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S & H Prom Review

PROM 48:Berlioz, ‘The Trojans’ Part II, soloists, LSO Chorus, LSO, Sir Colin Davis, Royal Albert Hall Sunday 25th August 2003. (ME)


 

I, too, must begin with a confession: I love Berlioz, but I have always had to agree with the pre-1957 estimate of The Trojans as neatly expressed by Ian Kemp in the programme: ‘…tedious, impracticable, needing ruthless cutting – although admittedly inspired here and there.’ Exactly, and this performance did little to alter that view, despite the magnificent playing and choral singing.

I have little to add to my colleague’s estimation of the quality of the musical direction and playing: I have seldom heard the lower strings of any orchestra sound better, and for woodwind one would need to go to the Berlin Philharmonic to encounter anything equalling the mellow sheen on that sound. The ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ was brilliantly done, and the clarinet accompanying Dido’s moment of truth was eloquently beautiful: throughout the evening, Davis drew from the LSO playing of absolute clarity and overwhelming mastery. It was the same story with the LSO chorus, superbly trained by Joseph Cullen so that such moments as ‘Haine éternelle a la race d’Ėnee!’ were the high points they should be, and as for ‘Des armes! Des armes!’ I nearly leapt over the head of the man in front of me.

The solo singing was less remarkable: I can well understand my colleague being transported by the Cassandra of Petra Lang, who really has no equals in this role, and the Corebus of William Dazeley, but these characters are dead by the end of Part 1, making only brief appearances in Part II as their ghosts. It is of course Dido and Aeneas who dominate the second part, and Michelle de Young and Ben Heppner offer strongly committed, mostly finely sung interpretations which score high in terms of beauty of tone but are less than ideal in their emotional impact. De Young’s presence is queenly, or rather imperial, and she is at her best in her more serene moments: the wonderful duet with Anna (the reliable Sara Mingardo) ‘Une étrange tristesse’ represented her finest singing, displaying her fluent legato and warmth of tone, but elsewhere she is stately rather than passionate, and I would like to hear a more incisive use of French, since many of her words seemed to get lost in transit. In her final laments, she did rise to the occasion of what is to me the most moving moment in the entire opera, ‘Vénus! Rends-moi ton fils!’ but much of her singing here was attractively done rather than searingly involving: it’s not necessary to wring one’s hands, but the audience’s hearts can be wrung by means of a more varied range of tone and expression.

Ben Heppner’s Aeneas seemed to have tired considerably by the time his big moments had arrived: his is still a great voice, but in this role, at least on this occasion, it lacks that essential ardour, and his French is somewhat woolly in articulation. ‘Reine, je suis Ėnee!’ should either send shivers down your spine or make you jump, but here it did not, and ‘Ah! Quand viendra l’instant des suprêmes adieux’ was marred by a couple of very effortful high notes (to put it kindly) although he still presented a convincing portrait of this irresolute hero’s tribulations.

Robert Lloyd’s Narbal was smoothly convincing in characterization and very well sung, and I was much impressed with the Panthus of Tigran Martirossian and the Ascanius of Pamela Helen Stephen. The two high lyric tenors were disappointing: Toby Spence has a lovely voice but he sang ‘Vallon sonore’ so quietly that parts were inaudible, and Kenneth Tarver’s Iopas just strayed over onto the wrong side of plaintive during ‘O blonde Cérès,’ although his French was more exact than that of most of the cast.

The audience reaction was ecstatic: there’s clearly a deep emotional need for these huge works to be heard here, even if they are inconsistent in musical impact and performance. Nothing but praise for orchestra and conductor, but the rest was not the overwhelming experience that Part 1 seems to have been.

Melanie Eskenazi

Footnote

Berlioz’ Opera The Trojans

At a fantastic double Prom concert on Monday 25th August 2003 I heard this work for the first time …a long overdue experience. I was two years old so missed it when the Glasgow Grand Opera Society gave the first complete performance of The Trojans in one day in Britain (first ever outside France) under the musical direction of my father, the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm. The event is documented in The New Grove Dictionary of Music, the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera et alia as are first performances of two other operas by Berlioz by this team in the 'thirties.

There are still people around who remember the excitement of a special coach attached to the London train to bring music lovers,VIPs and critics to Glasgow on Saturday 19th March 1935. After Part one "The Capture of Troy", there was an hour’s tea interval when the guests mingled with performers before the last three acts took place.

Lead singers were professional, the chorus and orchestra amateur The reviews that followed included some explosive headlines

"Splendid Courage in Grand Opera"

"Glasgow Amateurs Arouse Envy of Musical World"

"London in Eclipse"

Among the guests were Hamilton Harty, Donald Francis Tovey, and Ernest Newman who wrote of "Glasgow’s brave effort". Sir Thomas Beecham did not attend. He refused Chisholm’s invitation saying "How does a little whipper-snapper like you think you can do the Trojans? I am going to do the Trojans" Which indeed he did -many years later.

Yet the Chisholm/Glasgow Grand first continues to be overlooked. The Prom 2003 Programme notes that "the scandal of how The Trojans lay hidden for a hundred years has now been put right. The opera first rose from the depths in a Covent Garden production of 1957,when it was given very nearly as Berlioz had written it, and in one evening-and revealed as a masterpiece."

This is not an isolated oversight. Chisholm’s wife Diana interviewed in1979, many years after his death said "it was like knocking my head against a brick wall to get the Glasgow Trojans first performance admitted."

In the language of Berlioz " ...plus c’est la meme chose"

Perhaps though with Internet and website channels bringing a rapid exchange of information to a vast network of readers, brick walls can be knocked down.

So we will take up the cudgels.

Morag Chisholm for the Erik Chisholm Trust. www.erikchisholm.com

e-mail address morag.chisholm@virgin.net 12 September 2003


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