Les Troyens. (Opera Note)

By Penrose, James F. | New Criterion, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Les Troyens. (Opera Note)


Penrose, James F., New Criterion


by Hector Berlioz, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

There are two varieties of Berlioz. The first is the "subscription concert" Berlioz: the composer known for his concert overtures, the Symphonie Fantastique and, on a good day, the Harold en Italie viola concerto. The characteristics of this variety are vivid orchestral textures, memorable themes, agreeable brevity, and lots of noisy bits. Then there is the "private" Berlioz. This is much bigger category and runs from the vaguely familiar (Les Nuits d'ete) to the lesser known (L'Enfance du Christ, Romeo et Juliette) on its way to the obscure (Lelio). Works of the "private" Berlioz suggest a predisposition for the voice, avoidance of the sonata form, a more pronounced degree of literary inspiration, and a more extended development of musical and literary themes. For various reasons, these works also pay a considerably larger emotional dividend to the listener. Despite their extroverted "subscription concert" qualities, Berlioz's three operas have more than their share of the obscurity of the lesser known "private" works. The paradox is that one of them, Les Troyens (The Trojans), is not only Berlioz's greatest work, but probably the greatest French opera of the nineteenth century. Thirty years ago, one commentator wrote that the opera is "one of the few neglected masterpieces of opera ... which remains to be rediscovered"--a statement that, despite recent revivals, still largely holds true.

That is not to say that the Metropolitan Opera has not tried to do its part to improve matters. In acknowledgment of the bicentenary of Berlioz's birth this year, the Met commissioned a new production of Les Troyens by Francesca Zambello. This production, which premiered on February 10, features a number of technical debuts: sets by the late Maria Bjornson, costumes by Anita Yavich, and choreography by Doug Varone. Costumes and choreography were stylish and attractive, the sets less so: for two acts the stage was overlooked by a huge, abstract iris and pupil formed from long metallic splinters. The third and fourth acts featured a curved plexiglass panel that reminded me of the drive-in root-beer stands of my youth.

Musically, the performance was uneven. The orchestra was lush and clearly directed, but the singing, at least initially, was uncertain. The tentativeness of the principals, Cassandra and Aeneas, was met with an inert audience that sat silent until the fall of the second-act curtain. By Act III the performance steadied. Singers and audience alike came alive and began responding to each other. Nevertheless, the audience remained confused.

The effort of getting Les Troyens performed eventually killed Berlioz. He started the work in 1856 and completed it almost two years later. The work is based on two books of Virgil's Aeneid, a poem Berlioz had started reading with his father at La Cote Saint Andre more than forty years earlier. The opera moves from the fall of Troy through the flight of Aeneas and his men to Italy to establish the new Troy--Rome. On the way, Aeneas's party, exhausted from its wanderings, makes landfall in northern Africa where Aeneas meets and falls in love with Dido, queen of Carthage.

When Les Troyens was completed, Berlioz was something of an outcast.

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