• Opera In-Depth - Les Troyens - The Literary Source

    This article will examine the differences between Berlioz's operatic masterpiece Les Troyens and its literary source, Virgil's Aeneid. Berlioz wrote his own libretto, borrowing extensively from his source, but also changing it in various ways.

    Les Troyens is mostly based on books I, II, and IV of the Aeneid but also uses material from other parts of the poem.

    Berlioz was very familiar with the poem, which he started reading at the young age of 7. He was able to quote by heart extensive parts of it, although not always accurately.

    An operatic libretto must condense its source-material very significantly, because it takes longer to sing a line than to say it. Therefore every successful libretto must shrink its source and often re-order it for theatrical effect, and this is what a mature and skilful composer such as Berlioz did. He selected, reworked, and even invented scenes to serve the operatic purpose.

    One of the major differences is that Berlioz reordered the events depicted in the Aeneid in a chronological fashion, which is not the case in Virgil.

    The opera's Act I together with the first tableau of Act II correspond to Virgil's book II, which is a first-person account, in flashback, of the fall of Troy. The narration in the opera follows closely that of the book, with Laocoön cautioning his co-citizens against bringing the Trojan Horse into the city, being attacked by two sea serpents, and the Greek warrior Sinon being left behind by his countrymen to trick the Trojans into accepting the Horse as a gift from the goddess Minerva. The fall of Troy ensues, as well as Aeneas's escape with a small band of followers. This is of course all in the opera as well.

    The last three acts correspond to books I and IV, with the author's third-person account of Aeneas's voyage from Sicily to the coast of Africa. The sequence of events differs in the book and the opera. In Virgil, Aeneas after landing at Carthage explores the unknown territory cloaked under a shield of invisibility created by his mother Venus. Dido finds his shipwrecked band and offers them permanent shelter, and proposes a search party to find Aeneas, whose protective cloud then vanishes, and he appears in front of Dido. These events are not in the opera, in which Aeneas just walks into her court with his followers.

    In the book, when Aeneas sends for his son Ascanius to fetch presents for Dido, Venus puts Cupido in Ascanius's place, to cast a spell of love over Dido. This is also not in the opera. The loving queen then in order to keep him with her for as long as possible, asks him to recount the story of the fall of Troy (which results in the flashback account in Book II).

    Book IV starts where Book I ends - in Dido's court. She admits to her sister that she loves Aeneas (a scene slightly modified in the opera). Virgil then describes how she starts neglecting her state duties due to her preoccupation with Aeneas, with the city of Carthage falling into disrepair. The Hunt and Storm scene comes up, and it is kept in the opera as-is. Book IV continues with scenes of Mercury reminding Aeneas of his duty to go to Italy, his depart, Dido's despair and her suicide at a funeral pyre, which ends both Book IV and the opera.

    The above is a summary, but let's examine in more detail what scenes are in the book but not in the opera, what ones are in the opera but not in the poem, and other modifications.

    Much of Berlioz's libretto is either in paraphrase, or in direct translation from the Latin.

    Act I's opening scene is recovered from lines 38-42 of Book II, when Virgil describes the deserted Doric camp and the place where Achilles had pitched his tent. The lines are part of Aeneas's flashback narration, so Berlioz had to reproduce them as choral dialogues since flashback is difficult to convey in opera. He then introduces a major change from the book, exactly to avoid the first-person flashback narration: he makes Cassandra be the narrator and the protagonist of the first two acts, which is an important departure from the book.

    Just as Virgil picked up the character of Aeneas from a brief reference in Homer's Iliad, Berlioz recovered Cassandra from a very brief mention in lines 240-247 and 340-342 of Book II of the Aeneid.

    Here are these lines:


    ... Cassandra was the only one
    who saw this destiny for us.
    so battered by Troy's fate...
    she prophesied what lay in wait, and often,
    she named Hesperia and Italy...
    Who then could heed Cassandra's prophecy?


    Even then can Cassandra chant of what will com
    with lips the gods had doomed to disbelief.

    This is all, and Berlioz made two acts and one of his three main characters out of it!

    In Berlioz, instead of a liner first-person flashback narration of the fall of Troy, we get a much more theatrical dimension, since we witness it twice, first in Cassandra's premonitions, then in real time. This is a very effective modification, in order to create suspense and then proceed with the evolving events.

