This page presents reviews of performances that took place before 2003, starting in 1999. We would like to express our gratitude to the authors for their invaluable contributions.
Copyright notice: The reviews published on this page are the intellectual property of the respective contributors and are subject to UK and International Copyright Laws. Their use/reproduction without the authors’ explicit permission is illegal.
By Molly Skardon
Avery Fisher Hall, New York, 17, 18, and 22 May 2001, New York Philharmonic, conducted by David Zinman.
I attended the May 22 performance by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by David Zinman, of three excerpts from The Damnation of Faust, followed by the New York premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Violin Concerto (1991), with Cho-Liang Lin, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 2, which I did not hear.
The New York Times review by Paul Griffiths on 22 May of the May 17th performance billed the Berlioz and the Brahms as “carefully chosen companions” for the concerto, noting similarities in their rhythms and pacing. The three movements from Faust “followed a formal pattern similar to that of the barcarolle-toccata diptych Mr. Rouse created in his concerto: lilting triple time (the ‘Minuet of the Will-o’-the-Wisps’ and ‘Ballet of the Sylphs’) prepares for a rhythmically simpler and riotous conclusion (the ‘Rákóczy March’). Then Brahms’s Second Symphony...repeated the same scheme.”
The Rouse was certainly enjoyable, and did seem familiar in some ways. However, I would agree with the reviewer, who said that “[c]onnections of character…between Mr. Rouse’s music and Berlioz’s (or Brahms’s) were harder to discern,” finding the concerto “temperate” and its “most violent moment...too knowing to be willful.” He praised the soloist and the accompaniment, and seemed neutral to positive on the work.
I was especially pleased to hear Mr. Zinman in person. It was also refreshing to start a concert with a Berlioz work other than an overture, and Faust other than the usual. I thought the Philharmonic played the excerpts extremely well. I noticed particularly that the winds were outstanding in the Ballet, and the entire orchestra was so perfectly together that the unison rests were quite thrilling. Though I usually like a brassier brass sound during the March, I think some of what I heard was affected by the acoustics of my seat location.
And my seat location – on the top level of the hall, centre, second-to-last row – provided some interest. Behind me was a restless group of high school boys who, judging from their conversation, were waiting for the Brahms, which was probably excellent. In front of me seemed to be a number of students/friends/colleagues of the composer and soloist of the concerto, which they cheered heartily and gave a standing ovation.
I believe we all went home pleased with the evening, and I hope to be able to send other favourable reports in the future.
September 21, 2001
By Gene Halaburt
St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, 12 July 2001
The biographies show the birth date of Sir Colin Davis as 25 September 1927, which would make him almost 74 years old. Those fortunate enough to have been in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, the evening of 12 July 2001, know that this birth date simply cannot be true for the lion of a man who strode purposely to the podium a few minutes after 8 PM that evening to conduct the augmented London Symphony Orchestra (sixteen timpani, twelve horns, quadruple woodwind and four widely separated brass bands), the Bach Choir and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, Florida, with Kenneth Tarver, tenor soloist (Iopas in the LSO Live recording of Les Troyens), in the sublime Opus 5 of Hector Berlioz.
As the program notes point out, the original performance of the Requiem took place in the Hôtel Royal des Invalides in Paris in December 1837 and Berlioz undoubtedly took into consideration the acoustic properties of that space in scoring the piece. Subsequent architectural changes in that venue make a re-creation there an impossibility, and the space and configuration of St. Paul’s Cathedral is about as close as we can get in modern times. Sir Colin compensated the long acoustic delay time (I would guess perhaps 4 seconds) perfectly. The only minor regret I had regarding the acoustics stems from our knowledge that the original Paris venue had a large number of flags hung from the church’s ceiling and had drapes covering all the windows, lighting provided only by a large number of candles. Certainly the combination of drapes and flags would have had a significant effect on the overall acoustic properties of the performance.
While much has been written regarding the size of the forces Berlioz used in the Requiem, his understanding and use of both silence and space is, for me, at least as important. The soft, opening bars of the Requiem appear magically from the void of silence. Certainly no one living has the spirit and meaning of Berlioz’s music in his mind and heart more than does Sir Colin Davis. Every detail in the score was brought forth without in any way losing the overall design and thrust of the entire work. How Sir Colin manages to obtain such magical results with choirs remains a mystery, but every word of text was both understandable and meaningful. It is difficult to imagine a voice and delivery better suited to the Sanctus than was Mr. Tarver’s – pure and unstrained. His location itself – simply in the middle of the combined choirs – spoke eloquently of his being an integral part of the whole. At the reprise of the Sanctus, the combination of words, voice, softly stroked bass drums and lightly brushed cymbals brought mist to the eyes of some in the audience.
While originally performed to commemorate the death of a French General, the Opus 5 is obviously a Requiem for all of mankind, a Requiem for believers and non-believers alike. It’s God is both the God of Dante and Michelangelo and the God of the “Songs of Innocence” of Blake and of the “Happy Prince” of Wilde. For the believers, no questions are necessary. For those who question, no totally satisfying answers are possible. The God who allowed a Holocaust and an Inquisition is the same God who allowed a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King Junior, a Mother Theresa, and the incredibly beautiful music of a Bach, a Beethoven, a Berlioz. It may well be that
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
but as the beautiful, final “Amens” floated through the hushed Cathedral space, I think Berlioz both achieved for himself and offers to us the Peace he longed for in this Requiem through simple acceptance.
A night to be remembered, indeed. Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam.
By Michel Austin
St Paul’s Cathedral, Thursday 12 July 2001, 8pm. The Bach Choir, The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, Florida, Kenneth Tarver (tenor), London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.
Even by Berlioz’s standards the Requiem is an extraordinary work – more than a choral masterpiece of imposing dimensions, but the drama of humanity facing up to death and to the Day of Judgement. No wonder that towards the end of his life, when all his work was complete, Berlioz declared to his friend Humbert Ferrand that if only one of his works was to survive it would have to be the Grande messe des morts (letter of 11 January 1867). One does not have to be a believer to experience the immense impact of the work in a live performance. Truthful as ever and no believer himself, Berlioz presents a stark vision devoid of easy consolations. In the Agnus dei at the end there is a sense of home-coming with the return of the music of the opening Kyrie, but the conclusion itself is bleak, with the massed timpani beating an ominous rhythm, and the final chords are reduced to pizzicato strings and the timpani.
T he work needs a special setting, and none could be grander than that of St Paul’s Cathedral: performances of the Requiem there are rare and thus acquire a sense of occasion. But the scale of the church and its long reverberation period provide acoustic problems. Individual experiences of the performance will have depended to an important extent on one’s seat in the cathedral. We were fortunate to be able to attend both the afternoon rehearsal and the evening performance in the central dome area, very close to the players and singers, and the impact of the music was consequently enormous. It was in particular a rare experience to be positioned centrally between the four brass bands and to be enveloped by their sound on all sides. Of course the outbursts of the Tuba mirum, Rex tremendae and Lacrymosa were tremendous, but more impressive still were the quiet chords in the Hostias and at the start of the Agnus dei, where the same deep pedal note of the trombones came simultaneously from every direction. In the afternoon rehearsal the reverberation seemed at times like a problem that needed to be overcome (and there was the added complication of tourists being allowed to circulate freely during the rehearsal, though astonishingly this did not seem to affect the concentration of the players). But in the evening performance the reverberation, partly reduced through the size of the capacity audience, was turned into an asset. Tempi were spacious and Sir Colin articulated moments of transition so as to allow room for the echo to unfold. Only at a few points in the Rex tremendae and the Lacrymosa, where the music is both fast-moving and heavily scored, did it threaten to engulf the sound. Otherwise it lent extra radiance and bloom in all the quiet and sparely scored movements which, despite popular misconceptions, predominate in this work – the Quid sum miser, Quaerens me, Offertorium, Hostias, Sanctus, and the start of the Agnus dei. As could be expected, the live performance brought added intensity and concentration on the part of all, players and singers.
