Prom 64: Berlioz’s Les Troyens

Les Troyens – opera in five Acts to a libretto by the composer after Virgil’s Aeneid [sung in French with English surtitles]

Cassandra – Alice Coote
Aeneas – Michael Spyres
Dido – Paula Murrihy
Coroebus – Lionel Lhote
Ascanius – Adèle Charvet
Narbal / Hector / Trojan Sentry – Alex Rosen
Panthus – Ashley Riches
Anna – Beth Taylor
Iopas / Hylas – Laurence Kilsby
Hecuba – Rebecca Evans
Priam – Tristan Hambleton
Helenus – Graham Neal
A Soldier – Sam Evans

Monteverdi Choir

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Dinis Sousa

Tess Gibbs – Movement Director
Rick Fisher – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 3 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Having performed two other of Berlioz’s epic stage-works at the Proms in recent years with its founder Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique now turned to the grandest of them all, Les Troyens – by coincidence in the same season in which the two other operatic offerings were also in French. As has become widely known, Gardiner was due to conduct this Prom, but ‘decided to withdraw’ as the programme put it, following an alleged fracas at a previous performance of the opera with the same forces in France. (William Thomas, on the receiving end of that incident, also was not present, with Alex Rosen and Tristan Hambleton taking his place in the roles of Narbal and Priam respectively.)

Gardiner was replaced here by Dinis Sousa. Although the ORR and the soloists’ interpretation will surely have been imprinted by Gardiner’s vision of the work in their recent performances elsewhere, Sousa still seemed to make this rendition impressively his own, crafting and moulding the score with his animated conducting on the podium, especially in the livelier instrumental sections, where precision of detail and articulation didn’t run counter to the music’s innate expressiveness. A generally translucent approach ensured that the orchestra didn’t overpower the singers, but supported them with some finely shaded pastel colours. Just sometimes there could have been a more foreboding tension in the performance. But undoubtedly there was a caution and poise which aptly pointed back to the Classical formality and balance of Gluck (whom Berlioz greatly admired) rather than straining forward to a heady Wagnerian surge – as much in the compelling restraint of Cassandra and Coroebus’s Act One dialogue or Dido and Aeneas’s rapturous duet of nighttime ecstasy (not unlike Tristan and Isolde’s in idea, which it anticipates rather than copies) as in some of the finely sculpted edifices of choral sound. That said, here the sinister, dark sonorities with snarling brass at the opening of Act Two, and its syncopated throbbing, rightly looked ahead to the terrifyingly brooding atmosphere of Act Two of Götterdämmerung.

Virtually without exception, the cast were outstanding in their idiomatic realisation of their roles. If there is now a slightly shrill drawl in Alice Coote’s voice, it lent a suitably eerie, unworldly veneer to the music of Cassandra, the prophetess fated not to be believed and who dominates the first two Acts. Ultimately, therefore, Coote drew one into the character’s vulnerability and tragedy, but also her courage and nobility as she commits suicide to avoid capture by the Greeks, paralleling Dido’s demise in the work’s second half. Paula Murrihy’s Queen of Carthage by contrast was dignified and forbearing, not given to any histrionics, but able to command by the sheer clarity and lustre of her singing. Her careful inflections of words were all the more telling and dramatically effective as she coaxed or sarcastically addressed Aeneas, or movingly contemplated death after he had forsaken her in pursuit of his predestined journey to Italy. Beth Taylor was an apt foil to Dido as her sister, Anna, in exuding some coquetry and friskiness, playing a buffa part to the Queen’s serious one.

Although Berlioz diligently constructs the role of Aeneas so as not really to constitute a dramatically central one, Michael Spyres projected an effortless, steady heroism, filling the Royal Albert Hall in both urgent and tender passages without booming, even if his acting was not nearly so charged. But his music told all, in its seamless blending with both orchestra and Murrihy’s voice. The four principal baritone or bass parts were well taken: Lionel Lhote’s assiduous and direct Coroebus (Cassandra’s betrothed); Ashley Riches’s vividly charismatic Panthus; and Hambleton, first as the ghost of Hector, issuing a plangent instruction to re-establish the Trojan community in Italy from the organ loft (unillumined) across the stage to Aeneas, and then as a characterful Narbal. Laurence Kilsby was a touch tremulous in the two roles of Iopas and Hylas – perhaps not surprising in trying to carry a high tenor register in such a large space – but he certainly sustained a beautifully lyrical line in the songs which Berlioz gives to each of those characters.

Just as dramatically involved was the Monteverdi Choir – musically immaculate but demonstrating admirable versatility in switching between different groups who are never anonymous commentators on the action but crowds actively caught up in it, first as prematurely jubilant Trojans and in their subsequent prayer to the gods, already marked by an intensity that skilfully hinted at nervousness instead of assurance, and later as Carthaginians vehemently cursing Aeneas. The female section were especially magnificent, negotiating the chromatic wailing of the Trojan women lamenting the fall of Troy, and the Orientalism of Berlioz’s writing for the chorus of Nubian slave girls in Act Four.

As the choir was also fully engaged choreographically – for instance with their jostling at the front and back of the stage at the very beginning, and mimes for the Royal Hunt and Storm pantomime which opens Act Four – and the soloists also came and went through the orchestra to enact some of the narrative, all enhanced through appropriate lighting, it was a pity that the spectacle wasn’t captured for television broadcast, seeing that the work’s large scale means that it is not often mounted. Nevertheless, the musical dimension alone made it dramatically and emotionally gripping. With only a week to go for this year’s Proms, it can be confidently asserted that this was one of this season’s standout events.

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