• Opera in-Depth - Les Troyens - Genesis of the Opera

    Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens is one of the most complex and rewarding operas in the repertory. It's been dubbed "The Latin Ring" for its scale and epic arc. While much shorter than Wagner's masterpiece, Les Troyens is a long opera, originally intended to be presented over two evenings, with an average running time of up to six hours if intermissions are counted.

    This series of articles will provide an in-depth analysis of this formidable work, which has not enjoyed the popularity that it deserves due to the enormous demands it imposes on an opera company. Les Troyens is not easy to stage, given its vast chorus, long duration, frequent and radical scene changes, and numerous characters. Only the most accomplished opera companies are able to put together a convincing production of this piece, which explains the rarity of its stagings, complete recordings, and video discs.

    Hector Berlioz was profoundly in love with his own opera, and said that "it aroused feelings in me I shall not attempt to describe." Sadly, the composer never saw his opera complete in his lifetime - since the first full, uncut performance of it in French wasn't put together until May 3, 1969, by Sir Colin Davis and the Royal Opera House / Covent Garden! (a German-language version was given with all five acts in Karlsruhe in Germany on December 6, 1890).

    Les Troyens was composed between 1856 and 1858, and revised between 1859 and 1960. Acts III through V were first performed on November 4, 1863 at the Thêátre-Lyrique du Châtelet, Paris, but Acts I and II were only seen on December 6, 1890, 21 years after the composer's death.

    The libretto in French is by the composer, after Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid

    It is divided in two parts: Acts I and II are under the title "The Taking of Troy" (La Prise de Troie), while acts III through V are called "The Trojans at Carthage" (Les Troyens à Carthage).

    Berlioz was addicted to Virgil since his childhood, and had always thought of setting to music the legend of the fall of Troy and the Trojans' journey to Italy via Carthage to found Rome. However the catalyst that put him to work came to him when Lizt's lover, the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, told him in 1855 that Richard Wagner was working on a plan for a cycle of four operas - the Ring. Spiked by his rivalry with Wagner, Berlioz thought that he had to deliver the French response to Wagner's plan, and later that year he started to write the libretto for Les Troyens, which he completed in July of 1856 and sent to the princess for her appreciation.

    Berlioz's motivation also had to do with his rivalry with Meyerbeer. He considered the latter's cheap thrills and grandiose spectaculars to be of lesser artistic value as compared to the operas of Berlioz's idol: Glück, whom he praised for the theatrical rigor of his works, which matched better the structure of Greek plays, with an episodic narrative. Berlioz, like Glück, aimed with Les Troyens at a streamlined vocal writing without acrobatics, even though he did not shy away from Romantic orchestral richness. In fact, Les Troyens while relatively dry in terms of vocal writing, is very lyrically orchestrated. It also achieves musical unity not based on the voices, but rather on the theme of the Trojan March at the end of Act III, which recurs at key moments of the action.

    Another notable characteristic of this opera is that it is not properly character-driven, but rather interested in the vast movements of History with a capital H. While the story is told by following the exploits of Aeneas (Enée), it is rather the concept of the inevitable flow of History and the destiny of the Trojan people in founding the Roman civilization that is at the core of this work.

    One could say that Les Troyens is not about the love story between Aeneas and Dido, but rather, it's a work about power - political power shaping humankind's history; power that is drawn from a people's destiny. Clearly, the destiny of the Trojans is the moving force here, and it drowns out the love. This is reflected on the opera's musical structure - it is not merely coincidental that the chorus is so prominent in Les Troyens, as we'll examine in detail in this series of articles.

    This does not mean that the voices of the opera are not significant. Actually, even thought it is purposely short in ornamentation, the music for Aeneas (tenor) and Dido (mezzo) can be counted among the most beautiful ever written in French opera. Let's listen, for example, to Dido's aria "Adieu, fière cité" with the excellent Waltraud Meier:

    One has an interested in noticing that Berlioz's music, unlike Meyerbeer's, Spontini's, and Cherubini's, is not loud and extravagant, but it is rather sophisticated and elegant in terms of texture, color, and detail. Berlioz is as attentive to the musical fabric as he is to dramatic structure. He was a much more discriminating musician than his contemporaries in France.

