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Les Troyens

Discussion in 'Music & Music Streaming Services' started by Todd_A, Sep 18, 2005.

  1. Todd_A

    Todd_A
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    Late last year I decided to relisten to all four versions of Les Troyens that grace my collection to reassess their relative strengths and weaknesses. Then, wouldn’t you know it, I picked up a new version. It’s all self-indulgent, but so what? Here goes:



    Charles Dutoit

    I decided to start my long voyage through all of my recordings of Les Troyens. I decided to start with the best sounding but least impressive among them – though it is still a wonderful recording: Charles Dutoit’s 1993 Decca recording. It’s been a while since I last listened to this set, and fortunately, I actually like it a bit more this time around.

    I’ll start with that sumptuous sound. The St Eustache church is a near ideal location for this work: it is spacious, allowing for glorious, sound in the tuttis, but detail never suffers. The engineers did a spiffy job. Indeed, the warm and sumptuous yet detailed recording is so clean that I was listening at extremely high levels without realizing it. At one point, the phone interrupted the music, but the only way I could tell was the flashing light; I couldn’t actually hear the phone and it was less than three feet away. I decided to turn the volume down a bit to enjoy the rest. And enjoy it I did.

    I said before, I will say now, and I will undoubtedly say in the future that the crowning glory for this set is the incomparable Cassandra of Deborah Voigt. Whether contemplating her vision alone with Chorebus, or trying to warn the masses and even dear old dad, she is simply electric. And the concluding scenes of Act II where all the poor Trojan ladies meet their unfortunate fate benefits immeasurably from her powerful presence. The first two acts just glide by thanks to her singing.

    The rest of the opera is not quite as successful. The biggest problem is not the conducting, orchestral playing, or choral contributions, nor even the secondary characters: they are all excellent to outright superb. No, the problems are the two central roles: Gary Lakes’ Aeneas and Francoise Pollet’s Dido. Neither one is really up to the standard this work deserves. Pollet, especially, has begun to grate. Initially, I did not mind her too much. But she lacks tonal beauty and finesse, and she definitely lacks the power needed in the more hysterical or outraged scenes. Hearing others has merely made her seem less impressive. (If only Angela Gheorghiu could improve her French so as to sound French, she would make an outstanding Dido.) Lakes is simply not up to the task, either. His voice is neither large enough nor heroic enough. How could he inspire men to follow him over the lonely seas to Italy with such a wimpy voice? He could not. No, he will not do. I suppose these two weaknesses could almost be consider fatal – after all, imagine Tristan und Isolde with both a weak Tristan and a weak Isolde – but since there are so many characters and so many purely musical interludes, it does not matter as much.

    And everything else is fine. Dutoit leads an energetic and never dull reading, something rare for him. Okay, perhaps he should have taken the duet between Anna and Dido discussing the latter’s need of a man a bit more delicately and quietly, or he could have taken the hunt a bit more briskly, but these are quibbles. This is an excellent performance and a great way to start off my survey.

    Next up: Davis’ LSO recording. (It will probably be at least a few weeks before I get to the work again; after all, I don’t have that much free time.)



    Colin Davis (2000)

    I finally got around to stop number two on my Trojan voyage today, stopping on Colin Davis’ second recording on LSO Live. This was the set that got me acquainted with this work, and this was my fourth time through it. ‘Tis even better the fourth time around.

    I might as well start with the singers: in contrast to the Dutoit set, the two main leads are sung beautifully. Ben Heppner makes a satisfyingly heroic Aeneas. Whether heeding the calls of Hector’s ghost, or volunteering to fight alongside Dido’s troops against the vile Numidians, this is a leader of men, not the milquetoast presented by Gary Lakes. In the love duet with Dido, he is appropriately tender and loving, and when he makes his fateful decision to leave, he is torn. Yes, Mr Heppner makes a fine lead.

    Likewise, Michelle DeYoung makes an outstanding Dido. Her voice is pleasantly young and powerful, as one might hope for in this widowed queen, and when she sings of her lack of a husband – and her uncertainty as to whether she needs one – or of her pride in the Carthaginians’ accomplishments, there is a certain regal strength to her voice. Her portion of the love duet is moving, her voice simply lovely to hear. But when she is scorned, she vents appropriately. But she’s not all anger; when she realizes the gravity of the situation, there is sorrow and regret to temper the anger. When she’s singing, she’s the center of attention. I’d like to hear (and see) what she could do in an actual production.

