United Kingdom Prom 64 – Berlioz: Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique / Dinis Sousa (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 3.9.2023. (CK)
Berlioz – The Trojans
Cassandra – Alice Coote
Aeneas – Michael Spyres
Dido – Paula Murrihy
Coroebus – Lionel Lhote
Ascanius – Adele Charvet
Narbal – Alex Rosen
Panthus – Ashley Riches
Anna – Beth Taylor
Iopas/Hylas – Laurence Kilsby
Hecuba – Rebecca Evans
Hector/Trojan Sentry – Alex Rosen
Helenus – Graham Neal
A Soldier – Sam Evans
A well-known and famously opinionated London critic (who I forbear to name) once described The Trojans as ‘this long and unutterably boring opera’. I hope his shade was present in the Royal Albert Hall to hear – and see – last Sunday’s sensational performance of Berlioz’s masterpiece.
Any lingering thoughts of the unfortunate extramusical hype attached to this concert were blown away in seconds. Conductor Dinis Sousa strode on – to a reception that was as excited as it was enthusiastic – and we were plunged straight into the drama: the chorus streamed in from the wings, Trojans partying like there was no tomorrow (for them, there wasn’t), celebrating the apparent disappearance of the Greeks after ten years of war at the gates of their city. The singing and acting of the Monteverdi Choir was instantly stunning in its precision, its immediacy and its fierceness of feeling: later, in the Royal Hunt and Storm, they transformed themselves (movement director: Tess Gibbs) into a wind-lashed forest. Perhaps it is pertinent to recognise at the outset that this is above all a choral opera: they begin it in illusory ecstasy and they end it in cursing and hate (projected on this occasion with stinging force). There are probably plenty of operas bookended by the chorus (Die Meistersinger comes to mind) – but none that I know of where they are such a continuous and powerful presence. And here, of course, there is no overture: Berlioz pitches us in medias res, and never relaxes his grip.
No need here to dwell on Berlioz’s lifelong preparation for his summa, beginning with his boyhood love of Virgil, or on the work’s tortured performance history: at the Royal Albert Hall it simply exploded with extraordinary directness and impact. We were bowled over by the composer’s unerring sense of theatre and his limitless sonic imagination, his ability to conjure a startling – destabilising, even – spectrum of sounds and colours from the players: a sinister and unearthly quartet of bassoons, flickerings from flutes and piccolo, snarling trombones, slithering cellos and basses, a quietly menacing pulse on the bass drum. Then there is the drama and spectacle of Berlioz’s spatial effects, here fantastically coordinated and geared to the acoustic properties of the Albert Hall: the offstage saxhorn band appearing in the organ loft near the end of Act 1, and on both sides of the stage in the Royal Hunt and Storm – the storm itself terrifyingly announced by standing trombones. Geezer Butler, bass guitarist with Black Sabbath, once described Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as the first piece of Heavy Metal ever written: but surely Berlioz got there first.
Equally striking is Berlioz’s instinctive (or patiently crafted) dramatic sense, which never falters. Consider the structure of the first act, where the excited mass activity of the opening gives way to Cassandra’s solo anxiety, and her extended duet with her would-be lover Coroebus, whose passion blinds him to her increasingly distracted warnings; the stage filling again to the sound of the Trojan March, and the sudden silence as Andromache appears with her son, her feelings and those of everyone present entrusted to a solo clarinet; the shock announcement by Aeneas of the brutal death of Laocoon by supernatural intervention and the horrified reaction of all present; the march again in the distance as the Trojans bring the Wooden Horse into the city, apparently determined to ignore Cassandra’s warnings: Cassandra alone on stage, powerless to prevent them from bringing their destruction upon themselves. So many strokes of dramatic genius!
