Berlioz began the libretto on 5 May 1856 and completed it toward the end of June 1856. He finished the full score on 12 April 1858. Berlioz had a keen affection for literature, and he admired Virgil since his childhood. The Princess Carolyn de Sayn Wittgenstein was a prime motivator to Berlioz to compose this opera. In his memoirs, he gives a detailed account of how he embarked upon an opera based on The Aeneid:
I happened to be in Weimar with the Princess Wittgenstein, a devoted friend of Liszt's, a woman of rare intelligence and feeling, who has often comforted me in my fits of depression. Something led to me to speak of my admiration of Virgil and of an idea I had formed of a grand opera on the Shakespearean model, to be founded on the second and fourth books of The Aeneid. I added that I was too well acquainted with the necessary difficulties of such an undertaking ever to attempt it. "Indeed," replied the Princess, "your passion for Shakespeare, combined with your love of the antique, ought to produce something grand and uncommon. You must write this opera, or lyric poem, or whatsoever you choose to call it. You must begin it, and you must finish it." I continued my objections, but she would hear none of them. "Listen", said she. "If you are shirking the inevitable difficulties of the piece, if you are so weak as to be afraid to brave everything for Dido and Cassandra, never come to see me again, for I will not receive you." This was quite enough to decide me. On my return to Paris, I began the poem of Les Troyens. I attacked the score, and after three years and a half of corrections, changes, additions, etc., I finished it.
On 3 May, 1861, Berlioz wrote in a letter: "I am sure that I have written a great work, greater and nobler than anything done hitherto." Elsewhere he wrote: "The principal merit of the work is, in my view, the truthfulness of the expression." For Berlioz, truthful representation of passion was the highest goal of a dramatic composer, and in this respect he felt he had equalled the achievements of Gluck and Mozart.
In his memoirs, Berlioz described in excruciating detail the intense frustrations he experienced in seeing the work performed. For five years (from 1858 to 1863), the Paris Opéra -- the only suitable stage in Paris -- vacillated. Finally, tired of waiting, he agreed to let a smaller theater, the Théâtre Lyrique, mount a production. However, the management, alarmed at the size, insisted he cut the work in two. It mounted only the second half, given the name Les Troyens à Carthage. Berlioz noted bitterly: "it was manifestly impossible for them to do it justice... the theater wasn't large enough, the singers insufficiently skilled, the chorus and orchestra inadequate." Many compromises and cuts were made and the resulting production "an imperfect" one. In view of all the defects, Berlioz lamented "to properly organize the performance of so great a work, I should have to be master of the theater as absolutely as I am master of the orchestra when rehearsing a symphony."
Even in its less than ideal form, the work made a profound impression. For example, Meyerbeer attended 12 performances. Berlioz's son Louis attended each performance. A friend tried to console Berlioz for having endured so much in the mutilation of his magnum opus and pointed out that after the first night audiences were increasing. "See," he said encouragingly to Berlioz, "they are coming." "Yes," replied Berlioz, feeling old and worn out, "they are coming, but I am going."
Berlioz never saw the first two acts, later given the name La prise de Troie ['The Capture of Troy'], performed. The first five-act performance of the "complete" Les Troyens, spread over two nights, only took place at Karlsruhe in 1890, 21 years after Berlioz's death. In subsequent years, wrote British Berlioz biographer David Cairns, the work was thought of as "a great sprawling white elephant, product of declining creative vitality, beautiful in patches but fatally uneven and quite unstagable——apart from anything else, because of its length."
Berlioz himself arranged for the entire score to be published by the Parisian music editors, Choudens et Cie. In this published score, he introduced a number of optional cuts which have often been adopted in subsequent productions. Berlioz complained bitterly (he was a legendary complainer) of the cuts that he was more-or-less forced to allow at the 1863 Théâtre Lyrique première production, and his letters and mémoires are filled with the indignation that it caused him to "mutilate" his score.
In 1969, Bärenreiter Verlag of Kassel, Germany, published a Critical Edition of Les Troyens, containing all the compositional material left by Berlioz. The preparation of this critical edition was the work of Hugh Macdonald, whose Cambridge University doctoral dissertation this was. The tendency since then has been to perform the opera complete. The published score is now part of the New Berlioz Complete Edition of Bärenreiter. This edition has formed the musical basis for subsequent productions of the opera.
While the Grand Opéra in Paris performed both "halves" of the unwillingly severed work at various times between 1899 and 1919, the company did not produce the complete Les Troyens, in one evening as Berlioz had conceived it, until 10 June 1921, with mise-en-scène by Merle-Forest, sets by René Piot and costumes by Dethomas. Philippe Gaubert conducted. The cast included Marguerite Gonzategui (Didon), Lucy Isnardon (Cassandre), Jeanne Laval (Anna), Paul Franz (Énée), Édouard Rouard (Chorèbe), and Armand Narcon (Narbal).
