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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Les Troyens, opera in five acts, Op. 29 (1856/59) [235:00]
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 Nelson
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]

Berlioz’s great opera has now taken its rightful place among the great operas of the nineteenth century. It is mounted reasonably often by those houses with the resources to do so. But its recording history has lagged behind. This version by Nelson is only its fourth commercial audio recording, though there are also several DVDs of stage productions and a few other live audio performances available from various sources. Of these other versions, only the Pappano DVD of the current Covent Garden production is at all recent, so this new version practically has the field to itself.

The work is a dramatization, by Berlioz himself, of the second and fourth books of Virgil’s Aeneid, with some changes, contributions from elsewhere in the poem, and, in one famous passage – the love duet – from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Berlioz himself said the work was ‘Virgil Shakespeareanized.’ The first two acts show the fall of Troy, with the first act presenting the Trojans thinking they are victorious before making the fatal decision to bring the wooden horse, unknown to them full of armed Greeks, into their citadel. In the second act, the Greeks have set fire to Troy and are killing or enslaving the Trojans. In these two acts Cassandre is the leading figure; her prophecies of doom are not believed, even by her lover Chorèbe, and she ends by committing suicide along with most of the women. Énée (Aeneas) escapes with a handful of followers. In the remaining three acts, we are at Carthage, where Dido has founded the city. Énée arrives in time to help fend off some invading Nubians. In the fourth act, he and Dido fall in love. In the final act, he is forced by his destiny to abandon her to go to Italy and Dido commits suicide.

The story as presented by Berlioz is not completely coherent, and, in particular, you need to appreciate that Énée really is a figure of heroic stature, the future founder of Rome, though you see little of this in his role as a fugitive from Troy and a faithless lover at Carthage. The other weakness is that the ending, which Berlioz rewrote several times, does not really come off – Dido prophesies that she will be avenged through the unlovely figure of Hannibal, but finally realizes that that Rome will eventually be triumphant. But the work as a whole is a great masterpiece, full of variety, splendid lyrical writing, and also great choruses and dramatic scenes. There are no longeurs and indeed, although Les Troyens lasts four hours, they pass quickly.

John Nelson has an excellent track record with Berlioz. I greatly enjoyed his version of Benvenuto Cellini, which, incidentally, adds half an hour more of music to the version used by Colin Davis. His version of the Te Deum includes the extra movements which are rarely played. He has been conducting Les Troyens since 1973, and his experience with the score shows. What is immediately apparent is its superb pacing. The momentum hurtling towards tragedy in the second and fifth acts is matched by his ability to deal also with joy in the first and fourth acts and with the occasional moments of relaxation and even humour – I am thinking of the duet for two sentries in act five. Then he gets the right Berlioz sound from his orchestra. This is always clear and glittering and quite different from the sensuous warmth which Wagner requires. Great Berlioz conductors such as Charles Munch and Colin Davis achieve this; competent generalists such as James Levine and Antonio Pappano do not quite do so, to my ears anyway. The Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg is not one of the great opera orchestras, such as those at the Metropolitan Opera or Covent Garden, but they play with a will, and they can be outstanding, such as the solo clarinet in the Andromaque scene. The various ballets and, above all, the Chasse royale and orage, are superbly managed.

Next comes the chorus, supplied here by three different choirs, but even so not an enormous but certainly a well disciplined body. There is a good deal of work for them. I was particularly struck by the way they sing the processional hymns: the Marche et hymne Dieux protecteurs and the Marche Troyenne in act one, and the Chant National for Dido in act three. They are always crisp and alert.

The soloists have drawn various opinions. Nelson did not want, and did not choose, Wagnerian voices. He also did choose a largely French-speaking cast, a decided help in this work. The singers of three principal roles, Cassandre, Énée and Dido, have smaller and lighter voices than one usually hears. The two women are also more tremulous, though not so much so as to be disconcerting. They take some getting used to, but I think Nelson is following Berlioz who was not competing with Wagner but following in the tradition represented by Gluck, Méhul and Spontini. This is not nearly as familiar as the Italian one which goes through Rossini to Verdi, or the German one which goes through Beethoven and Weber to Wagner. This is a number opera with distinct recitatives, arias and ensembles and with frequent ballets which are normally purely orchestral. Marie-Nicole Lemieux makes a dramatic Cassandre, though occasionally her vibrato is noticeable. Joyce DiDonato is not French but she is expressive, warm, and, in her final scenes, heroic. It would be churlish to regret the absence of the regal dignity and melancholy majesty of Susan Graham in this role – I saw in her a live transmission from the Metropolitan Opera, and she recorded the role on John Eliot Gardiner’s DVD – so I shall not do so. Michael Spyres, also not French, does not bring the heft that Jon Vickers did to the role of Énée in the first Colin Davis version, but he is flexible and convincing.

