Les Troyens ("The Trojans")

Opera in five acts by Hector Berlioz to his own libretto after Virgil's Aeneid. 
 

Enée [Aeneas], Trojan hero, son of Venus and Anchises tenor
Chorèbe [Coroebus], Asian prince, betrothed to Cassandra  baritone
Panthée [Panthous], Trojan priest, friend of Aeneas bass
Ascagne [Ascanius], 15-year-old son of Aeneas soprano
Cassandre [Cassandra], Trojan prophetess, Priam's daughter mezzo-soprano 
Priam, King of Troy bass
A Greek Chieftain bass
Ghost of Hector, Priam's eldest son bass
Helenus, a Trojan priest, Priam's son tenor
Two Trojan Soldiers  basses
Mercure [Mercury]  baritone/bass
A Priest of Pluto bass
Polyxène [Polyxena], Cassandra's sister  soprano
Hécube [Hecuba], Queen of Troy  soprano
Andromaque [Andromache], Hector's widow silent
Astyanax, her 8-year-old son silent
Didon [Dido], Queen of Carthage, widow of Sichée [Sychaeus] Prince of Tyre  mezzo-soprano
Anna, Dido's sister contralto 
Narbal, minister to Dido bass
Iopas Tyrian poet to Dido's court tenor
Hylas a young Phrygian sailor tenor/contralto
Trojans, Greeks, Tyrians, Carthaginians, nymphs, satyrs, fauns, sylvans, invisible spirits 
 

Berlioz was encouraged to undertake an opera on the Aeneid by Liszt's mistress, the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, during his visits to Weimar in 1855; indeed, she told him not to return if he shrank from the task. His Mémoires, compiled for the most part between 1848 and 1854, trace the lure of Virgil to the "budding imagination of his childhood. The scene of Dido on her funeral pyre was but the most vividly remembered of these epic passions for which instinct had prepared me." In his writings Berlioz often cites the Aeneid, in Latin and from memory (and often, therefore, with errors). Yet his correspondence lacks the references to compositional ferment over Les Troyens that exist for the funeral and Napoleonic works, the Shakespearian compositions and Faust. The implication is that until then he had considered Virgil too hallowed for operatic setting, especially in view of the shoddy treatment an operatic Aeneid might receive in production. In any case it was the sort of project best reserved for one's seniority.

When in 1856 he began to compose the libretto and some of the music, Berlioz had just been elected to the Institute and was enjoying the pinnacle of his success as a conductor. His domestic situation was stable at last; in 1854 he had married his mistress of 12 years, Marie Recio. His health, on the other hand, had begun its long decline: anything he wrote he might not live to see performed. Conditions favored a valediction. (In fact he lived to 1869.)

Les Troyens was essentially completed by April 1858. Berlioz devoted much of the next half-decade, unsuccessfully, to securing its production at the Opéra. But he was unable to attract the patronage of Napoléon III, who was more interested in Tannhãuser. Even the three acts staged as Les Troyens à Carthage at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1863 lasted unadulterated but a single night, following which number after number was trimmed away, beginning with the "Royal Hunt and Storm." Transmission of the source materials was compromised accordingly. Only 15 copies of the complete vocal score were made--at the composer's expense-- before the mutilations began.

In successive generations Les Troyens circulated in the flawed, misordered and incomplete vocal scores of La Prise de Troie and Les Troyens à Carthage published by Choudens in conjunction with the 1863 production. In his will of 29 July 1867 Berlioz complained bitterly of Choudens's unmet contractual obligation to engrave the full score (and that of Benvenuto Cellini), but left to his executors the responsibility of seeing that it "be published without cuts, without modifications, without the least suppression of the text--in sum, exactly as it stands." The firm was subsequently enjoined by lawsuit to meet the provisions of the contract. Full scores of La Prise de Troie and Les Troyens à Carthage, along with orchestral parts and an improved vocal score, appeared in the late 1880s. Of these only the vocal score was offered for sale, access to the more significant sources being limited to short-term hire.

