Monday, November 20, 2017

Epic Berlioz (for better or worse)

Hector Berlioz’ five-act opera Les Troyens (the Trojans) is one of those monumental undertakings that is frequently cited in music history but rarely encountered, whether on the opera stage, for which it was intended, in the concert hall, or on recordings (video or audio). The work was never performed in its entirety during the composer’s lifetime. Berlioz wrote his own libretto, basing the plot (but not the text) on Virgil’s Aeneid.

The first venture into performance involved only the last three of the five acts, presented under the title Les Troyens à Carthage (the Trojans at Carthage):

Set design of Dido’s throne room for the premiere performance of Les Troyens à Carthage on November 4, 1863 (created by Philippe Chaperon, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

When work finally began to prepare a performance of the first two acts, they were given their own title, La prise de Troie (the capture of Troy). Early performances of both of these parts usually involved extensive cuts. When the entire opera was given its first staged presentation in 1890 (which was 21 years after Berlioz’ death in 1869), the two parts were performed on two successive evenings. By this time audiences had come to expect that the four operas of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung) would be performed on separate days.

These days it is not out of the question to encounter performances of all five acts that take place within the confines of a single day. This is how San Francisco Opera presented it in the spring of 2015, giving six complete performances over the course of their spring season. In addition there is no shortage of recordings of the entire opera in both audio and video formats. This Friday the Erato division of Warner Classics will join the fold with a recording made from recordings made of two concert performances that took place in April of 2017 in the French city of Strasbourg. As usual, is currently processing pre-orders.

As might be guessed, conductor John Nelson presides over a massive array of resources. His instrumental ensemble is the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg. He has engaged three different choruses. Two of them are associated with opera companies, the Opéra national du Rhin and the Badische Staatsoper. The third is the chorus of the Strasbourg ensemble. Solo vocalists are not abundant enough to account for “a cast of thousands;” but there are still a lot of them. Among American listeners, the most familiar of these will be Joyce DiDonato, who sings the role of Didon, the Queen of Carthage.

The recording consists of four CDs with a total duration that is just five minutes shy of four hours. There is much to engage the serious listener over the course of this opera; but, speaking as one who has seen both a video and the San Francisco Opera performance, taking the whole thing in all at once is more likely to induce fatigue, rather than insight. There is nothing wrong with listening to this opera one act at a time, perhaps sleeping on each encounter before moving on to the next.

As to the performance itself, it is hard to evaluate something so massive that it is rarely encountered in any form expect for a few familiar orchestra excerpts. I have no serious quibbles with how any of the five acts have been approached. On the other hand my familiarity with the opera is too inadequate to say very much about how any of the soloists inhabit the roles of their respective characters. The fact is that, among my personal experiences, my only strong, but also fond, recollection was of Susan Graham singing the aria of the abandoned Dido in the final act. The mere fact that I had my wits about me during the end of this act says much about how Graham could command my attention. Furthermore, her performance was particularly memorable in San Francisco, since she sang it in front of a descended curtain, providing the one moment of relief from the outrageous imagery designed by Es Devlin in the service of Director David McVicar. (This was a production shared with the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.)

Those interested in the visual side of performance, however, should be warned away from the “Bonus DVD” included as part of the packaging. The back of the box describes the contents as “Video highlights of the concert performance on 15 April 2017.” While this is true, the editor of the booklet did not bother to supplement the track listing with pointers to the relevant pages in the libretto. This is particularly critical because no titles have been provided in any language. (One can see French and German text projected above the chorus, but the image is far from legible.) A sympathetic viewer who is denied any clues as to what (s)he is watching or what the context is will probably not remain sympathetic very long!

No comments: