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Friday, October 26, 2012

Hector Berlioz, "Les Troyens"

Hector Berlioz
"Les Troyens"
BBC/Opus Arte (2004)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

The Aeneid, as originally written by Virgil, is an epic. It's long (I kind of had to read it during a high school Latin class. We didn't finish, or at least we skipped to the good parts). Therefore it makes sense that Berlioz's opera deserves the same herculean adjective in both description and presentation. The piece stretches beyond the five-hour mark, and although I only listened (as opposed to watching the DVD capture), the Trojan horse and other stage sets seem to be equal in grandiosity. I won't comment on the sets, but I wonder if Berlioz was effective in capturing the events, or if "Les Troyens" is a tad full of hot air.

There are two ways of looking at how an opera based on The Aeneid should be based. One, try to fit the entire epic into a five act performance. This would be extremely difficult, but certainly not impossible. As Berlioz's least favorite composer (Wagner) knows, a nine-hour opera is obnoxious, but not out of the question. The second option, and the better one I feel for Berlioz's intent, is to focus on one portion of the narrative that captures the ideal parts for an operatic adaptation. That story, within The Aeneid, is the romance between Aeneas and Dido (whom I will refer to as Énée and Didon from now on, as these are their French names within the opera).

The story of Énée and Didon features all the best portions of other famous romances that have made classic operas, such as Tristan and Isolde, or Romeo and Juliet. Two people have fallen on hard times (Énée's wife got killed during the destruction of his hometown, and Didon has also recently lost her husband), they fall headlong into love, but soon Énée is called to complete his destiny of founding Rome, so he leaves, breaking Didon's heart, and she kills herself. Berlioz could have included the fall of Troy for context and thematic purposes, and focused the rest on these happenings. He doesn't. Instead, Act I looks solely at the Trojans waiting for the Greeks to attack. The iconic Trojan horse doesn't even show up until Act II. Énée doesn't meet Didon until Act III. Purists may hate me for saying this, but from a storytelling perspective, this is a huge waste of time.

As for the other reason why purists will hate me: I don't understand Berlioz as a composer. I complained about this during my look at "Symphonie Fantastique." His music is just too happy for its own good. Naturally, at the opening of the opera, they are celebrating the end of the war (despite Cassandra's warnings). But then, Troy is ravished. Act II opens somberly enough, but it doesn't take too long for the mood to pick right back up. Act III reveals the party that is Carthage. Act IV is a continuation of said party, with more emphasis on the romance between Énée and Didon, although it forebears unhappiness when he hears the call to fulfill his destiny. The concluding act revolves around the conflict between the two lovers, but from a strictly musical perspective, a non-French speaking listener could easily misinterpret the upbeat instrumentals. Eventually, she stabs herself (not burns herself, as in the written version) to a more subdued melody, but just as soon as she dies, the opera ends on a high note, with Énée and company happy to be sailing towards the city of the future, Rome. If this were a Shakespearean play, it'd be defined as a tragedy. Sure doesn't sound like it.

Although I'm not a fan of how the music and lyrics tend to match up, I am a big fan of how Berlioz wrote the vocals. There are many male and female parts, especially in the busy scenes of Troy and Carthage, and it would be both long and annoying if each voice took their turn speaking. Therefore the voices of the leads often work over a separate chorus (Act II, "Coplices de sa gloire…Le tresor!") and sometimes there's a harmonic conversation between two leads, while a chorus muddies the water even further (Act III, "Les Chants Joyeaux"). This dueling vocals methodology made Berio's "Sinfonia" great, and it worked for Berlioz before him.

I have another suggestion for a classical, albeit not operatic approach to The Aeneid. Virgil is underrated as one of the greatest writers of scenic description in literary history. His landscapes and seascapes are among the best scenes in the epic, despite lacking any conversation or actions by human characters. The abstract point here is that I would love to see a composer like Berlioz translate Virgil's wonderful descriptions into music. Gauntlet thrown down, and I hope a composer will let me know when they pick it up.

I'm going to sum this up real quick, because like "Les Troyens," I took way too long to get to the end. My ironic advice, considering my own rambling, is to tighten up. My other advice, ironically because he tended to be a miserable guy in life, is to sadden down.

INTERESTING FACT: The rest of the world seemed to share my viewpoint...Berlioz couldn't secure a theater large enough to mount the full presentation, so he cut the first two acts and released it as "Les Troyens a Carthage," a fact he lamented, despite that play's popularity. He died before the opera was performed in full.

"Coplices de sa gloire...Le tresor!"

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