The heroes of the evening were in the first instance the combined voices of the Bach Choir and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, which sang with great fervour – the men’s voices, which provide so much of the colour of this work, were particularly telling (though there was, as often happens, a slight drop in pitch towards the end of the unaccompanied Quarens me). Special mention should be made of Kenneth Tarver’s effortlessly floated and elegant tenor solo in the Sanctus, which confirmed his excellent performances in the Odyssey series. Then there was the eloquence and refinement of the London Symphony Orchestra. Sir Colin presided over the proceedings with a sureness of touch born of unrivalled experience – his first performance of this work goes back to 1964. Under his guidance the work unfolded with majestic inevitability, unaffected by the unpredictable hazards of live performances – a passing siren, a momentary lapse of ensemble between orchestra and chorus during the reprise of the Sanctus, quickly corrected, or the cathedral bells pealing towards the end. Throughout, musical values and the overall design took precedence over short-term events. But above it all presided the creative genius of Hector Berlioz: he would have been particularly moved to see and hear this work performed in the cathedral where in 1851 he had one of the greatest musical experiences of his life – a concert by the massed voices of 6500 children, as described in the Soirées de l’orchestre (21st evening).
Sadly the performance was not recorded. But it will linger on for a long time in the memory of all those who were privileged to attend this unique occasion.
By John Ahouse
19 May 2001
Years ago, I wrote for the Berlioz Society Bulletin about the Dumas treatment of episodes from the Cellini Memoirs. It turns out there has also been a Cellini movie. As they say hereabouts: Who knew? “The Affairs of Cellini” from 1934 (United Artists) showed up in a double bill on May 19th honouring director Gregory Cava at the County Museum of Art (LACMA):
The lavishly appointed Cellini film cried out for colour (about four years too soon for that) in the big banquet scene. The events were not those of Berlioz’s version, and having Ascanio turn out to be a hulking dullard instead of an androgynous teenager was a big letdown. More in the spirit of the opera, Cellini (nicely played by Fredric March in the bemused and swashbuckling manner of a Douglas Fairbanks) labours under the constant threat of public hanging for his escapades; while the regal Constance Bennett as the Duchess of Florence adds precisely the element that Berlioz forgot.
Fay (“King Kong”) Wray’s part, as a rather ordinary girl who nevertheless turns heads (Cellini’s and the Duke’s) was simply amusing, especially when Cellini abducts her to his remote rural hideaway (thoughts of “Sur les monts ...”) and she finds nothing remotely romantic or idealistic about it. In what could be said to be the central role, the then-popular actor Frank Morgan played the Duke mostly for laughs. Foppish and ineffectual, Morgan kept the proceedings about as serio-comic as Berlioz must have wished his opera.
Miss Wray was there in person: slow in her movements but sharp as a tack at age 94 and taking questions from the floor. How strange it must be to have outlived *everyone* you ever cared about. How strange, too, to have made over seventy films and to have been immortalised by only one. A friend I persuaded to go with me referred to the large audience as being made up mostly of the “Hairy Paw” crowd who wanted to hear about “Kong” and more “Kong.” Miss Wray did say one remarkable thing on that subject: “You know,” she observed, “There was another element at work in the movie, the fact that the Empire State Building had just been finished as this great engineering feat. And here was the ape scaling the top of it.”
By Neil Butterworth
15 April 2001
For the first time in their 38-year history, the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra included the Symphonie fantastique in their annual Easter concert. How Berlioz would have been delighted at the massed instrumental forces in the Queen’s Hall, especially with the deep commitment of these young musicians.
From the opening woodwind phrases and the sensitive response of the strings, there was a remarkable assurance to the playing. Conducting from memory, En Shao coaxed and exhorted the orchestra through the constant changes of mood and tempi. In the relatively intimate setting of the Queen’s Hall, it was possible to hear detail that would have been lost in the larger Usher Hall, the orchestra’s venue some years ago.
The impact of the ‘March to the Scaffold’ at such proximity was immeasurable, the sudden outbursts from brass and percussion pinning the audience into their seats. In the Finale, real bells, not the usual tubular variety, created an ominous chill that enhanced the dramatic atmosphere of the concluding pages of the score.
The explosion of applause after the last chord was an indication of the listeners’ response to a performance that was equal to that of any professional band. It was hard to believe that only a week earlier, the EYO had met the work for the first time. Such an experience will remain with them for a lifetime.
By Maria Nockin
On Sunday 17 December 2000, the Santa Fe Symphony and Chorus presented the New Mexico premiere of Berlioz’s sacred trilogy, L’Enfance du Christ with the following cast:
Narrator, Patrrick Marques, tenor
Herod, William Pauley, bass
Mary, Janice Hall, soprano
Joseph, Brad Alexander, baritone
Father, Louis Lebherz, bass
Polydorus, Loran A. Jacobson, bass
Centurion, Patrick Gibson, tenor
Conductor, Steven Smith
Choral Director, Linda Raney
Before any other part of this trilogy was written, Berlioz wrote The Shepherds’ Farewell Chorus of Part II as a joke. He wanted to fool the critics of his day into thinking it was a piece written in 1679, and he succeeded in fooling all but one. Later, he continued to write both the words and the music to complete this piece in a style quite different from his Requiem or Te Deum, but somewhat allied to that of his “Damnation of Faust.”
In L’Enfance du Christ there are no huge choruses and the orchestration is anything but massive. It is a meditation on the Nativity, in all its simplicity, utilising a style that portrays the human frailty of the characters involved.
The piece opens with a sung narrative and tenor; Patrick Marques, established himself as a clarion-toned first-class interpreter of this type of music.
Wilbur Pauley, as Herod, has a rather dry voice but he used it to good effect in portraying the character of Herod. A fine vocal actor, he gave the audience a picture of this self-aggrandising monarch and, as his voice warmed up, his low notes increased in resonance.
Loren A Jacobson was effective in the small part of Polydorus, while tenor, Patrick Gibson acquitted himself well as the Centurion. The latter singer, a conductor in his own right, also translated the libretto and wrote the programme notes.
As the voice of Marie, Janice Hall’s silver-toned soprano flooded the hall with its beauty. Though this role is low for a soprano, it did not seem to bother her in the least. Her lustrous, soaring tones expressively described the plight of the Virgin Mother travelling through the desert, while her smooth legato and impeccable French were a joy to hear.
Brad Alexander, the baritone who sang Joseph, is a far less experienced artist and his voice did not seem to project as well as it should have in this all-purpose hall, although it blended well with Ms. Hall’s in the exquisite duets for Marie and Joseph.
Ms Hall and Mr Alexander were able to convey the drama of the piece as the Hebrew family arrives at Saïs desperately needing food, water, and a place to rest. As the father of the Ishmaelite family, Louis Lebherz, used his resonant bass to portray the welcome reassurance offered the Holy Family in his home.
Linda Raney’s amateur chorus acquitted itself well in their most difficult unaccompanied passages, showing that they had worked hard on this piece. The high harmonies among the women’s voices were especially enchanting.