    Petra Lang’s attempt at Cassandra is less successful. How ironic that she and Deborah Voigt were both in Thielemann’s Tristan, with Lang showing up the, um, bigger star, because here, she is no match for Voigt. First, Cassandra needs a proper soprano voice. The greater warmth and heft of Lang’s mezzo voice drains some of the urgency needed: Lang’s warnings and worries and screams just don’t make one stand at attention. She doesn’t generate the heat that Voigt does. Her duet with Chorebus is still strong, but that’s because of the excellent singing of Peter Mattei. No, her pleading with Priam is not convincing enough, her final proclamations of faith and fate with her fellow Trojan women is not moving enough. She’s not terrible, mind you, she’s just not great.

    As to other singers, well what can I say but that I love Sara Mingardo’s Anna. She is persuasively romantic when trying to convince Dido that she needs a man, and happily satisfied when she succeeds. When she sees what has happened as a result of the romantic liaison with Aeneas, she is quite remorseful. All told, she is a blessing. Stephen Milling’s Narbal is likewise quite good, and his duets with Anna are satisfying. When I consider the cast as a whole, there is no really weak link other than Lang, and she’s only weak when compared to the incomparable Voigt. Oh, and the choral contributions are uniformly superb, with perfect timing, heft, and pretty good diction. I think. (My only real complaint with the recording, aside from the slightly boxy sound, is that the chorus is less than ideally clear.)

    The star of the show, however, is unquestionably Davis. His command of this work is absolute. Every detail is lovingly attended to, and he never loses sight of the arc of the story. But those little (or big) touches are what jumps out. The storm and hunt are hair-raising in both sheer volume and intensity. When the whole stage is filled with singers about two-thirds of the way through Act IV, he keeps them all reigned in, with some lovely, soft playing from the strings and damped bass-drum playing and subdued choral singing. When the flutes segue to the string passage that opens the great love duet, the exchange is seamless and delicate. Whereas Dutoit ran a bit roughshod over the duets between Anna and Dido, here Davis is all nuance and detail in support of his singers. When Hector’s ghost appears in Act I, the tumult created by the orchestra is startling. And these are just a few of the numerous high-points. Throughout he maintains an incredible level of energy and dramatic oomph, if you will. While this work doesn’t quite make the hours melt away as Parsifal does, it never feels too long; indeed, one is aware of how much time has passed but one desperately wants to hear more! It is a miraculous achievement. Please, oh please, Colin, lead a full production of this work so we can see and hear the wonders of what you can do!

    I was struck while listening to this recording again by the fact that even though I really enjoyed hearing the Dutoit set again, this one really is in an entirely different category. The singing, orchestral playing, and conducting are all of such a high level that this surely is one of the best opera recordings of the digital age.

    Anyway, two down, (at least) two to go. In the bullpen: Rafael Kubelik.



    Rafael Kubelik (1960)

    [The below review was written in December 2003, and my views are more or less the same upon rehearing this.]

    After almost eight months without a new version of Les Troyens, I finally tracked down an affordable set of Kubelik’s 1960 La Scala recording on Myto. At Naxos-price I figured I should hurry and buy it. I’m exceedingly glad I did. This I Troiani is sung in Italian, and there are about 40 minutes of cuts, but on the whole, this is a great addition to my collection.

    First I’ll describe those cuts. What a shame that even a conductor of Kubelik’s stature either had to or chose to make major cuts. At least the work was staged. There are a number of small cuts along with some bigger cuts. In Act I, there is no interrogation of Sinon by Priam, which is not too great a cut, but a few of Cassandra’s warnings are missed as a result. Act III sees a number of cuts, including the entire section with the builders, sailors, and farmers parading for Dido, and much of the choral adulation for the queen is cut. What a shame. Act IV is butchered. The opening hunt sequence and the following exchange between Anna and Narbal is cut, and the rest of the act is jumbled. There is no first duet between Dido and Aeneas, making their later duets a little less intense, and it is difficult to follow. The act ends with an odd orchestral interlude that appears to be a mish-mash of the cut orchestral pieces.

    Enough of what is wrong with the performance, and on to what is right. Kubelik handles the still unruly piece deftly. The tempi are brisk, the phrasing emphatic when necessary, more relaxed when suitable. His dramatic sense equals all of the best stage minded conductors, and his timing is impeccable. Kubelik’s conducting here is further proof – as if it were needed – of his greatness. The singers are provided an outstanding musical backdrop to do their thing.

