Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens (1858/1892)

Grand Opera en cinq actes. Running Time: 4 hours 2 minutes.

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(Above: The awesome Jessye Norman as Cassandra in my favourite scene in the opera.) 

It took me a week to get through this. One of the longest operas, (or is it two operas?), Les Troyens is a magnificently mammoth work which has suffered an unjust fate. It is long, that is true, but no more so than any Wagner opera that gets over 200 performances a year, and what is more this is in five acts, not Wagner’s usual three. It has 18 soloist singing roles, which in comparison to the 32 in Wagner’s Ring is surely not too many, and what is more it doesn’t require the services of even a single overpaid soprano (although it does require four mezzo-sopranos). At one point this opera was thought to be so long it was sometimes divided into as many as eight acts and performed over two nights, which does seem a bit ridiculous considering that thing known as Meistersinger is longer than this and generally requires sets that are about as huge. I fume….

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-x2TF-bebg

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Before the Walls of Troy. (61 minutes)

0: The opening (a long choral piece for the joyous Trojans celebrating the departure of the Greeks **) is shockingly pulled off without any stringed accompaniment whatsoever. The first part (around two and a half minutes) is of three-star level magnificence but it bogs down when the soldier arrives more to one-star level, hence the balancing out at two-stars. The Trojans rush off rather well however.

4: Cassandra comes on not trusting the departure of the Greeks one inch. In her nine minute long aria *** her characterization is simply perfectly drawn with melodies Gluck would have envied.

12.30, 16, 18, 20, 27: The Cassandra/Chorèbe duet **, a sequence lasting over a quarter of an hour and really consisting of a series of arias for the two which are interrupted by exchanges. He tries to calm her but she is on a constant red alert that Troy will soon fall to the Greeks. She tells him that if he loves her he will leave, but he can not out of love for her (irony).

28, 33: The chorus of Trojans returns with a somber military drum roll and a chorus in which they address their deities with “joyful” voices which are actually rather depressed *. It has some solemnity and stateliness to it but otherwise it is the weakest item of the act  and is followed by an extremely brief ballet *.

35, 38: The arrival of Andromaque and Astyanax is treated in a choral Pantomime ** which is of a Mozartean level of delicacy and beauty. It changes gears to a more stately harp and brass led melody *** as Cassandra prophecies even more misfortune than widowhood for Andromaque.

42: At long last Énée’s first utterance in a recitative ** in which the flutes, bassoons, and brass freak out as he describes in horror the deaths of Laocoon and his two sons via two anacondas.

44: The Octet and Chorus (latter divided into two parts) *** as they all react to this news, all except for Cassandra who just pities everyone. It has a repeated agonizing climax.

51: After a long recitative in which Énée instigates the entrance of the Trojan Horse into the city, Cassandra declares that she is now watching the devastation of her country **.

53: The seven minute long finale *** which is (somewhat as usual) Cassandra and chorus starts with the first iteration of the Marche troyenne. The contrast between Cassandra (who knows everything and tries to warn them and even have the Trojans hack the Horse with axes to reveal the Greeks inside) and the chorus which is totally oblivious is in itself both brilliant and terrifying as the Horse is brought into the city and Cassandra decides to curl up and die.

ACT 2: (25.5 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in Aeneas’ palace.

0: By the time the prelude *** occurs the Greeks have left the Horse and are already pillaging and torching the city. Scary brass come in when the curtain rises and Aeneas is awakened, then crash! All heck breaks loose, it is very long, around four and a half minutes, but also very, very good.

6: Aeneas is visited by the Shadow of his cousin Hector *** who greets him to a frightening chromatic scale and warns him that the Greeks are already pillaging the city and that he needs to gather as many survivors as possible and flee for Italy (plot point: this comes back in later acts). Utterly brilliant!

9: Panthus runs in carrying the Trojan sacred symbols and Aeneas asks him if anything is  left. The city has been sacked by the Greeks, Ascagne (Aeneas’ son) runs in, then Chorebe with a chorus of soldiers and all pandemonium breaks loose *** as they rush off to protect the citadel.

Scene 2: A room in Piram’s palace, the altar of Vesta-Cybele, Mount Ida in the distance.

12: Immediately without any break we cut to the Trojan women (well the ones who don’t end up in a later play…) led by Princess Polyxene (who literally does nothing else in this opera) in hymn to Vesta *** praying for deliverance from the dreaded Greeks.