Among the soloists there were magnificent voices and no weak links. Two of them dominate the opera, and they are both women: Aeneas, freely and beautifully sung by the American tenor Michael Spyres, certainly makes his heroic mark, but he does not command the stage as steadily as Cassandra and Dido do. In the last three acts Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy was an affecting Dido, her voice light but airy and beautiful; she was well matched with Scottish mezzo Beth Taylor, feisty and womanly as her sister and confidante Anna, with an exceptionally rich chest register. Laurence Kilsby took both of the cameo tenor roles, singing most beautifully in Iopas’s O blonde Ceres and Hylas’s Vallon sonore – along with Aeneas and Dido’s O nuit d’ivresse the lyrical highlights of the opera. The French mezzo Adele Charvet made a lively and fetching Ascanius: Cherubino, whom she is to sing at Glyndebourne, should be a perfect fit for her. The American bass Alex Rosen was steadily impressive as Narbal, as was the British bass-baritone Ashley Riches as Panthus.
A couple of things before I come to Alice Coote’s Cassandra. I would not quarrel with anyone who maintained that the true hero of the evening was the Portuguese conductor, Dinis Sousa. He came on beaming, as if he couldn’t wait to get started, and he never seemed to run out of energy: he communicated his joy in Berlioz’s masterpiece to the players, the singers, and the audience too. He was right on top of the opera’s drama, its epic sweep, and of its multifarious detail: he was rewarded, rightly, with roars of appreciation.
The performance was thoughtfully lit (lighting designer: Rick Fisher): sometimes to provide interest during ballets or processions (a verdant green for Dido’s farm workers). There was red where appropriate, but the dominant colour spectrum ranged from yellow to bronze: and this struck me as appropriate. There are no prominent sopranos among the main cast: Cassandra, Dido and Anna are all mezzo-sopranos. And although Aeneas is a ringing tenor, and there are two famous arias for lyric tenor, much of the masculine music is distributed among baritones and basses. The ‘colour’ of the opera, vocally and also orchestrally, is a tawny, burnished gold: and I think that this was Berlioz’s intention.
Alice Coote’s Cassandra – fashioned and ennobled by Berlioz from three brief mentions by Virgil – had all the passion and the steel that the role demanded. Virgil wrote of ‘Arms and the Man’ – Arma virumque cano, as the Aeneid famously opens – but Berlioz is concerned not with the men who fight but with the women who suffer. He cares less about the age-old conflict between Love and Duty than he does about the lives that are crushed beneath the historical necessity of a predestined event (the supremacy of Rome). Cassandra is stronger than Dido (who is not able, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is, to achieve a tragic apotheosis), but she is doomed to be a victim, and she knows it.
Coote commanded the stage through the first two acts – well matched by the forthright performance of the Belgian baritone Lionel Lhote as her equally doomed lover Coroebus – and she achieved her own apotheosis at the remarkable conclusion of the opera’s first part, leading the women of Troy towards mass suicide. Berlioz is humane enough to have some of the women draw back in fear: in the libretto they are dismissed with contempt, but in this performance they were encouraged and absorbed back into the group. Perhaps this was the point where the performance lifted from the particular to the universal: the divide of three millennia vanished as we were brought face to face with the lot of women in war. Music and drama frequently move me; but I very rarely feel the pricking of tears. I did here.
The Berlioz scholar David Cairns wrote: ‘Verdi and Wagner express, unforgettably, the pain of loss and grief. With Berlioz…it is the pain itself, direct, unmediated.’ Ultimately it was this rawness and intensity that stamped this BBC Prom performance with greatness. Back in 1972 I made my first acquaintance with the opera at a Covent Garden Prom: an occasion notable for the house debut of the young Jessye Norman as Cassandra. (Jon Vickers was indisposed: we had a French Aeneas for Acts I and II; in Act III, Alberto Remedios appeared and sang Je suis Enee! to a huge cheer from the audience.) If I lived another 50 years – which seems unlikely – I would have memories of this performance just as vivid.
A footnote. When Alex Carey unsportingly stumped Jonny Bairstow in the Lord’s Test this summer, Stuart Broad told him ‘That’s all you’ll be remembered for’. This should not, will not be true of the man who has been revolutionising the performance of choral music and electrifying audiences for almost 60 years.