Thursday, January 3, 2013

"On fire with desperate love..." Epic Berlioz at the Met, "Live in HD"

"To me the subject seems magnificent and deeply moving - a guarantee that Parisians would think it flat and tedious."

Thus Hector Berlioz described his epic masterpiece, Les Troyens (The Trojans), the next broadcast of the Met "Live in HD" series Jan 5 at 12 noon at Virginia Western Community College.

Troyens is the epitome of a grand and visionary epic so far ahead of its time it would take a century to be fully realized. The 5-act, 4 hour opera was originally - and to Berlioz's despairing chagrin - divided into two parts. Acts 3-5, "The Trojans in Carthage" premiered in 1863. The first two acts, "The Capture of Troy" were not performed at all until 1890, 21 years after its composer's death. The original 5-act version of Les Troyens had to wait until 1957. The Met first produced it in 1973, and Met Music Director, James Levine (one of the work's most devoted champions) calls it "the biggest epic piece written for a single evening." Though it is shorter than many of Wagner's epic 4 + hour operas, Les Troyens requires a huge cast and chorus. Berlioz described his adaption of The Aeneid as "Virgil Shakespeareanized," and the composer's life-long devotion to the Bard is a sweeping tribute to both Virgil and Shakespeare.

Franz Liszt's mistress, Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein inspired Berlioz (with flattery, of course): "Your passion for Shakespeare combined with your love of classical antiquity would be sure to produce something new and splendid." The Princess could not have been more prophetic, and today's audiences are fortunate to have a resourceful company like the Met to fulfill such ambitions by bringing this great opera to life.

Like every great opera composer, Berlioz loved his heroines. The Trojans features a striking pair of them: the trojan princess Cassandra, and the founding Queen of Carthage, Dido. The trojan princess - a prophet cursed to have her true predictions unheeded by her people - dominates the first part of the opera. The Met's Francesca Zambello production features a striking Trojan horse, a symbol of dramatic potency and cutting irony.

While Wolfgang Petersen's "epic" film, Troy was a 3-hr trek that felt much longer, Berlioz's drama moves compellingly along. As the Met's program annotator, David Hamilton writes, this plot "flows convincingly from ceremony to intimacy to humor to passion, and inevitably, to tragedy."

Both heroines are grand tragic figures, with some of the richest music Berlioz ever wrote. Knowing he would not live to see the first part of his opera produced, Berlioz wrote, "Oh my noble Cassandra, my heroic virgin, I must then resign myself: I shall never hear you - and I am like Corebus, 'on fire with desperate love for her.'"

He was on "fire with desperate love" with all of the subjects that ignited his vivid imagination. Berlioz is first among great composers who also wrote vividly readable prose. Here is another example from his memoirs, about his experience reading Virgil under the tutelage of his father.

"How often, construing to my father the fourth book of the Aeneid, did I feel my heart swell and my voice falter and break!... When I reached the scene in which Dido expires on the funeral pyre, surrounded by the gifts and weapons of the perfidious Aeneas... and I had to pronounce the despairing utterances of the dying queen... my lips trembled and the words came with difficulty, indistinctly. At last, at the line ‘Quaesivit coelo lucem ingemuitque reperta,’ at that sublime image—as Dido ‘sought light from heaven and moaned at finding it’—I was seized with a nervous shuddering and stopped dead. My father, seeing how confused and embarrassed I was by such emotion, but pretending not to have noticed anything, rose abruptly and shut the book. ‘That will do, my boy,’ he said. ‘I’m tired.’ I rushed away, out of sight of everybody, to indulge my Virgilian grief." (from Memoirs, by Hector Berlioz, transl. David Cairns)

I can't wait for Saturday's broadcast of this opera. I look forward to introducing it to our audience (I'll start talking 1/2 hour before the curtain, so 11:30 am). But I most look forward to 4 hours of glorious music and engaging drama - one of history's greatest stories brought to life with some of the greatest music written for the stage.

I unabashedly align myself with Berlioz in professing my love for his ultimate Queen:
"I have fallen in love, utterly in love, with the Queen of Carthage! I adore her, this beautiful Dido."