17: Cassandra enters and tells them that Aeneas has escaped the city with many of the men, but her beloved Chorebe has been slain (didn’t we just see him like five minutes ago?), anyways the women break into yet another brilliant choral number, this time accompanying Cassandra who tells them that Troy is no more and they all need to kill themselves to avoid being raped by the Greeks ***, they all decide to greet death along side her in a rather triumphal bit of choral writing.

21, 24: The act finale ***. The women take up their lyres and Cassandra takes the tragedy of the drama to force nine. The intensity level overdoses as the Greeks arrive searching the palace for treasure and Cassandra takes one last stand against these savages (“drunk on blood” she says)  *** before stabbing herself, telling Polyxena to follow suit, the other women as well by various methods, jumping, stabbing, strangling themselves, and they all die crying for Aeneas to go to Italy (the first instance of the “Italie! Italie!” motif, Cassandra with her arms stretched towards the distant Mount Ida) as the horrified Greeks look on and realize that Aeneas has taken the treasure with him. This is a stunning instance of musical and dramatic OD-ing which is simply awesome and possibly unparalleled in musical history! Truly we are in the presence of death.

ACT 3: Dido’s throne room, Carthage. (45.5 minutes)

0, 3: The opening choral sequence is yet another opportunity for joyous chorusing ***, it continues into a stately Chant National * as Dido arrives with her retinue and mounts her throne.

6: Dido greets her peeps in an elevated sort of recitative (nice orchestral features) which grows into a fugitive aria which at times waltzes about **. She goes into a lot of backstory about how they all fled to Africa from Tyre in order to escape her husband’s enemies seven years before and how he was murdered by the enemies but under her rule they have agriculturally prospered, but now they are under attack from the dreaded Iarbas, a Numidian or Berber (not Nubian!).

16: But now is also time to celebrate the peaceful labouring classes and so BALLET: Builders, Sailors, Farm-Workers, none of it particularly interesting and seemingly comedic because none of it matches what it is trying to describe. Dido gives a prize to the elderly leader of the agricultural crew (apparently they have won), everyone else praises the farmers because they produce le pain! glorious pain! at least the end of the chorus is good *, as they leave! This sequence is a very cute, even touching, bit of character drawing (Dido is an awesome Queen who really cares about her subjects and they adore her), but very much filler that has nothing to do with the plot at all.

19: The Dido-Anna “Will I ever find love again?” duet *. Anna says yes but Dido isn’t hearing any of it. She has loved, and will never love again. It trudges along, saved (again) by its character drawing (Dido is a romantically broken woman), but is otherwise frankly dull, and very long. It should be better than this.

28: Iopas, Dido’s court poet, announces the arrival of some unknown people in the city harbour who wish to have an audience with her. She gracefully consents and embarks on a very brief aria * in which the orchestra mimics the ocean as she remembers her storm tossed days.

30, 34: The return of the Marche Troyenne ** this time dans le mode triste and so very sobering. The Trojans arrive and Ascagne addresses Dido, offering her the Trojan treasure * (you know, the one the Greeks were looking for in the previous scene. She asks him what race they are and Ascagne tells her that the treasures must surely alert her that they are Trojans. Panthee tells her that Aeneas seeks Italy, but Dido (knowing his renown) tells them that they must stay and forget their suffering at her court.

37: Suddenly, something with a bit more octane ** as Narbal, royal minister, arrives with bad news about the Numidian issue, they are on the attack. This is the start of an eight minute act finale.

38: Aeneas’ entrance ** quickly becomes an offer to have the Trojans fight alongside the Carthaginians structured around an aria con coro.

44: The final ensemble rushes about to a satisfactory conclusion ***.

ACT 4: (54.5 minutes)

Scene 1: An African forest, morning.

0: Technically, the act starts with a lovely, and ultimately grand, Pantomime *** entitled “The Royal Hunt and Storm” in which Dido and Aeneas go on a hunt which seems to be going well when a storm brews (rather mild at first, then it turns into a Category 5 hurricane). The couple seeks shelter from the storm in a cave where they proceed to make love as a chorus of cute forest furries and mythological creatures dance about screaming “Italie! Italie!” while the orchestra pounds away at the wind and rain, and Aeneas…well I won’t get into that…keeping it PG! Either way this is a magnificent piece of orchestra tonal painting. If you notice, towards the end there is a reminder of the mass suicide in act 2.

Scene 2: The Gardens of Dido’s palace by the sea, sunset.