    Let's leave these considerations to the section on musical structure, and talk a little more about Berlioz's biography.

    He was born near Grenoble on December 11, 1803, and was the child of a surgeon who did not like music or the arts in general. Berlioz was unable to learn the piano or the violin like he wished, since his father opposed a music career as mere undignified entertainment. He persisted, though, and learned the flute and the guitar, and started composing in 1819, to his father's great displeasure, since he wanted his son to pursue medicine. To counter the boy's undesirable musical gifts, his father forced him to enroll in medical school in Paris.

    Berlioz was unhappy as a medical student, since the required lifestyle agreed very poorly with his sensitive nature. Simultaneously with medical school and taking advantage of the fact that he was in Paris away from his father, he began in 1822 to take music lessons, which encouraged him to drop out of medical school and enroll in the Conservatory.

    Over there, Berlioz developed his musical gifts with lightening speed, catching up rapidly for the years that he had to endure away from music. Soon enough - in weeks - he realized that no specific instrument could contain his genius, and decided that his talent was better served by a full orchestra. His talent for orchestration was considerable, and he is the author of a manual in instrumentation that still remains obligatory reading for composers.

    Berlioz attended in 1827 a performance of Hamlet and fell in love at first sight with the beautiful British actress Harriet Smithson who was in the play. In spite of the fact that he seemed to have grossly overestimated her talent (she was criticized for having talent inversely proportional to her beauty), he married her six years later.

    In spite of the considerable success of his most popular work, the Symphonie Fantastique in 1830, and some extensive concert tours as a conductor, Berlioz had to earn his living as a journalist (a music critic for the Journal des Débats) and a librarian. He was a close friend of Liszt and Chopin while all three lived in Paris. He also achieved reasonable success in 1934 with Harold en Italie.

    Encouraged, Berlioz tried his hand at opera for the first time in 1836 when he proposed Benvenuto Cellini to the Opéra-Comique and was rejected, but a revised version was accepted by the Opéra Garnier. It was a complete failure in terms of public and critic reception. Benvenuto Cellini is a very fine opera, but the problem was that the French public remained in love with Meyerbeer's populist style and disliked Berlioz's much more precise and elegant music.

    Realizing that the public did not want his opera, Berlioz took to composing an oratorio or opera-concert as he put it: La Damnation de Faust. Well, it is an extraordinary work, and even the spoiled French public couldn't fail to grant it some success. Encouraged by this, Berlioz became more ambitious, worked on Les Troyens for two years, and proposed it to the Théatre-Lyrique. It was a troubled genesis from the beginning, since the management thought (accurately) that it was too long, and forced Berlioz to divide it in two parts. Only the second part was staged, heavily cut, and even though it got 21 performances, again the contemporary public failed to recognize its greatness.

    After a fourth and even less successful attempt with Béatrice et Bénédict - a fine piece of music but one that definitely lacks dramatic impact in its libretto - Berlioz gave up and abandoned opera composition.

    His last seven years of life saw a man who was ill, bitter, desperate, and profoundly resentful at his fellow countrymen inability to recognize his genius - in a sense, a repetition of his father's stance. He died on March 8, 1869.

    It is sad that Berlioz was never blessed with the appreciation that he deserved during his lifetime. Today, looking back, it is evident that his operas were among the finest of the 19th century, with their exquisite orchestration, beautiful melodies, and (with the exception of his last one) dramatic force.

    Les Troyens is a towering masterpiece, the grandest of French operas in my opinion. It's been said of it (by Bernard Grout in his A Short History of Opera) that governmental institutions and major opera companies need to produce it more often (given that without massive funding and resources it just can't be given) until the public gets more thoroughly exposed to it, so that it finally occupies its just place among the very best works of the operatic repertory. This is what I intend to demonstrate with this series or articles.

    To be continued...