(Susan Graham as Dido)

Synopsis (from
Act I
After ten years of siege, the Greeks have departed from Troy, leaving behind a giant wooden horse as an offering to Pallas Athena. Only the prophetess Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan king Priam, wonders about the significance of their enemies’ disappearance. In a vision, she has seen her dead brother Hector’s ghost walking the ramparts. She has tried to warn her father of impending disaster and now urges her fiancé, Coroebus, to flee the city, but neither man will listen to her. When Coroebus begs her to join the peace celebrations, she tells him that she foresees death for both of them.

The Trojans offer thanks to the gods. Hector’s widow Andromache brings her young son, the heir to the throne, before King Priam and Queen Hecuba. The warrior Aeneas arrives and reports that the priest Laocoön is dead. Suspecting the wooden horse to be some kind of a trick, Laocoön had thrown his spear at it and urged the crowd to set fire to it, when two giant sea serpents appeared and devoured him and his two sons. Priam and Aeneas order the horse to be brought into the city to beg pardon of Athena. Cassandra realizes that this will be the end of Troy.

Act II
Aeneas is visited by the ghost of Hector, who tells him to escape the city. His destiny, he says, is to found a new empire that someday will rule the world. As the ghost disappears, Aeneas’s friend Panthus runs in with news that the Greek soldiers who emerged from the horse are destroying the city. Aeneas rushes off to lead the defense.
The Trojan women pray for deliverance from the invaders. Cassandra prophesizes that Aeneas and some of the Trojans will escape to Italy to build a city—a new Troy. Coroebus has fallen, and Cassandra prepares for her own death. She asks the women if they will submit to rape and enslavement. When Greek soldiers enter, the women collectively commit suicide. Aeneas and his men escape with the treasures of Troy.

Carthage, North Africa. The people greet their queen, Dido. In the seven years since they fled their native Tyre following the murder of Dido’s husband, they have built a flourishing new kingdom. Dido’s sister Anna suggests that Carthage needs a king and assures her sister that she will love again. Visitors are announced who have narrowly escaped shipwreck in a recent storm—they are the remaining survivors of the Trojan army, with Aeneas among them. Dido welcomes them. When news arrives that the Numidian ruler, Iarbas, is about to attack Carthage, Aeneas identifies himself and offers to fight alongside the Carthaginians. Dido accepts, and Aeneas rallies the united forces of Carthage and Troy, entrusting his son, Ascanius, to the queen’s care.

Act IV
Aeneas has returned victorious to Carthage. During a royal hunt, he and Dido seek shelter from a storm in a cave. They discover their love for each other.
It is several months later. Narbal, the queen’s adviser, is worried that since Dido fell in love with Aeneas, she has been neglecting her duties. He fears that in welcoming the Trojan strangers, Carthage has invited its own doom. Dido enters with Aeneas and her court to watch an entertainment of singing and dancing. She asks Aeneas to tell her more about Troy’s last days. When he talks about Andromache, Hector’s widow, who married Pyrrhus, one of the enemy, Dido sees a parallel to her own situation. Alone, she and Aeneas again proclaim their love, as the god Mercury reminds Aeneas of his duty and destination—Italy.

Act V
At night in the Trojan camp by the harbor, a young sailor sings a homesick ballad. Panthus and the Trojan captains are worried about omens and apparitions that remind them of their failure to move on. Aeneas enters, torn between his love for Dido and his duty to leave Carthage. He makes up his mind to see the queen one last time. But when the ghosts of Priam, Hector, Coroebus, and Cassandra appear, urging him to leave, he orders his men to set sail before sunrise. Dido appears. Aeneas swears that he loves her but must leave her. She curses him. As dawn breaks, the queen asks her sister to persuade Aeneas to stay, but the Trojan ships are already on their way out to sea. Furious, Dido orders a pyre built to burn his gifts and remembrances of their love. Now resolved to end her life, she bids farewell to Carthage and everything she held dear.
The pyre has been set up. Priests pray for Dido, who predicts that her fate will be remembered: a future Carthaginian general, Hannibal, will avenge her against Italy one day. Then she stabs herself with Aeneas’s sword. Dying, she has a vision of Carthage destroyed by eternal Rome. As the Roman Capitol is seen like an apparition in the distance, the Carthaginians curse Aeneas and his descendants.

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