10: The act proper begins with a recitative * for Anna and Narbal: the Numidians have been driven back, so that plot point was totally pointless.

13: Next we have something very odd: still Anna and Narbal, but each gets one half of a single number aria * and cavatina. Narbal is low and deep and fearful that the Dido-Aeneas relationship will end badly, Anna is a little flighty and laughs off his fears.

18, 27: We then get ten minutes of gentle entrance music and then a ballet * which actually isn’t half-bad as a symphonic piece, but is rather long and serves zero dramatic purpose. It is followed by a “Ha, Ha” chorus from some Nubian slave girls * which causes Dido to finally dismiss the entertainment because she has had enough and orders a song from her poet Iopas.

29, 37: Iopas’ song to Ceres * is nice but could be more interesting, instead it is just sweet and a mild piece. This is followed but still more boredom with Dido and then some gossip from Aeneas about Andromaque who has married Pyrrhus, king of Epirus (apparently he never saw Ermione). The musical quality upgrades ** as they talk about who slew who, in the midst of this Ascanio steals Dido’s ring, which she had sworn eternal fidelity to her late husband on. She does take it back but then leaves it and Anna, Narbal, Iopas, Dido, and Aeneas all make comments in a nice quintet **.

40: Aeneas asks Dido to come out with him into the night air, this is followed by a moonlight septet with chorus *** which has a grand etherial beauty.

45: The ten minute Dido-Aeneas love duet ** has a delicate orchestral accompaniment and some good vocal work for the two leads.

53: Mercury is heard off-stage crying “Italie! Italie!” * and the act ends frighteningly.

ACT 5: (55 minutes)

Scene 1: The Harbour of Carthage, night.

0: The act opens on a lovely aria for Hylas, a young Phyrgian sailor ***. Two soldiers are on duty and make comments.

6: Berlioz has the orchestra waddle about as Panthee arrives to announce that Aeneas has ordered them to weight anchor and a strangely chromatic chorus * of Trojans pops up describing how a chorus of dead Trojans haunts him (we hear them)

9: The two Trojan Sentries on duty that night think the talk of leaving the city is just silliness * and they go on to describe the women they have shacked up with while in Carthage and a bit of cross-linguistics has occurred. One of the men is learning to speak Carthaginian, the other’s woman can speak Trojan. Multiculturalism in the 2nd millennium B.C.E., there is hope for humanity after all! 

11: Aeneas arrives in grave agitation and embarks on a lovely, long aria ** in which he goes over having told Dido of his departure and his agony because he must leave her.

19: The vision *** as the ghosts of Priam, Hector, Chorebe, and Cassandra appear before Aeneas. Spooky.

21: Aeneas awakens the Trojans into a choral sequence *** of sedate beauty.

23: The arrival of Dido **. At first she doesn’t believe what is happening then she tells him to get lost. She curses him, he begs for mercy and admits he still loves her, will of the  gods and all, but no, she is having none of it.

28: A bit of a swashbuckling exit for Aeneas provided by the orchestra *** as Dido storms off. Fantastic!

Scene 2: Dido’s apartment at dawn.

30: The scene opens with an agitated Dido accompanied by an agitated string section, or rather orchestra in general. Anna tries to comfort her, but Dido starts to weep and the scene gradually grows **. Iopas comes on telling Dido that the Trojans have just left. She orders an attack, but quickly changes her mind. The Trojan fleet is still within sight of the city, she has another fate in store. She goes through a number of awful plans, like serving up Ascagne to Aeneas on a platter at the banquet, but no, that revenge is not her’s. Her sister begs her forgiveness and she orders everyone out.

37: Dido decides it is time to die ***.

Scene 3: The palace gardens.

43: The Funerary Rite **, the priestly chorus chants something nihilistic as Anna and Narbal curse Aeneas that he might die by a “common arrow” when the Latins and Umbrians unite against him.

48, 52: Dido comes on, ready for the immolation sacrifice ***, she throws Aeneas’ toga and her veil onto the couch and prophecies the arrival of Hannibal before stabbing herself ***. The Carthaginians are aghast and Anna begs her to recognize her but Dido prophecies the fall of Carthage and the immortal triumph of Rome, that Troy will live on and conquer all as the Marche troyenne has one last outing and the Cathaginians curse Rome as their Queen dies amid grand orchestral bombast ***. Curtain.