Such chaos inevitably meant the slow assimilation of Les Troyens into the canon of the century's great operas. A more or less complete version was presented in Karlsruhe in December 1890 under Felix Mottl and elsewhere in Germany in the decade following; shortened versions began to be presented in Paris in 1921. Momentum towards a serious performance tradition for Les Troyens was established by the 1957 Covent Garden production under Rafael Kubelik, an event which in many respects fostered the renaissance in Berlioz studies of the 1960s. The Berlioz centennial year, 1969, saw the publication of a definitive score, a new production at Covent Garden and the release of a now famous recording, part of the Colin Davis Berlioz cycle. The 1983 production at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, was televised nationally and issued as a video. In March 1990 a Les Troyens billed as "intégrale," but in fact lacking the ballets, opened the new Opéra Bastille in Paris.

SYNOPSIS

Act I. Troy. The site of the former Greek encampment on the Trojan plain. The Greeks have lifted their siege of ten years, and the Trojans rejoice near the tomb of the Greek hero Achilles, discovering on the plain the debris of battle and, offstage, the enormous wooden horse that has been left behind. Three shepherds perched on the tomb play their "antique flutes" (the same as the "flutes of Dindymus" called for elsewhere in the score), their recurring motif rendered by the orchestral oboes. There has been no overture, and the accompaniment of the first scene is primarily for winds; the full string choir is delayed for Cassandra's entry. Alone, she is agitated by dark premonitions; she has seen the ghost of Hector wandering the ramparts of Troy. Neither King Priam nor the Trojan people, she complains in her aria "Malheureux roi!", will heed her warnings of the disaster to befall that very night. Even her suitor Coroebus thinks she has lost her reason. His tender cavatina implores her to abandon her visions of catastrophe and return to her senses, but to no avail. Nor is she able, in their frantic duet, to convince him that he should flee the city. Instead she gives Coroebus her hand and the chaste kiss of a bride. Death will prepare their nuptial bed.

A march and solemn hymn of thanksgiving for the end of the war signal the processional entry of the Trojan court. The wrestling and games that follow are interrupted by the appearance of Hector's widow, Andromache, and their son, Astyanax, each dressed in the white mourning costume of Trojan tradition. A dolorous clarinet solo accompanies their mute progress downstage. Astyanax, heir to the throne of Troy, lays a basket of flowers at the altar as his mother kneels and prays; she then presents the frightened child to Priam and Hecuba. Andromache, overcome with emotion, lowers her veil to hide her tears. The crowd parts before them and, as they disappear, murmurs a mournful sigh. Descended in spirit from the trombone invocation of the Symphonie funèbre and the concluding bars of the Marche funèbre pour la dernière scène d'Hamlet, this pantomime is one of Berlioz's most ravishing passages.

Aeneas bursts in with news of Laocoon's death. (This is an error of stagecraft: Aeneas had already entered during the processional march and hymn.) Laocoon, having hurled his javelin into the horse and exhorted the Trojans to set it afire, was set upon and devoured live by two monstrous sea-serpents. The horrified company reacts in a majestic fugal octet and double chorus: such awful chastisement of Laocoon, a priest, is taken to be the vengeance of Pallas, to whom it is now imagined the Greeks must have offered the horse as an act of contrition. Priam and Aeneas, to beg pardon of the goddess for Laocoon's sacrilege, order the huge idol to be brought through the city gates to the Palladium. Cassandra weeps at the thought of her proud nation charging mindlessly towards its destruction. In the distance begins the Trojan march, sacred hymn of Ilium; the cortège eventually reaches the stage, but in neither Berlioz's libretto nor the autograph score is there an indication that the horse is seen by the audience. Suddenly there is confusion: the rattle of arms is heard inside the horse. But the people regard this as a good omen, and the helpless Cassandra at length follows the procession into Troy-- there, she knows, to die in its ruins.

Act II. Troy. A room in the palace of Aeneas. Aeneas has fallen asleep in his armor. Ascanius, terrified by the sounds of battle, hurries towards his father, but when the din subsides he is embarrassed to wake him and runs away. Out of the darkness materializes the bloody and disheveled ghost of Hector. The collapse of a building rouses Aeneas. In cadaverous recitative Hector announces that the Greeks have taken the walls of Troy and begun to bum the city. To Aeneas are entrusted his nation's children and sacred idols; in Italy, after long wanderings at sea, he will establish a mighty empire and die a hero's death. Panthous brings the idols, and he and Aeneas are soon joined by Ascanius, Colobus and their warriors. Together they go off to defend the citadel protecting Priam's palace.

