SFOpera - “A Virgilian Opera on the Shakespearean Plan”

“A Virgilian Opera on the Shakespearean Plan”

“For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera,” wrote Hector Berlioz at the end of the first edition of his Memoirs, in 1854. This oblique reference to the still-to-be-written The Trojans suggests that the composer, then just 50 years old, intuited the difficulties awaiting him. “I am resisting the temptation, and trust I shall continue to resist it to the end.”

It wasn’t birth pangs per se he feared. Within an astonishing two years (1856–58), Berlioz composed both the text and the music for The Trojans, working with intense focus as he sustained a high pitch of inspiration. What he feared was the agony of getting his work produced— a struggle that, sadly, turned out to be even more bitterly disappointing than he foresaw. Fortunately, the impulse to create The Trojans proved strong enough to override his early anxieties. However improbably ambitious an undertaking, Berlioz’s magnum opus at the same time represents the inevitable culmination of his life and thought as an artist.

If the stakes seemed impossibly high for Berlioz, the same could be said of his source material. Virgil himself allegedly complained to the Emperor Augustus that he must have been “mad” to have undertaken the Aeneid. According to tradition, the dying poet (he lived from 70–19 BCE) indicated that he wanted the manuscript to be burned, for it lacked his finishing touches. Not only was Virgil competing directly with the Homeric epics venerated as the foundation of literature (to his contemporary Romans, Homer was a quasi-divine poet, already several centuries older than Shakespeare is in relation to ourselves): with the Aeneid he attempted nothing less than to rewrite the national narrative. By depicting the sufferings and victories of the Trojans, Virgil’s epic aimed to make sense of a period of cataclysmic social and political transformation.

Virgil had come of age during a century of civil war, a time of apocalyptic uncertainty: his nuanced vision of human pathos and endurance has resonated across the centuries with countless other artists and thinkers. For generations those who consulted the pagan Virgil’s text regarded him as a source of spiritual wisdom. As with the bible, randomly chosen lines from the Aeneid, if properly interpreted, were believed to provide a prophetic glimpse into the future. The Aeneid was used from the start as a powerful tool for imperialist propaganda, which represents merely one dimension of its influence. The poetry of Virgil had acquired, as T.S. Eliot put it in 1944, “the centrality of the unique classic; he is at the center of European civilization, in a position which no other poet can share or usurp.”

When Berlioz prepared to embark on his operatic treatment of the Aeneid, he confessed to Franz Liszt, a champion of his music, that “I am trying to resign myself to the misery this work is bound to cause me.” It was in fact Liszt’s partner at the time, Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, whom Berlioz credited as the principal instigator of The Trojans (he dedicated the score to her). “If you shrink from the difficulties this work may and must bring you, if you are so feeble as to be afraid to face everything for Dido and Cassandra, then never come back here— I refuse to see you again”: so Berlioz reported the Princess’s challenge during a visit he paid to her and Liszt in Weimar. According to the Berlioz scholar Ian Kemp, the composer “was probably unaware that her interest in his work was an attempt to generate a challenge to Wagner [at the time in the thick of composing the Ring], whom she mistrusted and whose influence on Liszt she resented.”

For all his worry about the intense disappointment he predicted lay in store for him, various letters record snapshots of the enthusiastic state in which Berlioz created The Trojans, beginning with his drafting of his own libretto adapted from Virgil’s epic in May and June 1856. Bouts of ill health made it impossible to work for stretches yet could not dim Berlioz’s faith in the quality and significance of what he was giving birth to. He even faced another temptation requiring resistance: to interrupt progress on the libretto and compose the music he felt brimming inside. Berlioz did cave in to jot down the music for the love duet in Act IV (he likened the frame of mind in which this pressed itself on him to intoxication), but in principle he insisted that it was necessary first to finish structuring and versifying the text.

What was at stake in this process was the central aesthetic challenge Les Troyens posed for its creator: how to achieve the most effective synthesis of music and drama, of feeling and form. Berlioz—who of course could not have yet experienced the Ring and knew of Wagnerian music drama only in terms of its theory—disdained what he considered “Wagner’s crime” of wishing to “dethrone music” in favor of an all-purpose declamatory style, Berlioz formulated the essential challenge he faced as follows: “How to find the means to be expressive and truthful without being any the less musician, and how to give the music new means of action…”

The score, part of which he composed out of sequence, occupied Berlioz from August 1856 until April 1858; revisions naturally followed (including changes that were made as reluctant concessions for the first staging). To his favorite sister he proudly announced that the music he had written “is noble and grand” and “has a poignant veracity” and “a number of ideas which would make the ears and perhaps the hair of all the musicians of Europe stand on end…” The late David Cairns, author of the canonical English biography of Berlioz, unhesitatingly calls The Trojans “his greatest score and his most daring and eventful—a conscious summing-up and a reaching out into new regions.”