The Santa Fe Symphony is not a full-time organisation, and as such its tonal quality cannot be compared to major orchestras. It is, however, a fine group of professional musicians who play with accuracy and attention to detail. Steven Smith, who is assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, also does an excellent job in Santa Fe.
* This review was first published in the Classical Singer Magazine in the US. It is reproduced here by their kind permission obtained by Ms Nockin, to whom we are grateful.
By Maxwell Noble
The Salzburg Festival is the centre of musical excellence and it has seen some of the greatest productions and performers of the world, but the most anticipated event of the festival this summer was a new production of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz. Last year, I was completely overwhelmed by the festival’s production of The Damnation of Faust and it was with eager anticipation that I attended the Grossfestspielhaus in August to see this rarely performed epic by the master of romantic French music.
Les Troyens was composed at the instigation of Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was a close friend of Franz Liszt, and the opera is based on Books I-II and IV of the great Latin epic by Virgil, The Aeneid. The staging was by Herbert Wernicke and the gifted Berlioz specialist Sylvain Cambreling conducted the Orchestre de Paris. A star-studded cast headed by Deborah Polaski, who was fresh from a triumphant performance as Brünnhilde in the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre. What variety this American lady has! Thus, the evening was set for something special!
Before describing the events in August, one has to appreciate the environment against which this opera was performed. Austria has been in turmoil politically this year. The hasty and unfair sanctions imposed by the EU has fostered a lot of anti-French feeling in Austria and one was questioning festival Director Gérard Mortier’s decision to continue with this production in such a highly charged political environment. No change to the festival programme was ever a real possibility. Fortunately, culture tears down political divisions and puts right the wrongs of our political masters. I wonder whether politicians ever realise the diplomatic strengths of culture and music?
The staging was restrained, credible, and totally appropriate. The ravages of modern warfare depicted the sacking of Troy and minimalist sets allowed the music to dominate rather than the spectacle. Single colours dominated each act: grey for Troy, blue for Carthage and red for the finale. Berlioz knows how to assist and challenge a singer. The music contains long arias but, at the correct time, Berlioz introduces a passage from the orchestra to blend and create a sublime atmosphere. The performance took four and a half hours and at the end, I felt that I had been through a great but different operatic experience that left me reflecting into the long hours of the night. Berlioz is not everyone’s cup of tea! It is not romping arias like Verdi nor pulsating power like Wagner nor the delight of Mozart, but it is the very definition of French romanticism with a heavenly sound that is a subtle acquired taste rather than an instant "fix."
Ms Deborah Polaski took on the roles of both Cassandra and Dido with a power, tenderness, and control, which are her trademark. Did we witness one of the world’s great singers? I think we did. She can leave an audience gasping at her Wagnerian power in one minute and capture their hearts with her sensitivity in the next. The love duet at the end of act four was performed with yet another excellent American newcomer, Jon Villars. It was sung in a way which brought the audience to tears by the excellent performance and the beauty of Berlioz’s music. Surely, this is what all singers strive for?
Les Troyens has everything musically. Marching music, battle music, symphonic music, and choruses of such sweeping power. At the end of the evening, the listener was left satisfied, dazzled but deeply reflective.
Apart from Ms. Polaski, the real stars of the performance were the combined talents of the Vienna and Bratislava opera choruses, ably supported by a Bavarian boy’s choir and the brilliant French conductor Sylvain Cambreling. This diminutive French maestro feels the music with his conducting, sings along with the choruses, smiles, and encourages the orchestra to reach the very musical soul of Hector Berlioz!
Can only a Frenchman interpret Berlioz? I think not! Sir Colin Davis is acknowledged as the world’s leading interpreter of Berlioz .It is he, an Englishman, who has done most over the last forty years to bring the music of Berlioz to the attention of the world. In the Indian summer of his career when he is undertaking the celebrated Berlioz Odyssey in London this year, it is good to know that in Sylvain Cambreling, he has a worthy heir apparent. I have never subscribed to the theory that only Germans can perform Wagner, Austrians Mozart, and Italians Verdi. We acknowledge the heritage of these great composers but to quote Valery Gergiev in a recent interview on Austrian television, “their music belongs to us all”. Berlioz definitely belongs to us all.
Norman Lebrecht recently wrote in the Daily Telegraph that with this year’s Les Troyens, Salzburg has taught the French a lesson. This is not true in my opinion. Music is above politics, so-called "lessons" and political sarcasm. I would have preferred him to say to Dr. Gérard Mortier and the organisers of the Salzburg Festival, “thank you for your courage in staging this grand opera.”
Not for the first time, Austria has taught the whole world a lesson about music culture and diplomacy.
Maxwell E.P. Noble
See our Berlioz Discography for details of a DVD release of this performance.
By Gunther Braam
(including an interview with the conductor Sylvain Cambreling)
Salzburg, July 2000
Every performance of Les Troyens is meritorious. This year’s production at the Salzburg Festival has been greeted with general and genuine enthusiasm by the audience as well as the press, and in my opinion it is not saying too much that the première on 24.07.2000 in the Großes Festspielhaus will mark another milestone in the reception of this opera. At 22:30 the hall reverberated from cries of rapture, and all participants, from choristers to director Herbert Wernicke, received their bursts of applause, which became almost delirious for Cassandre/Didon Deborah Polaski. And, as expected, it was proved once more that the work is performable: Without the intervals of 1 h 25 min, the five acts lasted 4 h 5 min, i.e. 4 h 20 min without the cuts.
Due to the new political constellations in Austria, looking to the skies one could, like Narbal, see “sortir de sinistres éclairs” from the clouds that had been hovering above the Festival, and thus above this production. It gives therefore even greater pleasure to confirm that Berlioz was triumphant in Salzburg against all odds. This is not at all self-evident outside London. One might remember the attempts at rehabilitating that opera in Vienna in 1976 and Milan in 1960, 1982 and again in 1996, which all received a rather cool reception, and all of which could have been of great impact and importance for the standard Mozart-Verdi-Wagner-audience. To be sure, the first complete performance in France (Lyons 1987) and the inaugural production of the Opéra Bastille in 1989, the latter under hostile circumstances, were events that left their mark, but Salzburg 2000 is likely to have the more lasting effects.
This was made possible by Gérard Mortier, the Festival’s director, Pierre Bergé, who labelled his support in the programme note as “Hommage à Gérard Mortier” (and thus as a manifesto of culture politics), Georges-François Hirsch, director of the Orchestre de Paris (whose début at Salzburg with this opera can be seen as a success), as well as the conductor Sylvain Cambreling. Bergé, Hirsch and Cambreling have repeatedly declared that for them Berlioz was a matter of the heart.
But what is it that was cheered so loudly? Was the joy totally unclouded? It is like drinking from a goblet while already being drunk. Some drops will be spoilt; but those drops, as long as they remain drops and do not become watercourses that run from the chin on to the shirt, will hardly lessen the drunkenness.
Yes, there have been cuts, which were indicated as cuts in the programme notes – and almost more surprising: there have been small insertions. The reader will find an interview with the conductor Sylvain Cambreling about the motives that led to those adjustments to the score at the end of this report.
Action on the Stage
The opera was presented on the wide stage of the Großes Festspielhaus in front of a scene that remained the same throughout the opera with small modifications and which was shaped in different ways by different illumination: A huge white wall is erected on a semicircular line, running from the extreme left hand to the extreme right hand border of the stage. In its middle, i.e. at the spot furthest from the audience, an even bordered breach, running from the bottom up to the invisible top, divides the wall so that the red-brown inner brick and mortar structure is visible. Every soloist and chorister enters and leaves the stage through this gap. The sky behind the gap is coloured red as blood, or cloudy, or in a natural blue, or as a clear, starry night, according to the context. Sometimes objects of symbolic significance are placed behind the gap; at the start this is a burnt out cockpit of a shot down fighter.