    We get the impending doom in Cassandra's vague sense of foreboding in her aria "Malheureux roi"and in her duet with Corebus regarding the fate of the Trojans.

    Furthermore, the contrast (this beloved tool for Berlioz; see our Musical Structure article) is favored by the way the scenes are presented in the opera, for Cassandra's ravings are displayed against the blind ignorance of her co-citizens, resulting in two diverse emotions that Berlioz exploit with two different musical moods.

    Also, by introducing a strong female character divided between her love for Corebus and her duty to Troy, in Acts I and II, Berlioz is preparing the terrain for Dido's character, who is also conflicted between love and duty, achieving better unit between the five acts of the opera.

    By the way, Berlioz also skilfully elevated Corebus to a more prominent role, in order to better display Cassandra's conflict. Corebus is also a minor character in the book and appears only in a few lines, 464-469:

    ... young Corebus...
    insane with love for his Cassandra, bringing
    his help, as son-in-law, to Priam and
    the Phrygians.
    Sad Corebus, would he had
    heeded the warnings of his frantic bride!

    Berlioz introduces here another modification for theatrical impact. In the Aeneid Corebus and Cassandra are married. In the opera he is only betrothed to her, which greatly enhances the pathos in their scenes, introducing the dimension of unfulfilled love and foreshortened future, with duty triumphing over potential happiness. Berlioz also exploits this poignancy by making them sing in unison which indicates togetherness, but is one that is ironic for being unfulfilled, which is not the case in the book.

    Next, Berlioz creates three scenes that are not in the book: the procession of the King and the Queen, the ballet (wrestler's dance), and the pantomime with King Priam blessing Hector's mourning widow Andromache and her son Astyanax. The first two of these three scenes serve Berlioz's purpose of providing the kind of great spectacle with much fanfare and the ballet that were considered to be needed fare in the style of French Grand Opéra.

    The third one with Andromache is also introduced by Berlioz to provide unity between the two parts of the opera, The Fall of Troy and The Trojans in Carthage. Andromache's mourning her dead husband is similar to Dido's vow to remain true to the memory of *her* deceased husband. Also, it provides for more logical character development, because Aeneas uses in Act IV the fact that Andromach remarried, to counter Dido's resistance that she shouldn't be his due to her being a widow.

    Berlioz wrote for act I another scene that *is* in the Aeneid, and is quite extensive, occupying lines 81 through 281 of book II, the Sinon scene which encompasses lengthy conversations. Berlioz summarized it extensively, dropping completely Virgil's text and providing his own. Still, the scene was too long and stopped the pace of Act I, then Berlioz decided to entirely cut this scene from his opera, first under suggestion of the management at Opéra Garnier where he was trying to stage his opera, but later even after the Garnier rejected the opera for good, Berlioz decided not to reinstate the scene.

    Next, instead of summarizing, Berlioz expands the Virgil text. In the book, the terror that grips the Trojans at the news of Laocoön's death only occupies one and a half lines. Berlioz made of it a full-scale ensemble, octet, and double chorus. He was right about it, because this scene has incredible dramatic impact. This shows how Berlioz had a good sense of theatricality while working on his libretto.

    The remainder of Act I with the Horse being brought into the city pretty much follows Virgil's text (lines 325-345 of Book II), but rather in paraphrases.

    For the first tableau of Act II, Berlioz starts using more faithfully Virgil's own text. The entire scene in Aeneas's palace is taken from lines 371-479 of Book II, including direct translations of the dialogue between Aeneas and the spirit of Hector.

    The second tableau, however, goes in the opposite direction and is entirely new. Further expanding Cassandra's role, Berlioz creates a scene that is not in the book, that of Cassandra and the Trojan women sacrificing themselves instead of allowing themselves to be taken by the Greek soldiers. This scene that is not at all present or even suggested in Virgil, according to scholars such as Langford, seems to be inspired by Rossini and his Le Siège de Corinthe, which Berlioz knew and admired.

    Whatever the inspiration for this scene was, it serves a great purpose for the opera: it provides dramatic closure for Act II and the first part of the opera, and again, provides unity between the first and second parts, mirroring Dido's sacrifice in Act V. Furthermore, Berlioz introduces with this scene two devices of his own invention: the fact that Cassandra prophesies a future Trojan empire in Italy, and the event near the end of the tableau when the Greeks say that Eneas is escaping with the Trojan treasures. These devices, not in Virgil, keep the opera moving forward and function as cliffhangers for the second part. Clever Berlioz!