Scene 2 A gallery in the palace The sack of Troy is under way. The Trojan women pray before the sacred flame of Vesta-Cybele, their incantations penetrated from time to time by the trumpets of encroaching battle. Aeneas, Cassandra tells them, has liberated those trapped at the citadel and taken Priam's treasure; his force is marching towards Mount Ida, called by destiny to Italy, the new Troy. Coroebus has been killed. When the women cry that nothing can save them from the Grecian rape, Cassandra proffers her dagger and indicates as similar instruments of suicide the silken belts of their garments and a parapet over the square. The women take lyres and begin an ecstatic hymn, "Complices de sa gloire"; a few cowards are driven away in shame. Cassandra, too, takes a lyre, and it is during this awesome bacchanale that Greek soldiers enter to demand the treasure. Scorning them, Cassandra stabs herself and Polyxena follows suit. As the Greeks discover that Aeneas and his band have escaped with the treasure, the women turn towards Mount Ida and salute the retreating Trojans with the prophetic "Italy! Italy!" Some leap from the parapet, others stab themselves or draw the silken belts around their necks. Cassandra, unable to reach the parapet, falls dead on the last cry of "Italy!"

Act III. Carthage. Dido's throne-room at Carthage The Carthaginians celebrate the return of good weather and sunshine after a violent tempest. Dido and her retinue arrive during the Carthaginian national anthem, her subjects waving palm fronds and tossing flowers toward their queen. In her recitative and aria we learn that seven years have passed since Dido fled with her people from Tyre and the tyrant who murdered her husband. Now their city flourishes, but they must prepare for war, for the arrogant Numidian Iarbas seeks to impose marriage on her. The multitude, aroused, vow to drive the Numidians back to the desert. Dido, however, has commanded this festival to celebrate the works of peace, and builders, sailors and farmers come forward to receive gifts. Resolved to become military heroes, they leave Dido and Anna to themselves.

In their duet Dido confesses to feelings of uneasiness she cannot understand. Anna, sensing the issue at hand, assures her she will again be loved and suggests that Carthage needs a king. But Dido's marriage vows require her fidelity to the memory of Sychaeus, whose ring remains on her finger. Iopas interrupts them to announce that representatives of an unidentified fleet, driven toward Carthage during the recent storm, seek an audience. Dido bids them welcome. The Trojan March, now in the minor mode, accompanies the entry of Ascanius, Panthous and the Trojan chieftains. Among them is Aeneas, disguised as a sailor. In exchange for shelter Ascanius brings Dido tribute: Iliona's scepter, Hecuba's crown, Helen's veil--proof that they are Trojans.

Dido instructs the youth to assure Aeneas that his band may take refuge in her city. But the promised repose must wait, for the Numidian invasion has begun. The Carthaginians, though valorous, are short of weapons, and the odds are against them. Aeneas, casting off his cloak, identifies himself and offers his men and arms to Carthage. Dido is smitten at once by this legendary hero, now dazzling in his tunic and breastplate. Pausing to embrace Ascanius and entrust him to Dido's care, Aeneas summons the new allies to battle. The Carthaginians trade their scythes and slings for Trojan armament as the curtain falls.

Act IV. A forest near Carthage In the Royal Hunt and Storm, a ballet-pantomime, water nymphs dart about the pool, and then are frightened by sounds of the hunt. Hunters enter with their dogs, but disperse when a storm gathers; their calls echo through the forest. Dido, dressed as Diana the huntress, and Aeneas enter on foot and take refuge in a cave. In the tumult one can distinguish voices and then cries of "Italy! Italy!" The stream overflows and waterfalls form, a tree is struck by lightning and catches fire. The storm abates. The clouds disperse.

