Sunday, January 13, 2013

Les Troyens

Who can describe the havoc of that night?
Who can tell its deeds of death? Who can with tears
Equal in sorrow its calamities?
Our ancient and imperial city falls.
All around, on streets, in homes, at temples
sacred to the gods, lifeless bodies lie.
Nor is it only Trojan blood that flows:
The vanquished too at times with courage burn,
And conquering Grecians fall. On every side
Are cruel wailings heard, and everywhere
Is fear, with countless scenes of death.
—Virgil, The Aeneid, Book II, lines 361-369
(translated by Benjamin Hall Kennedy and Pessimisissimo)

Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens (The Trojans, completed 1858) portrays episodes from Books II and IV of Virgil's Aeneid: the fall of Troy, Aeneas' escape with a handful of men to Carthage, the love of Aeneas and Queen Dido, Aeneas' departure for Italy and Dido's anguish and death. The opera is suitably epic in scope. The five acts, which include symphonic and ballet interludes and require huge choral forces, take more than five hours to perform.

The difficulties of staging Les Troyens are so daunting that Berlioz never saw a complete performance. The last three acts were presented in a heavily edited version in 1863 as Les Troyens à Carthage, but the full opera wasn't produced until decades after Berlioz's death. Since then, complete performances have remained rare, and only larger opera houses have the resources to contemplate a production.

The Metropolitan Opera in New York is one of those houses, and after the work's Met premiere in 1973 it has staged the opera every decade since. On January 5, 2013, we went to see the Met Live in HD broadcast of this season's remounting of Francesca Zambello's 2003 production. While I had mixed feelings about aspects of the production, I was grateful to have the opportunity to see the opera at all (it hasn't been staged by the San Francisco Opera since the late 1960s).

And in one respect the production was revelatory: young American tenor Bryan Hymel (pronounced EE-mel), who, we learned, had stepped in for Marcello Giordani on short notice in mid-run, proved to be an absolutely thrilling Énée. Here is an audience-shot video of Hymel singing the Act IV love duet with the Didon of Yvonne Nafe from the 2010 Amsterdam production. Even with not-great sound and image, it will give you at least an idea of what we heard:

The words, written by Berlioz himself, are: "Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie! / Blonde Phoebé, grands astres de sa cour, / Versez sur nous votre lueur bénie; / Fleurs des cieux, souriez à l’immortel amour!" (Night of rapture and boundless ecstasy! / Golden Phoebe, and you, great stars of her court, / pour on us your enchanted light; / Flowers of heaven, smile on our immortal love!) An English translation of the rest of the duet can be found in the subtitles of this video of the duet from the Met's 1983 production, with Tatiana Troyanos as Didon and Plácido Domingo as Énée.*

As this excerpt suggests, Berlioz's music for Les Troyens, particularly in the more intimate or inward moments in the second part, is often exquisite (another example is Hylas' wistful lament for his Trojan homeland which opens Act 5, and which was sung beautifully by Paul Appleby).

Susan Graham was Hymel's Didon, and while her voice does not have the opulence of her 2003 predecessor, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, she was admirable in this emotionally and physically exhausting role. Deborah Voigt reprised her role as the prophetess Cassandre from the 2003 production, and seemed somewhat taxed in the lower-lying reaches of the music (the part was written for a mezzo-soprano). The Met has resources other opera houses can only envy; the secondary roles were taken by singers of high caliber, including baritone Dwayne Croft (Chorèbe, Cassandre's betrothed), contralto Karen Cargill (Anna, Dido's sister), and bass Kwangchul Youn (Narbal, Dido's advisor). Fabio Luisi conducted with apparently inexhaustible energy, though I couldn't help but wish we could hear what James Levine would have brought to the score.

Lorraine Hunt was also a deeply affecting Dido in the recording with Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of Henry Purcell's 1689 chamber opera Dido and Aeneas. To give you a sense of the scale of Les Troyens, to perform the entirety of Purcell's opera takes less time than any one of the five acts of Berlioz's sprawling epic.

I'll close with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson performing Didon's lament after she learns of Énée's betrayal, "Je vais mourir" (I am going to die); note the return of "Nuit d'ivresse" as if in a memory:

This excerpt is from the 2003 Met production; could there be a more compelling case for an official release of the full-length performance?


* Berlioz's complete libretto for Les Troyens can be found can be found on The Hector Berlioz Website.

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