Marisa Ferrer, who would later sing the part under Sir Thomas Beecham in London, sang Didon in the 1929 revival, with Germaine Lubin as Cassandre and again Franz as Énée. Georges Thill sang Énée in 1930.
In 1935, Les Troyens was first performed outside of France by the Glasgow Grand Opera Society. This complete version of Berlioz's work was directed by Scottish composer Erik Chisholm.
Lucienne Anduran was Didon in the 1939 revival, with Ferrer as Cassandre this time, José de Trévi as Énée, and Martial Singher, later a long-time favourite at the Metropolitan Opera, as Chorèbe. Gaubert conducted all performances before the Second World War.
The Paris Opéra gave a new production of the complete Les Troyens on March 17, 1961, directed by Margherita Wallmann, with sets and costumes by Piero Zuffi. Pierre Dervaux was the conductor. Régine Crespin sang Didon, with Geneviève Serrès as Cassandre, Jacqueline Broudeur as Anna, Guy Chauvet as Énée, Robert Massard as Chorèbe and Georges Vaillant as Narbal. Air-checks are extant of performances by this cast from broadcasts made by the French National Radio. Several of these artists, in particular Crespin and Chauvet, participated in a set of extended highlights commercially recorded by EMI in 1965, Georges Prêtre conducting.
In the UK, J.A. Westrup recalled concert performances of Les Troyens à Carthage in 1897 and 1928, as well as a complete staging in Glasgow in 1935. The distinction of performing Les Troyens for the first time in London belongs to Sir Thomas Beecham, who led a concert performance of the complete opera broadcast over the BBC in 1947. His cast included Ferrer as both Didon and Cassandre, Jean Giraudoux as Énée, and baritone Charles Cambon as both Chorèbe (a role he had sung in Paris as part of the alternate 1929 cast) and Narbal. An aircheck of this performance exists and has been issued on CD. However, the 1957 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1957, conducted by Rafael Kubelík and directed by John Gielgud, has been described as "the first full staging in a single evening that even approximated the composer's original intentions".
The musical details and performing editions of Les Troyens used at various productions at the Paris Opéra and by Sir Thomas Beecham and by Rafael Kubelík in London were all the same, the orchestral and choral parts from Choudens et Cie. of Paris, the only edition then available. The score made available by Bärenreiter from its Critical Edition, first published in 1969, was used by Colin Davis in his 1969 Covent Garden production, recorded by Philips.
The first US production was in Boston in 1972. In 1973, Rafael Kubelík conducted the first Metropolitan Opera staging of Les Troyens, in the opera's first performances in New York City and the third staging in the United States.
Les Troyens was staged again in 1990 for the opening of the new Bastille Opéra in Paris. It was a partial success, because the new theatre could not be quite ready on opening night, which caused much trouble during rehearsals. The performance had several cuts, authorised, willingly or not, by Berlioz, including some dances in the third act. To mark the bicentenary of Berlioz's birth in 2003, Les Troyens was revived in productions at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris (conducted by John Eliot Gardiner), Amsterdam (conducted by Edo de Waart), and at the Metropolitan Opera (with the American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Dido, conducted by James Levine).
