BERLIOZ Les Troyens (Nelson)
Hector Berlioz’s epic opera Les Troyens has been lucky on disc. Complete recordings have been few but they’ve tended to be crackers: Colin Davis, that greatest of Berlioz champions, recorded it twice, first with the forces of the Royal Opera for Philips and then, in concert, with the London Symphony Orchestra, while Charles Dutoit made a very fine studio recording in Montreal.
Assembling a cast capable of doing justice to Troyens is no easy task and spying the line-up for a pair of concert performances in Strasbourg over the Easter weekend this year immediately had me salivating. A roster of star names such as Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres, Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Stéphane Degout would, I’d respectfully suggest, lie beyond the usual budget of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, hinting at funding by a record label. It transpired that Warner Classics had put the cast together for this outstanding new recording under John Nelson on Erato, taken from both concerts plus a patching session. I attended the second of those concerts in the red, Lego-brick auditorium of the Salle Erasmé and was duly bowled over by some extraordinary music-making. Happily, listening to these discs quickly confirmed those initial impressions.
What is immediately apparent is what splendid results the engineers have achieved. The only hint that this recording is taken from live performances is the sheer adrenalin that pours through Berlioz’s spectacular set pieces, such as the visceral Royal Hunt and Storm from Act 4 (though what a shame there’s no SACD surround-sound to do full justice to the brass and chorus deployed around the auditorium here). The sound is full and forward and beefy, with none of the cramped acoustics that limit Davis’s LSO recording, made in the Barbican Hall. Nelson has conducted Les Troyens more than anyone else over the last 40 years and his experience draws remarkable playing from the OPS, which holds its own against classy competition on disc. Nelson is in no great rush, allowing Berlioz’s music time to breathe where necessary, satin strings to the fore, but he gives his players full rein in moments of high drama, especially the dramatic introduction to Act 2, with its bristling double basses. The mercurial woodwind-writing leaps out of the speakers, as do the bass trombone snarls as we learn of the sea serpent swallowing Laocoön. Three choruses, drawn from the Opéra National du Rhin, the Staatstheater Karlsruhe and the Choeur de l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, offer tremendously full-blooded singing.
Erato is perhaps a little naughty in describing the score as ‘absolutely complete’, an accolade surely only true of Charles Dutoit’s recording, which includes the scene where Sinon, a Greek spy, convinces the Trojans that the wooden horse must be brought inside the city (a scene which Berlioz cut from the score in 1861) and the Act 3 prelude, composed for the 1863 performance of Acts 3 to 5, The Trojans at Carthage. But everything else is here, including all the ballet music including the sinuous Pas d’Esclaves nubiennes.
Nelson’s cast is simply to die for. Marie‑Nicole Lemieux captures all the wildness and unhinged desperation of Cassandre, her burnt caramel contralto utterly compelling. Hers is a far weightier voice than Deborah Voigt (Dutoit) or Petra Lang (Davis/LSO) and, considering she’s never sung the role on stage, Lemieux’s is an astonishingly three-dimensional, no-holds-barred portrait. She is joined by Stéphane Degout as a vibrant, urgent Chorèbe, as sheerly beautiful a baritone as Peter Mattei for Davis. Their duet ‘Reviens à toi’ is an early highlight.
Énée is sung thrillingly by Michael Spyres, the Berlioz tenor de nos jour, his ‘Inutile regrets’ virile and ecstatic but refined too. He doesn’t have as huge a voice as Heldentenors Jon Vickers and Ben Heppner but this is very exciting singing. His love interest in Carthage comes via Joyce DiDonato’s noble Didon, her lighter, brighter mezzo providing a nice contrast to Lemieux’s Cassandre. Her distinctive flutter at the top may not be to everyone’s taste but her performance – another role debut – is remarkably assured, full of tender ecstasy in the duet ‘Nuit d’ivresse’ with Spyres, and blending sumptuously with Hanna Hipp’s sympathetic Anna. DiDonato’s vehement response to Énée’s desertion reveals her as a great tragedienne.
The luxury casting of the minor roles is jaw-dropping: Marianna Crebassa (bringing crystalline purity to Ascagne), Cyrille Dubois (a honeyed Iopas), Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Hylas) and Philippe Sly (a firm-voiced Panthée). I harbour doubts over Nicolas Courjal’s woolly Narbal, but this is the tiniest quibble in a remarkable cast.
In short, this is a peach of a recording, with the strongest cast across the board of any Troyens recording setting a thrilling new benchmark for this epic opera.