    "... Les Troyens is the most important French opera of the nineteenth century, the masterpiece of one of France's greatest composers, the Latin counterpart of Wagner's Teutonic Ring: its strange fate is paralleled by nothing in the history of music unless it be the century-long neglect of Bach's Passion according to St. Matthew ... in a country properly appreciative of its cultural monuments it would seem that Les Troyens ought to be produced regularly at state expenses until singers, conductors and public are brought to realize its greatness. Of all the works of the French grand-opera school in the nineteenth century, this is the one most worthy of being so preserved." Donald Grout
    "... Les Troyens is the greatest opera ever written." W. J. Turner
    "... an opera of visionary beauty and splendor, compelling in its epic sweep, fascinating in the variety of its musical invention... it recaptures the tragic spirit and climate of the ancient world." David Cairns



    Énée, héros troyen, fils de Vénus et d’Anchise (ténor) - Trojan hero, son of Venus and Anchise
    Chorèbe, jeune prince d’Asie, fiancé de Cassandre (baryton) - young prince of Asia, bethroted to Cassandre
    Panthée, prêtre troyen, ami d’Énée (basse) - Trojan priest, friend of Énée
    Narbal, ministre de Didon (basse) - Didon's minister
    Iopas, poète tyrien de la cour de Didon (ténor) - poet in Didon's court
    Ascagne, jeune fils d’Énée (15 ans) (soprano) - Énée's 15-years-old son
    Cassandre, prophétesse troyenne, fille de Priam (mezzo-soprano) - Trojan profet, daughter of Priam
    Didon, reine de Carthage, veuve de Sichée prince de Tyr (mezzo) - Queen of Carthage, widow of Sichée, prince of Tyr
    Anna, sœur de Didon (contralto) - Didon's sister

    Hylas, jeune matelot phrygien (ténor ou contralto) - young seaman
    Priam, roi des Troyens (basse) - Trojan king
    Un chef grec (basse) - a Greek chief
    L’ombre d’Hector, héros troyen, fils de Priam (basse) - the shadow of Hector, Trojan hero, Priam's son
    Helenus, prêtre troyen, fils de Priam (ténor) - Trojan priest, Priam's son
    Deux soldats troyens (basses) - Two Trojan soldiers
    Le dieu Mercure (baryton ou basse) - god Mercury
    Un prêtre de Pluton (basse) - a priest
    Polyxène, sœur de Cassandre (soprano) - Cassandre's sister
    Hécube, reine des Troyens (soprano) - Trojan queen

    Personnages muets
    Andromaque, veuve d’Hector - Hector's widow
    Astyanax, son fils (8 ans) - Andromaque's son

    Troyens, Grecs, Tyriens et Carthaginois
    Nymphes, Satyres, Faunes et Sylvains
    Ombres invisibles - invisible shadows

    Il faut une centaine de choristes surnuméraires - 100 supranumeraries



    ACT I. After ten years of siege by the Greeks, the Trojans rejoice at the prospect of peace. They marvel at the gigantic wooden horse the Greeks left behind as an offering to Pallas Athena. King Priam's daughter Cassandra, a prophetess, looks for the significance behind the Greeks' disappearance. In a moment of revelation, she saw her brother Hector's ghost on the ramparts and has tried unsuccessfully to warn her father and Coroebus, her fiancé, of further calamities. When Coroebus begs her to join the celebrations, she urges him to flee the city, because she foresees death for both of them.

    Aeneas, leader of the Trojan army, enters with a group offering thanks to the gods. A somber note is introduced when Andromaque, Hector's widow, brings her son Astyanax to King Priam and Queen Hecuba. Aeneas reports that the priest Laocoön, suspecting the wooden horse to be some kind of a trick, threw his spear at it and urged the crowd to set fire to it, whereupon two sea serpents devoured him. Aeneas proposes they make amends to Athena by bringing the horse into the city as a holy object. As the Trojan march sounds in the distance and the horse is hauled closer, Cassandra realizes it bears disaster.

    ACT II. Aeneas, asleep in his room, is visited by the ghost of Hector, who tells him to escape, since his destiny is to found an empire that someday will rule the world. As the ghost disappears, Aeneas's friend Panthée rushes in, wounded, to report that Greek soldiers emerged from the horse and are devastating Troy. Aeneas hastens to lead the defense forces.

