Berlioz, Les Troyens, 1863

Quick Links

Synopsis Libretto History of the opera

Friday August 11th

Taking Greek myths seriously

(or their Roman sequels)

In 1854, Berlioz wrote For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera for which I would write both the words and the music... I am resisting the temptation of carrying out this project, and I hope I will resist to the end [footnote: Alas, no, I have not been able to resist. I have just completed the poem and the music of Les Troyens, an opera in five acts. What is going to happen to this vast work?] The subject seems to me elevated, magnificent and deeply moving – sure proof that the Parisians will find it dull and boring. He was right. Les Troyens was produced in 1863 and only in part.  Paris only saw its first complete performances in October 2003, when John Eliot Gardiner conducted it almost exactly 140 years after its première in a truncated version. It was finally recognised only in the 1960s, first at ROH then at the Met. One reason why it’s so seldom performed is that as Berlioz saw, the lead roles are nigh impossible to play. “I will not be able to find an intelligent and dedicated woman capable of interpreting the main role. It requires beauty, a great voice, genuine dramatic talent, a complete musician, with a soul and heart of fire.” That’s Dido for you.

The ultimate combination of Greco-

Roman myth and opera?

This is a monumental grand opera. He wrote the libretto from books 1-4 of Virgil's Aeneid  (luckily he ignored the other eight). These tell the story of the dalliance of Trojan escapee Aeneas with Dido queen of Carthage (as with Monteverdi’s Dido and Aeneas), and in the middle of it all a recounting of the sack of Troy (which Berlioz put first.) “Les Troyens proved to be a very personal work for Berlioz, as it paid homage to his first literary love, whom he still cherished – even after his discoveries of Shakespeare and Goethe.” (Wikipedia)  “With touches of Homer, Shakespeare, and music like none ever written before... [Les Troyens] is the grandest French opera. Every performance is an occasion.” (LA Times) In 1856 Berlioz wrote to his sister: Another obstacle for me in composing the music of this drama is that the feelings to be expressed move me too deeply. This is useless - one must try to be cool when the emotions are hottest.

The Music

This mammoth score is a wealth of amazing music.  The brilliance of Berlioz is in huge choruses and superb solo and duet pieces of longing and love. Pappano illuminates the extraordinary music here. Wonderful  arias include 'Vallon sonore', (which made it into Star Trek) . And the love duet of Aeneas and Dido, 'Nuit d'ivresse'.
Sketch for Act 1, Trojans celebrating the, er, end of the siege.

Our Production

Aeneas - Placido Domingo, Cassandra - Jessye Norman, Dido - Tatiana Troyanos. Metropolitan Opera, Dir. Fabrizio Melano, Cond. James Levine, 1983