Scene 2. Dido's garden on the shore Since the defeat of the Numidians, Narbal observes, Dido has neglected the enterprises of her kingdom in favor of hunting and feasting. The Trojans, moreover, stay on. Anna responds that in conflicts between destiny and the heart the greater of the gods is Love. Narbal's fears of impending disaster contrasted with Anna's delight in the state of things come together in a typically Berliozian réunion des thèmes. As the orchestral winds play a restrained version of the national anthem over unsettling figuration in the violins, Dido takes her seat for the evening's divertissement by Egyptian girls, slaves and Nubian slave women. Unimpressed, she reclines on her couch and directs Iopas to sing a simple song of the fields.

Dido's anxieties are unrelieved, and she turns to Aeneas, asking him to finish his sad tale of the miseries of Troy and to tell her the fate of the beautiful Andromache. Andromache, he begins, was taken in slavery by Pyrrhus, but at length succumbed to her captor and married him. Startled by this precedent at remarriage, Dido senses circumstance conspiring to make her abandon her grief for her late husband. Here begins the great quintet: Ascanius, leaning against his bow like a statue of Cupid, draws the wedding ring from Dido's finger as Anna, Iopas and Narbal look on. Aeneas, rising, Tums Dido's attention from melancholy stories to the enchanted Mediterranean night, and in following him she leaves the ring behind on the couch. A shimmering, palpitating magic settles over the scene. During the nocturne for septet and chorus, "Tout n'est que paix et charme autour de nous," the company slips away. In the celebrated love duet, "Nuit d'ivresse," Dido and Aeneas compare their love to other epic passions in the same terms as Jessica and Lorenzo in Act V of The Merchant of Venice. Toward the end they retire, arm in arm, their last refrain heard from the wings. Suddenly Mercury appears in a ray of moonlight, crosses to the column where Aeneas's breastplate hangs, and strikes it with his caduceus. Stretching his arm towards the sea, he intones the now familiar and suddenly urgent "Italy! Italy! Italy!", and vanishes.

Act V. Carthage. The Trojan camp at the harbor. It is night. While two sentinels patrol the shore, the Phrygian youth Hylas sings wistfully of the homeland to which he will never return. Panthous and the Trojan captains, preparing to leave, note the parallels with that fatal night in Troy: once again the ghost of Hector has been seen, now followed by a retinue of shades. A ghostly chorus of "Italy! Italy! Italy!" sends them hurrying into their tents. The sentries continue their watch, grumbling to each other at having to leave Carthage for the boredom of the sea. They withdraw before Aeneas, who in his single extended recitative and aria, "Inutiles regrets," determines to postpone his sacred mission long enough to exchange a last, supreme adieu with his beloved queen. But when the ghosts of Priam, Coroebus, Hector, and Cassandra command him to delay no longer, he wakes the Trojans and hurries them to their ships to embark before daybreak. He directs a terse but noble farewell toward the palace, then turns to answer his destiny. A thunderstorm rises as the ships begin to love. In the confusion Dido rushes frantically onstage, powerless to arrest this sudden and, to her, inexplicable turn of events. Over strains of the Trojan March she curses Aeneas and the Trojan gods, then leaves. From Aeneas and the Trojans comes a last, lusty chorus, "Italy! Italy! Italy!"

Scene 2. A room in Dido's palace at dawn. Some of the vessels have reached the high sea. Dido's first thought is of sending Anna and Narbal to beg Aeneas to grant her a few days more; then, enraged, she gives the futile order to pursue and burn his ships. Finally she dismisses her attendants, telling them to construct a pyre on which the hateful souvenirs of their love might melt in flames. In her monologue, "Je vais mourir," she resolves to die as well. She bids adieu to her proud city, to Anna, to Africa, the music and text momentarily recalling the love duet.

Scene 3. The palace gardens. A pyre has been erected; on its platform are a bust of Aeneas, his toga, helmet and sword, and the bed he had shared with Dido. The priests of Pluto enter with Narbal and Anna, who, in the ritual of sacrifice, loosens Dido's hair and removes her left shoe. Dido climbs to the platform and throws Aeneas's toga and her own veil--symbols of an unhappy love--onto the bundles of wood, but at the sight of Aeneas's armor swoons on the bed. With the prophetic gifts of those about to meet their death, she foresees her memory avenged by the Carthaginian hero Hannibal. Thereupon she draws Aeneas's sword from the scabbard and stabs herself. She rises three times, now seeing all too clearly Carthage vanquished by eternal Rome. At the moment of her death the people curse Aeneas and his race, but the music is that of the Trojan March and in the distance one perceives an apotheosis: at the Roman Capitol victorious legions pass in review before the emperor, his poets and his artists.

