Les Troyens: A survey

For those interested in reading about the recent Strasbourg performance that led to the Erato recording, please read here

Les Troyens is an opera I have loved for the two decades that I been in love with the art form. In fact it was my first opera – I was fortunate to be at the two concert performances of the work at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in Montreal which then became the basis for Charles Dutoit and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal’s celebrated recording.  This was my first encounter with live opera and I was hooked.  I just loved it, the big choruses, the two wonderful roles for the two prime donne and the endlessly fascinating orchestration.  Indeed, while Le Nozze di Figaro might be my desert island opera, I’d say that the scene with Cassandre and the Trojan women leading to ‘complices de sa gloire’ is very possibly my favourite scene in all of opera.  My perceptions of any performance of the piece, very much depend on the clarity of the diction of the participants as much as their vocal strengths.  Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of Berlioz and I wanted to take the opportunity to write about a piece that has fascinated me for 20 years.

There is now a decent body of recordings of Troyens and it is a great pleasure to be acquainted with them.  There are two from Colin Davis, the Dutoit set from Montreal, a live one from the Met conducted by Levine and an abridged one from Rome conducted by Prêtre.  On DVD there is one from Paris conducted by Gardiner, Gergiev’s from València and another Levine from the Met with a very starry cast.  There is a Salzburg one conducted by Cambreling but it has very little to recommend it and is best avoided.  Indeed, I sold my copy on eBay.  On stage and in concert I’ve had the pleasure of seeing around ten productions of the piece in places as diverse as London, Paris, Amsterdam, Montreal, València, Innsbruck and Karlsruhe.  By far the finest I’ve seen were Richard Jones at ENO (sadly in English, although I’d much rather English than bad French) and David Hermann’s in Karlsruhe – both really brought the work to life and personalized it in a way that none of the other productions I have seen have come anywhere close to doing.

There are four main protagonists in the piece – Cassandre, Didon, Énée and the Chorus and the strength and failure of any performance rides on these interpretations.  Deborah Voigt has recorded it twice, once for Dutoit and then for Levine.  Her performance for Dutoit has a bit of a rabbit in the headlights quality, nowhere near as assured as her later assumption for Levine and her French in Montreal is sadly not the best.  For Levine there is a very slight lack of vocal freshness but there are massive gains in authority and linguistic awareness and she gives a fully-rounded portrayal.  For Davis 1, Berit Lindholm’s Cassandre would have been perfectly acceptable on stage but on repeated listening the rawness just grates although she delivers her big numbers with abandon – I just crave something a little less wild.  For Davis 2, I’m afraid I find Petra Lang shares many of the same attributes – raw tone, droopy intonation but she certainly sings like a woman possessed.  Better is Marilyn Horne for Prêtre, a glorious sense of line, impeccably clear diction and some fabulously chesty low notes.  Many people enjoy Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandre for Gardiner but having heard it live twice, 10 years apart, I can’t say I’m one of them.  I admire her excellent vocalism, dramatic awareness and attention to text, it’s just that for me, I don’t feel that the voice has an individual quality that makes it stand out.  In the theatre I was impressed by Elisabete Matos and on DVD, her superb French and sense of line and the flow of the music is something quite special.  She certainly has an individual tone but she is hampered by a production that drowns under the weight of its own visuals.  Best of all is Jessye Norman.  She sings the text like a native speaker, her soprano is ideal for the role and she is quite simply for me the ultimate Cassandre.  This is by far her best role, a shame then that it was never caught in a studio recording.

For Davis 1, Josephine Veasey is a wonderful Didon vocally free and easy with excellent diction but sadly hampered by some plodding tempi.  Davis was later to find more freedom in his interpretation and Michelle DeYoung is a fine Didon and certainly in concert she was excellent.  Yet, Tatiana Troyanos for Levine 1 is in a different league.  Completely affecting, richly sung and full attention to the text. Daniela Barcellona’s Didon for Gergiev brings Italianate warmth to the detriment of the words.  Françoise Pollet for Dutoit has some glorious womanly warmth in her chest register and points the words with a care that no other Didon I have heard has managed to do.  Yet she doesn’t quite speak to the heart in the same way as Shirley Verrett for Prêtre or Susan Graham for Gardiner.  Then there is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson for Levine.  I don’t know what she does but she gets to the soul of the music and just brings Didon to life.  Her ‘chers Tyriens’ is heartbreaking, the sense of a generous leader proud of what she and her people have achieved is overwhelming and she culminates in a devastating ‘adieu fière cité’ in which she just *is* Didon.  There isn’t space here to describe all that is wonderful about Hunt’s portrayal other than to say if you love the work you need to hear it.

