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Music in All its Guises 1
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Music in All its Guises 1

By George Fleeton

Berlioz: Les Troyens

George Fleeton

George Fleeton

The French language was murdered (dying alongside Hector and Cassandra) in the Met: Live in HD’s performance of Berlioz’s gargantuan opera Les Troyens (seen on January 05, at the IMC Dún Laoghaire, outside Dublin), in a revival of Francesca Zambello’s original production from 2003.

This opera is a five hour marathon, written by France’s greatest romantic composer, not well known for his operas (this one and La damnation de Faust are two on which his reputation rests) but he was a most exacting and discriminating composer for the orchestra.

His first wife was the actress Harriet Smithson, from Ennis, Co. Clare, who inspired his Symphonie fantastique and his nine Irish songs Les mélodies irlandaises.

Berlioz worked at and tweaked Les Troyens between 1856 and 1860, was present at the staging of the second part (dealing with the Trojans at Carthage) in 1863, and died six years later. But part one, which deals with the siege of Troy, was not given until 1890.

‘The series of adjacent blocks from which such large scale operas are constructed frequently seem as if they have been conceived without reference to each other.

‘When placed in succession they resemble a window of exquisitely stained glass incompletely leaded’

– Winton Dean, musicologist and Handel specialist.

The New York Metropolitan Opera production, here under review, did reinforce this point of view, in a staging that was often uneven and clumsy.

Phonetical French in opera in performance is inexcusable: there are excellent language coaches attached to all the great opera houses and most of them are competent musicians in their own right.

In a cast front loaded with American singers (Deborah Voigt, Dwayne Croft, Susan Graham and Bryan Hymel) only Graham’s French sounded idiomatic and not Berlitz derived.

Having said that, it was a privilege to be able to see and hear this opera at all, perhaps the finest of all French grands opéras, especially when we remember that the first complete performance was not given, at Covent Garden, until 1969, exactly one hundred years after Berlioz’ death.

To recommend a CD set of Les Troyens is difficult enough, but Colin Davis recorded the whole opera twice – in 1969 (on the Philips label, just after that Covent Garden première), and in 2001 (LSO label), this latter being preferred, if only one 4-disc box set is desirable.

Donizetti: Maria Stuarda

This second Met: Live in HD production of 2013 was seen on January 19 (in the Omniplex Dundonald, outside Belfast).

This, again, is an opera impossible to see staged in this part of the world, and it was impressive beyond words, in David McVicar’s production, dominated by US mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart, Queen  of Scots, and South African soprano Elza van den Heever as Elizabeth 1.

This opera, by Donizetti, the master of vocal exhibitionism, was initially perceived as full of faults – note-spinning tunefulness, undemanding plot lines, over-simplified characterisation – and had almost disappeared from the stage for over 150 years (Maria Malibran had inaugurated the role at La Scala) before the autograph was discovered in the 1980s and a critical edition bases on it was finally staged in 1989, in Donizetti’s home town Bergamo.

I possess only one recording of Maria Stuarda but have no hesitation in recommending it:

Charles Mackerras conducts Janet Baker and Rosalind Plowright as Maria and Elisabetta, for English National Opera (Chandos label, 1982, but note that it just pre-dates the discovery of the original manuscript).

The next Arts column on Down News will discuss the music making of Mary Ryan and Brigid O’Neill.

George Fleeton’s first light classical music Recital of the year will be given in Down Arts Centre on February 17 at 3pm.

It features violinist Anna Cashell, mezzo-soprano Jenny Bourke, and pianist Simon Watterton, in a programme of music celebrating spring and love.

Tickets are available from 028 4461 0747, with full details on www.downartscentre.com