BERLIOZ: Les Troyens
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BERLIOZ: Les Troyens

CD Button DiDonato, Lemieux, Crebassa; Spyres, Dubois, de Barbeyrac, Degout; Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Nelson. Text and translation. Warner Classics 01 90295762209 (4 + DVD)

Recordings Troyens Cover 218
Critics Choice Button 1015 

JOHN NELSON HAS not only been involved with Les Troyens throughout his career; he has been instrumental in disseminating a work once considered unperformable. In 1972, he conducted the New York premiere of the complete work at Carnegie Hall; the next year, he made his Met debut with the company premiere of the Berlioz epic. The present recording, derived from a pair of April 2017 concert performances in Strasbourg, shows what a half-century’s worth of experience can achieve. You never hear Nelson “interpreting” the work; instead, it unfolds naturally, inevitably, as if unmediated. His tempos are precisely gauged, his orchestral balances astonishingly transparent. You can hear the boldness of Berlioz’s orchestration, the expressive meaning of the widely spaced chords that he so favored. The performance springs into motion at the audacious wind triplets at its very beginning and stays enthralling for the ensuing four hours.

Nelson’s singers are worthy partners. Joyce DiDonato is Didon. Her probity as an artist informs the character, and her serious approach suggests the queen’s aristocratic nature. But her portrayal is also distinguished by its emotional transparency, her quick vibrato indicating the beating heart beneath the regal exterior. The dignity of DiDonato’s approach in Acts III and IV makes Didon’s disintegration in Act V all the more shocking; when she lashes out in searing rage at Aeneas, it registers as a cataclysmic fall from grace. DiDonato has long been one of opera’s most winning performers, but here she shows herself an epic tragedienne.

Michael Spyres is an unusual choice for Énée; his tenor is more lyrical, with a higher center of gravity, than is usually heard in the role. It makes his Énée more of a lover, less of a warrior. The ease with which he navigates the brutal tessitura doesn’t always pay off; for instance, the high C-flat in the last strophe of “Nuit d’ivresse” is so well within his range that it doesn’t register with the same heroic intensity that Jon Vickers brought to it. But the fluency with which Spyres sings the role and the gleam in his tone make his performance, unorthodox though it may be, consistently pleasurable. 

Cassandre usually falls to a high mezzo or a dramatic soprano, so the casting of contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux is another surprising choice. Some shrillness in her opening monologue made me fear this assignment might prove uncongenial. But once her voice warms up, the top opens, exhibiting the same richness that characterizes her lower range and allowing her to declaim the prophetess’s auguries with chilling power. 

Stéphane Degout delivers Chorèbe’s blandishments with Gallic refinement, pointing up the contrast between the prince’s complacency and his fiancée’s terrified distress. Marianne Crebassa is a fresh, guileless Ascagne. Hanna Hipp is a somewhat blowsy Anna; the libretto doesn’t specify the sisters’ birth order, but here Anna sounds distinctly like Didon’s older sibling. Nicolas Courjal, as Narbal, has unsteady tone; Philippe Sly makes Panthée’s few lines a lesson in letting the French language inform timbre and phrasing. Cyrille Dubois sings Iopas’s paean to “blonde Cérès” in such dulcet tones that it seems a shame Didon has to interrupt him. Hylas’s nostalgic threnody becomes all the more heartbreaking for the simplicity of Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s delivery.

The work of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg strikes me as distinctively French; one would never hear a German horn player, for example, deliver the horn solo in the Royal Hunt and Storm with this much bluesiness. I’ve heard Troyens at the Met played more lushly, but never with the transparency that Nelson and his musicians achieve here. The performance fields a chorus made of three ensembles—those of the Opéra National du Rhin and the Badische Staatsoper, along with the Strasbourg orchestra’s own. The hugeness of these forces may have been too much for the engineers to handle: the sound, wonderfully clear and spacious through most of the set, becomes constricted at big choral moments. But a few moments of sonic congestion hardly impede our view of Nelson’s—and Berlioz’s—vast conception. —Fred Cohn 

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