    The three lead characters are all very well done, with one great performance. Nell Rankin’s Cassandra is powerfully sung, and she can carry notes well, but there is something missing. Where is the foreboding near the beginning? Where is the hysteria at the end of the first act before all the Trojan women kill themselves? Alas, while the voice is good, the acting suffers. Deborah Voigt under Dutoit is the Cassandra for me.

    Giuletta Simionato’s Dido fares better. She has an attractive, suitably regal (read: grand) sounding voice, and she commands the stage well enough. She does not generate quite enough heat with Aeneas in their love duet, and her anger at the end seems more annoyance than rage, but she gets the message across nicely. None of the Dido’s I’ve heard have been fully satisfying. If ever her voice is up for the challenge, perhaps Angela Gheorgiu could do it. Perhaps she’ll try? I hope so.

    Now for the great performance: Mario Del Monaco as Aeneas. His voice is powerful and perfectly controlled, and he conveys the conflicted loyalties of the Trojan leader to great effect. His arias are superb (and one receives an appropriately long applause), and his half of the duets with Simionato are worth hearing. His Aeneas stands up to Jon Vickers quite nicely.

    All told it was an outstanding performance of the greatest opera of the 1850s. The audience was not enthusiastic enough, though. The applause is largely polite, except for the apparent love for some of the singers’ arias. Oh well, they didn’t know what they had. One problem I did have was that the Italian translation used differs markedly from the 1994 Decca translation, so following everything was a bit tricky at times. The sound of the set is fully acceptable, with only the occasional drop-outs, level changes, pitch problems, and variable hiss that one would expect from a radio broadcast of this vintage. If ever some premium reissue house gets a hold of the master tapes and gives it a full sonic brushing up, I’ll buy it. The skimpy notes state that Kubelik staged the work in 1957-58 at Covent Garden (in English!), so I’m hoping that some long-lost tape will appear at some point. Looks like I’ll have to go for the Beecham set in the mean time. Anyway, highly recommended for devoted fans of this opera.



    Colin Davis (1969)

    It had been long enough between encounters with this masterpiece, so I decided to spin the last version in my collection that I hadn’t revisited for this survey, and that is Colin Davis’ first version from 1969. The recording boasts Jon Vickers as Aeneas, so one can rest assured that at least one performance is satisfyingly dramatic. Most of the other singers are not exactly high on my name recognition list, but some of them do remarkable work.

    From the outset it is clear that in many respects that this version still sets the standard for this work. Davis leads an appropriately buoyant opening and the chorus enters with perfect heft, diction, and timing. (Throughout, the chorus dazzle with collective virtuosity and dedication.) When Berit Lindholm enters as Cassandra, her rich tone captivates, and she conveys her visions of doom in a most convincing manner. Her attempts to warn papa and others are sensational, but what really stands out is the thrilling duet with Chorebus. Indeed, this duet quite handily outdoes all others. No little praise goes to Peter Glossop as Chorebus, but surely the most praise must go to Colin Davis who leads a taut, tense accompaniment to spur his singers on. Ultimately, Lindholm’s Cassandra lacks that little intangible something that Deborah Voigt has for Dutoit, so she must be considered only the second best Cassandra on record, or at least among the Cassandras I’ve heard. Her accomplishment still demands attention, though.

    No qualifications need be made for Jon Vickers’ incredible Aeneas. He is intense, powerful, and moving as needed. Whether being confronted by Hector’s ghost and learning of his destiny, or offering to assist Dido in combat against the Numidians, or declaring his love for the Carthaginian Queen, or once again facing his destiny in Act V, he commands attention. He threatens to overpower other singers at times, but that’s only because they’re not up to his level. His tone perhaps is not as perfectly controlled as Mario Del Monaco’s, and perhaps the Italian has the slight edge in pure aural pleasantness (though he did get to sing in Italian), but Vickers’ is the center of attention and gravity. To an extent, this is his show, and he carries it well.

    That’s not to criticize Josephine Veasey’s Dido. Far from it: hers is perhaps the most satisfying overall portrayal out there. She is regal and imposing as Queen, vulnerable and anxious as a woman in love, and spiteful as a woman scorned. Never does she lose her poise, though, and never does her tone grate. I can still imagine better, but I can’t say that I’ve heard better. All of the other singers – some performing multiple roles – generally acquit themselves well, and no glaring weak link exists. That’s always welcome.