Yet even if creating The Trojans, as Berlioz wrote, had gratified “my musical and Virgilian passions,” disillusionment set in when it came to the compromises necessitated by the initial attempts at performance. The composer’s exhausting campaign to secure a production at the central institution of the Paris Opéra failed—not surprisingly, given the cultural ethos of Paris during the Second Empire and the demand for lighter entertainment. His previous work for that stage, the semiseria (semi-serious) opera Benvenuto Cellini, had been a humiliating fiasco in 1838, even triggering a riot. (In the meantime, while The Trojans remained unperformed, Berlioz went on to write his only opéra comique, a treatment of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing titled Béatrice et Bénédict and premiered in Baden-Baden in 1862.) At the smaller Théâtre Lyrique the impresario Léon Carvalho committed to giving the world premiere, but in the end Berlioz was forced to agree to a presentation of only the second part, The Trojans at Carthage (acts three through five), along with a new brief prologue necessitated by this restructuring. He never saw a production of the first two acts (which became known as The Fall of Troy).

From the start Berlioz had conceived The Trojans as a single unified work to be experienced in one performance. Yet from this compromise at the Théâtre Lyrique there arose a longstanding misconception that the opera comprises two quasi-independent parts. The French remained notably resistant to honoring the composer’s vision, while champions in the German- and English-speaking worlds paved the way over the succeeding century toward full-scale stagings of The Trojans. San Francisco Opera played an especially important role in the opera’s reception history: it was here, in 1966, that the “professional stage premiere” in the United States was produced (following a version by Boris Goldovsky’s New England Opera Theater in 1955). Even that San Francisco Opera production, however, was heavily cut. With David McVicar’s production, the complete score of The Trojans appears for the first time on San Francisco Opera’s stage (with no numbers cut and only minor cuts and repeats not taken).

Surprisingly, the severely truncated Théâtre Lyrique premiere, which took place in 1863, generated a good deal of positive response—despite the fact that during its run even the famous Royal Hunt had to be cut after opening night, and the great Act V duet between Dido and Aeneas also got chopped. Giacomo Meyerbeer, then celebrated as a master of French grand opera style, attended multiple performances, he declared, “for my pleasure and instruction.” Still, the lack of a definitive full-scale production when The Trojans was new to the world caused even more long-lasting damage than Berlioz had pessimistically foreseen. The division and cutting of the work perversely underscored the notion that Berlioz had written a sort of heroic “ruin” that lacked coherence and integral construction. Kemp writes of the legend that emerged of The Trojans as “a monster so unwieldy that it had to be split in two and trimmed to size.” Worse, distorted perceptions of The Trojans encouraged stereotypes of the composer as a washed-up Romantic revolutionary who had lost his fire and reverted to a more “conservative” approach (a fashionable interpretation in the wake of the success of Wagner’s operas and their ideology of music drama). The triumph of Wagner and Wagnerism more than anything else, notes Kemp, eclipsed the chance for a proper assessment of The Trojans until the tide had changed in the twentieth century. With a new climate. “Berlioz’s music in general and Les Troyens in particular could be welcomed.”

Berlioz’s abiding love of Virgil meanwhile provides another indication of the centrality of The Trojans to his creative thought. This further undermines the misunderstanding that the opera marked an aesthetic “retreat” by including traditional forms in the fifty-two individual numbers comprising the score. From his vivid childhood memories of the soul-searing experience of reading of Dido’s fate—Berlioz learned to read the Aeneid in Latin, patiently instructed by his physician-father — Virgil retained a presence Cairns likens to “an underground river running beneath the external reality of his life.” Indeed, the composer’s well-known veneration of Shakespeare almost pales in comparison to his love affair with Virgil. “Shakespeare, to Berlioz, was a kind of humanistic God the Father,” writes Cairns, “…but with Virgil it was something more intimate, a companionship, a sense of identification.” Berlioz himself said, “I feel as if I knew Virgil, as if he knew how much I love him” and also referred to the characters in the Aeneid as if they were actual presences, alive for him.

By adapting the Aeneid, Berlioz confronted the challenge of transforming a widely ranging epic narrative into a sequence of dramatic events. The Aeneid itself is structured in two interconnected halves that allied to the epic precedents of the Odyssey (the Trojans fleeing Troy, the sojourn in Carthage, and the arrival in Italy, recounted in Books 1-6) and the Iliad (the series of wars through which the Trojans stake their claim for a new homeland in Italy, recounted in Books 7-12). Berlioz chose to focus on events that occur in Books 1, 2, and 4.

Along with the necessary foreshortening, he elaborated some incidents and characters who are merely mentioned in passing by Virgil—the invading warrior Iarbas and, most notably, Cassandra, who becomes the heroine of the first two acts. At the same time, Berlioz interpolates Aeneas’ destiny to found a new Troy in Italy as the epic through line—the big picture—that insistently punctuates the drama, most remarkably of all in the final visual scenario that accompanies Dido’s tragic death. Like Wagner with the finale of his Ring, Berlioz reworked the problematic ending of his epic opera, finally calling for a vision of the future capitol in Rome and the new civilization that will be the result of Aeneas’ separation from her. In musical terms, Berlioz represents this epic thread via the recurring brass theme of the Trojan March, first heard in Act I during Priam’s fatal decision to lead his people in celebration outside the gates of the long-besieged city of Troy. The theme is always instantly recognizable thanks to its fanfare-like profile—hinting of French Revolutionary fervor—though subtle harmonic alterations signal the varying stages of the drama. In the end, the march theme acquires significance as a musical representation of the unstoppable momentum of change, of the force of history itself.

