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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Berlioz: Les Troyens, Acts IV-V; Rameau: Pygmalion

04/29/2018 1:00 pm
04/29/2018 4:30 pm

 

Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

From the days of his childhood Hector Berlioz was fascinated with the stories contained in the Roman poet Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid. As a mature man and composer he resolved to turn this epic into a French grand opera along the lines of, and on the monumental scale of, those of Meyerbeer or the music dramas of Wagner. He slaved away on what he would later decide to call Les Troyens through the years 1856-58.

Berlioz conceived the opera in five acts. Book II of The Aeneid would comprise the first two acts. Books I and IV make up the third, fourth and fifth acts. The opera's action takes in Cassandra's prophecy about the fall of Troy to the Greeks with their wooden horse, the arrival of Aeneas and the Trojans in Carthage, leading to the love affair of Aeneas with Dido, the queen of Carthage, and Aeneas's desertion of the queen when he leaves for Italy to found the city-state of Rome.

Berlioz had a lot of trouble trying to get Les Troyens staged. In total frustration he was forced to settle for a mutilated version of his masterwork to be given as two separate operas at the Theatre-Lyrique in Paris in 1868. Unfortunately, I am forced to follow a similar pattern in presenting the complete Les Troyens as Berlioz intended it to be performed. I aired the first three acts last Sunday.

There's a new recording of Les Troyens out on four compact discs through Parlophone/Warner Classics. It was made live in concert performance in April, 2017 at the Erasmus Hall in Strasbourg, France. John Nelson conducts the Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus of Strasbourg, the Choir of the National Opera of the Rhine, and the Baden State Opera Chorus. In the singing cast is one of the best mezzo-sopranos of our time, Joyce DiDonato, portraying the Queen of Carthage.

Yes, Berlioz' grand opera is impressive to listen to, but when that's all done, Rameau gets the last word (or last note of music). Berlioz knew Rameau's music and revered his eighteenth century predecessor. Pygmalion (1748) is styled an Acte de Ballet certainly because ballet sequences played an important part in the staged presentation, as was the case in all of French opera in the baroque period. Rameau always provided sprightly and tuneful dance numbers. He outdid himself with both dance pieces and lovely vocal airs in this short one-act lyric theaterwork.

The story of the opera is ultimately derived from the Latin author Ovid's Metamorphoses. The sculptor Pygmalion creates the statue of a woman, then falls in love with his creation. Cupid, the god of love, brings the statue to life. The Graces teach the beautiful young lady various dance steps. Pygmalion was a huge success when it was first staged at the Royal Academy of Music in 1748. It received more than two hundred performances thereafter. It was still being performed in the 1780s.

Pygmalion was recorded in Vienna at the Theater an der Wien in 2017. Christophe Rousset conducts the period instrument players of Les Talens Lyriques and the Arnold Schoenberg choir, with vocal soloists. The French Aparte record label released Rameau's little gem of an opera on a single silver disc.