    As with the LSO Live set, though, the success of this recording comes down to Davis. He’s on top form. As already mentioned, his accompaniment is superb, but elsewhere he is unbeatable. The orchestral explosion when Hector’s ghost appears in spine tingling. The dances and marches in Acts III and IV epitomize flawless conducting. The Royal Hunt is a swelling tutti with appropriately sexual overtones. The theme accompanying Hylas’ lament to open Act V is filled with regret, foreboding, and beauty, each in perfect measure. Never does the pace of this massive work flag or drag. Quite the opposite. The time flies by most of the time, and even after four hours, one has the feeling that even more could have been made of the piece. Yes, Davis owns this work. It’s that simple.

    So, I’ve made it through all of my versions, and it looks as though I saved the best for last. Even though I find the Philips version the tops on CD, I’d probably still recommend the LSO Live to newcomers, because it’s cheaper and because it has that little extra bit of energy that only live recordings can muster. What to do now? Well, I’ve heard from a reliable source that Santa will be bringing me Gardiner’s DVD set for Christmas, so it looks like there’s at least one more Les Troyens in my future. And what did my eye spy at BRO but another complete version from 1974 headed by Rafael Kubelik with Jon Vickers on hand? Hmmm . . .



    John Eliot Gardiner

    This weekend I faced a dilemma. The newest Hollywood take on The Iliad, stripped of those pesky deities and filled with shots of that hunky Brad Pitt is now out on DVD. I could fill my home with sights and sounds of the Trojan War. Or, I could sit back and watch and listen to John Eliot Gardiner’s 2003 production of Berlioz’s masterpiece Les Troyens and enjoy a work of genius that focuses on the aftermath. Guess which one I chose.

    Forced by practical reality to split the work in two – ours is a single television household, so compromises must be made – I watched the first part last night and the second part today. The verdict? Outstanding. I’ll just get right to the point: as has been noted already in this thread, Anna Caterina Antonacci is the star of the show. Her Cassandra is second only to Deborah Voigt’s, and then only by the slimmest of margins. Since a good portion of Ms Antonacci’s success lies in her acting, she could very well beat out Ms Voigt if I got to see her perform. Hair splitting aside, she is a wonder. Her visions and proclamations, laced with fear and regret, are basically perfect. Whether trying to convince her husband, father, or other Trojans of their fate, she is on target. Her perfectly controlled voice and pained expressions make one wish that, just this once, her warnings would be heeded. Alas, it is not to be, and she dutifully kills herself along with the other young Trojan maidens. She may be no Veronique Gens,* but she certainly is pleasant enough to look at, what in the white and then black dresses, and she is quite pleasant to listen to in this role. Yes, Acts I and II belong to her.

    The rest of the show belongs to Susan Graham. She is quite good, though not perfect. Her slightly pinched, or nasally (or whatever you want to call it) top registers can divert one’s attention, but a few moments aside, she commands the stage, both with her singing and her formidable physical presence. (She’s one tall woman.) When she is lamenting her situation with Anna, and pondering her fate as Iarbas’ armies stand poised to pillage her kingdom, and when she is falling in love with Aeneas, she is regal, powerful and persuasive. Dido lives through her. Okay, maybe she could summon a bit more anger (just a bit) when confronting Aeneas about leaving, and maybe she could have been sadder after he leaves, but I’m talking a matter of degree. Yes, she is superb, too.

    Alas, Gregory Kunde’s Aeneas is not up to the two leading ladies, and he’s certainly not up to the best on record. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare him to Jon Vickers and Mario Del Monaco, but I couldn’t help it. Where is the awesome, heroic power of Del Monaco? Where the natural drama of Vickers? He emerges as a figure less than the two female leads, and while he still does an admirable job on his duets with Graham, she is the focus of attention every time they are together. His voice does sound pleasing, though, and when he offers to fight Iarbas, it is a noble moment. Yes, I suppose he will do.

