sat 02/03/2024

Prom 64: Les Troyens, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sousa review - ravishing interpretation of Berlioz's masterpiece | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 64: Les Troyens, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sousa review - ravishing interpretation of Berlioz's masterpiece

Prom 64: Les Troyens, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Sousa review - ravishing interpretation of Berlioz's masterpiece

A stunning reminder of how relevant the opera’s themes remain today

An epic celebration of strong women: Alice Coote as Cassandra with the Women of TroyAndy Paradise

It’s one of the great tragedies of Les Troyens that its composer never got to hear it performed in its entirety during his lifetime. This ravishing, big-hearted interpretation of the two of the most dramatic episodes in Virgil’s Aeneid was dismissed by orchestras that could not comprehend its technical or emotional demands, with the consequence that there was no attempt at a proper staging till 21 years after Berlioz's death.

Last night’s astonishing performance of Berlioz's masterpiece by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir conducted by Dinis Sousa (pictured below) in a semi-staged version – was simultaneously a vindication of the composer’s vision and a stunning reminder of how relevant the opera’s themes remain today. In our war-torn world, where the political fates of countries are increasingly determined by patterns of migration, this story of violence, ambition, and the struggle for dignity in exile blazes as vividly as it ever did in the ancient imagination. Dinis SouzaBerlioz, like both Homer and Virgil, fixed on key episodes to refract the entirety of the 10-year Trojan war, and the evening opened with an eruption of joy as the Trojans celebrated the apparent retreat of the Greeks. The composer’s evocative French libretto ­– which, in the one slightly misjudged element of the evening had strikingly different translations in the booklet given to audience members and the surtitles – made us all eye-witnesses as they surrounded Achilles’ empty tent or seized on abandoned pieces of armour.

One of the interesting back-stories of The Trojans is that Berlioz wrote it at the instigation of a powerful woman – Princess Wittgenstein, also a supporter of Liszt, who declared to Berlioz that if he shrank from “the hardships that [writing the opera] is bound to cause you…I do not want to see you ever again”. While it would be anachronistic to call the composer a feminist, he certainly demonstrates an empathy and understanding for the pressures that powerful women faced, taking the female characters in the Aeneid and making their stories even more compelling and full-blooded than they are in the original. Chorus and Orchestra in Proms TroyensMezzo-soprano Alice Coote – who at last year’s Proms gave a magnetic interpretation of the role of Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas ­– here took on the role of Cassandra, the prophet who in Greek mythology was famously cursed by Apollo to make predictions that no-one believed. Where both in Greek tragedy and the Aeneid itself the emphasis was often on her victimhood, Berlioz made her not just a powerful voice of warning, but an inspiration to the Trojan women to rise up and resist the Greeks’ attempts to rape and pillage their way to bloody victory.

Coote instantly asserted her authority with velvety nuanced tones, fully mining the sense of foreboding and premonition in the text as she described the ghost of the Trojan hero Hector “parcourir nos remparts/Comme un veilleur de nuit” (“pacing our ramparts/Like a night watchman”). In contrast to the ebullient triplets of the overture that mark the Trojans’ joy, as Cassandra starts singing Berlioz uses the triplet motif in opposition to the sustained, sombre melody of her opening lines, setting up a rhythmic tension that echoes her profound disquiet.

In contrast to Coote’s growing agitation, Lionel Lhote as her doomed fiancé Coroebus brought a sense of reassurance and rhapsodic calm as he tried to reason that her forebodings meant nothing. In his lyrics – which celebrate the beauty of the Trojan landscape – it’s possible to see how Berlioz was inspired not just by Virgil’s Aeneid but by his Georgics which were similarly a paean to the simple pleasures of rural existence. Lhote managed to evoke that sense of Virgil’s idealised world not just through the lyrics but through the mellifluous richness of his voice. The contrast between Coroebus’s delusions and Cassandra’s vision is just one of the many dramatic conflicts that gives this work its profound dynamism and here you felt its full resonance. Scene fro Berlioz's Les TroyensWhile it is the female characters who shine here, the Aeneid is of course about Aeneas, and though Berlioz is clearly less interested in him than in either Cassandra or Dido, he still allows him to be more three-dimensional than in the Latin text. For a start he allows Aeneas to introduce himself by narrating one of the most powerful moments in Aeneid II, in which the priest Laocoon warns of the dangers of bringing the wooden horse into Troy and is devoured by monstrous sea serpents.

Tenor Michael Spyres (pictured above in the love scene with Paula Murrihy and below to her left, with mezzo Beth Taylor to her right) instantly brought a sense of authority and emotional intelligence to the role of Aeneas, simultaneously heroic and humble. Through him we watched the tension build as the Trojans had the chance to save themselves by rejecting the Greeks’ gift of the horse but decided to ignore the portents. The consistently brilliant Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique brought out the jagged rhythms of Berlioz’s orchestration as for a moment the Trojans thought they could hear the clanking of arms. In Act II once more it felt as if we were eye witnesses as the city collapsed, before Cassandra and the women of Troy made the heroic gesture of committing mass suicide. Paula Murrihy in Le TroyensFrom Act III onwards we were in Carthage, watching as the great love story between Paula Murrihy’s commanding, eloquent Dido (pictured above being applauded) and Spyres’ Aeneas played out. Here Spyres' emotional intelligence really elevated the drama, though he was considerably helped by the fact that Berlioz allows Aeneas to express his frustration and rage at being torn away from Dido by the gods. The duet in which they celebrate their “night of rapture” was particularly ravishing as they melded their voices into each other, giving the sinuous melodies full resonance. Like Coote’s Cassandra, Murrihy’s Dido was no victim, but an intelligent complex woman fighting to play her part in a rapidly disintegrating world.

This production arrived at the Proms under its own particular storm cloud, yet though this meant that John Eliot Gardiner wasn’t conducting, there was no sense here that we were watching any kind of substitute. Sousa presided over the entire evening with confidence and elan. Both in the major roles and the minor roles it felt as if there wasn’t one weak link – other standouts included mezzo-soprano Beth Taylor as Dido’s fun gossipy sister Anna, and tenor Laurence Gilsby who managed to make the entire hall go quiet as he sang to the Carthaginian court. This is an opera full of ghosts and it was tempting to imagine how overjoyed Berlioz's own ghost might have been if he'd seen this version – at the end of the five and a half hour performance, both I and my companion for the evening agreed we would have happily watched it all over again.

Berlioz makes the stories of Virgil's female characters even more compelling than they are in the Aeneid

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