I’ve never really warmed to the character of Énée, probably because one is always aware of how much of a struggle it is for the poor gentleman who has to sing it but also because it always seems to be mis-cast with heldentenors who can barely get through the evening.  Lance Ryan for Gergiev would seem to fall into this category.  Gary Lakes gets through it for Dutoit respectably enough and sings with great tenderness in ‘nuit d’ivresse’.  Jon Vickers is predictably stunning yet lacks light and shade for Davis 1.  Plácido Domingo for Levine 1 is incredibly secure and Nicolai Gedda for Prêtre has great security and brings his customary linguistic awareness to this ungrateful role.  Ben Heppner for Levine shows pretty much the same development from his recording for Davis as Voigt does in her role – much more awareness of the text and much better French.  He ducks the C in ‘inutiles regrets’ but otherwise his Énée for Levine is certainly the stronger of his two assumptions.  Gregory Kunde for Gardiner has perhaps the ideal voice for the role – a heroic Rossini tenor that can cope with the stratospheric nature of the part but also has the weight for the big climaxes.  On the evidence of his recent València Otello, his upcoming Énée at La Scala should be something very special indeed.

The Chorus is the last of the key protagonists and its role in the drama cannot be underestimated.  The Metropolitan Opera Chorus for Levine 2 is the weakest link in this otherwise excellent set.  A battle of competing vibratos, the pitch is uncertain and some of the choruses are a trial to listen to.  Painful.  Even in Levine 1 they have nowhere near the blend the work needs.  While I admire the commitment and enthusiasm of the London Symphony Chorus for Davis 2, I’m afraid I cannot warm to the English choral society tone and the fact that the ladies inform Cassandre ‘non, non jamais nous le jouerons’ rather than ‘jurons’ just before the reprise of ‘complices de sa gloire’. The Royal Opera chorus for Davis 1 is very good but the Rome opera chorus for Prêtre is just serviceable.  The Choeur de l’orchestre symphonique de Montréal is excellent, diction superb and warm tone.  Ensemble is very occasionally shaky but as a whole it is more than up to the challenge.  Best are the combined Monteverdi Choir and Choeur du Théâtre du Châtelet for Gardiner and the Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana for Gergiev.  Both have a unanimity of tone and amplitude that put the other choruses to shame.  The València chorus’ French is a bit Iberian but they make up for it with their outstanding blend and amplitude.

Certainly there are many more characters in the work and discussing all of them at the same level of detail would probably take up a book.  I regret very much the fact that Davis 1 and 2 were not quite cast as optimally in the supporting roles as they could have been, although I wouldn’t want to live without Peter Mattei’s Chorèbe or Sara Mingardo’s Anna in Davis 2.  I enjoyed Eric Cutler’s Iopas for Gergiev and John Mark Ainsley’s Hylas for Dutoit is easily the best.  Ultimately, the best cast when it comes to the supporting roles is Dutoit’s set.  Cast with some of the best Francophone singers then available, the drama comes alive verbally in a way that few other sets manage.

Les Troyens always seems to bring out the best in its conductors.  Colin Davis finds much more suppleness and an incredible understanding of the style in his later recording with the LSO than he did in his set with the Royal Opera.  The LSO responds in turn with playing of incredible virtuosity bringing out all of those wonderful quirks in Berlioz’ original orchestration.  Prêtre’s conducting is excitingly swift but his set is marred by the brutal cuts.  Gergiev conducts efficiently but unmemorably and is hampered by a horrific staging.  Gardiner is much better, tempi are chosen almost to perfection, and the period instruments of his Orchestre révolutionnaire et romantique are a revelation.  Levine 1 is deeply impressive but again hampered by a staging that is comic in the wrong way. Levine 2 on the other hand shows a heightened level of understanding aided by gripping playing from the Met Orchestra on superlative form.  For me though, Dutoit and his fantastic orchestra with flowing tempi and that glorious, instantly-recognizable Montreal sound is the one I return to over and over.

I didn’t set out here to recommend a library choice to anyone for this piece and quite frankly it is almost impossible.  All the sets have something to recommend them.  What I would say though to anyone who loves the work is that they should definitely seek out Davis 2, Levine’s audio recording and Dutoit’s and make all three their library choices.  Each has different strengths – Davis for the conducting and profound understanding of the work; Levine for the conducting, orchestral playing and Hunt’s matchless Didon; Dutoit for its complete idiomatic nature and attention to text.  At the same time, I would also suggest watching Levine’s DVD for its starry cast and Norman’s peerless Cassandre, Gardiner’s for bringing Berlioz to life in all of his quirky glory and Gergiev for the outstanding contribution of the València chorus and Matos’ wonderfully fluent Cassandre. But then simply choosing these six would mean missing out on Jon Vickers’ peerless Énée.  The Royal Opera’s 2012 production has just been issued on DVD.  Having seen it live, I’m definitely not in a hurry to see it again but many people enjoyed it.  Ultimately this is a great multifaceted work and perhaps the only possible thing to do is to expose oneself to as many recordings and videos as possible.  Only then perhaps can one completely appreciate the true extent of Berlioz’ genius.

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2 comments

  1. Not long after the telecast of Les Troyens from the Met with Norman, Troyanos, and Domingo there was a radio broadcast – probably even the same season. For the radio broadcast, Edmund Sutter had stepped into the production as Énée and he was pretty bad. But Troyanos cancelled late in the game as Didon and Norman stepped in and sang both roles and she was stupendous.

  2. Checking the Met archive, it was the broadcast of February 8, 1984. Troyanos actually sang Act 2 of Les Troyens à Carthage, but was replaced by Norman for Act 3. In any case, Norman was stupendous.

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