The two separate settings of The Trojans (Troy and Carthage) reinforce the overarching unity of the work through parallels and cross-references, which simultaneously contribute richer layers of meaning. Cassandra and Dido share an obsessive nature and are presented in both public and private settings. Cassandra’s sense of mission ironically prefigures that of Aeneas, who must deafen himself to Dido’s pleas as Cassandra had done to her lover Choroebus in the first act. Parallel scenes of ritual celebration likewise punctuate the opening of Acts I and III, while Aeneas suddenly takes center stage later in each of these acts with a heroic spotlight (respectively, as he announces the horror of Laocoőn’s destruction and declares his support of his new host Dido against the invader Iarbas).

Berlioz smartly constructed his libretto to include moments that call for memorable wordless passages, such as the affecting clarinet solo accompanying Andromache’s silent appearance and the orchestral interlude known as the Royal Hunt and Storm (at the start of Act IV), in which the love of Dido and Aeneas is “enacted” by the orchestra prior to its theatrical representation in their love duet. “Here Berlioz comfortably meets grand opera traditions on his own orchestral terms, ones in which the characters become puppets in an instrumental drama,” observe Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker in their recent joint A History of Opera. “The finest vocal moments do something similar, with the characteristic Berlioz monologue format best seen as a dialogue between the character and the orchestra.”

It is in moments such as the Royal Hunt and Storm that Berlioz pursues the aesthetic familiar from his earlier “dramatic symphony” based on Romeo and Juliet. In his preface to that work, he wrote that his imagination required a “freedom which the limiting sense of sung words would never allow,” and which is explored by the purely instrumental music of the nighttime “scene of love” and the “Queen Mab Scherzo.”

Shakespeare in fact takes his place alongside Virgil in The Trojans as a crucial model. Cairns discerns the Shakespearean key in the Bard’s “open form and mixing of genres and his making coherent by means far transcending the unities of time, place, and action.” The influence of Shakespeare “is manifest in the far-flung topography of the action, in the elements of the homely and the grotesque and the supernatural which are allowed their part, in the closely woven web of poetic, psychological correspondences and resonances, and in the juxtaposing of sharply contrasted scenes…” Berlioz aptly summarized what he created as “a Virgilian opera on the Shakespearean plan.”

As for the confluence of Berlioz and Virgil in The Trojans, the composer himself laid out the different kinds of musical passages Virgil immediately inspired: “You can easily enough imagine what the scenes of passion are like, also the love scenes and the depictions of nature, whether calm or stormy, but there are scenes too of which you cannot possibly have any conception. Among these is the ensemble in which all the characters and the chorus express their horror and fear as they learn that Laocoőn has met his death devoured by snakes, also the finale of the third act and Aeneas’s last scene in the fifth.”

The sound world Berlioz conjures in The Trojans mirrors the strategies of Virgil’s epic with wonderful innovation and vividness. To cite just the opening of the opera, there is the beginning in medias res (“in the middle of things”) without an overture, as winds and brass burst forth in an ironically jaunty mood of festivity. (Berlioz wanted to withhold the sonority of strings until Cassandra’s entrance, which ruled out starting with a self-standing overture.) The celebrating Trojans later appear to the tune of their hollow triumphal march as Cassandra watches in horror. Such emotional polyphony shows, in microcosm, how attuned was Berlioz to the dark ambiguity that underlies Virgil’s vision.

Along with its magnificent choral writing, The Trojans is replete with orchestral “special effects,” from the stopped horns at the first appearance of Hector’s ghost and menacing trombones for the serpents to the serene Mediterranean night music of the love duet and the lulling marine surge in Hylas’ song (composing which, said Berlioz, he thought of his son Louis, a merchant marine).

The very “contradiction” that gave pause to earlier commentators on Berlioz—the alleged contradiction between the young revolutionary and the conservative-tending composer who rejected Wagner’s reforms but found an ally in the eighteenth-century sensibility of Christoph Willibald Gluck—turns out to mirror a similar characteristic in Virgil: ultimately, a balance of the Romantic and the Classical perspectives. The Trojans, writes Ian Kemp, “is Virgilian in countless ways. There is the blend of romantic rhetoric and classical restraint, of monumentality and pictorial vividness; the fondness for mixing genres and in particular for using the lyrical to diversify the tragic and at the same time to bring it into sharper focus; the systematic alternation of scenes of passages of violence and calm as a structural rhythm in the composition of the work; the combination of an aristocratic aloofness with an awareness of the sufferings of ordinary humanity; the sense of fatality, of obscure inimical powers that lie in wait for man, and of the madness that can strike a people and drive it blindly to its own destruction. (The two men have also in common their fear of the collapse of civilization as they knew it, and the doubts that assailed them at the end about the value of their work.)”

Thomas May writes regularly for San Francisco Opera and blogs about the arts at www.memeteria.com.

A Dream Fufilled