The minor roles are well taken. These include Hanna Hipp as Dido’s sister Anna, Stanislas de Barbeyrac and Cyrille Dubois as Hylas and Iopas respectively, who each have one scene. Philippe Sly is so powerful as Énée’s friend Panthée that I wish the role were larger, and Nicolas Courjal as Dido’s minister Narbal has a fruity bass which descends to a low F.

The recording was based on two live concert performances and one catch-up session as the Salle Érasme in Strasbourg, a large concert hall into which the sound happily expands. The bonus DVD provides excerpts from some of the scenes. The booklet provides the complete libretto in French and English and interesting essays by Nelson and Christian Wasselin, but this means there is no space for biographies of the artists. The project was sponsored by Ascanio’s Purse, an American non-profit-masking foundation dedicated to supporting Berlioz – they also supported the recording of Benvenuto Cellini I mentioned. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

I should note a few minor niggles. The opera is performed complete as in the standard score. However, Berlioz originally included an additional scene after the Andromaque scene, where Sinon provides a lying account of the purpose of the wooden horse; Cassandre contradicts him but is overruled by Priam. Berlioz removed this scene from the score three years after completing the work, in the hope of a production. He destroyed most of the orchestral score, which has been reconstructed by Hugh Macdonald. Nelson deliberately chose to omit this scene; only Dutoit, as far as I know, includes it. As it was part of the original conception of the opera, I think it should have been included. He also omits, this time rightly in my view, the Prologue to Les Troyens à Carthage, the second part of the opera, which he wrote when a production of that part only was mounted; this is a perfunctory piece of hackwork, also included by Dutoit. I also wonder whether anything could be salvaged from the earlier versions of the finale which would improve it. John Eliot Gardiner apparently did this, with mixed reviews. (Dare I say that I wish this unsatisfactory finale could be replaced with the wonderful immolation scene from Roussel’s Padmâvatî?)

Then there is the issue of the unusual instruments Berlioz specifies. A comparison with Wagner’s Ring is appropriate. No opera house would dream of mounting the Ring without the bass trumpet, contrabass trombone and Wagner tubas the composer specified, though they do tend to skimp on the anvils and steerhorns. Berlioz requires doubles flûtes antiques in the first scene and suggests three oboes as substitutes. As the so-called flûte was in fact a reed instrument, this alternative is reasonable. The sistres antiques which mark the entry of Énée in Dieux protecteurs was a circle of metal rods loosely housed in a frame and struck with a beater. There is a modern sistrum, used liturgically; otherwise the nearest equivalent is the Jingling Johnny or Turkish Crescent. The instrument Nelson uses gives a sufficiently metallic sound but without the jingling effect. The tarbuka in the Dance of Nubian slaves was a drum, shaped like a goblet with an open end, and played with the fingers. Berlioz suggests a tambour as an alternative, but this term covers a variety of drums. Nelson uses a high tenor drum without snares. These instruments all appear on stage, so arguably the visual effect is more important than the exact aural one. More important is the choir of saxhorns. These were military brass instruments developed, not invented, by Adolphe Sax. There was a whole family, ranging from sopranino to contrabass. Apparently they had a bright yet rounded sound, less incisive than trumpets or trombones; the higher instruments were like cornets and the lower ones like tubas. Berlioz employs them in rare but important moments: the finale of the first act (the Marche Troyenne), the Chasse royale, the third act duet Errante sur tes pas and the finale. The instruments Nelson uses make a splendid noise, but is it the right noise? They sound more like trumpets to me, except in the Chasse royale where Berlioz suggests horns for the solo lines, which I think is what we hear. Gardiner does use saxhorns but I have yet to hear his version to check the effect.

Still, these are quibbles. The whole is a tremendous achievement, which can certainly stand alongside the previous recordings, of which the 1969 Colin Davis version, based on a run of performances at Covent Garden, is probably the classic. Having listened to the Nelson version, I immediately wanted to hear it again, and I am sure it is a version to live with.

Stephen Barber
Previous review: Michael Cookson



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