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September 29, 2004

Troy, Carthage & New York - Berlioz's The Trojans at the ENO

Posted by David Conway

Berlioz's The Trojans
English National Opera, London Coliseum
conducted by Paul Daniel
24th September - 5th October 2004

In the middle of the night, I was woken by the ghost of Hector – Hector Berlioz, that is. Fortunately, he was considerably less gory than that of his namesake in the ENO production of The Trojans, which I had seen earlier that evening. Startling at his first appearance, the Greek Hector had rather dissipated the effect by wandering in and out of the rest of the production like a lost extra from 'Night of the Living Dead', but Berlioz seemed, as in his photographs, neat, bright and quizzical, as he asked me the killer question, 'Well, what did you think of it?'

Experience has taught me to be cautious in replying to queries of this sort by artists about their pet creations. One should of course always tell the truth and I had no compunction in telling the composer that I felt it contained some of his very greatest music, instancing the close of the fourth act, which includes Aeneas and Dido's love duet, the duet of Anna and Dido in Act III, and the death of the Trojan women at the end of Act II. And I was then able to turn the tables swiftly by asking 'But what did you think of the performance, maître?'

'Musically, I was satisfied. The orchestra played quite accurately and the tempi were appropriate. Some of the singing was quite outstanding. Mme. Connolly as Dido brought to mind, at many moments, my dear Pauline' - (This was praise indeed – Pauline Viardot, the creator of the role, muse of Berlioz and Turgenev amongst others, was renowned for her passionate and intelligent interpretations) – 'and Mme. Bickley, although her voice was perhaps a fraction too small for the theatre, conveyed most movingly the agony of her visions and her consciousness of her fate. I also enjoyed, like you, Mme. Burford as Anna in the duet which is her opportunity to make a mark. M. Daszak as Aeneas I must confess was not my ideal: an absence of lyricism, a rawness at the edges, these leave Aeneas as a warrior alone, they weaken the emotional drive which I wished to present, which indeed is at the heart of my beloved Virgil. Chorus – excellent! But in all this, my friend, I speak as from my ears, rather than from my eyes – so many things puzzled me as regards the stage presentation, and I rely on you to explain these to me'.

This was the cue for a long monologue on my part. I had to explain that when you see an opera with a mythical subject where all are in more or less modern dress, which involves large models of insects or reptiles as décor, and also spasms of unnecessary running around or walking backwards, robot-style, then you know the dramaturge is Richard Jones. It is a fad of our era, I explained, much as it was necessary to bring on mounted troops in full armour or blow up a cathedral in the Paris opera productions of the 1830s and 1840s. The intention is supposed to be to remind, or shock, the audience into recognising parallels between the myth of opera and the reality of life.

'But I can understand this', exclaimed my friend. 'We keep track, where I have come from, of what is going on in your world. Of course there are eternal parallels between tragic events throughout history. I felt the assonance, for example, at the end of Act II where the Trojan women are cornered by the Greek soldiers at the top of a skyscraper-building against a big-city backdrop, and cast themselves off rather than be enslaved'.

'But M. Berlioz', I replied, 'this to me was a false assonance. To you, I appreciate, a presentation of present-day America is as fabulous, remote and mythological as Troy. To myself however, it has specific connotations which in fact work against the grain of the story you wished to tell. People throwing themselves off skyscrapers, for example, inevitably recall the terrible events of 9/11. If I am to relate this to the story of Troy, all sorts of incongruous elements then introduce themselves. Do I deduce that the Greeks are to be compared to Islamic fundamentalists? Is the Trojan Horse a symbol of weak immigration legislation? Is Cassandra a Neo-Conservative? These associations, surely not intended by the director but a consequence of inadequately thought-through values of 'relevance', dismay, distract and ultimately annoy. What is intended to be stimulating undermines the fabric of the structure'.

Dawn broke as I rambled on and my friend faded away to find, I am sure, better company. This at least meant that I had got away without having to confess to him that his master work, much as I enjoyed its music, must be regarded a failure as an opera. In truth the distractions of the production, against which I had animadverted, at least had the value of sustaining attention through some of the less-inspired stretches. We think of Berlioz as a romantic, or even as a modern, because of his unique sound-world, his harmonic invention and his extraordinary capacity for long-arched melody. But his great love was for the purity of Gluck; his music can also be placed in the now nearly-forgotten tradition of Méhul and Cherubini (whose wonderful Medée, which richly deserves a London revival, is a clear ancestor of Les Troyens); his harmony and use of modal sequences perhaps even owes something to the experimentation of Reicha.

Les Troyens is a homage to these influences and to Virgil, and although it undoubtedly on an elevated plane, it is vanilla-flavoured all the way through – even the 'comic' interlude of the two Trojan sentries enjoying the home comforts available at Carthage is stereotypically antique in style and is in any case only two or three minutes out of four and a half hours. The long stretches of dumb-show (pantomime) and ballet have in this production been entertainingly filled out with stage-business or film, but frankly they just hold up the action (of which there is not a lot) and the music involved is not always first rate. Indeed in Act IV where Berlioz borrows some of the oriental exoticism of his contemporary Félicien David, it is embarrassingly poor. In some ways, Les Troyens is the last musical throw of the spirit of the French Revolution – interesting to bear in mind that it was being composed at exactly the same time as Gounod's Faust which I recently reviewed.

When The Trojans is good, as in the moments I mentioned to M. Berlioz, it is sensational and I do not for a moment regret having seen it staged, even by Richard Jones. But I cannot alas concur with fellow-critics who seek to assure us that the opera as a whole is a gem (perhaps M. Berlioz has been lobbying at their bedsides as well?). In future I shall content myself with the excellent and ridiculously low-priced Colin Davis recording, unless some truly stellar Aeneas comes one day, matched by a Dido and a Cassandra of the quality of the ENO production, to tempt me to the opera house once more.

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Why hasn't anybody commented on this interesting article? However, I found myself having difficulty articulating what I got out of it. Nevertheless I will give it a try. I just had to write something.

In a sense I find the subject emblematic of the times, having a subject within a subject which tries to show relevance with the times. Hum, subject within a subject, sounds like a Trojan Horse analogy to me.

Prior to reading Conway's article on Berlioz's 'Trojans' I was thinking of the movie Troy which I had just seen. I was wondering if it had any social significants and relevance to today's world events. In his dream, Conway is asked by Berlioz much the same thing about his opera.

I presume there was a Trojan horse in the Opera. One can't mention Trojans without thinking of that horse. This year a number of references have been made to it with respect to something very "in your face", the Bush administration and its foreign policy. The horse symbolizes a kind of can opener that opens things up to shed light on them. It also symbolizes a betrayer. It also symbolizes something unexpected like it did in ancient Troy. I think it has played all these roles recently.

In respect to 9/11, a subject Conway brought up, I see this: A "Trojan Horse" hits the World Trade Center reveling fissures in our Civilization, revealing the inadequacies in it.

I think the Trojan Horse plays another role, a device that fights isolationism, a policy Bush was pursuing. It forced him to look outwardly and engage the world. I am just wondering, did the horse play that role in ancient Troy?

Posted by: David Airth at October 12, 2004 06:56 PM
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