Les Troyens


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LES TROYENS

Composer: Hector Berlioz

Libretto: Hector Berlioz

Based on Virgil’s The Aeneid

First Produced: Grand Opéra Paris, 1921

Present Company: Théâtre du Châtelet, 2003

Director: Yannis Kokkos

Sets & Costumes: Yannis Kokkos

Video Director: Peter Maniura

Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique

Monteverdi Choir

Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner

 

Cast

Didon: Susan Graham

Énée: Gregory Kunde

Cassandre: Anna Caterina Antonacci

Anna: Renata Pokupič

Ascagne: Stéphanie d’Oustrac

Chorèbe: Ludovic Tézier

Panthée: Nicolas Testé

Narbal: Laurent Naouri

 

Specs:

Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50 x 2

Opera: 23.84 + 40.37 (64.21 GB)

Bit Rate: High (31~35 / 28~32 Mbps)

French DTS-HD MA 5.0

French PCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, French, German & Spanish

Region: All

Opera runtime: 255 minutes (97+158) 4 hrs 15 min

Opus Arte 2010

 

Grade

Conception & Staging: A-

Costumes: A-

Casting: A

Singing: A

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: A

Image: B+

Audio: B

Extras Features: B

Recommendation: A-


 

Comment

Richard Wagner may have developed and perfected the “music drama” as his later operas are known, but I think we can credit Hector Berlioz to have given the idea life.  First, in 1839, with the “symphonie-dramatiqueRomeo et Juliette, then the “légende dramatiqueLa damnation de Faust in 1846 - both concert pieces that make extensive use of soloists and chorus, yet cry out for staging, at least in one’s imagination.  Not to place them too high in importance, however, neither of these works should not be taken as mere logical extensions of the Baroque oratorio or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  Finally we have the fully staged opera Les Troyens which he composed between 1856-58 just after Wagner completed Die Walküre.  His opera was never performed complete in his lifetime - not until well into the 20th century, in fact.


       


Les Troyens is about Loss.  Loss of Hope. Loss of Innocence. Of trust in the gods. Of Destiny. Loss of love, certainly.  The fact that its “hero” Aeneas goes on to plant the seed for the greatest empire the world has seen this side of the Urals is of little recompense - particularly to the two women whose hearts are so exposed in this opera.  If the first two acts dramatize the destruction of a civilization, the next two offer hope for a new one, only to be dashed in the final act at the most personal level, in the face of the forces of destiny that cannot be ignored.


Aside from Aida, Les Troyens, a tragédie-lyrique in five acts, is one of the oldest subjects in the operatic repertoire and, unlike Verdi’s opera, it has serious classical credentials.  The scenario is taken from Virgil’s The Aeneid, which was written between 29~19 B.C. and concerns legendary events eleven centuries earlier.  Virgil’s hero, Aeneas, would have been known to him by way of Homer’s Iliad composed in the 8th century B.C.  In a sort of what goes around comes around motif, Aeneas, originally from Troy, defeated by the Greeks, flees to Italy, where among his descendants are Romulus and Remus, who found Rome and eventually conquer Greece.  Perhaps that was the plan all along.  Who can say?  The gods are patient, though not infinitely so.


       


Berlioz’ play is in two distinct parts. In fact it was not uncommon to perform the second without the first at all.  While Aeneas figures prominently in both he is the central character in neither.  The first part, which comprises the first two of Berlioz’ five acts, takes place in Troy, and begins with news of the death of Achilles.  The Trojans are joyous - all save Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam.  Cassandra had been granted the gift of prophesy by Apollo, but when she did not return his love, she was damned with one of the most cruel curses imaginable: that no one would believe her.  It must be that her listeners are correspondingly afflicted for no one ever catches on and declare her prophesies to be true even if they don’t believe them.  On the other hand, at the one moment when everyone is on the same page, so to speak, Berlioz scores Cassandra and seven of the leaders of the Trojans in unison at the line in response to hearing of the fate of Laocoön, and thus their own: [translation:] “eaten alive by that hideous monster.”  Talk about a prediction! Brilliant!  More of this presently.


