With a mixture of trepidation and excitement, Hector Berlioz, the composer, critic and conductor, stood poised to lay aside many of the usual tasks and distractions of his life and give himself up to the dream of a lifetime: The composition of an epic on antique themes inspired by Virgil's "Aeneid," Les Troyens.
Berlioz had read Virgil since his earliest youth, and here was the chance to bring together his many influences; from Mozart and Gluck, to the drama of Shakespeare. Following his famous correspondence with Franz Liszt's mistress Carolyn Sayn-Wittgenstein, who dared him to either take up the work or never speak to her again, Berlioz dedicated himself to the single-minded absorption in this project in the period between 1856-1858.
The story of Les Troyens -- including the dogged corrections lasting three years -- was followed by Berlioz' own siege of the Paris Opera. What happened next was a romantic narrative of misunderstanding, mutilated text and the composer’s death; he would never see the work completed.
Following Berlioz' death came the heroic resurrection of Les Troyens, where it moved from a strange fragment to a steady perception that the work is actually a two-part presentation performed in a single night.
This final arrangement was not achieved until sometime in the 1880’s and it would be another near 90 years before Colin Davis' epochal recording, when the work was finally heard by the world to universal acclaim. This finally validated one critic’s remark in the 1930’s after acquiring the complete score, declaring Les Troyens: "the greatest opera ever written." A remark that avoided the bombast of Meyerbeer and the prolix nature of Wagner.
The plot and its execution at the heart of the 1930’s verdict is that for all its’ solemnity and heft, the opera is a miracle of economy.
We move from the shores of Troy with the jubilant discovery of the Greeks who had apparently fled, "Les grecs ont disparue," to the wailing of Cassandra, and the death of Laocoon to octet and double chorus in one of the greatest of all operatic ensembles,"Chaintement effoyable."
Soon follows the catastrophe of the Greek attack and the flight of Aeneas to Carthage. As if all this were not enough, part two gives us the love story of Dido and Aeneas. Our hero is driven ever onward to found Rome and all its glory, with the occasional appearance of ghosts, ancestors and visions of heroes to come. These visions are completed with Dido mounting a funeral pyre (years before Brunnhilde), cursing her one time lover in vain. The scene is brought to a cinematic close with the historical procession of a Roman future unfurled in clouds above the city below in mourning, the fiery scene illuminated by Queen Dido’s immolation and the great closing aria "Adieu, fiere cite."
The Metropolitan Opera offers a rare opportunity to witness Berlioz’s vast epic, which was last performed at the Met in 2003. Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Bryan Hymel, and Dwayne Croft lead the starry cast, portraying characters from the Trojan War. Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi marshals the large-scale musical forces.
The Met has known two stellar productions of Les Troyens with some of the greatest mezzo’s of the century including Shirley Verrett and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Tune in early this Saturday at 11 a.m. for Hector Berlioz' towering masterpiece, Les Troyens, on KPAC and KTXI.