of accomplishing a comparable environment for his work. Although both men were equally adept at making enemies, Berlioz totally lacked the essential qualities that helped bring Wagner global fame in his lifetime and a continually growing audience after his death — a potent combination of fanatical self-assurance, dazzling organizational skill and indefatigable self-promotion. Berlioz, with little more than his genius and dogged determination to offer, left a largely ignorant posterity to misrepresent his legacy. It took nearly a century to correct history's mistakes, but today virtually his entire oeuvre is prized and performed, and Les Troyens gleams as the crowning jewel. spacer 

PETER G. DAVIS's reviews and articles on classical-music subjects have appeared in many publications over the past forty years, most recently The New York Times and Musical America.

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4