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Michael Ferguson

The Trojans — San Francisco Opera Performance — Review

By June 21, 2015No Comments

The Trojans

By Hector Berlioz

San Francisco Opera Performance

June 20, 2015


This is actually two operas and performing them together creates a mammoth production.  The Capture of Troy occupies the first two acts.  Acts three through five make up The Trojans at Carthage.  The two operas are really distinct despite the fact that the composer, Hector Berlioz, conceived of them as a unified whole.  When the opera was first performed at the Theatre Lyrique in Paris, they would only do the second part, The Trojans in Carthage — and they cut it down quite a bit.  Berlioz never saw The Fall of Troy performed.  Thomas May’s offers a lengthy and informative discussion of the history of this opera’s composition and performance in the program.  It is very good and I highly recommend it.  May tells us,

the lack of a definitive full-scale production when Les Troyens was new to the world caused even more long-lasting damage than Berlioz had pessimistically foreseen.   The division and cutting of the work perversely underscored the notion that Berlioz had written a sort of heroic “ruin” that lacked coherence and integral construction. . . Worse, distorted perceptions of Les Troyens encouraged stereotypes of the composer as a washed up Romantic revolutionary who had lost his fire and reverted to a more “conservative” approach.  (p. 39)

I am largely in agreement with this assessment.  This monstrosity is unwieldy and it does lack internal coherence.  What is consistent is that the males end up ignominiously deserting the scene at the end of each opera, and the females end up dead.  There is very little that connects The Fall of Troy to The Trojans in Carthage except that some of the same characters are used.  But it is two very different, very loosely related stories.  Neither opera is very well written and putting them together on the same program subjects the audience to a long, punishing evening.

I always try to say something positive, if I can, and in this opera what is positive is the music.  The music score is outstanding, and it considerably raised my estimation of Berlioz as a composer.  It makes it all the more poignant that this music composer of the first rank had no talent as a dramatist or as a storyteller.  The Trojan War has a vast wealth of dramatic possibilities, and yet the best Berlioz can get out of it is dull, slow moving, repetitious, and interminably long.  He seems to avoid anything truly dramatic on stage and relates the real drama and conflict in the story line through narratives in soliloquies.  The romance between Aeneas and Dido in The Trojans in Carthage is juvenile and melodramatic.  Berlioz knew nothing about love relationships.  The character of Dido is particularly incoherent and ad hoc.  She starts out as a queen beloved by all of her people and ends up this embittered, venomous, vengeful, suicidal woman — nothing like a queen at all.  How could she have ever been a queen, let alone a queen of such capable leadership?  She is a totally cartoonish, unconvincing character.

It doesn’t help that the sets were unimaginative, the lighting was uninteresting, and the costumes were from the nineteenth century.  They had the Trojan soldiers in nineteenth century military uniforms carrying nineteenth century swords.  Some of them were even carrying long rifles and muskets.  Since when did the Trojans carry rifles in 1200 BC?  In Act 5 two soldiers shared a cigarette.  Was it the Trojans’ own brand, or did they import them from Greece?

Act 4 started with a ballet segment that was well conceived and beautifully done.  No vocal music during the ballet, only orchestral accompaniment.  The structure of Act 4 was two ballet segments alternating with two vocal segments.  The ballet segments were very well imagined and well executed and could work as standalone ballet pieces were they to be excised from this opera.  The choreographers, Lynne Page and Gemma Payne did an excellent job along with the dancers, and the orchestral score was very well suited to the dance.   It made me think that this whole idea of the Trojan War could be recast as a ballet, and it would be much leaner and much more interesting than this long, cumbersome opera.  It is unfortunate that Berlioz’s score was crafted for this dreary, undramatic opera.  Maybe there is a creative composer and a choreographer out there who could adapt it into much more dynamic and aesthetically pleasing ballet.

By the middle of the first act I was wondering if I should sit through all five hours of this.  I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to, such is the state of my life right now, so I stayed and watched the whole thing.  It was akin to long flight on an airplane, where it is mildly uncomfortable and you are looking forward to it ending.  If Berlioz had been able to collaborate with someone who had ability in theatrics he might have produced a great opera.  Unfortunately, this is a mediocre work, but with a first rate sound track.