By Alan Schuster
A preview of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” by The MET Opera: Live at the USCB Center for the Arts, Saturday, Dec. 1, Jan 5, at noon.
In more than 400 years of opera history, “grand opera” only came to intelligent life in France around 1830 with Rossini’s hugely successful “William Tell.” After 1850, the only other enduring classic was Verdi’s masterpiece “Don Carlo” in 1867. Clearly, the cause of the “grand” decline was not the fault of the music, but rather the enormous costs to produce them. The staging is often prodigious, with frequent changes of scenes, large casts, orchestras, choruses, and of course, dancers.
It was in 1856 that Hector Berlioz, the finest French composer of the time, began writing his most ambitious work, “Les Troyens”, based on Virgil’s epic poem, “The Aeneid.” When it was finished two years later, his “grand” ideals were so great that no impresario would undertake such a costly challenge. Eventually, his five acts were divided into two separate performances — Troy and Carthage — and he died before ever seeing it performed in its entirety. It wasn’t until 1969 that the first complete performance of the work — as Berlioz had conceived it — took place at London’s Covent Garden.
Now it’s 2013 and the Met is going global with Berlioz’s masterpiece, and precisely the way he wanted it staged. A cast of more than 30 voices will be heard in this HD production. Singing the lead roles will be Deborah Voigt as Cassandre, Susan Graham as Didon and Marcello Giordano as Enee.
Location: The city of Troy
Act I: It’s all about the horse! After 10 years of war against the Greeks, the Trojans are celebrating its end, and presuming that an enormous wooden horse outside their gates is a gift of peace from their rivals. But the prophetess Cassandre is suspicious and warns of disastrous consequences for Troy. When King Priam allows it to be brought within the city, she resigns herself to her death.
Act II: Greek soldiers have begun to sack Troy. Enee, a Trojan warrior, is visited by the ghost of Hector who urges him to flee to Italy, where he will build a new empire. Chorebe, a military commander, convinces Enee to stay and defend the city. Later at the palace, Trojan women are praying for deliverance. Cassandre tells them that Chorebe is dead, but that Enee will lead the others in their escape to Italy. With the situation seemingly hopeless for the women, she asks them to join her in death. Greek soldiers enter, demanding the Trojan treasure. Cassandre misleads them, and then stabs herself with a sword. The others, to the horror of the soldiers, commit mass suicide while Enee and his men escape with the treasure.
Location: The city of Carthage
Act III: It’s all about Italy! The Carthaginians and Queen Didon are celebrating seven years of peace since fleeing from Troy. After the revelry she learns that an unknown fleet has arrived in port. She welcomes them, and is presented the treasure of Troy and then told of their destiny to found a new city in Italy. During this time, Enee is in disguise as an ordinary sailor. When Didon hears that the Numidian king has surrounded Carthage with his army, Enee reveals himself and pledges to join Didon’s troops in the battle against their enemy.
Act IV: At a royal hunt after their victory, Didon and Enee have been separated from the party at which time they discover their love for each other. In the following scene, Didon, distracted by her love for Enee, has convinced her courtiers that Carthage might be in better hands with him as their king. But since Enee’s destiny is to be in Italy, they hesitate to act. Alone together once again, the lovers are visited by the god Mercury who defiantly faces Enee and, striking his shield, calls out three times, “Italy!”
Act V: Trojan officers are becoming impatient at their delay in sailing for Italy, causing Enee to express his despair at having to decide between leaving or staying with the woman he loves. He chooses to leave, and when Didon hears of this, she places a curse on him. Later, as the Trojans secretly set sail for Italy, Didon orders her fleet to give chase and destroy their ships. Angered and in despair, she decides to offer a sacrifice in which she will destroy the Trojan’s gifts and then kill herself.
A sacrificial pyre dominates the final scene as Didon approaches it. Regretting her unhappy love, she stabs herself, after which she sees a vision in which Carthage is destroyed. As she falls dead, the Carthaginians utter one final curse on Enee and his people for abandoning them.
It’s all about the music! In historian Leslie Orrey’s words, “It is brimful of Berlioz’s own especial genius, and for those who have been privileged to see it, it remains a cherished dramatic experience.”
IF YOU GO: Please note that this performance will end around 5 p.m. But it begins at noon.Tickets: Adults $20; OLLI members $16; Students under 18, $10. All seats are assigned and the box office opens at USCB Center for the Arts one hour prior to the noon curtain time, or call 521-4145.