Magazine article Opera Canada

Hector Berlioz on DVD. (A Guide To)

Magazine article Opera Canada

Hector Berlioz on DVD. (A Guide To)

Article excerpt

December 11, 2003, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the most idiosyncratic and controversial figures of the 19th century: Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Described by J.H. Elliot, one of his biographers, as the "most baffling phenomenon in musical history," the somewhat quirky French composer continues to confound listeners with what Richard Wagner once described as his "devilishly confused musical idiom."

While in his 20s, Berlioz contemplated various operatic subjects (even Robin Hood). Although fragments from these early attempts exist (including the overture to Les franes-juges), the first complete surviving opera is Benvenuto Cellini, which was mounted at the Paris Opera in 1838. Two other operas--Las Troyens (1858) and the opera comique, Beatrice et Benedict (1860)--were to follow. Of these, only Las Troyens--considered by most as the composer's magnum opus--is represented on DVD.

Although viewed today as the pinnacle of French grand opera, Las Troyens had a troubled beginning. In fact, only the second part was ever produced during the composer's lifetime (in Paris in 1863), and it was not until 1890, in Karlsruhe, that the opera was produced in its entirety, 21 years after the composer's death. Even then, it was only when Covent Garden mounted its legendary production in 1957 (with Jon Vickers as Enee) that Las Troyens began its heady ascent.

In 1973, the Metropolitan Opera mounted a new (its first) production of Les Troyens in New York, starring Vickers as Enee and Louis Quilico as Chorebe. That production was revived 10 years later as part of the Met's special centennial season and videotaped on October 8, 1983, with Canadian Alan Monk as Chorebe and Phicido Domingo as Enee. This performance has now been released on DVD on the Pioneer Classics label.

Based on Virgil's Aeneid (with a libretto by the composer), the opera is divided into two parts: La Prise de Troie (in which the Greeks besiege and topple the city of Troy, after which Aeneas and his followers escape to Carthage) and Las Troyens d Carthage (which deals with the tragic love affair between Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, who abandons her).

As the prophetess Cassandre, the formidable American soprano Jessye Norman gives one of the performances of her career, singing with unfaltering tone and searing intensity. A great tragedienne, Norman pulls out all the stops. Her opening scenes ("Maiheureux Roi!" and Tout est manance au ciel") are filled with fear and foreboding, while her soft singing--when she pleads with her fiancee, Chorebe, to escape before Troy's downfall--is absolutely hypnotic. For some of the subsequent performances, Norman switched to the role of Didon. What a pity this was not also captured on video.

Although Monk sings with warmth and style, he can do nothing but pale in comparison to Norman while on the stage with her. The size and power of her voice and her intense stage presence are a force of nature. After a somewhat strained opening, Domingo sings the long and taxing role of Enee with considerable distinction. Although his French diction lacks clarity; he carefully paces himself so there is plenty of power to spare for the final act and the aria "Inutiles regrets!" The late American mezzo, Tatiana Troyanos, makes a handsome, noble Didon, although not quite in Norman's league when it comes to enunciating the French text.

In the smaller roles, Paul Plishka delivers a robust Narbal; French mezzo Jocelyne Taillon's stagey mannerisms and worn, matronly voice undermine the effectiveness of the role of Anna; Douglas Ahlstedt's account of lopas's song, "O blonde Ceres," is nasal and pinched in quality; and Philip Creech offers a tender, if somewhat self-conscious, account of Hylas's wistful song about the homeland to which he will never return.

Visually Peter Wexler's dark and dated production has little to recommend. The sets for Part One, in particular, are incredibly heavy, clunky and unimaginative, although things brighten considerably in Part Two. …

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