       


So, as you might guess, Cassandra is in torment - Anguish hardly describes it, though Berlioz does.  She can see Troy going up in flames, however she cannot make out the role the horse is to play.  She tries vainly to convince the man who was to be her husband, Coroebus, to flee the city before he is consumed.  He tries to console her in her madness.  Poor sap.  Aeneas enters with truly horrifying news, and here’s where a perfect storm of misapprehensions occurs: It seems that the priest Laocoön became suspicious of the horse that the Greeks left outside the walls before their departure and ordered it attacked with spears and fire, whereupon two serpents rose from the sea and gobbled him up.  Naturally, the Trojans figured they this attack offended their god Pallas Athena and dragged the horse inside their walls to her temple in an attempt to assuage her temper.


Cassandra just about loses it - the closer the end gets, the clearer her vision.  Too late - and it wouldn’t have mattered anyhow.  In the heat of battle Aeneas is instructed by the spirit of Hector to leave while there is still time, for it is his destiny to found a new Troy in Italy.  You can imagine how this report must strike this heroic figure: Abandon my post! Leave town! I get to be the father of a new dynasty!  No way.  Not yet, anyhow.  Meanwhile the Greeks are doing what they do best to what is left of the city, and plan to do more of the same to those women who have gathered around Cassandra in support - at last! Cassandra predicts that Aeneas will keep the light of Troy burning, even if in a far away land.  She defies the approaching Greeks, and kills herself. The women do the same.  They would not add their humiliation to the glory of the Greeks.


       


The second part of the opera (Acts III-V) takes place in the cool blues of Carthage, founded by Queen Dido and her followers from Tyre only a few years earlier.  The mood is positively buoyant.  It happens that Dido is at last considering remarrying after the death of husband Sychaeus when a ship sails into port.  Its passengers are the escaping Trojans led by a disguised Aeneas.  They offer their treasure just about as the city is under attack from Numidians. Timely. But even more so when Aeneas reveals himself (yes, he left Troy, after all) and offers to help defend the city.  As these things generally evolve, or devolve, despite that Dido knows that Aeneas must move on to his destiny in Italy eventually, she allows herself to fall in love with him with expected tragic results.  Her final lengthy and powerful lament, where she suffers her loss not unlike Cassandra, is also reminiscent of Berlioz’ writing for the awakening of the ill-fated lovers in his Romeo et Juliette. Dido’s pain is all the more tangible because she has the wisdom to see all sides of the situation: Hers, her lover’s, the gods’ and the fate of Carthage and Rome itself.


       


Performance

The singing in this production is all first class, as is the casting: with Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci seeming to channel Irene Pappas and American mezzo Susan Graham, Janet Baker.  American tenor Gregory Kunde reminds us of the kind of urgency that James McCracken would bring, but with better control.  The supporting roles are cast equally well: not one is anything less than top drawer.  It is of, interest perhaps, that none of the principals are French, though two or three of the major supporting players are.


John Eliot Gardiner struck me at first as an odd choice for Berlioz, but only because my knowledge of his work is limited to the Classical and Baroque, in which he excels.  But here he is with a proper understanding of Berlioz signature use of winds and brass, and even goes so far as to use original brass instruments, not of the Baroque and often ignored in performance today.  He’s a good accompanist as well, there being only a single instance where I noticed his orchestra and singers not together.  And in those long stretches without voice in the first, third and fourth acts, you can just about see what should be happening on stage in your mind’s eye.


       


Audio & Video

Alas, I can’t say I am entirely happy with the audio in either the surround or stereo mode.  Both are manifest in the usual DTS-HD MA 5.0 and PCM 2.0 stereo. The Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris has been around since the mid-nineteenth century, but wasn’t used for opera until well in to the last century.  The theatre underwent a major restoration in 1980 and an acoustical re-thinking in 1989 - all of which comes to naught if the recording engineering isn’t hitting its mark.  Les Troyens is the first Théâtre du Châtelet opera production on Blu-ray that I’ve come across, so it remains to seen if my observations pertain only to this one opera or to the directors involved, or if there is something about the house that results in less than completely agreeable sound.


