BERLIOZ: Les Troyens (complete opera) – Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra/John Nelson – Erato

A magnificent achievement, and one that doesn’t come along often.

BERLIOZ: Les Troyens (complete opera) – Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, Choeur de l’Opéra national du Rhin, Choeur Philharmonique de Strasbourg, Badischer Staatsopernchor/ John Nelson [Complete opera cast below] – Erato 9029576220 (4 CDs + DVD), 1 hour 54 minutes *****:

Is this the best Trojans I have ever heard? No. The worst? Far from it. The fact is, there has never been a truly bad recording of this piece, perhaps because there are simply not many to begin with. Yet the fact remains that a transcendent revelatory recording has not yet surfaced—perhaps it never will, and perhaps the very nature of this piece offends against such a concept. The subject matter, to begin with, is massive, gargantuan, and full of historical import that only someone mad enough—like Berlioz—would tackle. But on the other hand, despite the monumental nature of the tale, this opera is definitely not an overblown piece of theatre, either on the stage or musically.

Berlioz wrote the work over a three-year period, really the summit of his career, but as fate would have it, never heard it complete. Its history is replete with cuts and cutdowns—the original five acts offering considered too unwieldy. Berlioz had trouble getting even his pared-down version (Acts 3 – 5) performed, and it was not until twenty-one years after his death that the whole thing was finally given. Beecham gave the first London performance in 1947 (and that aircheck is available on CD), while America didn’t hear it until 1955 in New England, with Sarah Caldwell’s Boston company giving the “complete” performance in 1972. Colin Davis gave the first complete reading on record in 1969, still a milestone that sounds great.

The Trojans, despite the rugged performance history, was widely recognized from the beginning as a great, important work, some even considering it better than anything Wagner ever penned. It is not unfair to say that this opinion still reigns among music lovers in the know—like you, dear reader—though for the more causal devotee it does not rank high on the must-listen list among the other works of this composer. The reason is not hard to fathom—even Béatrice et Bénédict comes with more ready-made thrills, and quite frankly, a lot more bombast, which is what a lot of people come to Berlioz for—including his earliest audiences. Even though the subject matter of Trojans is immense, the piece relies heavily on scaled down instrumental sections and even quieter vocal scenes in to more fully elucidate the passion found in the drama, which is by the way, culled from Virgil’s Aeneid by Berlioz himself in his libretto. Bombast for the sake of bombast is avoided, and though there are many exciting passages, this is not the composer’s primary concern.

There are not many recordings still available on CD, though most of the biggies are offered in MP3 and Flac format. Davis’s first is still, in my mind, essential for any real understanding of this work because he spent so much time studying the composer and was regarded as an authority. The cast is solid as a rock, and though Josephine Veasey (where did she disappear to?) is remarkable in her role, it is not the ultimate Dido. Aeneas however, portrayed by Jon Vickers, is as fiery as this man’s legendary personality. Berit Lindholm is a very good Cassandre. Davis’s second go around, in 2000 for LSO Live, is also excellent. Michelle DeYoung cannot compete with Veasey’s regal interpretation of Dido, but Ben Heppner proves himself fully capable. The first recording is better, but this one sounds great and has the current LSO playing as well as any orchestra in the world.

Charles Dutoit made a fine reading in great sound that no one can be ashamed of owning. Gary Lakes, a rather inconsistent artist, does well here, though is not the last word in this role. Deborah Voigt as Cassandre and Francoise Pollet as Dido are excellent, and the Montreal Symphony was playing above themselves during this period, with Decca providing vividly astounding sound. Dutoit, however, is the real star, with a fervent reading of great propulsion.

The Levine DVD is very good from the early eighties, though Placido Domingo is rather out of his element in this spectacularly staged traditional performance. The preferred video might be John Eliot Gardiner with the wonderful Susan Graham in the title role, impressive in so many ways—but not the costuming.

And yet, now we have this new offering from the always-impressive John Nelson, maybe the most underrated great conductor in the world, having a go at a concert performance with another terrific cast, maybe, just maybe, the best on record. I’ll only mention the principals—Joyce DiDonato is spectacular in her role, queenly yet achingly vulnerable. Marie-Nicole Lemieux has given is what may be the definitive Cassandre, while Michael Spyres is simply stunning as Aeneas. Overall the singing is the highest caliber on disc, a testament to Nelson’s skills. Warner (Erato) did a magnificent job in masking this concert recording with clear and spacious sound (almost as good as Davis 1), and Nelson is riveting in his direction, never lagging, yet not afraid to put on the brakes when the dramatic moment calls for it.

I can’t ditch Davis 1, but I would be remiss indeed to not recommend this as an essential recording for any library of quality.

Les Troyens Cast:
Richard Rittelmann (Chef Grec)/ Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Cassandra)/ Stéphane Degout (Chorèbe)/ Michael Spyres (Énée)/ Marianne Crebassa (Ascagne)/ Philippe Sly (Panthée)/ Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Helenus)/ Bertrand Grunenwald (Priam)/ Agnieszka Slawinska (Hecube)/ Jean Teitgen (Ombre d’Hector)/ Joyce DiDonato (Didon)/ Hanna Hipp (Anna)/ Cyrille Dubois (Iopas)/ Nicolas Courjal (Narbal)/ Jérome Varnier (Sentinelle I)/ Frédéric Caton (Sentinel II)

—Steven Ritter

 

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