14 December 2008
On one level, I find it easier than I often do to account simply for the rating I have given this set. All the orchestral work is superb, so is the recording and so is most of the vocal work, but three factors prevent me from awarding the fifth star. First and most important, Michelle DeYoung in the crucial role of Dido is much the weakest member of the cast. Her pitch is rather there-or-thereabouts and I'm not convinced either that she has quite the stature for this tragic queen of all tragic queens. In the second place the voice of Isabelle Cais is surely just not right for the boy Ascanius. Third - and here is where the issue stops being so simple - Ben Heppner is not my own idea of an exact match for Aeneas, and I shall try to explain why not.
Les Troyens in my view is opera and not music-drama in Wagner's sense. Music-drama first dawned on an astonished world with the mighty opening measures of Das Rheingold. The theme of Les Troyens is crying out for the music-drama treatment, but with its recitatives, arias, duets, ensembles, choruses and instrumental interludes it is as surely opera as anything by Berlioz's revered Gluck or even his detested Handel. This makes it difficult in the extreme for the singer cast as Aeneas to suggest his role as the agent, and indeed tool, of epic destiny when he is mainly seen as a fugitive and lover. Heppner possesses a heroic tone, but the hero he succeeds in sounding like is Radames. It is hard to avoid sounding like this as Berlioz's idiom, like Verdi's and unlike Wagner's, is lyrical even at its post powerful, but any Aeneas who sounds less of a Heldentenor than I would want to hear as Siegfried is not my Aeneas.
Another mountain that the operatic idiom gives the director and the Dido and Aeneas to climb is making the story coherent. Complete success in this matter is, I guess, impossible for any interpreters simply because Berlioz's libretto is not coherent. As I say, it demands music-drama. Treated as opera, the story of the fall of Troy requires a heroine, and Virgil has neglected to provide one, so Berlioz concocts a heroine's role around the prophetess Cassandra. This works well enough to start with, and Cassandra's interactions with her betrothed Corebus are fine and indeed excellent in their own right. This however turns them inevitably into heroine and hero, so that the late supervention of Aeneas is awkward. The listener needs to supply a good deal of background knowledge of Virgil's story, and in particular the director requires the ultimate in tact when dealing with Berlioz's attempts to keep the `Italian destiny' motif suggested somehow. This is first proclaimed by the ghost of Hector - all well and good so far, even when it is echoed by Cassandra although neither she nor Hector is likely ever to have heard of Italy. However it is in danger of descending into the downright ridiculous when the incantation `Italy' is given to a motley assortment of naiads and the god Mercury who intrude with plonking inappropriateness like touring football supporters chanting the name of their national team. In fact Davis handles the matter very delicately as you would expect, but the synopsis does not help by telling us how `Dido and Aeneas...take refuge in a cave and there acknowledge and consummate their love, while satyrs and wood-nymphs utter cries of `Italy'. I was ashamed for a moment of my own guffaws at this, but shame itself was annihilated when I turned over the page to see a most unflattering picture of Heppner making him look like Captain Mainwaring from Dad's Army, so that what was most consummated for me was my own mirth and hilarity. In fact the two principals handle their love duet very well, but if there is any totally successful way of combining Aeneas's role as lover with his fate-assigned role I did not hear it here. How much better Purcell and his librettist dealt with the whole matter using their minuscule musical resources two centuries earlier.
One thing that seems to me absolutely right in this production is that Les Troyens is treated as one work and not as two. It is not coherent as one work, but it is not coherent as two either, so give it as the composer intended. This performance lasts more or less exactly four hours, which is not much longer than Tristan and probably less than Goetterdaemmerung. Listened to simply as music it is absolutely marvellous music. Was there ever, in the whole glorious history of European music, a finer orchestrator than Berlioz? I was thrilled by the tone of the woodwind in the first bar, and I was thrilled by every department of the LSO, even by Mercury's gong, from start to finish. I should also put in a word of praise for the chorus. How much better Berlioz's choral writing, like Weber's before him, was than Wagner's. Having criticised three of the singers in varying degrees, let me now say how delighted I was by the rest of the cast. Apart from Dido and Aeneas, the biggest roles are those of Cassandra and Anna, so let the trumpets sound for Petra Lang and Sara Mingardo. I shall add, having derided the synopsis in one respect, that there is an absolutely lovely and endearing photo of Petra Lang singing her heart out. Special mention should go to the tenors Kenneth Tarber and Toby Spence as the minstrels, and I expect their heavenly songs inspired Tchaikovsky to a similar effort in Eugene Onegin.
The liner is all it should be, with the text in French and English only, and notes and synopsis by the eminent Berliozian David Cairns. Cairns finds more lofty symbolism than I do, but he might be right about that, and his notes are instinct with love of the composer. Recommended, reservations notwithstanding.