Great moments in opera: Les Troyens

December 8, 2011

I was about halfway through Berlioz’s monstrous Les Troyens — that is, I had watched two full hours of it — when I began to worry: was it possible that the whole gargantuan spectacle could play out without a single ear-catching melody being heard? Perhaps I was just in the wrong frame of mind — although, to be fair, I did not seem to be. This opera is regarded as one of Berlioz’s masterpieces, and even as one of the most significant operas of the nineteenth century. Evidently I was not getting it.

It is certainly an ambitious work. For his story Berlioz turned to Virgil’s Aeneid. The opening acts concern the fall of Troy (from Aeneid, Book I), and we then follow Aeneas to Carthage and the court of Dido, where (as we know) she falls in love with him and kills herself when he leaves (Aeneid, Book IV). The libretto departs from Virgil’s model insofar as it introduces a major role for Cassandra, who foresees the fall of Troy and tries to warn the Trojans, to no avail. Les Troyens calls for a huge cast, and the two principal female roles, for Cassandra and Dido, are extremely demanding. Berlioz himself was never able to hear the entire work staged on account of its length, technical difficulty, and logistical challenges.

A good story is all too rare in opera, and Les Troyens certainly has one. I am struggling, therefore, to understand why I found it so tedious. It was not just the length — 4 hours — although that may have been part of it. More serious was this: most of the libretto, which Berlioz wrote himself, is exposition. Almost none of the action of the story takes place on stage. Instead we hear about events, and even about conversations, from on-stage soloists and choruses. This saps the drama. The music is also not very interesting, or at least was not to me. I’ll grant that it is stately and dignified, sometimes tragic, and (to say something positive) it avoids some of the excesses of nineteenth-century French opera, but it is also slow and strangely colourless. This is true even of the orchestral part. This is Berlioz! He is supposed to be one of the great wizards of orchestration. But Les Troyens did not impress me in that respect. (However much I may complain about Wagner, it is at least true that listening to his orchestra is almost always interesting.)

Yet, as it turned out, my patient waiting for a lovely melody was eventually rewarded. At the end of Act IV (of V), Dido and Aeneas sang a love duet, Nuit d’ivresse, that was everything I had been hoping for: lyrical, melodious, and entrancing. It is sung in this clip by Susan Graham and Gregory Kundehe, from a recent Parisian production:

That is lovely, and, in context, very nearly worth waiting for.

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