A thick line, shining in an intense red, runs in front of the stage from the left to the right as a kind of lower frame. The semicircular “hall” is filled with Trojans, all dressed in black and wearing red gloves, contemplating and looting the scattered Greek corpses and machine guns. When the crowd departs for the horse, Cassandre (played with great intensity by Deborah Polaski) enters the semicircle through the breach, against the surge of the people. During her visionary moments, she gazes fixedly at the audience. For the rest she also approaches the dead with sceptical amazement. Chorèbe (very well played by Russell Braun) is unable to persuade his beloved that the war has ended; instead he almost sings himself to sleep. When Cassandre, seized by the vision of a spear in Chorèbe’s side, collapses in front of him, he flees in panic to the gap in the wall, before returning slowly to Cassandre. The curtain falls during their farewell.
1st Insertion: The Marche et Hymne “Dieux protecteurs” which follows is extended by some bars of instrumental music (which repeat the Marche’s motif). When the curtain rises, one understands why: the change of scenery and entrance of the chorus. The complete choir of Trojans is standing to the right to deposit their contributions for the rebuilding of Troy in a huge golden box. Priam (Gudjon Oskarsson) supervises the proceedings from his throne placed at the top of a steep set of stairs opposite the people on the left, while Hécube (Natela Nicoli) is reclining like Salomé on the stairs. In order to march past the stairs to the throne, to show their gifts of gold in their raised right hands and to throw them into the box, a series of small groups consecutively separate from the choir and return to the crowd during the whole of the Marche.
1st Cut: No. 5 of the score, Combat de ceste – Pas de lutteurs, is left out. After the two chords in bars 125 to 128 of No. 4, Andromaque (athletically portrayed by Dörte Lyssewski) and her son Astyanax (Philip Schroeter is outstanding as the pure child) appear in the gap. The crowd noisily leans forward to see her. Andromaque throws Hector’s golden belt into the box, presents her son to the moved choir, finally lifts him in front of her with outstretched arms, and afterwards tells him to climb up, alone, to Priam’s throne. With the first clash of cymbals (No. 6, bar 44) he sets his foot on the lowest step, passes Hécube, somewhat intimidated, and clambers on to Priam, who blesses him, after which the child descends and runs back to his mother. Cassandre’s comments are not heard, and the choir turns away from her. While the people’s emotion is still dying away, Énée (played rather reticently by Jon Villars) enters the stage with the gruesome, half devoured body of Laocoon. During the “Châtiment effroyable” chorus that follows, Priam and Hécube leave the throne, the latter to wrest Laocoon’s contribution for the box from his cramped hand. This portrayal of Hécube as a greedy woman, who scares little children, all in all appears odd and unmotivated. Énée ascends the throne and speaks to the crowd. Again everybody leaves through the narrow breach, only Cassandre is left behind in the middle of the stage, shocked.
When the procession with the horse is coming closer, men and women gather round Cassandre. The men deposit their arms in a circle on the floor around Cassandre, after which the women throw their red flowers with disdain on the pyre-shaped circle. And just when one is starting to think that this unsubtle equation “Cassandre = offering” was invented to save the trouble of showing a real wooden horse, a wonderful, huge horse, decorated with garlands, appears, being drawn from the right to the left behind the gap. The confusion of the choir after the clash of arms does not last too long, Cassandre remains unnoticed and the curtain comes down during the last bars of music.
Without applause and interval, the curtain rises again for act II. Ascagne (Gaële Le Roi performs the gestures and clumsiness of the young boy extremely well) brings a blazing lamp to his father, who is lying on a camp-bed. Ascagne poses with his father’s machine gun and runs off to the gap. In this scene, the gap leads to a brick and mortar hallway, running to the right, through which the light that illuminates the scene is falling. The white floor, which until now was sloping to the back, is gradually divided by a black crack, running along the diagonal from the front on the left to the right. The right part of the floor is lowered on a more horizontal level, and out of the crack the body of Hector emerges (Detlef Roth is ghostlike enough). One might question whether it makes sense to have Énée singing “Ô lumière de Troie!” to the lamp, before he walks closer to the spot, where the ghost of Hector is projecting from the ground … After Énée has received his nstructions, symbolised by a golden laurel-wreath handed to him by Hector, the crack closes. The injured Panthée (Tigran Martirossian always shows presence) stumbles into the semicircle, followed by some warriors carrying machine guns, who, together with Ascagne (armed with a bow), take the oath of allegiance to Énée. The curtain comes down and remains there for a long time, because after the pauses (No. 13, bar 159) the 2nd Insertion is heard: the Lamento, without its first 16 bars or so, which Berlioz composed as a Prologue for the performance of “Les Troyens à Carthage”.
After a modulation the curtain is up again and shows the 2nd scene – which differs so little from the 1st scene of act II we are still in, that one wonders whether for that change of scenery a solution without reference to the Prologue could have been thought of. (What has changed is that the crack in the floor is there again, only larger so that at its widest spot it could contain a man standing upright; to the left and to the right of the gap in the wall, the Trojan women are crouched shoulder to shoulder along the wall, and behind the gap one sees a huge Greek column.) Here is David Charlton’s comment on the Lamento played at that point [David Charlton is a member of the Comité International Hector Berlioz]. Shrugging his shoulders, he said, not entirely without irony: “Nice to hear it.”…
As soon as it becomes obvious that Cassandre is suggesting collective suicide, some five women try to run away to the left and to the right or to hide in the crack. Yet they are spied, cursed and chased through the gap. Holding their black veils like sticks with both arms stretched above their heads and shaking in a trance, prepared to die, the women receive the Greeks (Frédéric Caton plays the chef grec) and most of them strangle themselves.
After an interval of 1 hour the red line at the bottom of the stage has become blue, and, astonishingly, all the Carthaginians wear blue gloves! Confronted with such broad hints, it is perhaps not surprising that the spectator, steeled by countless school theatre productions, starts wondering whether the colours of the Carthaginian court might have any political significance (blue gloves, black suits and dresses … blue/black … you get the meaning?); and whether the people on the stage, cheering and drinking, were not intended to mirror the chatting crowd that has just moved from the foyer back into the theatre. These very critical thoughts fade immediately when Didon (Deborah Polaski is impressive in the role) is hailed by the people, because after her invitation to the “constructeurs, matelots et laboureurs”, to approach her in order to receive their "justes récompenses", the 2nd Cut attracts one’s attention: Nos. 20, 21 and 22, the three entrées of the above-mentioned groups, are missing. One proceeds immediately to bar 18 of No. 23, i.e. the melody of the Chant National, interspersed with comments by the choir. During that number some subjects kneel before Didon to receive their medals. The scene is closed with the 3rd Insertion: in order to facilitate an organised exit of the choral masses through the notorious (Trojan …) gap in the wall behind Didon’s throne, the Chant is extended by a repeat. In addition, one hears the theme of the Chant National twice in a minor mode before the beginning of the duet Didon/Anna (Yvonne Naef provides excellent support).
