Friday, August 03, 2007


Hector Berlioz has always been one of my more quirky musical passions. As a composer he was undeniably odd, but just a few years after the death of Beethoven, he did come up with the quite incredible tones of the "Symphonie Fantastique". Add to that his splendid "Mass of the Dead", the lovely viola concerto written for Paganinni, "Harold in Italy", the concert opera, "The Damnation of Faust" and a host of other fine works and it should be easy to see why I was looking forward to hearing his last opera "Les Troyens" with a rare anticipation. But...alas!...all my hopes were dashed!

"Les Troyens" was written between 1856 and 1858 and Berlioz appears to have viewed it as the musical culmination of his entire career. The composer wrote both the libretto (based on Virgii's "Aenead") and also the music to the opera and given a running time of over 4 hours, the work may reasonably be compared with the operas of Berlioz's great contemporary, Richard Wagner. Unfortunately, any comparison one wishes to make, is sure to tell in favour of the German composer. While Wagner's music dramas are tight and filled with fascinating dramatic situations and music, Berlioz's "Les Troyens" is flaccid and static. Most surprisingly of all, while Wagner is famous for giving the orchestra a prominent and complex role in his operas, "Les Troyens", at times, seems reminiscent of early Verdi with the orchestra (for all its size) doing little more than give a basic accompaniment to the vocal line. The majority of the action takes place off stage, so for most of the 4 hours running time we are faced with a single character, or at most two, lamenting this that or the other (the fall of Troy, the death of the Trojans, the hopeless love of Dido and Aeneas...etc.) in centre stage. Upbeat tempos seem hard to find and for the most part "Les Troyens" seems content to wallow in its own misery. Melodic invention is thin on the ground--and just when the listener thinks Berlioz is about to burst into one of those wonderful tunes, so typical of the majority of his work, Cassandra, Dido, or some other wet blanket staggers to centre stage in order to plunge the music back into the lugubrious minor key and start the lamentations all over anew. Occasionally, a large chorus of "Trojans", "Greeks", "Carthaginians" is trotted out to give some muscle to the singing, but usually they seem strangely separated from the main action.

I watched "Les Troyens" on an "Art House" DVD recording from the 2000 Salzburg Festival with Sylvain Cambreling conducting the Paris Orchestra. Two Americans, Jon Villars and Deborah Polaski, took the major roles. Given the paucity of invention in the music itself they performed well enough, but the staging by (the now late) Herbert Wernicke was absurd and seemed to be mostly designed to produce the opera on the cheap. A huge white stage, empty for most of the time, was occasionally filled with lamenting Trojans, exulting Greeks and rich Carthaginians. However, it was mostly difficult to tell the difference as they were all dressed up as second world war soldiers and,ocassionally, tuxedoed dinner party guests. I guess it's cheaper to find 100 or so great coats and fake guns than it is to rent or buy 100 sets of bronze age armour and weapons!

All in all this was an experience to forget. The next time some enthusiastic music student tells you that "Les Troyens" is Berlioz's forgotten masterpiece, just smile and start whistling the "march to the scaffold"!


Anonymous ghostofhector said...

Is it really that bad? I was looking forward to hearing it, but now you've put me off!

12:52 AM  
Blogger ely said...

mi piace soprattutto l'immagine xchè è bellissima

6:46 AM  

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