    Act III is based on Book I, with extensive modifications that suit better the operatic language, and constitute a good example for aspiring librettists on how to condense literary material to be effective for operatic scenes.

    In the name of keeping the opera's energetic pace (one of the great characteristics of this masterpiece), Berlioz dropped several unnecessary plot elements, such as the shipwreck, Venus's appearance to Aeneas, and his cloud of invisibility. Instead, Berlioz cleverly uses choruses and Dido's recitatives to rapidly convey all the necessary background information that is in Book I.

    Also, by opening the act with the joyful events of Carthage's pride and thriving economy, Berlioz gives to the public the opportunity to rest from the tragic events that end Act II. Often people criticize libretti for including these apparently unnecessary pauses (like Verdi's pause in La Traviata's progression with the unrelated bullfighting song in Act II). Yes, the public needs to breathe and settle down, to be again taken into a tragic ride. This roller-coaster structure is often more effective than sustaining the tragic tone for too long, which may tire and drain the public.

    It is by displaying Dido (and her Carthage) in full glory that Berlioz will make of her subsequent fall a much more poignant affair. The matter of ironic fate is also brought about by depicting Carthage as having it all except for one thing: a hero that will defend her from her enemies. Then, this device makes the plot much more interesting and rich in conflict, since this very hero that saves the city is the one who will bring about its destruction.

    Berlioz makes other minor changes in the name of a coherent timeline, such as importing from Book IV into the events of book I, the dialogue between Dido and her sister regarding Dido's vows to remain faithful to the memory of her late husband. Also, in bringing this dialogue back to the current timeline, Berlioz fulfills another function: he creates a line that is not in Virgil, when Dido mentions her wedding ring and says that the Gods and her people shall curse her if she ever forsake the ring. This new line gives more consequence to the scene in which Ascanius pulls the ring from Dido's finger, which is also not in Virgil.

    The dislocation of Dido's and Anna's dialogue's timeline also serves another purpose. In the book, the dialogue happens after Dido has already fallen in love with Aeneas. In the opera, it happens before she even meets him, which allows Berlioz to set up her character as someone who has a longing in her heart and who is restless, in spite of her success as a state leader. This enhances the logical development of the opera, since it makes her falling in love for Aeneas more believable.

    Virgil uses two thousand lines of verse to build up the tension in preparation for Dido's burst of passion for Aeneas. Berlioz did not have this luxury given the specifics of the operatic medium. His brilliant solution was to bring in the later dialogue and modify it, to set up his character in much faster strokes of the pen.

    Berlioz continues to change the events in the book to suit the pace of his opera. In the book, Iarbas, the neighboring Numidian chief, is a much more developed character. He is a suitor of Dido and upon realizing that she is in love with Aeneas, he petitions the Gods for reparation. Jupiter then sends Mercury to Earth to remind Aeneas of his duty. Instead, Berlioz uses Iarbas as an invading force with Narbal, Dido's minister, breaking in to say that the Numidians are attacking Carthage. This lends to Aeneas the opportunity to gallantly offer his help, and gives to Berlioz the opportunity to come up with an operatic ensemble-finale which again points the action forward.

    Aeneas' speech to his son before he goes to battle is recovered directly from Virgil, but from a much later book - lines 586-592 of book XII, and belongs to another context: Aeneas is about to go to battle against Turnus and the Rutilians. Why did Berlioz go this far to get this speech? Because it again fulfills a need for anticipating the action in the minds of the public, enhancing the theatrical effect: it is an opportunity for Aeneas to entrust Ascanius to Dido's care, so that she can utter the line that she will look after him "with a mother's love" which indicates to the public that she and Aeneas will soon become a couple.

    Act IV, first tableau, sees again Berlioz just literally translating Virgil's Latin into French, with the Hunt and Storm scene coming directly from Book IV, lines 202-223. Since there is no dialogue in that scene in the book, Berlioz did not provide one either, using a pantomime to convey the events. The consummation of the lover's relationship is however more explicit in Virgil - one wonders if Berlioz toned it down due to some sort of internal censorship. Berlioz did want the public to get that they were making love, and blamed the pathetic staging at the Théâtre Lyrique for the fact that it wasn't as clear for the public of the premiere, but also, he did not make it as clear as Virgil did.