The director had a slightly luckier hand with the acting of Didon in that scene than in most parts of the production, where there seems to be no real concept of acting at all. The way Didon rises from her throne and approaches the crowd to take some individuals out of it, to express her ties with her subjects (which gives meaning to the lines “reine par la beauté, la grâce, le génie, et reine par l’amour de ses sujets heureux”), as well as her crouching on the stairs next to her throne, alone with Anna, hardly after the people have left, is very well developed. But the next scene is less well thought out: Iopas (Ilya Levinsky is very lyrical later, in his song) announces the guests, but leaves early, so that Didon replies into the void. Even worse, the Queen is left alone with armed strangers, and indeed three of them gather in a menacing way around her, as if any moment they would start to rape her. Together with the carriers of two aluminium boxes containing the arms, the rest of the Trojans, including Ascagne, enter the stage. Énée, crowned with his golden laurel, remains in the doorway (the gap). Shortly before, the throne of Didon has been carried away by two men – after they had chased away a tired Trojan who was taking a rest (like the revolutionary who sat on the throne of Louis Philippe after the assault on the Tuileries).
The rest of the plot takes place in a rather predictable way. Ascagne takes the sceptre, veil and crown out of the treasure box from act I and shows them to Didon. Narbal (throughout Robert Lloyd’s singing, countenance and figure are magnificent) announces with horror the new threat. Cries for arms can be heard from offstage, amplified by loudspeakers. Énée reveals, quite impressively, his identity to the queen. Little Ascagne, who at the first cry of war has abandoned his bow for a machine gun, which he snatched from an adjacent Trojan, has to give his weapon back with disappointment, in order to stay with his foster-mother. The Trojans and Carthaginians are supplied with weapons from the aluminium boxes and – a problem with all performances at this point – queue in front of the only exit (the gap) as in front of a counter, singing paradoxically “Volons à la victoire” … accompanied by beautiful martial music.
But in this performance this impression is deflected. The curtain falls on a lasting picture: the women are left behind, hesitatingly waving to their husbands; and all of a sudden one understands: it starts all over again! The Trojans know nothing but war, war is the foundation of their acceptance by the Carthaginians, and already now there can be no doubt that Énée will of course prefer war to love. The losers are now: the women, later: the more peaceful minds (the two sentinels and Hylas) and eventually: Didon – and together with her: Love.
Again there is no time for applause. Act IV with its 1st scene, the Chasse royale, is closely linked, at first with lowered curtain, that rises with the first fanfare of the horns to show the standard décor for the first time very much changed in colour. Through the gap a green jungle can be seen, from which a fallen tree is strikingly projecting into the semicircle. The space is all pale yellow, the left part of the ground is lowered along the crack so that Ascagne can comfortably hide behind the dune-like hill, after he has entered the stage as Cupidon and shot an arrow, that shines red, into the ground. Didon and Énée approach the cave at a stately pace, and walk from opposite sides (attracted by the arrow?) at the same slow speed towards each other at the very front of the stage, symmetrically, until they embrace and kiss. The curtain comes down, and the Chasse closes in the dark. Now and then, a dazzling white lightning has illuminated the whole of the stage.
This sounds a rather prudent production, not as ridiculous as the dances in Milan in 1996, but still far, far away from an impressive setting of that scene. Why does one not turn to a different media here: the film? – And that is exactly what they thought in Salzburg: Films are projected on the two white (now rather yellow) walls (of the cave)! But this is an anti-climax. One gets repeated snippets of a sea battle taken from some monumental epic “Ben Hur” style movie from the 60s. After one has seen the same soldier falling into the galley oars for the fifth time, shortly after the ship’s deck has caught fire, one wonders why good ideas lead so often to such unsatisfactory results. Finally one thinks: If only there had been more lightning, because during those short moments, the projections disappear from the walls … A wasted opportunity.
The curtain being lowered in time warrants a fast change of décor, so that there are no insertions before the 2nd scene, the duet between Anna and Narbal. This is an opportunity to mention the truly wonderful, permanently surging Mediterranean, which can be seen through the gap and which stretches to an imaginary horizon, forming a bracket around the three last acts (with the one exception of the Chasse). A detail maybe, but a masterly performance on the part of the stage technicians.
With No. 32 Marche pour l’entrée de la reine, from which only the first four bars are played, and which thus consists but of the "Gloire à Didon" motif played twice, the 3rd and last Cut occurs: the ballets Nos. 33 A, B and C, and, as a consequence, a few bars from No. 34, in which Didon mentions the ballets.
In the meantime Didon and Énée are placed at centre stage, on large, deep blue cushions with golden fringes, underneath a huge seraglio lamp, surrounded by Anna, Narbal and Ascagne, with Panthée leaning, bored, at the gap in the wall, while Iopas is standing behind the loving couple and singing above their heads about playful sheep. The monotonous gestures of Iopas could be intentional, since Panthée is visibly uncomfortable with Iopas’ song (he would probably frequently glance at his wristwatch if only he had one). There is some good acting during the quintet, since Ascagne snatches the ring from Didon twice, and both times Narbal is trying, in vain, to restore the constitution by handing the piece of jewellery to Didon.
The heaven above the sea has steadily turned darker, so that by now the stars have emerged. The septet enchants all participants and for the love duet, Didon and Énée are left alone, though together with Ascagne, who has fallen asleep behind the heap of cushions. One wished that here at last the omnipresent walls would fall down or were pulled to the sides, to give a full view of the starry sky. But for such a theatrical, magic moment, which is so simple to obtain, obvious, effective, supported by the score and overwhelming each time one sees it, one has to go to see Handel’s “Semele” at the English National Opera.
It should be noticed that the two lovers leave their bed for the duet, so that Énée can sing his high c flat in the best position at the edge of the stage. Eventually, back on their cushions, they fall asleep. This is when Mercure (in Salzburg: Panthée) enters the room. He shouts “Italie!” three times in Énée’s direction, which causes Énée to rise resolutely and sure of his purpose, as if this was the agreed signal. Ascagne is wakened. With disdain he throws the ring on the empty cushion next to Didon and follows his father.
Time for the second interval of 25 minutes.
Hylas the sailor (Toby Spence is expressive and at the same time intimate) sings his song of homesickness sitting at the far right corner of the stage, where the beam of a beacon (!) touches him now and then. Two more pieces of movable scenery conjure up a harbour atmosphere: a boat with oars, around which Hylas’ comrades are sleeping, and a huge anchor of Cunard Line dimensions, apparently thrown through the gap, and thereby opening again the familiar crack in the floor, from where Hector has emerged in act II. Thus, the anchor is not just the same anchor one is familiar with from other productions of “Les Troyens” or “Der Fliegende Holländer”, but is really motivated, since it is in this 1st scene of act V that the ghosts, and among them Hector, will appear again to remind Énée of his mission.
Hardly has Hylas joined his colleagues and fallen asleep, when Panthée wakes the sailors. Just two soldiers (Frédéric Caton, Gudjon Oskarsson) are staying and lament their fate, sitting in the boat. One of then is rowing in the air – and in the wrong direction, until his colleague notices the mistake. The two flee from Énée, who arrives with Ascagne, throw a last glance around the corner of the gap and disappear. Énée sings of his remorse to his son until the ghosts appear again, as shadows larger than life projected on the wall, to put Énée on the right track once more. Didon can only delay but not prevent Énée’s departure: the crack in the ground is running between them, Didon implores Énée from top left to bottom right. And when she suggests to leave Ascagne at her court, he hurries to his father, obviously relieved that the cries of “Italie” of the Trojans summon his father for departure. The curtain comes down and the 4th Insertion rings out: the horn fanfares from the Chasse royale are played, isolated, off stage and, appropriately for the situation, sound lonely and abandoned.
The décor of the 2nd scene is identical with the 2nd scene of act IV, only that the cushions too look abandoned now, and that Anna and Narbal are standing around looking rather perplexed. Didon puts down the insignia of her sovereign authority, cape and crown, while she is saying farewell, both moved and moving.