    In the king's palace, Trojan women pray for deliverance from the invaders. Cassandra foretells that Aeneas and some of the Trojans will escape to Italy to build Rome - a new Troy. Coroebus is dead, and Cassandra prepares for her own death, asking the women whether they will submit to rape and enslavement. Some are afraid of death; driving these away, the others take up their lyres and repeat their vow to die free. Greek soldiers, entering in search of state treasure, are aghast at the sight of the women's mass suicide. Aeneas and his men have escaped with the treasure.

    ACT III. In a gallery of the palace of Dido, Queen of Carthage, her subjects hail her with an anthem. She reminds them that in only seven years, since they had to flee from Tyre, they have built a flourishing new kingdom. Her sister, Anna, assures Dido, who is a widow, that one day she will be able to love again. When Iopas, the court poet, announces visitors who have narrowly escaped shipwreck in a recent storm, Dido welcomes them. They are the remnants of the Trojan army, asking a few days' hospitality en route to Italy and offering Dido what is left of their treasure. When word reaches Dido that the Numidian ruler, Iarbas, is about to attack Carthage because she refused his offer of marriage, Aeneas steps from among the sailors' ranks, identifies himself and offers to fight alongside the Carthaginians. Dido accepts, and Aeneas rallies his forces to repel the invader, entrusting his son, Ascanius, to the queen's care.

    ACT IV. Orchestral interlude: Royal Hunt and Storm. Some days later in a forest, naiads, playing in a stream, hide as hunters approach. A storm breaks, and Dido and Aeneas seek shelter in a cave. Nymphs, satyrs and fauns dance during the storm and disappear when it passes.

    Evening has fallen in Dido's gardens by the sea. Anna asks Narbal, the queen's adviser, why he seems worried, now that the Numidians have been defeated. He replies that since Dido fell in love with Aeneas, she has been neglecting her duties, and that Aeneas's destiny is to go on to Italy - no good can come of the romance. Narbal is afraid that in extending hospitality to the strangers, Carthage has invited its own doom. Dido enters with Aeneas and asks him to tell her more about Troy's last days. When he says that Andromaque, Hector's widow, at length succumbed to love and married Pyrrhus, one of the enemy, Dido sees a parallel to her own situation. She and Aeneas rhapsodize about their love, but at length the god Mercury appears in the moonlight and reminds Aeneas of his destination - Italy.

    ACT V. By the shore at night, with the Trojan ships moored near at hand, Hylas, a young sailor, sings a homesick ballad and falls asleep. Panthée tells other Trojan leaders their delay is burdensome: daily omens and apparitions remind them of the gods' and the dead Hector's impatience with their failure to move on. Determined to leave the next day, they retire to their tents as two sentries pass, making way for Aeneas, who struggles to banish misgivings and do what he must. As he resolves to see Dido one more time, the ghosts of Priam, Hector, Coroebus and Cassandra appear, pressing their demands.

    Forced to give up Dido, Aeneas wakens the Trojans and tells them to set sail before sunrise. Dido finds him, however, and rages at his desertion. Though he protests that he loves her, she curses him. As she storms off, the distraught Aeneas boards his vessel. In Dido's palace, as dawn breaks, the queen asks her sister to go to Aeneas. Now that her anger is spent, she will try to persuade him to stay a few more days, but the Trojan ships are sighted already on their way out to sea. Dido laments that she did not foresee Aeneas's treachery and burn his fleet. Instead, she will burn his gifts and trophies; she orders a pyre built.

    In the queen's gardens by the sea, a pyre has been set up, with relics of Aeneas, including the nuptial couch. Priests pray for the peace of Dido's heart, while Anna and Narbal curse Aeneas's venture to Italy. Dido predicts that her fate will be remembered, along with Aeneas's infamy: a future Carthaginian general, Hannibal, will avenge her against Italy one day. Seizing Aeneas's sword, she stabs herself and falls back on the couch. With her dying breath, Dido tells the shocked bystanders that fate is against Carthage: it will be destroyed, and Rome will rule eternal. Turning their backs on a vision of the Roman capitol, the survivors pronounce undying hatred on Aeneas and his descendants.


    Let's listen to "Nuit d'Ivresse" - the beautiful duet with Didon and Aneneas, performed by Susan Graham and Gregory Kundehe:

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