Proms 47 & 48 – Trojans-tastic!

Les Troyens – Opera in two parts (’The Capture of Troy’ & ’The Trojans at Carthage’) and five acts; libretto by the composer after Virgil’s Aeneid

Part One – The Capture of Troy

Cassandra – Petra Lang
Aeneas – Ben Heppner
Corebus – William Dazeley
Panthus – Tigran Martirossian
Priam – Clive Bayley
Ascanius – Victoria Simmonds
Ghost of Hector – Jonathan Lemalu
Hecuba – Anna Burford
A Greek Captain – Mark Stone
A Trojan Soldier – Leigh Melrose
Helenus – Bülent Bezdüz

Part Two – The Trojans at Carthage

Dido – Michelle DeYoung
Aeneas – Ben Heppner
Anna – Sara Mingardo
Narbal – Robert Lloyd
Iopas – Kenneth Tarver
Hylas – Toby Spence
Panthus – Tigran Martirossian
Ascanius – Victoria Simmonds
Trojan Sentry 1 – Darren Jeffery
Trojan Sentry – Roderick Earle
Ghost of Cassandra – Petra Lang
Ghost of Corebus – William Dazeley
Ghost of Hector – Jonathan Lemalu
Ghost of Priam – Clive Bayley
Mercury – Leigh Melrose

London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 25 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

After the performances of The Trojans in the LSO’s Berlioz Odyssey with principal conductor Sir Colin Davis three years ago (so memorably enshrined in the award-winning, multi-selling LSO Live CD release), it was generally understood that Sir Colin had made it known that it would be his last time conducting Berlioz’s operatic masterpiece. Soon after I was delighted to learn that plans were afoot to get him to perform it at the Proms in Berlioz’s bicentenary year, and (as it became apparent) it would become the lynch-pin in one of the season’s themes, that of Greek mythology in music. To say that Monday’s two concerts were eagerly awaited would be an understatement, although I was surprised that the Royal Albert Hall was not jammed to the rafters.It being Bank Holiday it is perhaps not unexpected that the debenture seat holders stayed away in droves (utterly, unforgivably shameful). Yet with probably between 3-4000 there, it was still twice as many as could see it at one sitting at the Barbican. Yet it is not too strong a statement to say that both in advance (on paper) and in execution (in the hall and, hopefully, on the radio), this was the operatic event of the year.Strange how people will shell out up to £200 for Pavarotti (due at the Royal Albert Hall in October), but not pay considerably less for something that is truly an operatic miracle!

Mind you, to paraphrase Henry V’s speech to his cohorts on the eve of Agincourt, gentlemen (and ladies) abed will curse themselves that they were not at The Trojans on perhaps what we should rename Sir Colin’s day! Especially so as he again says that after a repeat performance in Birmingham Symphony Hall this coming Saturday (30 August), he will lay aside his score for good.While we can happily allow him his retirement from The Trojans, it is as sad a day as Anne Evans’s retirement (earlier in the Proms) to note that the greatest Berlioz interpreter of our day will no longer conduct this masterpiece.

If anything, the performance at the Royal Albert Hall was finer than the Barbican renditions.Although the casting was virtually the same (there was a luxury bonus this time with Robert Lloyd as Narbal in Part Two), all the singers seemed to have grown in their roles.This was particularly so with Michelle DeYoung’s stately Dido, now fully involved emotionally and dramatically, as she was always imperious in voice.This is presumably a benefit of her starring in the Met’s production; there were still vestiges of acting in her performance. Petra Lang’s was a gripping Cassandra, revelling in the tragic heroine who can foresee the future but whose prophecies will never be heeded. Berlioz changes classical legend by having her die (at her own hand), although in at least one version of the myth she is fought over by the Greek generals and eventually won by Agamemnon, but even he does not heed her advice over Clytemnestra’s revenge … but that is another story.

Berlioz’s Trojans is principally seen from the viewpoint of both Cassandra and Dido. Aeneas – heroically taken by Ben Heppner, back to full strength and even sweeter in tone – has to wait until very late in the second part (Act Five) for his biggest solo moment, as he tries to work through his emotions at being torn to (a) follow his destiny to leave for Italy or (b) stay with Dido.A couple of cracked notes aside (perfectly in character with Aeneas’s tortured decision), Heppner rose magnificently to the task, following his rapt love duet with Dido in the previous Act, with its gentle undulating accompaniment.

Sir Colin seems evermore relaxed with this score, with a supremely flexible baton and an easy grace on the podium.His command of orchestra, on an extended stage and at its greatest number including no fewer than six harps, and choir – stretching from the back row of the platform, half-way up the massed ranks of choir seats – was wreathed in smiles.How it was possible to fit the whole edifice into the Barbican Hall is a wonder, although choral forces had been modestly enlarged for the RAH.Certainly the sound was ample, full and focused, and the diction admirably clear; only Mark Stone’s Greek Captain was lost amidst the choral onslaught at the end of Part One, as Troy falls and the populace is massacred (or commits suicide). Offstage effects were handled with expert ease – oboes in the organ console (where later Jonathan Lemalu’s Ghost of Hector would direct Aeneas to his fate) in the very opening chorus, brass choirs in the Loggia boxes immediately to the right and left of the stage, and – in the final chorus – marching down to the side of the stage.

The three principals were matched by some fine singing in the smaller roles, especially Sara Mingardo as Dido’s sister Anna and two tenors, Kenneth Tarver as Iopas and Toby Spence, again making his mark with the rapt beauty in Hylas’s lovelorn aria in the final Act, as the tension builds for the Trojans to leave Carthage on their destiny to found Rome.Also notable were Tigran Martirossian as Panthus, who virtually sang his role from memory and Victoria Simmonds, taking the trouser-role of Ascanius (Aeneas’s son) at short notice from an indisposed Pamela Helen-Stephen, having sung the role in English in ENO’s recent production.

Although it is probably controversial to say it, Berlioz can now be seen as the most far-sighted of nineteenth-century operatic composers, leaving the egocentric musical psychobabble that Wagner peddled far behind.Berlioz understood dramatic principals (whereas Wagner didn’t, which is why he had to persuade everyone he had devised a new form; the wonder is that his works still hold such fascination; but the hoodwinking of the public is not just a facet of Wagner’s ’art’ – as the Hutton inquiry is revealing every day it sits), and created human characters as vulnerable and changeable as you and I.The Trojans is his operatic masterpiece, although both Benvenuto Cellini and Béatrice et Bénédict are equally suffused with sheer humanity.I am dumbfounded that so many people seem to find Berlioz difficult; the fact that he knowingly went his separate way from the German mainstream seems to me to be a major plus factor not a hindrance.His musical ear has never been surpassed and his instrumental effects (especially in such a master’s hands as Sir Colin’s) are a continuous source of amazement and enjoyment.And although – particularly courtesy of Sir Colin and the LSO – we are now familiar with this wonderful score, there is always more to unearth, as Sir Colin himself seems to have done every time he has returned to the score.

At massive triumph then for all concerned. And Berlioz too!

One final point. Sir Colin seems to grow to look more like Berlioz every time we see him!

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