It’s a testament to what might have been, this CD I’m reviewing, a relic to be sure. In 1960 the stars didn’t quite align, wouldn’t permit the recording that was intended, Sir Thomas Beecham engaged to conduct Hector Berlioz’s mammoth Les Troyens in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC: but it was not meant to be.
The complete Les Troyens wasn’t heard in the composer’s lifetime, a larger than life work I’d dearly love to see undertaken here in Toronto by the Canadian Opera Company. It might be ideal for the COC, with lots of big moments from the orchestra & chorus, although one does have to recruit at least one spectacular tenor soloist for the role of Aenée, and such a long work would be expensive to prepare. That won’t stop me from dreaming of Berlioz’s orchestral colours.
The CD is conducted by Robert Lawrence, a noted Berlioz champion & scholar: or so say the liner notes. He’s not the reason I obtained it, as the soloists on the cover were the reason I was attracted, after seeing the recording mentioned by a friend on social media. But reading the liner notes I realize what might have been, that didn’t quite come to fruition.
The recording is actually from two different days, as Beecham’s plan was to honour Berlioz’s original division of the work into two different works, namely La prise de Troie and Les Troyens à Carthage. The recording captures two concerts roughly two weeks apart.
Oh well, no Beecham. But I bought it for three key parts:
- Aenée, sung by tenor Richard Cassilly
- Didon, sung by mezzo-soprano Regina Resnik
- Cassandre, sung by Eleanor Steber
The detailed account in the liner notes of the event in New York at the end of 1959 and to begin 1960 makes for a tale as epic as the one in the storyline. Can the notes be believed? While it says the work was to be presented with few cuts, in fact there’s a lot missing from the 3 CD set. Three CDs? Yes, the ballet has mostly been cut. The Dutoit –OSM recording for example is more than three quarters of an hour longer, on 4 CDs not 3. I am having a great time listening to the wonderful singing on this new recording: but the opera has been distorted. If for example we’re missing the celebratory ballet in the First Act –after the dark procession, to open the 2nd scene and just before the overwhelming sadness in the pantomime of Hector’s son & widow: it’s continuously dark for most of the act as we’re then on to Cassandre’s desperate ranting just before the horse is brought into the city. Here’s an example of what we’re missing (from another recording), one of those cheerful Berlioz divertissements.
No question, ballet sequences like this one make the opera longer: but they’re an essential part of the whole.
But I bought the CD hoping for great singing. I heard Richard Cassilly sing a powerful Siegmund in the Canadian Opera Company’s Die Walküre in 1976, a singer who was a regular with the COC in the decade before. I remembered the timbre of his voice very clearly, and eagerly wondered: what could he sound like in his youth? Surely even better. This CD answers the question. The edge and ring are remarkable. He mostly sings on pitch, in one of the most difficult roles. The live performance does undermine a few moments, as for example in Cassilly’s entrance for “inutile regrets”, when his first word is almost inaudible, possibly because he is entering. Or maybe the engineer simply messed up and had the microphone level too low? But live means dramatic, and I wouldn’t trade that for studio perfection. His voice rings wonderfully even though he can’t reach the C in that final big aria.
The two female leads are also interesting to hear. Steber’s Cassandre suffers from a grasp of the language that is mediocre. Even so her vocalism is passionate, at times so dark as to sound almost painful in its intensity.
Resnik’s Didon is the most successful characterization on the recording, precisely sung and in tune. Her final half-hour is devastatingly powerful, her heart-break showing more genuine anger than any Didon I’ve heard. Once Aenée has gone –at her insistence—she shows another side, a sadder tone and a nostalgic love that must lead her to take her own life. The characterization hangs together wonderfully well. And I keep listening to her duet with Cassilly to close the fourth act, a wonderfully musical reading.
While Beecham didn’t participate his hand is still evident on the tiller. The sound of this orchestra is deliciously full, the brass totally in your face. Speaking of orchestras, it’s very vague on the notes as to what orchestra we’re hearing. There’s no orchestra mentioned in any of the usual places, although when you pore through the booklet you see one indirect mention of them, as it says “Robert Lawrence, critic, author, musicologist, and associate conductor of the American Opera Society, would step in.” Earlier we see that these concerts are being presented by the American Opera Society. Can one conclude that this is their orchestra? Perhaps: but it’s totally undignified considering they the biggest contributors to this massive piece are never actually named, never credited; and ditto for the chorus. Presumably they too are from the American Opera Society. Too bad they’re not mentioned by name.
The bits of Beecham I’ve heard on youtube suggest that the substitution weakens the performance. Lawrence is a bit too respectful, at times dragging the piece and much slower than what I hear from Beecham’s 1947 recording. In the big procession of the horse to conclude Act I –one of my favourite moments—Lawrence commits an unpardonable sin, mistaking this music for something symphonic rather than diegetic. When a huge procession marches and comes to a big climax, to broaden the tempo and slow down for a musical effect makes it clear: you’re in a concert and not in a real procession. You wouldn’t do this in a real march. But the orchestral sound is remarkable, big and powerful even if it’s mono. For the key vocal ensembles, Lawrence and the orchestra sound just fine, Berlioz being well served.
So let me be clear. Les Troyens is one of my favourite operas. As I’m eternally hungry to hear different interpretations of this music, I found it fascinating. But unless you’re a rabid Berlioz fan like me, or perhaps a fervent admirer of Resnik, I can’t in good conscience recommend this recording, not when there are other versions available that give a better account of the score, and with better sound.