COMMENTS:

The first two acts (particularly the second) are basically as close to perfection as anyone has ever come in tragic opera. In fact, if that was all that there was to this opera then it would probably be the greatest opera ever, but there are three more acts, so it isn’t the greatest opera ever.  The intensity of the dramatic horror for the Trojans as their city is sacked by the Greeks is amazingly captured by Berlioz to an unprecedented extreme in music, and the contrast between the almost entirely male opening scene and the almost entirely female closing scene immediately following demonstrates how we are witnessing the destruction of a people far more honourable than their crafty vanquishers. At the centre of all this is Cassandra, who is possibly opera’s greatest characterization, and one can tell that Berlioz really, really loved her. It is a tragedy that Berlioz never was able to see her performed on stage because she rivals anything Verdi, Wagner, or Meyerbeer could ever draw. The problems come when we move from Troy to Carthage. The first hour and a half simply is so unparalleled in musical history (including a seamless scene change in the second act) that the last two and a half hours are comparatively dull and very dramatically ill-paced. In truth, this is really two operas trying to be one but you really just end up wanting so much more of Troy and lot less Carthage. Not that the Carthage acts are dreadful by any means, but they are (mostly) missing Cassandra, and she is just so awesome that her absence for the rest of the work is a little annoying. Dido is obviously meant to be the counterpart in the later acts to Cassandra (both are obviously prime mezzo roles), but Berlioz really doesn’t give the same amount of loving to the Carthaginian queen as he does the Trojan princess, except maybe in act 5. The male characters have comparatively little to do, Aeneas being the only sizeable male role and his appearances are rather sporadic. He does show up in act 1, but the character isn’t fully developed until his ten minute sequence in act 2 afterwards he appears in act 3 (barely), does very little other than sit around in act 4, and departs in the first half of act 5. However, he does get four sequences which can be counted as arias.

One might speculate what the opera’s fate might have been had the first two and not the last three acts been performed in 1863. The third act starts (the opening chorus is the last  piece that actually sounds like the earlier music) and ends well but the innards  (apart from maybe the Dido-Anna duet and the sedate reprisal of the Marche) isn’t incredibly interesting. The fourth act has some lovely moments (Royal Hunt and Storm, ballet, moonlight septet) but it is also basically filler and it lasts for almost an hour. The last three acts also exist in a completely different sound world than the first two, only at the beginning of act 3 and in act 5 does the grandeur of the first two acts return, and we are left feeling like we have gone from one work to another. Meyerbeer’s Vasco de Gama radically changes settings from Lisbon to Madagascar, but we know all of the main characters and none of the music is overtly displaced (Inez’s hauntingly beautiful Hymn to the Tegus brings everything full circle) so the audience does not forget which opera they are listening to. Here the only thing telling us we are in the same opera is the presence of Aeneas, but he brings little of the Trojan music from the first two acts with him.  This is not to say that the Carthage music is bad, it’s just heavily romantic and not all that dramatic, at least not in acts 3 or 4. In act 5 we do return to the realm of the earliest acts and so the show is ultimately saved. It starts strongly with a beautiful tenor aria, and ending with Dido’s glorious suicide sequence (lasting a total of 18-minutes and a scene change). Berlioz’ format is highly conservative, and very much a reaction to the theories of the evil one. For all that is said of this as a reactionary work, the orchestration is high innovative and very interesting. Berlioz uses old techniques, but reinvents them here into some of a greater dramatic power than anything that came before it. The work consists of a record 52 separate numbers. Some of them are amazing, others are sort of meh, overall very enjoyable and at times splendid. Although not an alpha plus because two of the acts make no dramatic sense, this is a solid alpha by anyone’s standards.

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16 thoughts on “Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens (1858/1892)

  1. I scrolled down to look at your rating before I read the review. I don’t have to kill you. Good.

    I pretty much agree with everything you’ve written, except giving the Act IV duet only two stars. The first two acts are, as you point out, musically AND dramatically astonishing; the last three are dramatically inert, but have much beautiful music.

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    1. What did you think I would give Les Troyens? Does this thing have a hate club or something?

      In what other opera do you get furry muppets dancing about in a torrential rain storm crying out “Italie! Italie!” in parallel to suicidal Trojan women whose death sequence is probably the most dramatically effective thing anyone has ever composed? This is amazing, most of the time. I wouldn’t really say act 5 is dramatically inert, at least not in comparison to acts 3 and 4 which definitely are. I had been thinking of doing this opera for about as long as I’ve had the blog. The second act to me is just frankly amazing in its combination of brevity and sheer orchestral power.