    The second tableau of Act IV begins with a duet invented by Berlioz, between Anna and Narbal. The latter does not exist in Virgil. Berlioz introduces this character, again, to condense the action given that an opera libretto needs to be shorter than its literary source. This character gives to Berlioz the possibility of conveying the disrepair in the city of Carthage and the conflict between love and duty, since he narrates to Anna the state of affairs and the fact that fate calls Aeneas inexorably to Italy.

    Also, the introduction of this duet keeps the unity between the opera's two parts, because it reproduces the sequence in Act I of duet-procession-ballets. Here in Act IV Berlioz is about to introduce a procession and a ballet, so he needed a duet preceding the procession, to keep the symmetry.

    Another relatively minor modification here is that Dido's court poet Iopas sings of different topics in the book and in the opera. Virgil has him singing about the moon, the sun, water, and fire. Berlioz has him singing about the farmer, the shepherd, and the fruits of the soil. Why is this so? Again, because Berlioz needs to depict the prosperity of Carthage in faster lines than Virgil since he doesn't have thousands of lines to do it, therefore he uses certain events to achieve double purposes. Here, he uses the procession to achieve symmetry with Act I, but also modifies its content to praise Carthage's prosperity so that he doesn't need to waste time talking about it in another scene.

    Virgil uses Cupido to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas. Berlioz does not need Cupido since he has already depicted Dido as restless and longing, so he does away with Cupido, not to lenghten the opera unnecessarily. Cleverly, however, Berlioz includes in his libretto a comment by Anna, pointing to Ascanius and saying that he looks "like a Cupid" - this is a prime example of the condensation that a good librettist needs to engage in.

    We've already commented upon the sense of introducing Andromache to the public in the first part of the opera, unlike in Virgil. We get now to the point where Berlioz uses it to good results, by having Aeneas point to Dido that Andromache re-married, to which Dido responds with initial shock then relief: "What! She, Hector's widow??? Everything conspires to overcome my remorse, and my heart is absolved."

    What is interesting is that Berlioz gives stage directions for this scene, and makes so that Ascanius, while she is saying this, is supposed to be standing next to her, and shall "look like a statue of Cupid." There we go, the fact that Berlioz did away with a character doesn't hinder the progression of the story, since then symbolically Ascanius slips Sychaeus's (Dido's late husband) wedding ring from the Queen's finger. She takes it back but also symbolically forgets it on the couch when she rises.

    Where dit that ring scene come from? Like we said above, it is not in Virgil! It is, however, in a painting - Pierre-Narcisse Guérin's "Enée racontant à Didon les malheurs de Troie" which hangs in the Louvre museum (see the Public Domain reproduction that opens this article). This is one of the few instances in the opera where Berlioz did not get his inspiration from Virgil.

    Another important point in achieving Berlioz's double goals with his streamlined libretto is that this scene allows the audience to be reminded of Hector, Andromache's husband, who is instrumental in reminding Aeneas of his duty to go to Italy. This introduces another of Berlioz's beloved contrasts, because the scene includes Dido's happy acceptance of Aeneas's love, but also suddenly brings about the thought of Hector, which underlines the conflict that the happiness is trying to suppress from her consciousness - and from the public's perception. This is a sort of "uh-oh" moment, reminding both the characters and the public that things won't be rosy. This makes of the quintet in which this is all spelled out (#35 in the sequence of numbers) even more important, because later when Dido is angry and grieving the loss of Aeneas's love, she twice mentions Ascanius, making the audience remember the events of the quintet. First she is despondent and talks about how Ascanius had a sweet face (Act V, #44), then she later is vengeful and thinks she should have served Ascanius's limbs in the banquet (Act V, #46). Andromache's son, Astyanax, a silent character in Act I (#6), provides the symmetry pursued by Berlioz, but also a contrast, since Ascanius is Aeneas's son, not Dido's, so that Dido's pathetic situation of having nothing to show from her love for Aeneas is further enhanced.

