Trojans: three or is it four?

To my knowledge there are three versions of Hector Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens on DVD.

I obtained the first when it came out as a VHS tape.  It’s now available re-mastered, capturing several remarkable performances from 1983, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & chorus, conducted by James Levine, in a production by

  • Jessye Norman as Cassandra, having recently made her Met debut.
  • Tatiana Troyanos as Dido
  • Placido Domingo as Aeneas

In this version you’re watching the story more or less as written.  War may be horrible but no one connected to this production sought to over-write the text with any modern counter-discourse.  Perhaps the best evidence of this is in the exciting moment when the soldiers & sailors of Troy finally bow to the will of the gods.  We see a series of boats put to sea in a moment of great excitement, more or less as dictated by the instructions in the score.  Depending on when you ask me, i’d point to any of the three principals as the chief reason for obtaining the DVD, even with the magnificent work of the orchestra, chorus and some of Levine’s best work on record.  I especially miss Troyanos (whose untimely death is now almost 20 years ago..!), as i listen to the fabulous duet from Act IV.

I obtained the second at the suggestion of my friend James Fretz, who was singing the praises of Anna Caterina Antonacci, and whose stunning performances can be seen in two of the three links in the post I made yesterday.

My main motivation was the presence of John Eliot Gardner at the podium.  As some regular readers here will likely recall –because I am so obsessive going on and on about this—I am very impatient to see historically informed performance (HIP) venture past 1800, finally exploring the romantic period.  And so, while this production may include some HIP sounds, the staging is very modern.

How modern?  There’s at least the flavour of Regietheater in the look & feel of the Théâtre du Châtelet production from 2003, designed & directed by Yannis Kokkos, the soldiers resembling troops of our own era, although the action is not over-written. In the finale to Act I the onstage surfaces that function as mirrors create some remarkable distortions of perspective.  At times it’s as though we’re watching ghosts, because the choristers seem transparent; and of course the moment is breath-taking (see yesterday’s post).

If there’s one aspect to point to, it’s that Susan Graham’s Dido is so strong, that the title starts to feel false.  Dido is not just grief-stricken.  I wonder what’s the point of the opera if the pageant of her grief over-rides Trojan destiny, and the messages of the gods to Aeneas?  Even in the moment when they sail away, this production only seems to care about Dido: who is to be the focus of the last minutes of the opera.

Mr Fretz was of course correct to draw my attention to Antonacci, who owns Part I in one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen in any opera.  For those concerned that Susan Graham has missed some of her Met performances due to illness, here’s a chance to see and hear her remarkable interpretation of Dido.  Gregory Kunde is a solid Aeneas in a production that often had me feeling that the role can be very thankless.  Or is it because the two female stars of this production are both so very strong?

I am thrilled to have both of these recordings to document an opera I love very much.

There’s a third video I have read about in a review, conducted by Valery Gergiev; the review led me to hesitate.  Even so –given the negative remarks about the mise-en-scène—I will have to get it, just to hear what Gergiev does with this score.

This Saturday January 5th the Metropolitan Opera high-definition broadcast is Les Troyens.  Knowing the quality of the orchestra & chorus, and having heard Fabio Luisi’s brisk tempi, I am hoping that sometime thereafter there will be a fourth DVD available.

One can hope…(!)

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