Berlioz intended from the beginning that Les Troyens should be on an epic scale, but he was equally determined to limit its length to four and a half hours. In its duration, therefore, the opera is not especially unusual. The question of length did, however, lead Berlioz to adopt the short and rather abrupt finale that replaces the more ambitious tableau he had originally written. Les Troyens is technically speaking a number opera, yet within the scenes the advance of the long, intricate story is aggressive and seldom interrupted. Berlioz crafts the seams between the movements with particular finesse, often using shifts of tonality (for instance, the rise from F to G-flat between the septet and love duet) and texture (the sudden a cappella fugue for "Chatiment effroyable") to articulate new turns of dramatic intent. And while Les Troyens has strong roots in past operatic practice, Berlioz is less interested in traditional recitative and aria than in freer structures such as monologue, scene and pantomime. Dialogue and narrative often seem to be set down over primarily orchestral movements: the sentinels' march in act V, for example, and much of the cérémonie funèbre, a dirge with mournful winds. The prominent role the orchestra can play in establishing imagery had, of course, been a lesson of the dramatic symphonies; in some respects Berlioz's practice is not so different from Wagner's of the same period.

Orchestral commentary enriches the dramatic impact of Les Troyens at every turn. One of its threads is the kind of thematic recall common in Romantic music: the frequent allusion to, and transformation of, the Trojan March, for example, or the surging string figures that convey Cassandra's distress, or the semitone oscillations of the flutes of Dindymus (recalled, from the opening scene, in both the finale of act I and the Royal Hunt and Storm). In the closing bars of act III, conversely, Berlioz foreshadows the opening of the Hunt and Storm. Orchestral representations of heartbeats, sighs and other agitations of the spirit are as typical of Les Troyens as of the Fantastique and Faust. Stopped horns and ghostly string harmonics evoke the supernatural world. In the Hunt and Storm virtually every stage action has an orchestral equivalence, and here, too, occurs a mixture of mythical, sexual and atmospheric symbolism that shows Berlioz's Romanticism at its most vivid.

In short, Berlioz's understanding of sonority as a poetic device is profound, beginning with the choice of the mezzo-soprano voice for each of the heroines.

The clarinet solo for the pantomime of Andromache and Astyanax is of wrenching loneliness, as is the two-bar reference to it when, in act III, Ascanius begins to weep while bidding his father farewell; of similar impact is the singular appearance of the bass clarinet during the funeral ceremony for Dido. Percussion, oboes, and harps approximate what Berlioz understood to be the sounds of classical antiquity. Antiphonal and offstage effects lace the work and lend it its epic size; of these the most substantial is in the finale of act I, with its three offstage bands placed to suggest the long, slow approach of the Trojan Horse. The orchestra is typical of the large Berlioz force, with piccolos, English horn, four bassoons, trumpets and piston cornets, a half-dozen or more harps, and another two dozen players off stage--and, of course, the immense chorus. Yet, as in the Requiem, the full complement is summoned only now and again: it is in the division and permutation of his legions that Berlioz most revels.

A central tenet of his artistic creed was that the union of music and poetry held incomparably greater power than either art alone. In writing his own libretto, he gave himself the freedom to perfect both the story and the lyrics as part of the compositional process. (The poetry, though passé for the 1860s, is always serviceable and often lovely, and both writing it and setting it certainly stimulated his imagination more than anything a professional librettist had ever provided for him.) By Les Troyens he had become a master of design, imagery and multi-dimensional architecture, and what resulted from his particular sense of the composer as hero was a marked solidarity of overall structure. It is not just Aeneas who elides Cassandra's world and Dido's, but the Trojan March, the chorus, the ghosts and the gods--too much, in short, for Les Troyens to survive being divided in two. Les Troyens à Carthage was after all a compromise, accepted as a necessity by a composer who imagined his weeks to be numbered; La Prise de Troie was never more than a title of convenience. To imagine Les Troyens as a succession of two self-contained operas is not merely to embrace a historical accident but to miss the opera's point.