Curiously, the difficulty I hear is more pronounced on the first disc (Acts I-II) than the second (Acts III-V): a somewhat harsh, brittle quality to the chorus and high woodwinds in fortissimo, as if overloading the microphone inputs. This obtains whether in stereo or surround, though the effect is less pronounced in surround where the orchestra has more room to breathe and is in better balance with voices on stage.  It does not seem to affect the soloists regardless of volume or their position on stage.  Having said all this, I don’t expect that many listeners will be as distressed by the reported nastiness as I was, so take my comments with the usual seasonings.  In any case these moments come and go and represent a small fraction of the total opera experience.


       


The video is generally very good, indeed.  Opus Arte has devoted 64 GB of space spread over two discs to accommodate Berlioz’ 255-minute opera (with enough room left over for an hour-long bonus feature in HD), and they’ve kept the bit rate high, hovering between 28~35 Mbps. (Compare this with C Major’s stingy 40.60 GB / 256 minutes, and roughly half the bit rate for their Siegfried.)  There are no annoying transfer issues and the source looks pristine, with no unwanted jumps or cuts.  Color, contrast, detail, sharpness are all very good.  As is common with staged operas these days, principal characters are dressed in white making a proper exposure when they are spotlit against darker backgrounds problematic.  Still, the video engineer is on top of this.  Not so good is focus - with brief instances (e.g. at 21:10) on the first disc where it misses the mark entirely, and others, also briefly, that seem to be searching for the proper focal point.  Video directors often cannot leave well enough alone, and Peter Maniura is no exception, once in a while allowing entirely irrelevant closeups of a single chorister for nood reason except that he isn’t comfortable holding the frame on the scene.


       


Staging

There’s good news and strange here.  Almost worth the price of admission is the remarkable crafting of the entire rear stage in the first act.  The rear half of the stage is dropped so that the audience in line with the singers in front cannot anyone standing on it.  Instead, we see their reflection tilted in a huge mirror nearly the full width of the stage.  Things happen to the floor of the dropped stage that create a second set that works in counterpoint with the upstage half.  This device is made use of throughout most of the first two acts.  But then, just when we thought it was safe to trust the otherwise time-unspecific costuming of the actors, out come the Greeks with modern automatic weapons.  It just doesn’t work for me.  The Trojan women that the Greeks confront are about to do themselves in so as not to give the Greeks any satisfaction.  No, the sword, not the gun, makes their fears and determination more tangible.  Thankfully this oddity doesn’t last long, nor do weapons of any kind present themselves in the second part of the opera that takes place in peace-loving Carthage - all the more reason, I ask, why it should have come to such fate at all?


       

 

Bonus

“The Trojans - A Masterpiece of Hector Berlioz Revived” (59:30) A discussion about the production with the conductor, stage director and the three principals. Gardiner eloquently illustrates how Berlioz manifests the drama in musical line, orchestration and text.  The actors discuss their characters, sometimes making contemporary parallels, elsewhere underscoring how Berlioz sets the music for their particular character.  There are numerous excerpts from the opera, too many I thought, and didn’t always correspond to the points made by the commentators.  Stage Director Yannis Kokkos, the only Greek in authority here, talks about what he thinks Berlioz’ vision must have been.  In terms of story, character and music, this is a very good documentary, but conspicuous by its absence, especially considering the presence of Kokkos, is any comment whatever about the remarkable staging of the opera.  Also included are Opus Arte’s usual excellent Illustrated Synopsis & Cast Profiles and a booklet.


       


The opera is so remarkable and satisfying and so well performed and generally well-staged that I give the Blu-ray a good recommendation despite my cautious misgivings about the video and sound, which I feel are likely to concern few people as much as they did me.




Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

May 30, 2012



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