A last curtain, then the 5th Insertion: the Cérémonie Funèbre (“Dieux de l’oubli”) is extended. The rhythm of that march is played by timpani and double basses several times before the chorus enters, when the curtain is up again. The priests, each of them with a torch, are standing along the walls, supervising the building of a cube shaped pyre out of large rail sleepers. The offerings (two sheep and two rams) are placed in front of the pyre. On those, Narbal, Anna and Iopas put the sceptre, veil and crown of the Trojans. Didon ascends the pyre. The priests, suspecting perhaps that she has sinister intentions, approach the pyre; and when Didon stabs herself, they do the only right thing: they run away through the gap … Anna alone tries to reach up to the pyre to her sister – in vain.
During Didon’s vision of Eternal Rome, a huge bird’s eye view of some model of a Nazi-style Munich or Berlin has appeared behind the gap – and all of a sudden, all members of the three choirs enter the theatre and place themselves in front of the stage around the huge pit and along the side-walls as far as the lateral doors, carrying red and blue banners. This takes some time, so that the last, the 6th Insertion stretches the music once more (bars 10 to 18 of No. 52 are played without the choir, before they are repeated with the singers shouting their dissonant “Haine!”). That cry, out of so many throats, placed in that arrangement, so close to the audience, all across the wide front stage, executed with a power not heard before in that opera, accompanied by the breaking and burning of all banners and the falling of a black cover in front of the Berlin-Munich-Rome prospect, warrants that the end of the opera should make one’s hair stand on end.
Among the exceptional achievements at the première were: in the first place the Choirs (Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Slowakischer Philharmonischer Chor, Tölzer Knabenchor, director: Donald Palumbo), who not only did not drag or drop in pitch, but who played the “true” main part in the opera; then Deborah Polaski, who was brilliant in both roles; Jon Villars, whose good performance was somewhat overshadowed by Polaski’s; and also Russell Braun (Chorèbe), Robert Lloyd (Narbal), Yvonne Naef (Anna) and Toby Spence (Hylas).
In a few isolated places, particular instrumental groups of the Orchestre de Paris had problems with ensemble playing. However, the great exactness wih which Cambreling had at every moment total control of the combination of choirs, soloists, the players off stage and in the pit was extraordinary and an achievement of exceptional rarity. He applied rather broad tempi, as he had already done last year in Salzburg for “La Damnation de Faust”, though this year to a smaller extent. This might not be seen as adequate in every case, but it might also be a consequence of the unusually wide pits in Salzburg (“La Damnation de Faust”: Felsenreitschule, “Les Troyens”: Großes Festspielhaus). The four harps at the very left end were about 35 meters away from the percussion group at the very right end, which already means a time delay of a tenth of a second (incidentally, the percussion sounded too loud all the time, at least on the right side of the stalls). Those rather slow tempi however made possible at times an analytical insight into Berlioz’s sound textures, which one usually does not get. This is Cambreling’s strength in general, to make vertical structures evident. The Chasse royale (which he did not take too slowly at all) must be mentioned as the best example here. This is easily turned into a mélange of horns and cries, with its different layers of even and odd meters and the players placed everywhere around the stage. Here, as well as in all the large choral scenes (“Châtiment effroyable”), the orchestra under Cambreling came close to perfection. Yet in general the orchestra lacks the last touch of finish to be ranked at the moment among the very best orchestras.
This became evident in the second performance on 28.07.2000, when in the two first acts the orchestra’s playing left much to be desired; also the singers seemed to be holding back somewhat, and among the choir an occasional lack of concentration in the acting could be noticed. After the interval however, all this was put aside, and the evening ended as did the première with loud cheers.
Cuts and Insertions
The cuts had to hurt every Berliozian. Had the rest of the production been conspicuous for its triviality and its bad presentation from the technical and musical point of view, in short if the opera had been presented in an unsatisfactory way to the audience, massive protest would have been justified. But given the reaction of audience and press, it still must have been for many members of the audience a revelation of a masterpiece, similar to the unveiling of a Greek statue, with all its limbs intact, only that the veil that covered the statue got caught at the right foot and was thus not showing all of the statue’s grandeur.
The insertions were executed and chosen with imagination and skill, in my opinion; the only reservation I have concerns the Lamento. For the rest it has to be stated that even for the listener who was well acquainted with the score, the additional music was not necessarily all painful. To return to the image of the statue: having a closer look, one sees that the nose and the little finger of the left hand had to be replaced by plaster copies, but the production has been very observant in adjusting the colour of the plaster to that of the original marble.
Once again: one should always try to avoid cuts and insertions at (almost) any cost. Should this prove impossible, the arrangements should be executed with care, imagination and great technical skill. This was mostly the case in Salzburg – “mostly”, since some of the new modulations were rather harsh.
A production which in particular scenes found adequate and memorable images, but which also created its own problems with the decision to have a standard scenery (the gap …). The achievements of the singers were very good throughout the cast and the opera, and the excellent choirs deserve to be singled out. Considering the consequences and importance of such a success of Berlioz and Les Troyens in Salzburg, one has to say, if forced to quantify the success: 9 out of 10.
One hour before the second performance on 28.07.2000 I was able to talk to the conductor Sylvain Cambreling on this subject.
Braam: Berlioz, barely disguised as Lélio, gets quite angry about arrangers, “those who dare to lay their desecrating hands of corruption upon our masterpieces, and to call their horrible mutilations by the name of improvements”; the same Berlioz is enough a man of the theatre to compose the required recitatives for Weber’s Der Freischütz, in order to warrant the performance at the Paris Opera at all. This year’s production of Les Troyens was arranged with cuts, but also with several insertions. What would have been Berlioz’s comment?
Cambreling: You have already supplied me with arguments: I would also have quoted the Weber-recitatives as a kind of ‘proof’. Berlioz never had the possibility of testing the Troy acts on the stage. If he had had the opportunity, he would have noticed that at some points there is simply not enough music, e.g. for the exits of the choral masses and changes of scenery. It is very easy, in act II, to write a pause on the last note, during which the scenery has to change from Énée’s sleeping chamber to the temple. One cannot simply hold that note for ever and ever. I am sure that Berlioz would have looked at these practical questions in a cool and pragmatic way, and that he would have taken care, by composing some music for such passages, that the great links in his score can develop without an interval. Because these great links exist, as they exist in Wagner’s scores of course. Only that Berlioz was not a perfectionist as Wagner was. Not from the musical point of view, heaven forbid!, but from the point of view of the possibilities of technical representation.
Braam: The numbers which were left out are the ‘usual’ cuts: the ballet in act I and the three ballets in act IV, as well as the three entrées in act III. These pieces together last c. 16 minutes. Were those cuts motivated only by the time that might thus be saved?
Cambreling: No, not at all. It was in most cases a question of what was happening on the stage. Take the ballets in act IV. Firstly, those are pieces which Berlioz wrote to obey the conventions of the Opéra in Paris of his time. In addition, act IV is the act of boredom: the action stops after the Chasse royale. Didon herself says to Iopas that even his song cannot amuse her. It is already a problem to illustrate the sequence of the duet between Anna and Narbal, the quintet, septet, and duet in that act on the stage without tedious passages and in a sensible way. The ballets make things even worse. Here, a dogmatic adherence to the score is really of little help. And finally, the music of the three ballets is not really among the best that the score has to offer. Of course we wondered whether it was possible to keep at least the third ballet of the Nubian slaves. This is early exoticism, Salammbô is not too far away; but then one would have had to deal in some way with the question of racism, since these are African slaves; but for that, the music is too short. [c. 1 min 25 s. GB.] It would have been too difficult to find a clear concept if such an additional item had to be considered.
