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
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
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.
Opera The Trojans
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.
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.
singers were professional, the chorus and orchestra amateur The reviews
that followed included some explosive headlines
Courage in Grand Opera"
Amateurs Arouse Envy of Musical World"
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.
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
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."
the language of Berlioz " ...plus c’est la meme chose"
though with Internet and website channels bringing a rapid exchange
of information to a vast network of readers, brick walls can be knocked
will take up the cudgels.
Chisholm for the Erik Chisholm Trust. www.erikchisholm.com
12 September 2003