The French themselves don't realise how beautifully French Les Troyens is

 12th October, 2006

The Aeneid, with the Odyssey, must surely be the Western world’s literary cornerstone. Berlioz knew it off by heart and his dream was to turn it into a great opera. He composed Les Troyens, a musical splendor with very explicit hints at Gluck, between 1853 and 1858, writing the libretto himself. It was created in 1863 at the Théâtre-lyrique, but was divided into two parts because Napoleon II never showed any support for it. The full version was presented in Paris between 1921 and 1961. Its five acts displays all the resources, subtlety and genius of a French composer totally misunderstood by his own people: it was only produced three time sin France since the Second World War: in 1961, with Régine Crespin as Dido; in 1990, directed by Pier-Luigi Pizzi, for the opening of the Opera Bastille; and in 2003 at the Châtelet with John Eliot Gardiner and Susan Graham.

So I was obviously delighted that Gerard Mortier, who has now established his style and répertoire and successfully produced several rather daring operas, has chosen Les Troyens as the highlight of this year’s season. He’s been telling me about it for months! This production was originally programmed by Gerard at Strasbourg, with Wernicke directing. His style is very much in the German mold and some of my friends disliked it. I found it subdued and rather elegant, well-suited to the rather cartesian libretto and music. The overwhelming symmetry betrayed neither Berlioz, nor Virgil.

The principals were essentially the same as at Strasbourg: Deborah Polaski (Cassandra and Dido) was superb. It’s a very difficult role and her vibrato was magnificent, rather Gounod-like, as a friend of mine pointed out. Gaëlle Le Roy (Ascagne) and Jon Villars (Aeneas), and a remarkable Iopas (Eric Cutler) provided the highlights of the evening.

But what I preferred about Les Troyens was the libretto. Its elegant style and symmetrical structure, which epitomises the French nineteen-century operatic style, is stunning. You couldn’t be more French than this. It’s a shame the French themselves don’t realise this and that this kind of thing is so rarely produced.