If you took Latin in school, you are probably sick of Virgil and his pugnacious warriors. Endless lines of poetry that doesn't rhyme about places long gone. And despite more blood and guts than "Django Unchained" and "Les Miserables" combined, it was dashed through the artlessness of translation and intensely disinterested teachers and their disenchanted children.
But fast forward 40 years and Virgil's "The Aeneid" might be revealed: a Latin reply to the Greek "The Iliad" a thousand years earlier. Completed in 19 BC, the poem begins from the Iliads closing point, the fall of Troy, and tells the story of the Hero Aeneas, ordered by the Gods to flee from Troy (you remember: the Trojan Horse? That's where it starts), he does so with the promise of a Heroic death. We won't get to see Aenieas get his death, it will happen in Italy where Aeneas' ancestors will build Rome.
So this is all very birth of Western civilization stuff.
Seen from a distance of 2000 years, something else becomes clear. It is also about the suicide of the Gods by the One God. The Gods, Jupiter paramount among the, have sent Aeneas to found Rome, but it is through the Holy Roman Empire that Christianity became the dominant religion of the West. By meddling in the affairs of men, the Roman Gods destroyed themselves.
Fast forward 1800 years and composer Hector Berlioz is strugglling to make a living during the July Monarchy of France, essentially the result of the Battle the Republicans lost but war they won that ended Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables". Anyway, the young Monarchy was obsessed with historic opera and Berlioz's huge orchestrated works were not popular. Not least because Berlioz made his money as the equivalent of a rock critic, and the Opera Establishment didn't like his caustic views.
Bu Berlioz wanted to write a great opera, one that tied together his Italophilia, his love of Shakespeare, his admiration for Virgil, and his gift at conducting huge orchestras. It would become "Les Troyens", a five hour Epic Opera, never performed completely in his lifetime (they knocked off the first two acts) but debatably Berlioz's greatest achievement.
Fast forward an additional 150 years and you will find me bolted to my chair at the Met on the last Saturday of 2012 for hours on end. And to add insult to serious culture shock, the lead singer Susan Granger, is out sick. Berlioz's five act opera excels at orchestration; the individual instruments that carry a huge chorus, is a thing of extreme beauty. But with exceptions, the individual Arias could be a lot more, how you say, catchy.
The first Two Acts follow the fall of Troy, as Cassandra, a Seer and the daughter of the King, warn her people about their impending doom, not unlike Marlon Brando in the first Superman movie, and her people go about praising the Gods and ignoring her. Remember that old ruse about bewareing of Greeks bearing Gifts? The Greeks have left Troy in the middle of the battle but left behind a wooden Horse… the rest is pre-history. Deborah Voight, the German Soprano, is pretty good as Cassandra though nothing that spectacular and the music is one long dread and drear. Though no worse for that. The second act ends with the Trojan Women committing mass suicide and Aeneas sailing off to ITALY.
The lighing had been dark and dubious during the first two acts but act three opens in brightness and all the people wear white tunics and pants. The widowed Queen Of Carthage Dido rescues Aeneas and his soldiers from a shipwreck off her shore. At this point I should note that Elizabeth Bishop replaced Susan Graham as Dido and Bryan Hemel replaced Marcello Giordani as Aeneas. So with the two leads of the last three acts on shore leave, I though the two stand-ins were fine. Especially Mezzo-Soprano Bishop, who performed the, to put it mildly, taxing role with feeling, and tenderness and a truly lovely voice.
Dido and Aeneas fall in love but the Gods call him back to his journey to Rome and a Heroic death and Dido kills herself in despair and humilation. The last three acts include the best and the worst of the production. An interminable ballet at the top of the 4th Act had the audience sleeping but it was followed by a good ballad and then undoubtedly the performance highlight, a "pas de deux" on "Night Of Infinite Ecstasy" (which starts with a verbal lift from Shakespeare's "A Merchant Of Venice") is so beautiful you never want it to end.
The Opera concludes with Dido, dying from a self-inflicted wound, has a vision of the future: "ROME IMMORTAL" she sings.
"Les Troyens' is the story of fate and suicide. Cassandra's lover won't listen to her warnings and kills himself, the Trojan women kill themselves, Aeneas is in pursuit of his heroic death, Dido kills herself, and the Gods themselves kill themselves. It is the birthing of not simply Rome and Western Civilization but of modern theology and the One God. It is about the end of the Old Times. This is what Epic means. This hugeness.
But was it any good?
It had its moments, and from the middle of the 4th Act to the end of the 5th it is very exciting. It is a great Opera and the passions are big, and they are big for a reason. But this production dragged for long periods of time and none of the leads were not particularly good. Still, if you have a serious interest in modern music, this is an important building block whose influence was felt for a generation and changed Opera, bringing it into modern times.
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