    Of the rest of the cast, Ludovic Tezier’s Chorebus and Laurent Naouri’s Narbal are the most impressive. You can see that Chorebus wants to console Cassandra and make her happy, even if he is a doomed knave. Narbal is concerned for Carthage and wants to save the queen. Both are in fine voice, and both really deliver when needed. Also of note is Topi Lehtipuu’s Hylas: his aria opening Act V conveys a nice sense of homesickness, and his singing is beautiful. Renata Pukopic’s Anna is something of a disappointment compared to others, but she never sings less than competently and appropriate to the scene. I just hoped for more emotion and persuasiveness. After all, in her biggest scene she is trying to convince Dido of the need for a husband. The choruses sing absolutely splendidly, and the rest of the cast ably perform their respective roles.

    Since this is a full production, I now have to consider the staging. It’s a mixed bag for me. The faux armor looks rather silly at times, and the spare background in the second part can leave a bit to be desired. I’m not too keen on the ballets in Acts I. III, and IV, the long one in Act IV, in particular, testing my patience. The poor ballerinas who had to dance with fake white birds at the end of short metal rods, and that one poor lady who had four of them jutting out the back of her dress: it’s quite silly. Of course, watching young ballerinas dance is fun, and that one who does her little act on the big blue ball, well, that’s nice, but Berlioz’s ballets work better as music only. Perhaps a better choreographer is needed, who knows? And what’s with arming the warriors with guns? Yes, this is opera, and yes, it can be updated to more modern times – as the 1996 production of Handel’s Theodora demonstrates – but this is the Trojan War, with children of gods! Swords would have been more appropriate. Balanced against these criticisms is the use of that jumbo mirror / projection screen. This production shows how technology can be creatively employed, with scene appropriate imagery being projected during certain times. Indeed, when Hector’s ghost appears in Act II, it is first as a huge, amorphous and changing blue-on-blue portrait taking up the whole of the stage. I was hoping that his part would be sung that way, but it was not to be. Really, this kind of technique holds out promise for one day staging a Ring with appropriate looking giants, dragons, and slave-labor mines. And that big old mirror makes everything look larger and busier.

    That leaves the orchestral playing and conducting. Both are top-notch. The period-instrument Revolutionary and Romantic Orchestra play with drive, fire, and precision, their instruments providing color and texture absent in modern instrument recordings. Though they lack the heft and volume of a big, modern band, the loss is rarely (but not never) missed. Gardiner knows just what to do with them. His conducting is surpassed only by Colin Davis’. The opening is delivered light ‘n’ tight as it should be, and everything is admirably paced from start to finish. A few specific examples of his conducting highlight the strengths of the set. The first comes in the wonderful duet between Cassandra and Chorebus. When Chorebus tries to console his wife, Gardiner leads tender, lovely playing, and when Cassandra sings her warnings, the music is dark and foreboding. The most remarkable thing is that these two styles flow back and forth repeatedly, quickly, smoothly, and flawlessly. It really is magical, and is the best performance of this duet I’ve heard. The hunt and storm that opens Act IV is all sensuousness and delicacy to start, with the individual instrumental lines emerging so splendidly and beautifully, that one wishes it were longer. In the tumult of the storm, the lack of orchestral heft is felt, but Gardiner compensates by keeping everything clear and quick. The arrival of Hector’s ghost is made less impressive by this lack of heft, but again, Gardiner keeps everything clear and quick. (This lack of power was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that my DVD player is in my second system with a smaller amp and speakers.) His command of the ballet pieces is total and perfectly paced. This makes two outstanding recordings from this conductor that’s I’ve bought in the last year. The other is his superb recording of Haydn’s six late masses. He no longer sounds didactic and ideological, if you will; he’s mellowed and is more flexible. Wouldn’t you know it, only when his career with UMG comes to an end is he becoming interesting. I certainly hope he makes more recordings as good as these.

    As to the physical attributes, the image quality is the best of any opera I’ve yet seen on DVD, and the sound quality is SOTA. The video direction is marred by too many close-ups at inopportune times, but is reasonably good.

    So, to sum up, this is a great performance of a great opera, surpassed only by Colin Davis’ two recordings. And I must hear more of Ms Antonacci. If you love this work, get this DVD.





    * One of my recent acquisitions is the wonderful Berlioz recital by the lovely Ms Gens. It includes Les nuits d’ete, La mort de Cleopatre, and some smaller works, and Ms Gens is delightful. Her voice is quite beautiful and delicate. Her voice is on the small side – I can’t hear her doing Isolde – but it so much fun to wallow in. Keep it in mind if you like Berlioz. And why wouldn’t you?
     

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