Only knowing the work from a piano score, the British critic W.J. Turner declared that Les Troyens was "the greatest opera ever written" in his 1934 book on Berlioz, much preferring it to the vastly more popular works of Richard Wagner. American critic B. H. Haggin heard in the work Berlioz' "arrestingly individual musical mind operating in, and commanding attention with, the use of the [Berlioz] idiom with assured mastery and complete adequacy to the text's every demand". David Cairns described the work as "an opera of visionary beauty and splendor, compelling in its epic sweep, fascinating in the variety of its musical invention... it recaptures the tragic spirit and climate of the ancient world." Hugh Macdonald said of it:
In the history of French music, Les Troyens stands out as a grand opera that avoided the shallow glamour of Meyerbeer and Halevy, but therefore paid the price of long neglect. In our own time the opera has finally come to be seen as one of the greatest operas of the 19th century. There are several recordings of the work, and it is performed with increasing frequency.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast,|
(Acts 3-5 only)
November 4, 1863
(Conductors: Alphonse Deloffre
and Hector Berlioz)
December 6-7, 1890
|Priam, King of Troy/Ghost of Priam||bass|
|Hécube (Hecuba), Queen of Troy||soprano||Pauline Mailhac|
|Cassandre (Cassandra), their daughter,|
a Trojan prophetess)/Ghost of Cassandre
|mezzo-soprano||Marie-Jeanne-Josèphe Cabel||Luise Reuss-Belce|
|Helenus, their son, a Trojan priest||tenor||Hermann Rosenberg|
|Polyxène (Polyxena), their daughter||soprano||Annetta Heller|
|Chorèbe (Coroebus), a young prince from Asia,|
betrothed to Cassandra/Ghost of Chorèbe
|Énée (Aeneas), Trojan hero, son of |
Venus and Anchises
|tenor||Jules-Sébastien Monjauze||Alfred Oberländer|
|Ascagne (Ascanius), his son||soprano||Ms Estagel||Auguste Elise Harlacher-Rupp|
|Panthée (Panthous), a Trojan priest||bass||Péront||Carl Nebe|
|Ghost of Hector, a Trojan hero,|
son of Priam and Hécube
|Andromaque (Andromache), his widow||silent|
|Astyanax, son of Hector and Andromaque||silent|
|A Greek captain||bass||Fritz Plank|
|Didon (Dido), Queen of Carthage, |
widow of Sychaeus
|mezzo-soprano||Anne-Arsène Charton-Demeur||Pauline Mailhac|
|Anna, sister of Dido||contralto||M. Dubois||Christine Friedlein|
|Narbal, minister to Dido||bass||Jules "Giulio" Petit||Fritz Plank|
|Iopas, Tyrian poet at Dido's court||tenor||De Quercy||Hermann Rosenberg|
|Hylas, a young Phrygian sailor||tenor||Cabel||Wilhelm Guggenbühler|
|Mercure (Mercury), a God||bass|
|Two Trojan soldiers||baritone, bass|
The Trojans are celebrating apparent deliverance from ten years of siege. They see the large wooden horse left by the Greeks, which they presume to be an offering to Pallas Athene. Unlike all the other Trojans, however, Cassandre is mistrustful of the situation. She foresees that she will not live to marry her fiancé Chorèbe. Chorèbe appears and urges Cassandre to forget her misgivings. But her prophetic vision clarifies, and she foresees the utter destruction of Troy. When Andromache silently walks in, the celebration halts.
Énée then rushes on to tell of the devouring of the priest Laocoön by a sea serpent, after he had warned the Trojans to burn the horse. Énée interprets this as a sign of the goddess Athene's anger at the sacrilege. Against Cassandre's futile protests, Priam orders the horse to be brought within the city of Troy and placed next to the temple of Pallas Athene. There is a sound of what seems to be the clashing of arms from within the horse, but the Trojans, in their delusion, interpret it as a happy omen. Cassandre has watched the procession in despair, and as the act ends, resigns herself to death beneath the walls of Troy.
Scene 1: Palace of Énée
With fighting going on in the background, the shade of Hector visits Énée and warns him to flee Troy and seek Italy, where he will build a new Troy. After Hector fades, Panthée conveys the news about the Greeks hidden in the horse. Ascagne appears with news of further destruction. At the head of a band of soldiers, Chorèbe urges Énée to take up arms for battle. All resolve to defend Troy to the death.
Scene 2: Palace of Priam
Several of the Trojan women are praying at the altar of Vesta/Cybele for their soldiers to receive divine aid. Cassandre reports that Énée and other Trojan warriors have rescued Priam's palace treasure and relieved people at the citadel. She prophesies that Énée and the survivors will found a new Troy in Italy. But she says also that Chorèbe is dead, and resolves to die. The other women acknowledge that Cassandre was correct in her prophecies and their error in dismissing her. Cassandre then calls upon the Trojan women to join her in death, to prevent being defiled by the invading Greeks. One group of women admits to fear of death, and Cassandre dismisses them from her sight. The remaining women unite with Cassandre in their determination to die. A Greek captain observes the women during this scene, with admiration for their courage. Greek soldiers then come on the scene, demanding the Trojan treasure from the women. Cassandre defiantly mocks the soldiers, then suddenly stabs herself. Polyxène takes the same dagger and does likewise. The remaining women scorn the Greeks as being too late to find the treasure, and commit mass suicide, to the horror of the Greek soldiers. Cassandre summons one last cry of "Italy!" before she collapses, dead.
The Carthaginians and their queen, Didon, are celebrating the prosperity that they have achieved in the past seven years since fleeing from Tyre to found a new city. Didon, however, is concerned about Iarbas, the Numidian king, not least because he has proposed a political marriage with her. The Carthaginians swear their defence of Didon, and the builders, sailors and farmers offer tribute to Didon.