    Back to what happens after the quintet, next we have a septet that celebrates the peaceful summer night (#36). It bridges the ambivalent moments of the quintet to result in the more blissful aspects of what follows, the love duet "Nuit d'ivresse." Here, Berlioz drops Virgil and goes to his beloved Shakespeare, and gets his libretto lines from Act V of The Merchant of Venice in the scene between Jessica and Lorenzo. Berlioz's music here is serene, in contrast with the passionate music of the Hunt and Storm scene, showing that the two lovers are settling down into a more mature form of love.

    Berlioz justifies in a letter to his friend A. M. Bennet that he had to reach for Shakespeare because Virgil had neglected to include a scene of sublime love, which he needed for the opera (which is, after all, a Romantic piece).

    But then, Berlioz goes back to Virgil and the love-duty conflict, bringing in Mercury to warn Aeneas, just like in the book.

    Berlioz opens Act V with his own devices, again. He added a character piece, with the homesick sailor Hylas. According to Colin Davis, Berlioz here continues to establish symmetries with the first part of the opera. Both Hylas and Andromache are individuals who got caught up in the large movements of History and had to suffer the shattering of their peaceful lives. Hylas sings of the longing for his mother's arms, and we are reminded of Andromache, another grieving mother.

    This topic of the common men and how they suffer in the midsts of wars and empire foundation is continued by Berlioz in the dialogue between the two sentries, which follows the Hylas scene. This is derived (as in, modified) from a similar event in Book V in which Trojan women (rather than men) bemoan the interminable voyage that remains before them. In Virgil, the men are glad in book IV when Aeneas gives them the command to pack up and go to Italy. Not having the luxury of introducing a much longer loop with Trojan women, Berlioz just transposed the feeling to the sentries.

    In so doing, Berlioz departed from Virgil in favor of Shakespeare, because the later was prone to depicting the contrast of common men's low instincts with the heroic aspirations of royal characters, while Virgil was more interested in homogeneous virtues of the Trojan people. It is interesting to know that the Parisian public at the time disliked these Shakesperian views and craved the purer Virgilian approach, favoring operas that had less conflict and more fanfare. This resulted in the duet being cut - against Berlioz's will - from the premiere production of Les Troyens à Carthage.

    There is another relatively minor change in Act V. In Virgil, only Mercury warns Aeneas, while in Berlioz, the ghosts of Priam, Corebus, Hector, and Cassandra also intervene - obviously, another way for Berlioz to link the two halves of his opera. Bringing back Cassandra and her tragic end also works to prepare the public for Dido's end.

    Next we have the end of the first tableau of Act V in a duet between Dido and Aeneas (#44). This exists in Virgil, and comes from Book IV. However, in the interest of time and of the need for a streamlined libretto, instead of translating, Berlioz paraphrases and compacts the dialogue. For example, fourteen lines in the book (lines 497-510) become only two in Berlioz: "No, it was not Venus who bore you; some hideous she-wolf in the forest gave you suck."

    The second tableau of Act V follows Virgil closely. "Dieux immortels" (#46) is a direct translation of lines 817-837 of Book IV. However, the two numbers that follow, "Je vais mourir" and "Adieu, fière cité" are Berlioz's creation, drawing from many different points in the last section of Book IV.

    The final tableau of the opera has some other changes. In Virgil, Dido utters curses on the Trojans, while in Berlioz Anna and Narbal do it. Next, Dido's death in the pyre is taken directly from Virgil, including her dying line "From my ashes a glorious avenger will be born" which is line 862 of Book IV. However, Berlioz adds the the mention of Hannibal as the avenging conquerer. Didon evoques "Rome, Rome, immortal" and dies, and the chorus adds lamentations. The End. However, some versions have an alternative ending, with Clio, the muse of History, appearing and issuing a final line. This comes directly from a sketch by Berlioz, who thought of having this one final touch, then dropped it. Famously, Sir Gardiner's live 2003 Opéra de Paris performance - the one preserved on blu-ray and DVD - does include Clio (which I personally find to be nice, giving a more complete epic arc to the opera, which is enhanced by that performance since Anna Caterina Antonnaci, the singer who did Cassandra, is brought back to do Clio).


    This article extensively uses as source material a Master of Music thesis submitted (and approved) in January of 1988 to Rice University, authored by Paulet Pittenger Barrett, entitled Les Troyens: Aspects of Musico-Dramatic Structure. We thank its author for an excellent work that sheds light into this extraordinary opera. Other minor sources were used as well here and there, such as reviews and comments found in the Internet, but these are too scattered and too anonymous to cite.

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