Berlioz’s epic masterpiece has been performed in many major opera houses around the world. But his adopted city Paris only saw its first complete performances in October 2003, when John Eliot Gardiner conducted it at the Théâtre du Châtelet, almost exactly 140 years after its première in a truncated version at the Théâtre-Lyrique, now renamed Théâtre de la Ville, located exactly opposite the Théâtre du Châtelet across the Place du Châtelet.
This event is the inspiration behind this page in which we display a remarkable set of hand-painted engravings by A. Casse dating from 1863. They are based on sketches of stage sets intended for performances of Les Troyens in 1863 (in the event the first two acts were not performed). The original copies of these engravings are held at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh (Hopkinson Collection). They were published in the 1989 edition of one of M. Christian Wasselin’s books, Berlioz, les Deux Ailes de l’âme (Paris, 1989; new ed. December 2002). We would like to express are gratitude to M. Wasselin for granting us permission to reproduce these engravings from his book.
Les Troyens received its first performance on 4 November 1863 at the recently opened Théâtre-Lyrique, and then ran for a total of 21 performances until 20 December. The performances were a relative success – they enabled Berlioz to give up at long last his burdensome work as music critic. But it was not the performance that Berlioz had intended: Les Troyens had been meant for the Opéra, the only theatre in Paris with the resources capable of staging adequately the work. The performances at the smaller Théâtre-Lyrique were a very unsatisfactory compromise, which damaged the work’s future for a long time to come. The opera was presented in a truncated form, shorn of its first two acts (which Berlioz never heard performed), renamed Les Troyens à Carthage, and with numerous cuts in the 3 acts that were played.
For the 1863 performances Berlioz divided Les Troyens à Carthage into five acts, as he wrote to his friend Humbert Ferrand in a letter dated 4 June 1863:
“... I had to consent to have only the last three acts performed, and they will be divided into 5 and preceded by a Prologue which I have just written. The theatre is neither rich nor large enough to stage La Prise de Troie. […]” (Correspondance générale, No. 2733)
Berlioz relates at length the whole painful experience in his Memoirs (Postface). Here we quote a passage from the Memoirs related to the première of his epic masterpiece:
“The first performance of Les Troyens à Carthage took place on November 4, 1863, as announced by Carvalho [the Director of the Théâtre-Lyrique]. The work still needed another three or four intensive general rehearsals, the whole production lacked confidence, especially on stage. But the director was at a loss how to bolster his theatre’s repertory; every evening his theatre was empty, and he was in a hurry to get out of this predicament. It is well known how ruthless directors can be in such circumstances. My friends and I thought the evening was going to be stormy, and we were expecting all manner of hostile demonstrations, though nothing of the sort happened. My enemies did not dare to show themselves; one disgraceful hiss was heard at the end when I was called for, and that was all. The gentleman who had hissed probably felt obliged to insult me in the same way for several weeks, because he came back, with an assistant, to hiss again at the same place on the third, fifth, seventh and tenth performances. Others would rant in the corridors with comic fury and heaped abuse on me, saying that such music could not and should not be allowed. Five newspapers printed stupid insults against me, of the kind designed to hurt my feelings as an artist. But on the other hand more than fifty appreciative articles were published over a two week period, among which those by MM. Gasperini, Fiorentino, d’Ortigue, Léon Kreutzer, Damcke, Joannes Weber, and many others, written with genuine enthusiasm and rare perception, which filled me with a joy I had not experienced for a long time. I also received a large number of letters, some of them eloquent, others naïve, but all of them full of genuine emotion, and they touched me deeply. At a number of performances I saw people in tears. During the two months following the first appearance of Les Troyens, I was often stopped in the streets of Paris by total strangers who asked permission to shake my hand and thanked me for writing this work. These did make up for the insults of my enemies – enemies I have made less through my critical writings than through the tendencies of my music. The hostility of such enemies resembles that of prostitutes for honest women, and it should be taken as an honour. Their muse is usually named Lais, Phryne, very rarely Aspasia [in a footnote: Aspasia was too intelligent for that], while the muse worshipped by noble minds and friends of high art is called Juliet, Desdemona, Cordelia, Ophelia, Imogen, Virgilia, Miranda, Dido, Cassandra, or Alcestis, sublime names which evoke thoughts of poetic love, modesty and devotion, while the former only suggest low sensuality and prostitution.”
Sketches of the stage sets for Les Troyens
Related pages on this site:
of M. H. Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Journal des Débats, 9 November 1863, pp.
1-2 (in the original
A review of the première of Les Troyens, Le Monde Illustré, 14 November 1863, p. 319 (in the original French)
A review of Act V of Les Troyens, Le Monde Illustré, 14 November 1863, p. 310 (in the original French)
The Roman de la momie by Gautier: a neglected source for Les Troyens?
Libretto of Les Troyens
Orchestral excerpts of Les Troyens
Excerpts from Berlioz’s Memoirs
Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; this page created on 29 February 2004.
This page is also available in French.
Copyright notice: The texts, photos, images and musical scores on all pages of this site are covered by UK Law and International Law. All rights of publication or reproduction of this material in any form, including Web page use, are reserved. Their use without our explicit permission is illegal.
© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights reserved.
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