      I am surprised that you said nothing of the cute forest furries during the Royal Hunt and Storm. I thought that would get a laugh, but there they are dancing about in the rain waving branches of a tree struck by lightening!

      I think a big problem with the opera was Berlioz’ attempt at fitting the story into a grand opera framework. Although the scenario is grand enough, you can easily tell that acts 3 and 4 are just padding, some of it rather dull, at least to me. It would be okay if one act had a lot of padding, but not two, especially not consecutively.

      I keep wanting an expansion on the Trojan acts, there was a lot of material Berlioz ignored or which he telescoped and which would have made for a five act opera in itself. I wonder why he ended up giving so much time over to the Carthage section when the build up of the Troy sequence is rushed as it is?

      I’m rather joking about Wagner being “the evil one”. It is more of a reference to how different this work is to Wagner. It is divided into 52 numbers, many of which are seamlessly connected to each other into larger musical units. I find a lot of the Carthage music to be boring. There are some good bits but you end up with the odd situation of a three-star item next to a one-star item, or a slew of one-star items one after another.

      I wondered at first if I had gone overboard with act 2 but to be honest it always has me so emotionally engaged with the characters that invariably I end up crying. Just a brilliant little composition and half the size of any of the other acts as well!

      I don’t know if I will do Les Huguenots this week. Whenever I have something that long it will take a long time to give birth. They are two very different operas.

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      1. “I’m not thrilled with Wagner, Weber, Puccini, and Berlioz…”

        He’s following Virgil, rather than Homer, hence the Carthage scenes. Wonderful music, but I think Berlioz (like Wagner) would have benefited from an experienced librettist. III and IV are static, but Berlioz may also be making an aesthetic point: *music*, not music drama, is supreme.

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      1. Yup.

        B & B, I’ll bet, is a beta, with two, maybe three *** numbers.

        My favourite Berlioz opera is Benvenuto Cellini, which has amazing vitality. It really is a life-enhancing opera. The whole world seems to be in it! But, again, it’s a long one!

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      2. Nope, A- and FOUR *** items! A lot of two-stars as well.

        I do love Benvenuto Cellini, (but it is also three and a half hours long!) especially the act one finale, the pope, the explosions, it is musical mad-cap!

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      3. Three and a half hours of genius! There are composers who FILL those three and a half hours (Meyerbeer & Berlioz); there are those who don’t (Rossini, Wagner…).

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      4. As a musician, nothing; he’s one of my favourites. As a music dramatist, more so. 7Some of his operas are concerts in costume – there’s not enough *content* to fill a long opera, the situations are static, and the characters stock / one-dimensional – but they have wonderful numbers. I’m thinking of Bianca e Falliero (despite the quartet), most of Otello (despite a terrific duet and trio in Act II, and Act III), even Semiramide, and many of the early ones.

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      5. We have Benvenuto Cellini! Yeah, I get your feelings about Otello, the first act is duller than watching paint dry (and the longest act, go figure). The second act has a few things in it that are good, but yeah, overall I agree. Act 3 though even Meyerbeer loved, but, yeah, after 3 hours to get forty-minutes at the end isn’t really doing it. Thanks for warning me about Bianca e Falliero, I had debated doing it. And yeah, Sermiramide is a concert in costume as you said. I’m torn right now between completing Les Huguenots or Dvorak’s Dimitrij (my favourite Czech opera). Either way it is A+ opera time.

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  2. The evil one!

    “The great difficulty throughout is to find the musical form – that musical form without which music does not exist, or exists only as the abject slave of the word. There lies Wagner’s crime: he wants to dethrone music and reduce it to expressive accents. This is to outdo the system of Gluck, who most fortunately did not succeed in following his own impious theory. I am for that kind of music which you yourself call ‘free’ – free, imperious, all-conquering. I want it to seize everything, to assimilate everything, and for it to have no Alps or Pyrenees. … To want to take music back to the old recitation of the antique chorus is surely the most incredible folly (as well as being, fortunately, the most futile) in the history of art.

    “To find the means of being expressive, and truthful, without ceasing to be a musician: rather, to endow music with new means of action – that is the problem.”

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  3. At least when the opera isn’t going anywhere, Berlioz gives us beautiful numbers.

    Wagner woe wreaketh,
    audience agonizing,
    Wotan wrathful and Fricka furious,
    argy-bargy in arioso arid.

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