• Opera In-Depth - Les Troyens - Around the Opera

    Some trivia about
    Les Troyens

    An entry for 1854 in Berlioz's memoirs reads: "For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera for which I would write both the words and the music ... I am resisting the temptation of carrying out this project, and I hoe I will resist to the end."

    Then, there is a footnote, where Berlioz added later: "Alas, no, I have not been able to resist."

    He continues: "The subject seems to me elevated, magnificent and deeply moving - sure proof that the Parisians will find it dull and boring."

    Berlioz was very fond of Les Troyens and said of it: "I am sure that I have written a great work, greater and nobler than anything done hitherto."

    Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, who encouraged Berlioz to compose an opera based on Virgil's Aeneid, was so adamant about it that she told Berlioz not to return to Weimar if he shrank from the task.

    Berlioz tried to attract the patronage of Napoleon III to have the opera staged at the Palais Garnier, but to no avail, since the emperor was more interested in Wagner's Tannhäuser.

    Either from sincere conviction or hopes of patronage or a mixture of both, Berlioz wrote a longer ending, in which appear figures from the subsequent history of Rome, celebrating its progress from city to empire. Failing to attract the emperor's attention, Berlioz dropped this longer ending.

    The first performance of acts III-V in Paris on November 4, 1863, can be said to have been a modest success, since it was repeated 21 times, and ticket sales increased as the performances went on.

    Meyerbeer attended 12 of the 21 performances.

    However, Berlioz was very unhappy with it, and complained that the singers weren't good, and that the dimensions of the Théâtre Lyrique were it was given (after the Palais Garnier finally refused to do it after five years considering it) were too small for the piece. He also thought that both the orchestra and the chorus weren't good.

    Here is Berlioz's full account of his experiences during the inaugural run in 1863, which can be found in his Memoirs:

    “The first performance of Les Troyens à Carthage took place on November 4, 1863, as announced by Carvalho [the Director of the Théâtre-Lyrique]. The work still needed another three or four intensive general rehearsals, the whole production lacked confidence, especially on stage. But the director was at a loss how to bolster his theatre’s repertory; every evening his theatre was empty, and he was in a hurry to get out of this predicament. It is well known how ruthless directors can be in such circumstances. My friends and I thought the evening was going to be stormy, and we were expecting all manner of hostile demonstrations, though nothing of the sort happened. My enemies did not dare to show themselves; one disgraceful hiss was heard at the end when I was called for, and that was all. The gentleman who had hissed probably felt obliged to insult me in the same way for several weeks, because he came back, with an assistant, to hiss again at the same place on the third, fifth, seventh and tenth performances. Others would rant in the corridors with comic fury and heaped abuse on me, saying that such music could not and should not be allowed. Five newspapers printed stupid insults against me, of the kind designed to hurt my feelings as an artist. But on the other hand more than fifty appreciative articles were published over a two week period, among which those by MM. Gasperini, Fiorentino, d’Ortigue, Léon Kreutzer, Damcke, Joannes Weber, and many others, written with genuine enthusiasm and rare perception, which filled me with a joy I had not experienced for a long time. I also received a large number of letters, some of them eloquent, others naïve, but all of them full of genuine emotion, and they touched me deeply. At a number of performances I saw people in tears. During the two months following the first appearance of Les Troyens, I was often stopped in the streets of Paris by total strangers who asked permission to shake my hand and thanked me for writing this work. These did make up for the insults of my enemies – enemies I have made less through my critical writings than through the tendencies of my music. The hostility of such enemies resembles that of prostitutes for honest women, and it should be taken as an honour. Their muse is usually named Lais, Phryne, very rarely Aspasia [in a footnote: Aspasia was too intelligent for that], while the muse worshipped by noble minds and friends of high art is called Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia, Ophelia, Imogen, Virgilia, Miranda, Dido, Cassandra, or Alcestis, sublime names which evoke thoughts of poetic love, modesty and devotion, while the former only suggest low sensuality and prostitution.”

    Only the opening night had the uncut score of Les Troyens à Carthage. From night two on, the score started to suffer cuts.

    In successive generations Les Troyens circulated in the flawed, misordered, and incomplete vocal scores published by Choudens in conjunction with the 1863 production.

    The first performance of all five acts together (in two nights) was given in Karlsruhe in Germany, and was sung in German, on December 6, 1890.

    All subsequent performances and recordings had cuts, and the first uncut, complete performance (using the first ever complete critical edition that had been published the same year) wasn't given until May 3, 1969, by Sir Colin Davis and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden!

    This finally fulfilled Berlioz's wishes, which he engraved in his will, bitterly complaining of Choudens' unmet contractual obligation to engrave the full score. Berlioz left to his executors the responsibility of seeing that it "be published without cuts, without modifications, without the least suppression of the text - in sum, exactly as it stands."

    Berlioz himself - although reluctantly - suggested many cuts in his score - knowing that they would happen, he provided them himself. However nowadays the complete critical edition, uncut, published by the Bärenheiter Verlag (Kassel, Germany) in 1969 is the one most commonly used to stage Les Troyens.

    The first performance outside of France or Germany was in Glasgow in 1935.

    The key moment in the rehabilitation of Les Troyens was the Royal Opera’s complete
    staging in 1957, conducted by Rafael Kubelik and directed by John Gielgud. Berlioz
    enthusiasts came from all over the world and were overwhelmed by the heroic and
    ultimately tragic grandeur of the piece.

    The first American performance was abridged, in English, and given in Boston in 1955 by the New England Opera Theater. The first American performance in French was also heavily cut, reduced to 3 hours, and was given in San Francisco in 1966.

    It wasn't until 1972 that America saw the first complete, uncut performance of Les Troyens, again in Boston, but this time with the Opera Company of Boston.

    The Met soon did it as well, in 1973, with Shirley Verrett (both Cassandre and Didon) and Jon Vickers.

    Les Troyens had to wait until 1990 to again get a well deserved major event in France, when it was picked to inaugurate the new Parisian opera house, Opéra Bastille.

    Its best staging to date, in my opinion, happened on the occasion of Berlioz's bicentenary of birth, in 2003, at the Chatêlet, with Sir John Elliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Susan Graham, and Gregory Kunde. This spectacular production was preserved on Opus Arte blu-ray and DVD.

    The 2012/2012 opera season will see new productions of Les Troyens both at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera House.

    Here is the announcement for the Met performances: [clicky]

    And here is the one for the Covent Garden shows: [clickly]
    Surprisingly, the Royal Opera House says in their announcement that to Berlioz's disappointment, Les Troyens "was only performed once in full during his lifetime" which is, of course, entirely false (like we said, it wasn't ever performed in full while Berlioz was alive!)

    For almost a century, performances of Les Troyens were incredibly rare, despite the advocacy of a few conductors, such as Sir Thomas Beecham. A number of myths grew up about the opera, and about Berlioz – that the composer had gone mad and this insanity had resulted in an opera so vast that it was completely impossible to stage.

    The story of Dido and Aeneas was set to music some 90 times! Near half of them were based on Metastasio's libretto Didonne Abandonata. Only two have survived in the repertory: Purcell's, and Berlioz's. Purcell's opera focuses on the love story and is more intimate, lacking the large historical arc underlined by Berlioz, which explains why the former's work picked for title Dido and Aneneas, while the latter's chose a title that is much heavier historically speaking, Les Troyens.

    Read our next article in this Around the Opera section to explore the topic of History and its dialectical arc in Les Troyens.

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