In private after these ceremonies, Didon and Anna then discuss love. Anna urges Didon to re-marry, but Didon insists on honoring the memory of her late husband Sichée (Sychaeus). Iopas then enters to tell of an unknown fleet that has arrived in port. Recalling her own wandering on the seas, Didon bids that these strangers be welcome. Ascagne enters, presents the saved treasure of Troy, and relates the Trojans' story. Didon acknowledges that she knows of this situation. Panthée then tells of the ultimate destiny of the Trojans to found a new city in Italy. During this scene, Énée is disguised as an ordinary sailor.
Narbal then comes to tell Didon that Iarbas and his army are attacking the fields surrounding Carthage and are marching on the city. But Carthage does not have enough weapons to defend itself. Énée then reveals his true identity and offers the services of his people to help Carthage. Didon accepts the offer, and Énée entrusts Ascagne to Didon's care. The Carthaginians and Trojans then prepare for battle against the Numidians.
This scene is purely instrumental, set in a forest with a cave in the background. Didon and Énée have been separated from the rest of the hunting party. As a storm breaks, the two take shelter in the cave, where they acknowledge and consummate their mutual attraction.
Scene 2: The gardens of Didon
The Numidians have been beaten back, and both Narbal and Anna are relieved at this. However, Narbal worries that Didon has been neglecting the management of the state, distracted by her love for Énée. Anna dismisses such concerns and says that this indicates that Énée would be an excellent king for Carthage. Narbal reminds Anna, however, that the gods have called Énée's final destiny to be in Italy. Anna replies that there is no stronger god than love.
After Didon's entry, and dances from the Egyptian dancing girls, the slaves, and the Nubian slave girls, Iopas sings his song of the fields, at the queen's request. She then asks Énée for more tales of Troy. Énée reveals that after some persuading, Andromaque eventually married Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, who killed Hector, Andromache's earlier husband. Didon then feels resolved regarding her lingering feelings about her late husband. At one point, Ascagne slips Sichée's ring from Didon's finger. Didon retrieves it, but then forgets about it later. Alone, Didon and Énée then sing a love duet. At the end of the act, the god Mercury appears and strikes Énée's shield, then calls out three times, "Italy!".
Hylas sings his song of longing for home, alone. Two sentries mockingly comment that he will never see his homeland again. Panthée and the Trojan chieftains discuss the gods' angry signs at their delay in sailing for Italy. The sentries remark that they have good lives in Carthage and do not want to leave.
Énée then comes on stage, singing of his despair at the gods' portents and warnings to set sail for Italy, and also of unhappiness at his betrayal of Didon with this news. The ghosts of Priam, Chorèbe, Hector and Cassandre appear and relentlessly urge Énée to proceed on to Italy. Énée gives in and realizes that he must obey the gods' commands, but also realizes his cruelty and ingratitude to Didon as a result. He then orders his comrades to prepare to sail that morning, before sunrise.
Didon then appears, appalled at Énée's attempt to leave in secret, but still in love with him. Énée pleads the messages from the gods to move on, but Didon will have none of this. She pronounces a curse on him as she leaves.
Scene 2: Palace of Didon
Dido asks Anna to plead with Énée one last time to stay. Anna acknowledges blame for encouraging the love between her sister and Énée. Didon angrily counters that if Énée truly loved her, he would defy the gods, but then asks her to plead with for a few days' additional stay.
The crowd has seen the Trojans set sail. Iopas conveys the news to Didon. In a rage, she demands that the Carthaginians give chase and destroy the Trojans' fleet, and wishes that she had destroyed the Trojans upon their arrival. She then decides to offer sacrifice, including destroying the Trojans' gifts to her and hers to them. Alone, she resolves to die, and after expressing a final love for Énée, prepares to bid her city farewell.
Scene 3: Garden of Didon
A sacrificial pyre with Énée's relics has been built. Narbal and Anna expound curses on Énée to suffer a humiliating death in battle. Didon then ascends the pyre, removes her veil and throws it on Énée's toga. She has a vision of a future African warrior, Hannibal, who will rise and attack Rome to avenge her. Didon then stabs herself with Énée's sword, to the horror of her people. But at the moment of her death, she has one last vision: Carthage will be destroyed, and Rome will be "immortal". The Carthaginians then utter one final curse on Énée and his people, vowing vengeance for his abandonment of Didon, as the opera ends.
(Enée, Chorébe, Panthée, Narbal, Iopas, Ascagne, Cassandre, Didon, Anna)
Opera House and Orchestra
|1983|| Plácido Domingo,|
| James Levine,|
Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus
| DVD: Deutsche Grammophon |
Cat: 00440 073 4310