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Friday, October 19, 2018

Recordings Review: A Horse With No Name

John Nelson's new Les Troyens is a modern classic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Can they all fit inside the horse? John Nelsons and his chorus, orchestra and soloists record Les Troyens.
Photo from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg © 2018 Erato/WBC
Hector Berlioz' Les Troyens remains the composer's greatest achievement, although the composer never lived to see a complete performance of the work.  With serious problems of length, casting and staging, it was not until 1921 that Les Troyens was staged complete, as intended, in five acts in a long, single evening.  This live in concert recording by John Nelson and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg brings new life and vitality to this mammoth and misunderstood masterpiece.

This is opera on the grandest scale: a massive re-telling of two books of Virgil's epic poem  The Aeneid. Berlioz divided the story into two large parts. La prise de Troie presents the arrival of the Trojan Horse, the prophecies of Cassandre and the sacking and burning of Troy. The second (premiered in 1863 as Les Troyens à Carthage) chronicles the arrival of the exiled Trojans in that city and the ill-fated affair between their leader Enée and Queen Didon, which ends in his departure (to go found the city of Rome) and her dramatic suicide.

The casting demands are fearsome. The most challenging role is Énée himself, who has to sing (and prominently) in all five acts. Michael Spyres has the right voice on this recording, with a sweet middle, a ringing top and heroic weight without nasality or "bark." Mr. Spyres also does more than sing the part. He acts the tragic arc of the character with his instrument, veering from the terror of the Act II scene with the Ghost of Hector (an impressive Jean Teitgen) to the bloom of love with Didon and a real reluctance at meeting the fate that has been laid out by forces he cannot control.

Cassandre requires a full-throated dramatic soprano to portray the wild-eyed prophetess. Marie‑Nicole Lemieux's performance is appropriately insane, but at the same time anchored by a tragic weight that never turns into schlock. Her denunciations of the Horse and (ignored) prophecies in the first act are outdone only by the tremendous scene where she leads the Trojan priestesses in mass suicide: the apocalyptic ending of the second act. Thanks to Mr. Nelson's fiery conducting you can practically hear the bodies hit the floor.

Joyce DiDonato may seem an unlikely choice for Didon, but the American mezzo has been steadily working her way into heavier repertory. These performances marked the debut of this role for the artist. Her silver-toned instrument is perfect for the third and fourth acts, conveying the regal quality of the character and the blossom of her affair with Énée. The "Nuit d’ivresse" duet with Mr. Spyres is central to the part, as the two singers fall into bliss in a passage that stops time for the listener. With Mr. Nelson's help, the singers succeed. Her death scene calls for new resources from the artist, and she responds with full-blooded tone and a kind of glacial calm that is all the more moving for its dignity and sense of resignation.

As demanding as these three leading roles are, there is more needed to make a successful Troyens. The rounded and mellifluous baritone of Stéphane Degout is ideal for Chorèbe. He has the unlucky task of trying to calm Cassandre in the face of prophetic doom, and holds his vocal ground in the pair's big Act I duet. This passage also underlines Berlioz' particular skill for blending voices as he did instruments, using the singers to orchestrate in a particular way that was avant-garde for French opera. Other supporting parts are taken seriously and well cast, notably the tenor Stanislas de Barbyrac as the homesick sailor Hylas and Marianna Crebassa as Ascagne.

Finally, Berlioz calls for throngs of choristers to play terrified Trojans and less terrified but numerous Carthagininas. These are drawn from three companies: the Opéra National du Rhin, the Staatstheater Karlsruhe and the Choeur de l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg. They sing the complex parts with evidence of careful preparation and a total lack of fear. The orchestra, replete with the little details that Berlioz demanded in the pages of his score, plays in an inspired fashion over the very long evening, and takes center stage in the Act IV Royal Hunt and Storm ballet.

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