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S & H Prom Review

PROM 47: Berlioz, The Trojans: Part I, soloists, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, RAH, 3.00pm, 25th August 2003 (MB)

I begin with a confession. For most of my lifetime I have wrestled with Berlioz: the man, the composer, his music. This afternoon that battle was lost at the greatest performance of The Capture of Troy I have ever heard. Superlatively sung, played and conducted it was what every operatic performance should be but very few are: as near to human perfection as the human condition allows us to get. Conducted by the greatest Berliozian of our times, and with a cast that could not be equalled anywhere else today (and rarely has been in the past) it now seems regrettable that we will not hear Colin Davis conduct the complete Trojans again: this concert, coupled with ones at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, are rumoured to be the last he will ever conduct of this mighty opera, "one of the great monuments of 19th-century art," as Ian Kemp describes it in his programme notes.

The Capture of Troy has no overture, yet the opening tune, with its Wagnerian motives, almost acts as one; and the lilting and dancing LSO woodwinds took centre stage in playing that was subliminally poetic, their refrains like a chattering chorus. The entry of the LSO chorus themselves, as the Trojan people, was almost precipitous, and yet Davis succeeded in making each of the vocal timbres sound so separate, so beautifully articulated. It rarely sounds like this. And then something extraordinary happened. After the most heavenly flute solo, and deeply saturated strings (wondrous ‘cellos), so perfect of tone, so balanced in their phrasing, intone the appearance of Cassandra, Petra Lang began the aria where she recalls her vision of her dead brother Hector pacing the ramparts, a moment that with the right singer can seem Shakespearean in its scope. On the opening line, ‘Les Grecs’, Ms Lang spat out the ‘c’ with blood-curdling hatred, a moment of angst that almost detracted from the beauty of tone that followed. ‘Malheureux Roi! Dans l’eternelle nuit…’ was sumptuously sung, the warmth she attached to the voice astonishing in its refinement. Ms Lang has grown into this role, even more so since the 2000 Barbican performances, and she now conveys fully the vulnerability and wisdom of Cassandra through her voice with unequalled insight and range. And yet, for all the depth of tone she brings to the vocal part, there are moments where in the upper range she is meltingly pure: ‘Le fer d’un Grec!…Ah!’ was just sparkling, and in her duet with Corebus (heroically sung by William Dazeley) she showed herself able to spin the most delicate ppp on ‘m’aimes’ at the very moment both singers meld their voices as one.

Cassandra and Corebus dominate Act I and in both Lang and Dazeley we had singers who were symbiotic in their vocal strengths. What can occasionally seem an over long duet (almost as long as that of Tristan and Isolde’s in Act II of Tristan) was here perfectly paced. This was helped in part by some outstanding orchestral solos, chief among them the sublime flute of Paul Edmund-Davies, no better than at the beginning of Cassandra’s aria ‘Signes trompeurs!’ The March and Hymn had an overwhelming tread, a neat contrast to the short but electric Wrestler’s dance. Yet, none of the playing matched Andrew Marriner’s clarinet solo at the beginning of the Pantomine – so plaintively done as to bring a hushed silence to the Albert Hall, and tears to the eyes. Over a melting accompaniment of flute and Bassoon Marriner’s solo was as meaningful as any voice and combined with the deeply moving singing of the LSO chorus in ‘Andromaque et son fils’ it was perhaps the epicentre of Part I, a moment of inspired music making any who were present will never forget.

The Octet and Double Chorus were magnificent in Scene 8, the parallel with the Confutatis from Mozart’s Requiem here achieved by a beautiful balance that made the male voices seem just dark enough without being too powerfully sung. Ben Heppner’s Aeneas, a still beautiful assumption of the role, with the voice now even softer and more luminous than it once was, opened Act II with a compellingly delivered ‘O lumiere de Troie…’ but he was almost overshadowed by the appearance of the Ghost of Hector. Jonathan Lemalu, singing from the organ loft, produced a rich, sonorous bed of sound that resonated with a deliberate tread. In contrast to Heppner’s French (which I have always found difficult to understand) Lemalu’s was enunciated with perfect intonation. Against the black orchestral accompaniment this was momentous singing, as was that of Tigran Martirossian as Panthus in his brief recitative with Aeneas. This will be one of the great bass voices of our time. Slightly disappointing was the Greek Captain of Mark Stone, a richly empowered baritone, but here he was hampered by Berlioz’s clumsy writing which places his brief solo amidst not just trenchant orchestral playing but also a massed chorus.

With such riches this really was an overwhelming operatic experience. The intensity of the singing (both solo and choral), the orchestral playing and Davis’ unmatchable conducting was mirrored by a similar intensity of concentration from the audience. At times the hall was just eerily quiet apart from an orchestral solo here or a whispering voice there. It is an afternoon this reviewer shall never forget.

Marc Bridle

Footnote

Berlioz’ Opera The Trojans

At a fantastic double Prom concert on Monday 25th August 2003 I heard this work for the first time …a long overdue experience. I was two years old so missed it when the Glasgow Grand Opera Society gave the first complete performance of The Trojans in one day in Britain (first ever outside France) under the musical direction of my father, the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm. The event is documented in The New Grove Dictionary of Music, the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera et alia as are first performances of two other operas by Berlioz by this team in the 'thirties.

There are still people around who remember the excitement of a special coach attached to the London train to bring music lovers,VIPs and critics to Glasgow on Saturday 19th March 1935. After Part one "The Capture of Troy", there was an hour’s tea interval when the guests mingled with performers before the last three acts took place.

Lead singers were professional, the chorus and orchestra amateur The reviews that followed included some explosive headlines

"Splendid Courage in Grand Opera"

"Glasgow Amateurs Arouse Envy of Musical World"

"London in Eclipse"

Among the guests were Hamilton Harty, Donald Francis Tovey, and Ernest Newman who wrote of "Glasgow’s brave effort". Sir Thomas Beecham did not attend. He refused Chisholm’s invitation saying "How does a little whipper-snapper like you think you can do the Trojans? I am going to do the Trojans" Which indeed he did -many years later.

Yet the Chisholm/Glasgow Grand first continues to be overlooked. The Prom 2003 Programme notes that "the scandal of how The Trojans lay hidden for a hundred years has now been put right. The opera first rose from the depths in a Covent Garden production of 1957,when it was given very nearly as Berlioz had written it, and in one evening-and revealed as a masterpiece."

This is not an isolated oversight. Chisholm’s wife Diana interviewed in1979, many years after his death said "it was like knocking my head against a brick wall to get the Glasgow Trojans first performance admitted."

In the language of Berlioz " ...plus c’est la meme chose"

Perhaps though with Internet and website channels bringing a rapid exchange of information to a vast network of readers, brick walls can be knocked down.

So we will take up the cudgels.

Morag Chisholm for the Erik Chisholm Trust. www.erikchisholm.com

e-mail address morag.chisholm@virgin.net 12 September 2003


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