SFOpera - A Dream Fufilled

A Dream Fufilled

The Trojans (Les Troyens) fulfilled the dream of a four-year-old boy, Hector Berlioz. When his father read his precocious son Virgil’s Aeneid, the boy was so moved at Dido’s death that “I was seized with nervous shuddering and ran off to give myself up to Virgilian grief.”

His father, realizing his son’s pain, stopped reading, but the emotions stirred up never left Berlioz. Almost a half century later Berlioz, speaking to Franz Liszt and his mistress, the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, talked of composing an opera about Dido and Aeneas. The Princess jumped on the idea, encouraging him to do what he had thought was impossible. She never let up, at one point, telling him that if he didn’t compose the opera, she would not speak to him. That did it, and straight away he began to write the libretto. Afterwards he said that The Trojans was created to satisfy a passion that flamed up in his childhood.

The resulting work, composed between 1856 and 1858, did not break the pattern of French opera because of the grandeur of the work or its musical construction. It followed Gallic tradition in its use of ballet, arias, and duets, choral episodes, and a story that was easy to follow. But its intensity, gravity, and stoic heroism distinguished it from French grand opera of its time exemplified by the operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer and Charles Gounod, making it as revolutionary as any of Wagner’s works. Les Troyens did not just entertain; it involved the audience in a very real way in its tragedy. It was too real, too immediate, too shocking for the 1850s. Though it seemed to follow the grand opera patterns, it was as unique as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, composed in the same period.

Berlioz at the time was almost better known as a discerning if difficult music critic than composer, and his requirements for The Trojans were so vast that in his lifetime only the last part of his opera, severely cut, ever received a performance. There was no way for this excerpt to be a success; on hearing only a third of Verdi’s Don Carlos or Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, two equally immense works,  no public could have appreciated either opera. The Trojans was reputed to be some gigantic white elephant, and did not receive a mostly complete performance until 1890, in Germany. A century after it was composed, it finally received an uncut production in London under the Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelik.

To this day The Trojans is only performed by opera houses with great resources and by a leader who believes that this great work is worth the time and funds to bring it to the public. San Francisco Opera presented a very abridged version of the opera in the 1960s. The Metropolitan Opera ventured a production in 1973, and whenever the opera is performed it is a significant happening. The problem is not the length (though overtime figures into every opera manager’s thinking), but the forces of dance, chorus, the number of principals, the sheer demands of the mythic story. For instance, one cannot really present the opera properly without a Trojan Horse, one that is large enough to house a lot of Greeks, and there are multiple technical problems in Carthage, such as “The Royal Hunt and Storm”, one of the great musical joys of the piece but one that demands all the elaborate action of a French pantomime opera of the eighteenth century.

The key to understanding what Berlioz succeeded in accomplishing come in his own words when he described his opera as a Virgilian opera on the Shakespearean plan. Because he loved Shakespeare as much as Virgil, the composer managed to include in this opera not only plenty of soliloquies (arias), massive choral scenes (the chorus is onstage and active for three-quarters of the opera, a figure almost surely not equaled in any opera in repertory today), great poetry, and even comic relief. In the fifth act at the most surprising moment Berlioz introduces two soldiers griping as they patrol, which calls to mind the Porter in Macbeth and countless other Shakespearean moments.

The wonders of the score are many. Cassandra, daughter of the King of Troy, who was given the power of prophecy but doomed to have no one believe what she foretold, dominates the first part. Her dismay in her first aria, her misery in realizing that Corebus, her fiancé, doesn’t believe her, the wild frustration she feels when she hears of the priest Laocoön’s death as he tried to warn the Trojans of the horse, the Trojans’ ignoring the noise of armor inside the horse, all this is spelled out in music of tremendous force and excitement. Best of all is Cassandra’s exhortation to the Trojan women to commit suicide, thus avoiding rape by the Greeks.

Berlioz carefully painted Carthage in lovely colors, an idyllic and happy kingdom ruled benignly by a great queen. One of the opera’s most exciting moments—equal to me to Sieglinde’s naming Siegmund in Die Walkuere—is when the disguised Aeneas, realizing that he can find a safe haven for his Trojans in an heroic defense of Carthage, throws off his disguise and proclaims himself as the hero he is. The love duet between Dido and Aeneas expresses a passion beyond sexual excitement, one of complete and total love. And the final moments of Dido have an immediacy of grief not experienced elsewhere. Norma asks her father to take care of her children and bravely walks to the funeral pyre with Pollione, Brünnhilde joyously incinerates the world she knows in order to make a better one, but in The Trojans, a real woman, Dido, bids farewell to her city, her country, and her people in immediate and direct pain.
San Francisco is more than fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy a work that encapsulates a lifetime of emotion of a great and complex composer. There is no opera like it.

Cited by Opera News Magazine as one of the 25 “most powerful” names in American opera, Speight Jenkins served as general director of Seattle Opera from 1983 to 2014. His passion for opera and deep knowledge of the art form influenced Seattle Opera’s many innovative productions, substantial publications, comprehensive education programs and services, and helped build the great audience for opera in Seattle. Jenkins strengthened and extended Seattle Opera’s reputation as a Wagner center by producing all ten of Wagner’s major operas, including two very different Ring productions. Prior to his work at Seattle Opera, Jenkins was an editor of Opera News, wrote reviews and articles for a number of publications including the New York Post, and hosted the Metropolitan Opera telecasts.

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“A Virgilian Opera on the Shakespearean Plan”