• Opera In-Depth - Les Troyens - The Characters and their Voices

    Let's talk about the vocal demands for the singers in Les Troyens, and some notable performers who took upon themselves to do justice to this formidable work.

    Aeneas, or Énée in French, is a Trojan hero, son of Venus and Anchise. This tenor role was created by Jules-Sébastien Monjauze. It is a nightmare to cast, and one of the explanations for the fact that Les Troyens is not an opera that is often given, since it escapes the possibilities of most opera houses.

    Because, see, one needs here a dramatic tenor of a grade sufficient to sing characters like Otello and Tristan, in order to project over a very, very, very large orchestra. But Otello and Tristan are relatively easy by comparison, because here we also need someone with incredible stamina, since this character spans both parts of this long opera, and the tessitura often includes such challenging notes as high B flat, B natural, and high C, in sustained manner.

    Here is the ideal interpreter: John Vickers. Let's hear him as Énée when he was young, at Covent Garden, singing "Inutiles Regrets!" - an aria with wide range, fiendishly difficult in its strange rhythm and sudden shifts (range F3 to A#/Bb5. Tessitura G3 to G#/Ab4):



    Well, this is very beautiful, isn't it? Let's hear it in Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Opéra de Paris blu-ray, with an underwhelming Gregory Kunde - here actually doing well and helped by the much superior sound quality of this technologically much more advanced version, but Gregory is just lacking in the dramatic side - given his Bel Canto background he takes the piece to a more lyric side which is not really what needs to be done here. We don't really get the sense of ambivalence and anguish. He just doesn't seem to be in the right mood. Also the passagio is sort of rough.



    Here Guy Chauvet teaches Gregory Kunde how *not* to be underwhelming. A very bold version:



    There is also Heldentenor Ben Heppner. I couldn't find an YouTube of him in Les Troyens! He did record it with Colin Davis.

    Then, there is Domingo - I couldn't find it in "Inutiles Regrets" but his is certainly very beautiful, the duet "Nuit d'Ivresse et d'Extase" - his Didon here is Tatyana Troianos. It's a great scene and one of the reasons why I love this opera so much. Again, he is more spinto than dramatic tenor and in this particular performance his top sounds a bit fatigued around 3 and a half and 4 minutes:



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    Cassandra (in French Cassandre), a Trojan prophetess, daughter of King Priam of Troy and Queen Hecuba (Hécube). Dramatic soprano according to the score; often sung by mezzo-sopranos, tessitura generally F4 to F5. Range somewhere in the realm of C#/Db4 to G#/Ab5.

    Anna Caterina Antonacci (well, I think she is perfect in this role, looks, acting, and voice):



    And here, Jessye Norman, not bad; for many, the standard-bearer:



    Maybe more uneven but still impressive, here is Shirley Verrett:



    Janet Baker here sings the role in English:



    Veronique Gens, a little light-weight for this:



    Nadine Denize, I don't like the top notes:



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    Queen Dido, in French Didon, is a mezzo-soprano role. Some of the same ladies above have sung it as well as Cassandre, while others only did Didon. Range D4-F5, tessitura D#/Eb4 - D#/Eb5

    Here we have Shirley Verrett singing the love duet with Gedda (a nice bonus!):



    Tatiana Troyanos, a bit forced:



    Jessye Norman, always impressive, but not always subtle:



    Dame Janet Baker, same problem for me of a somewhat unpleasant top:



    Susan Graham, also a bit light weight, here in the love duet:



    Maria Ewing, bizarre.



    Lorraine Hunt-LIeberson, not bad, full of pathos and I like her timbre.



    And the always excellent Waltraud Meier, my choice:



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    Here is how the Royal Opera House defines these roles in their material about the opera:

    The Key Roles

    Although Les Troyens requires a large cast, with a huge chorus and no fewer than 24
    named principal roles, it essentially relies on the three main principal roles:

    Enée (Aeneas) (heroic tenor) – vast role, on a similar scale to the great Wagnerian
    parts (Siegfried, Tristan). The role lies fairly high in the voice and sings in a heroic,
    man-of-action style. Must also be able to command great beauty for the Act IV love
    duet. (Great interpreters include: Helge Roswaenge, Jon Vickers, Placido Domingo, Ben
    Heppner)

    Cassandra (mezzo-soprano) – completely dominates Acts I and II. A fantastic role
    for a singing-actress, with ample opportunities for scenery-chewing. Cassandra was
    the character who most captured the imagination of Berlioz and she is superbly
    written. Although she dies at the end of Act II, Cassandra returns as a ghost in Act V,
    scene i. Anna Caterina Antonacci, who will sing this role in The Royal Opera
    production, first performed the role in a celebrated production in Paris in 2003.
    (Great interpreters: Regine Crespin, Berit Lindholm, Janet Baker, Jessye Norman,
    Petra Lang)

    Didon (Dido) (mezzo-soprano) – The beautiful, wise, just Queen of Carthage is a
    beautifully drawn character, with music of great tenderness, particularly in her Act IV
    love scene. She is transformed by the departure of Aeneas, with harder, edgy music,
    moving from complete desolation to avenging fury. (Great interpreters: Blanche Thebom, Josephine Veasey, Janet Baker, Christa Ludwig, Susan Graham)


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