Braam: More unusual than the cuts are the insertions, e.g. the stretching of the march in act I, the insertion of the Lamento between the 1st and 2nd scene in act II, or the quotation of the horns from the Chasse during the change of scenery from the 1st to the 2nd scene in act V. Were these all required by the stage?
Cambreling: There were two main reasons. On the one hand, the alternative for the change of scenery would have been to accept rather long stretches without any music, the audience would have started to speak etc. and the tension, the links which I have already mentioned, would have been lost. Instead, we have also extended the march of the priests in act V at the beginning of the last scene, when the curtain is still down, by letting the timpani and double basses play the rhythm, which also adds a little momentum of Verfremdung. On the other hand, it just takes time for the chorus to come on stage and leave again. It just takes time, in the finale, until all three choirs are arranged around the pit, which is why we play the Imprécation at first purely instrumentally, before the choir enters with the cry “Haine!”. In all those cases of insertions, music composed by Berlioz was taken from the score and “borrowed”, e.g. attached before the march of the priests. I would like to emphasise that this is only an arrangement of the score, and in particular no improvement! This is valid for this production only, it will not be printed, it was executed for purely pragmatic reasons. I would of course prefer to play the score as it is printed, but if this is impossible due to the reasons mentioned above, you have to have some idea what to do instead.
Braam: Why did you not only choose music taken from Les Troyens, but also, for the change from the 1st to the 2nd scene of act II, the Lamento, composed by Berlioz as overture for the première of the truncated version Les Troyens à Carthage in 1863?
Cambreling: This is only a version of the duet between Cassandre and Chorèbe from act I in a much broader tempo and transposed into a minor key. As an intermezzo during the change of scenery it makes sense at this place, because one will soon hear that Chorèbe was killed. The decision to quote the call of horns from the Chasse as filler between the 1st and 2nd scene in act V was motivated by a similar consideration: Énée has just informed Didon about his final decision to depart. And then this music, coming from afar, reminds one of the only moment in this production when Didon and Énée embraced.
Braam: Finally a question on the concert: in your interpretation of the Symphonie fantastique, you played the repeat in the first movement, but not in the fourth.
Cambreling: This, for me, is simply impossible: the Marche au supplice is a dream, and in a dream, you just don’t go back and start the dream again. The dream does not repeat itself.
(Sylvain Cambreling is Principal Conductor of the SWR-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden/Freiburg, together with Michael Gielen und Hans Zender. With that orchestra he has performed Les Nuits d’été and Roméo et Juliette, the latter available on CD at the Südwestrundfunk’s own label. The Symphonie fantastique and Lélio are scheduled for 2001, the Requiem for 2002.)
Berliozian Human Interest
Present at the première were large sections of the Comité International Hector Berlioz (Jean-Pierre Bartoli, Professor Peter Bloom, David & Rosemary Cairns, David Charlton, Ulrich Etscheit, Yves Gérard, Georges-François Hirsch, Professor & Mrs. D. Kern Holoman, Catherine Massip, Jean Mongrédien, Cécile Reynaud, M. & Mme Alain Rousselon, Rémy Stricker, and the author of these lines). Mr. Scheuch & Mrs. Scheuch-Vötterle from Bärenreiter publisher’s would, of course, also not miss the performance.
On the second performance, fellow members Mr. & Mrs. Dieter Muck from Augsburg, as well as Mr. & Mrs. Steding from Munich attended. So did Christian Wasselin from France (author of Les deux ailes de l’âme). I am especially happy to report at least three new (proto-)Berliozians, to judge from their reactions to the music and the conversations we had during the interval: the couple sitting to my left on the 28th and the person sitting to my right on the 24th.
See our Berlioz Discography for details of a DVD release of this performance.
By John B. Ahouse
Concert performances of Béatrice et Bénédict were given on 15 and 16 July this year  by students of the Colburn School for the Performing Arts, at Zipper Hall in Los Angeles.
The performance was a delight. If I understood the program notes correctly, the young singers had studied “Béatrice” and little else for the previous six weeks of their workshop, so they had the Berlioz vocal line down to perfection. The chamber-scaled version had been streamlined, but not horribly so. After the opening flourish, the overture ended with the andante, which Berlioz has written as a full close, so no harm done there. This spared listening to the whole of the piece played on two pianos, which might have been a little wearying; yet the symmetry of beginning and ending the opera with the same music was preserved. More substantially, the whole of Somarone was put out to pasture. In the scene of the rehearsal, it was Bénédict who stumbles onto the singers, tells them they should be ashamed of their bawling, then listens approvingly with head cocked to one side as they try it again – only to duck under one of the on-stage pianos when his friends show up to begin their intrigues.
It’s a young person’s story, of course, and the exuberance of the cast was entirely fitting. They acted their Shakespearean lines with the verve of an end-of-term theatrical and switched seamlessly to their sung parts in French. The singers who performed Hero and Ursula acquitted their music flawlessly, but youthful and spontaneous as they were, they could also allow themselves an intimacy you’d not often see on a concert stage. In the first part of their duet the two women folded in and out of one standing embrace after another, but for the second half they sat entwined on their Roman bench, cheekbone pressed to cheekbone, their close harmony emanating virtually from a single source. And at the end, when Bénédict accepted his fate and kissed Béatrice for the first time, it was with (as they say) “a real kiss”. The composer would have loved it.
John B. Ahouse
Los Angeles, California
Reviewed by Vincent Arlettaz; translated by Michel Austin
(You will find the original French text on our Comptes-rendus de concerts page under the Pre-2003 rubric.)
Salle Pleyel, 17 and 18 February 2000
The great cycle of “Berlioz 2003” concerts has just started in Paris, and has already brought us some magnificent moments. Next to the Damnation de Faust, the Te Deum, and the Symphonie Fantastique, there are two less well-known works that surely deserve more than a passing mention: the Huit Scènes de Faust of 1829, and the fragments that have been recovered of the youthful opera Les Francs-Juges (1825-26).
After the concerts on February 17th and 18th last, stirred by the impact of these works and their undoubted success, some have gone as far as to suggest that even though the composer disowned them, they might nevertheless become part of the standard repertoire, in which their very shortness should help them to find a place easily. But this does not seem so obvious: the extracts from the Francs-Juges, though musically very exciting, are now too fragmentary to arouse the enthusiasm of the regular opera-going public. As for the Scènes de Faust, musical illustrations as it were inspired by Goethe’s masterpiece and captured live, they were never thought of as performing works: the two arias of Marguerite follow each other immediately and create a feeling of redundance where contrast and variety are required; the work ends with a serenade for tenor and guitar, which though exquisite does not have the brilliance and impetus of a genuine finale. Besides, to change the sequence of these movements would go against the progression of the drama which is being played out in the background.
Yet though it may be doubted whether these works can achieve a lasting place in the repertoire, to discover them was a truly thrilling experience, which was warmly embraced by the enthusiastic audience in the Salle Pleyel. Only the overture to Les Francs Juges is nowadays well known. It was magnificently played by the Orchestre de Paris. The sonority, intonation and power of the brass were astonishing, especially in the famous D flat theme at the start. Concert performances of this overture are rare and that is a great pity, for the work bears absolutely no resemblance to what may be heard on record. Only a live performance enables one to understand properly what Berlioz was attempting here.
