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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Les Troyens, opera in five acts, Op. 29 (1856/59) [235.00]
Soloists: Joyce DiDonato (Didon), Michael Spyres (Énée), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Cassandre), Stéphane Degout (Chorèbe), Nicolas Courjal (Narbal), Marianne Crebassa (Ascagne), Hanna Hipp (Anna), Cyrille Dubois (Iopas), Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Hélénus/Hylas), Philippe Sly (Panthée), Agnieszka Slawinska (Hécube), Jean Teitgen (L’ombre d’Hector/Mercure), Bertrand Grunenwald (Priam), Jérôme Varnier & Frédéric Caton (Deux sentinelles)
Choeur de l’Opéra du Rhin
Badischer Staatsopernchor
Choeur philharmonique de Strasbourg
Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg/John Nelsons
rec. 2017, Salle Érasme, Strasbourg, France
Full sung French texts with English translation in booklet
Bonus DVD: Highlights from live concert 15 April 2017
ERATO 9029576220 [4 CDs: 235:00 & DVD: 86 mins]

A performance of Berlioz’s magnificent Les Troyens (The Trojans) is always a special event especially when the results are as outstanding as this concert performance given over two days of the Easter weekend of 2017 at Salle Érasme, Strasbourg. Here Erato has released a four CD set of the complete performance together with a DVD of video highlights.

Like a successor to the late Sir Colin Davis, conductor John Nelsons has become a noted Berlioz specialist conducting numerous scores from early in his career. Beginning his long association with Les Troyens in 1973, the then thirty-two-year-old conducted New York City Opera at Carnegie Hall in a concert performance. Nelsons came to international notice the following year with a fully staged production of Les Troyens at Metropolitan Opera, New York. Prior to these Strasbourg concerts in February 2017 Nelsons won praise for another fully staged production of the score with director Eva-Maria Höckmayr at Frankfurt Opera. Nelsons states in the booklet notes how difficult Les Troyens is to arrange for performance, and here he is talking about a concert performance, not a fully staged opera. At Strasbourg Nelsons has pulled together sixteen soloists, three choirs and large orchestra, which according to Nelsons is the largest ever conceived for an opera. Of course, in this tough logistic challenge there is also the often-forgotten army of production, technical and creative staff required to produce the event.

A music tour de force the massive grand opera Les Troyens in five acts was written by Berlioz to his own libretto based on Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid (29-19 BC). According to music writer Christian Wasselin “Berlioz carried Les Troyens inside him all his life.” It seems that the composer first became aware of Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid before his teens. It was princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein the dedicatee of the score who encouraged Berlioz to write the opera, beginning the libretto in 1856 and completing the full score in 1858. After years of frustration attempting to have the work performed at the Paris Opéra, Berlioz did not live to see the opera performed in its entirety only managing to see the second half of the opera (acts three to five) staged under the title Les Troyens à Carthage in 1863 at Théâtre Lyrique, Paris. Using a German translation in 1890 it was in the German city of Karlsruhe where the first complete staging of the first and second parts of Les Troyens was given.

Except for the three main soloists Americans Michael Spyres as Énée and Joyce DiDonato as Didon, and Marie-Nicole Lemieux a French-Canadian as Cassandre, Nelsons conducts a predominantly French cast of soloists, choruses and orchestra. Any performance of Les Troyens stands and falls by the quality of its three central characters and here with Spyres, DiDonato and Lemieux, who he personally cast, Nelsons has the benefit of a trio of outstanding soloists. The other soloists were chosen by Warner Classic president Alain Lanceron. Regarding this recording of Les Troyens from the relatively small number of revisions Nelsons had to choose from he decided to reject the Simon scene from act one and selected the compressed conclusion of act five over the composer’s original, drawn-out Epilogue.

Making a real impact Michael Spyres as Énée (Aeneas), the Trojan hero, son of Venus and Anchises gives an assured performance with convincing interpretive appeal. Immediately noticeable is Spyres’ clear enunciation and attractive tone. His bright durable voice is produced smoothly, with relative ease and has depth and character. A highlight from act five Énée’s recitative and aria ‘Inutiles regrets ... Ah! quand viendra l’instant’ is delivered by Spyres with outstanding dramatic assurance. One of the finest mezzo-sopranos of her generation Joyce DiDonato gives such an accomplished performance as Didon (Dido) the Queen of Carthage. Admirable is the way she conveys bewitching expression, style, impeccable technique and tremendous power when called for. From act five, DiDonato’s pinnacle, Dido’s monologue ‘Je vais mourir’ is performed with remarkable passion. Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Trojan Princess Cassandre (Cassandra) a daughter of King Priam, a prophetess sings with smooth, forceful expression. From act one the extended aria ‘Non, je ne verrai pas’ is wholeheartedly sung by Lemieux entirely at home in this repertoire providing significant drama.

Outside the three principals the other soloists who particularly held my attention were bass Nicolas Courjal (Narbal) with his rich expressive tone, mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa (Ascagne) displaying striking clarity with her honed delivery and the attractively smooth tenor of Cyrille Dubois (Iopas). The choral forces that include Choeur de l’Opéra du Rhin and Choeur philharmonique de Strasbourg both from France add a degree of authenticity to the work according to Nelsons. The third chorus Badischer Staatsopernchor from Karlsruhe provide a link to the German city where the 1890 staging of Les Troyens was given. Combining remarkably well the eighty-four-strong chorus is in excellent voice demonstrating unity, commitment and no shortage of passion.

Applying all his vast experience John Nelson navigates Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg securely through choppy waters. Artistically and physically challenging, apart from some occasional tonal unevenness, it is hard to fault the aptitude and concentration of the players. Throughout this live recording, with patch sessions, the engineering team for Erato achieve satisfying clarity and natural sound balance with little extraneous noise to worry about. Filmed to a reasonable standard by Guillaume L'hôte the bonus DVD, a compilation of extracts from one of the Salle Érasme concert performances, is in effect better described as bleeding chunks and is only of moderate interest. This model presentation of this Nelsons/Erato release includes a comprehensive booklet which includes a note by John Nelsons, a detailed and informative essay by Christian Wasselin, a synopsis, performance and rehearsal images, and gratitude is owed to the label for providing full sung French texts with an English translation.

A credit to all concerned John Nelsons and his team of choral and orchestra forces at Strasbourg give a rewarding performance of Les Troyens on Erato. Undoubtedly the main competition for recordings comes from Sir Colin Davis. Regarded as a landmark recording of Les Troyens and probably the best-known is conducted by Davis from 1969 at Walthamstow Town Hall. Davis fielded a trio of excellent soloists Jon Vickers (Enée), Josephine Veasy (Didon) and Berit Lindholm (Cassandre) with Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Although nearly fifty years old this is a reading of stature and character on Philips that should be considered along with the new Nelsons/Erato account. A greatly-praised account Davis also recorded Les Troyens live (and in rehearsal) in 2000 at Barbican Hall, with London Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Orchestra. Here Davis benefits from the qualities of the three solid main soloists Ben Heppner (Enée), Michelle DeYoung (Didon) and Petra Lang (Cassandre) on LSO Live. Regarded by many as Davis’s crowning glory this penetrating recording should be the first port of call for those wanting a recording of Les Troyens.

Michael Cookson



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