The other fragments of the Francs Juges are unfortunately rather overwhelmed by this electrifying overture. One notes however a fine duet for tenor and bass in which Olmérick and Christiern, two of the francs juges, plot the murder of Arnold the hero. This piece, full of Berliozian fire, though still very classical in form, was also very well performed (especially by the baritone François le Roux), and scored a great success.
By contrast the following two numbers illustrate the pastoral and melodic vein inspired in Berlioz by the example of Weber’s Freischütz. For the chorus “L’ombre descend dans la vallée”, he makes use of a melody from the mountains of the Gruyère, the famous “ranz des vaches”, in other words the popular hymn of the French Swiss. It seems very unlikely that this melody will have reached his native Dauphiné, and Berlioz probably derived it from one of the collections of folk music which started to appear in his time, and whose influence can also be traced among his contemporaries, notably in the overture to Rossini’s William Tell.
But the Chorus of Shepherds is particularly remarkable for its spatialorganisation: Berlioz calls for small groups of instrumentalists and choristers, which he places in all corners of the theatre, in the wings, in the flies etc. This kind of echo effect, very ingenious in itself, is nevertheless very difficult to bring off in performance, since it is very easy for the ensemble to get significantly out of step. All the same this passage shows the young Berlioz’s creative imagination in a field he was to explore later as a pioneer.
There is on the other hand little to be said of the nocturne which follows, “Le ciel et les voluptés”, a charming piece with harmonies of classical purity. By itself this piece is a sufficient reply to those who claim that Berlioz was incapable of providing the “correct” harmony for a simple waltz.
The last fragment, the hymn of the francs–juges “Des célestes décrets”, is a chorus for men’s voices of magnificent intensity, the unusual form of which is extremely interesting. The repeat is sung in identical form by the chorus, but is varied by the orchestra, notably with colourful interjections by the brass and rhythms in the percussion that are highly original and daring for their time.
The Scènes de Faust
Only 3 or 4 years separate the Francs Juges from the Huit Scènes de Faust (1829). The significance of this last work is however altogether different, as one can recognise there many passages which were reproduced in their entirety in the Damnation of 1846 and are among its finest moments. That applies to virtually the whole of the Ballad of the King of Thulé (which was transposed from G to F), to the song of Brander (“Certain rat”), that of Mephistopheles (“Une puce gentille”), and three quarters of Marguerite’s wonderful romance (“Une amoureuse flamme”). These pieces are important, as they show Berlioz at the age of 26 beginning to display the genius which still today fills us with admiration.
But in many other passages, Berlioz when revising his work in 1846 modified considerably the form of his musical ideas, if not their substance. In the majority of cases the orchestration has been considerably improved. In the Chorus of Sylphs in particular he eliminated some vocalises for the sopranos the effect of which was very ponderous. A similar reworking was carried out in the first of the eight scenes, the Easter Hymn, and its harmony was also considerably revised, to become the masterpiece of modulation that we know. The stanzas of the Peasants’ Dance (“Les bergers quittant leurs troupeaux”) were originally given to a solo tenor, a graceful effect, but somewhat overwhelmed by the massed chorus singing the refrain.
Finally, and perhaps more important, the Chorus of Sylphs was very extensively revised, though its musical substance remained identical. One regrets that on February 18th it was performed by the full chorus when Berlioz asked here for a sextet of soloists. It would surely have been extremely interesting to hear the difference in a live performance.
One final point, though an important one. Faust does not appear here at all: consequently Berlioz was able to assign to a tenor the role of Mephistopheles, which gives the part a lightness and elegance of character, which, rather surprisingly, is even more diabolical, far more alert and malevolent in its effect than the baritone one is used to. The contrast is particularly striking at the end of the song of the flea: where a bass struggles with resounding high Fs, the tenor moves with ease and lightness in the best tones of his register. It was well worth being at the Salle Pleyel on February 18th, if only to hear the words “écrasons-la soudain”, sung with deliciously ironic lightness by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt.
A recording soon?
In sum, though it seems unlikely that these Huit Scènes de Faust will find a permanent place in the concert repertoire, they fully deserve to be recorded and made available to the public*. Exactly the same applies to the fragments of the Francs-Juges. Together with the Messe Solennelle of 1824, these two scores help us to understand better a particularly crucial period in Berlioz’s career, and illustrate eloquently the astonishing speed at which his genius developed.
Translated by Michel Austin
* A CD of this live performance of the Huit Scènes de Faust has now been released by Erato Musique (see the choral section of Berlioz Discography for details).
By James Morris
My wife, Dixie, and I had the good fortune March 26, 1999, of hearing the North Carolina Symphony with the Choral Society of Durham and the Duke University Chapel Choir perform the Requiem in the chapel of Duke University, Durham, N.C.
Dr. Rodney Wynkoop, Director of University Choral Music, conducted . . . and conduct he did.
To our surprise, this was one of the finest live performances either of us has ever heard. Nearly perfect!
The bands were in the proper location and the balance of forces was beautiful... and the chapel (a 20th century reproduction of a gothic cathedral) did very well in the acoustics department, again to our surprise.
This was the only time I have heard the Sanctus sung by 10 male voices in unison (as H.B. does suggest in the score), and it sounded lovely. It solves many of the problems that having a solo part introduces.
The dynamic ranges were wondrous, the choral work beautiful, and the overall effect electrifying and sublime at the same time.
H.B would have been pleased. I only wish the entire world could have been there.
James C. Morris
By Ray and Gerry Moore
26 March 1999
The performance was held in the Gothic Duke Chapel on the West Campus of the Duke University in Durham, N Carolina.
The conductor was Rodney Wynkoop with the Durham Symphony Orchestra, and the Choral Society of Durham with the Duke Chapel Choir bringing the choral numbers to the 250 asked for by Berlioz.
The 4 superb brass sections were also positioned as asked for by Berlioz. The standard of the choral singing was superb, reflecting the tremendous tradition of fine choral singing in the whole State (in the same week we had attended performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Verdi’s Requiem in other parts of the state by other choirs of similar standard.).
The orchestra and choirs achieved every shade of dynamics demanded by the excellence of the conductor.
All in all, we regarded it as one of the best concerts of any kind we have ever attended. The only missing link was the absence of the solo tenor voice in the Sanctus, but here the choirs excelled themselves.
Ray and Gerry Moore.
(N.B. Ray attended from Dublin Ireland, Gerry attended from Winnipeg Canada.)
By Keith Gunnar
Benaroya Hall, February and March 1999
Seattle has been blessed with some wonderful Berlioz music this spring, with three selections being performed in the new Benaroya Hall. On February 11, 12, 13 and 14 Sir Neville Marriner conducted the Seattle Symphony in Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict overture, followed by Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier Suite and Brahms’ Violin Concerto. All of the performances were well done, and showed the wonderful acoustics of the new music hall. On March 24 the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mariss Jansons, played Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Sibelius Symphony No. 1. Both of these were stunning performances. The string and percussion sections were sensational and brought the audience to a 4 or 5 minute standing ovation after Symphonie fantastique. This ovation earned the audience an encore of a Slavonic Dance by Dvorák.
On March 25, 27 and 28 the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Zdenek Macal, performed Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été, sung by Frederica von Stade, plus Mozart’s overture to the Marriage of Figaro and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2. All were well done, but for me the highlight was Ms. von Stade’s performance of Les Nuits d’été. She has both a wonderful voice and a graceful stage presence. Seeing these performances live was a great experience. There is nothing quite like a live performance!
These three selections by Berlioz were quite varied and made me appreciate the genius of Hector Berlioz all the more.
The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997; Reviews of live performances page created in 1999; completely reorganised on 25 December 2008.
© Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.
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