Music March 1984
“Les Troyens” at the Met
On the 1984 revival of Berlioz’s masterpiece.
The choice of Berlioz’s musical epic to celebrate the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s one hundredth season was apt. The work has both grandeur and variety of scene, from the sack of a city to poetic love-making, and from religious celebration in monumental architecture to a quiet sunset on the African shore of the Mediterranean. Les Troyens, moreover, is one hundred twenty-five years old and thus sufficiently senior to the institution to greet its centenary with dignity, while being, culturally speaking, “of the same age.”
The undertaking had practical advantages besides: it was a revival of the American premiere of ten years ago (celebrating the Met’s ninetieth season), and the new production could benefit from experience and revisions. A marked improvement was that it now had as conductor James Levine instead of Rafael Kubelik, whose unsuitability was confirmed here in 1973 after his mishandling of the score at Covent Garden two decades earlier. Right rhythm, meter, and tempo are indispensable to Berlioz’s music and Mr. Kubelik, with the best will, denatures them steadily and pitilessly.
Mr. Levine, on the contrary, is justly renowned for conducting Mozart, and as Shaw pointed out long ago, Berlioz and Mozart require the same type of exacting musicianship—and rarely get it. In the musical part of Les Troyens this time, the regrettable moments were due to inadequate rehearsing and miscasting, both of them chargeable to the Metropolitan tradition of repertory-working and not to Mr. Levine’s direction. Indeed, when knowledgeable listeners voiced their impressions on leaving the house, the same remark occurred to all: the music alone held together and made tolerable a self-defeating production. It is the staging and its artistic—or inartistic—implications that I want to discuss.
In general one may fairly say that what most often leads modern producers of plays and operas astray is “ideas.” I mean the self-conscious notions that the possessor thinks it necessary, for one reason or another, to carry out in his part of the work. These notions may derive from the conviction that the piece presents uncommon technical problems, or from a tendentious reading of the script, or from the belief that “today’s audience” requires something singular, “sophisticated,” if it is to swallow the classic. Shakespeare, Carmen, even The Beggar’s Opera have in our time suffered from “ideas.” A fine example of the sort is recorded in an exchange between Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Bernard Shaw. She was acting Lady Macbeth and had been given the idea that the role must be played “as if seen through a sheet of glass.” She told Shaw about it; his excoriation followed.
Shakespeare, Carmen, even The Beggar’s Opera have in our time suffered from “ideas.”
There is always for such ideas some remote hint in the work itself. In Macbeth it is of course the sleepwalking scene. In the first part of Les Troyens, the germ for one of several damaging “ideas” is that, because Troy is doomed to destruction, these first two acts must be played in near-darkness. That was done at Covent Garden in 1969 and it is done again in the present production. The all-purpose set of seven slab-topped pillars, mounted on turntables forming large shallow steps, is cavernous and dim; it effectively blurs the dramatic contrasts, the rapidly shifting moods of that first of two tragedies.
This nocturnal effect prevails from the beginning, although Berlioz opens the drama with a scene of jubilation by the Trojan people. They sing and dance, after ten years of war, on the site of the camp, strewn with debris, that the Greeks have deserted. The spectator should see the citadel to the left, Mt. Ida in the background, and an altar near a riverbank on the right, where Achilles’s tomb still has the power to daunt the Trojan populace. The tomb at the Met is the top of the prompter’s box. In fact, the spectator sees little but the seven neolithic erections, and the goings-on of the Trojan mob at that place seem motiveless.
The spectator at no point could suspect that Berlioz has conceived every moment of his drama with imaginative care for the smallest details and has concerted words, music, and scene so that they form a perfect unity. His stage directions are explicit and abundant but, as we shall see, as far as the new production goes, they might as well have been written in invisible ink. It may be objected that an author’s instructions are sometimes difficult to carry out. Granted, but “sometimes,” here and there, is not “throughout.” Berlioz was a practical producer of others’ operas when he wrote his own, and most of his wishes are simple, even when they are not standard practice. For example, he wants the Trojans to dance and shout and sing joyful ha-ha’s for a dozen bars before the curtain rises, so that the gloating over the Greeks will be at its height. It should not open “cold.”
The only idea, then, that should govern the entire production is this: Berlioz, adapting Virgil, has given us a tale of two cities, both shown to us at first in happy celebration, both ending in disaster; each the scene of a collective and an individual tragedy through faith misplaced. Troy falls through its excessive piety, Carthage is shattered by the love-betrayal of its queen. It is therefore imperative that we see these cities in their various aspects physically there. And the events that bring on ruin must also occur in plain sight.
Events consist of people and things in motion. And the stage, one would have thought, was the place where action was not merely respected but cherished, treasured. Accordingly, Berlioz lavished on his stage play frequent contrasts of mood, dramatic entrances, gripping visual effects, soldiers and sailors in action, interruptions by ghostly voices, thunder, lightning, the crash of falling towers, and the fire both of heaven and of human destroyers—all this in addition to the vocal conflict of human purposes and passions.
Of all this rich fare the Met production deigns to supply but a few crumbs. The direction of persons is static from beginning to end; the scenic effects one would rejoice to call operatic are' subdued or suppressed. To begin with, the fateful horse, called Trojan but actually Greek, is missing. True, nobody wants him up front where his proportions or lack of them might challenge belief. But he belongs at the back, crossing the whole stage in a solemn religious procession for which Berlioz has provided the music.
Of all this rich fare the Met production deigns to supply but a few crumbs.
To that music we see instead a series of grotesque animal heads of metal, lolling toward us on tall poles; one of them vaguely resembling a cross between a horse and a boar. Symbolic, no doubt. It may have been so intended, but symbolic it is not, for a true symbol carries its meaning forcefully and, in good stagecraft, unmistakably. These bestiary tintypes fail, just like the Stonehenge scenery.
In any case, symbolism is entirely inappropriate to the epic. It suits best the intimate, individualist drama shot through with fantasy—Berg’s Lulu or Strauss’s Die Liebe der Danae. The epic takes place in the harsh, populated outer world; its poetry arises from the very disparity between hope of love and glory and the wretchedness of war and death. So Les Troyens must be set and directed according to the tradition of realism.
The word is no absolute. There is no need to draw every landscape to scale and make every object an historical replica. But when the Greeks begin to capture Troy it will not do to show us Aeneas, uneasily asleep in his palace, looking as if he were camping out in the woods. He needs near him the lamp that the book specifies, and most of his armor on. Those omissions and the lack of warlike noises in the background make the two irruptions into his chamber—that of his son Ascanius and of Hector’s ghost, bloody and disheveled—vapid and pointless; for—odd as it may seem—someone entering a sleeping person’s room (especially a ghost) creates tension in the viewer, whereas two indistinct figures circling a camp bed at night arouse nothing but puzzlement. At the end of that scene a great crash from the fighting in the city is called for to waken Aeneas. He wakes up naturally; we almost expect him to stretch and yawn.
If one contrasts this specimen of inadequacy with the earlier, wordless scene of Andromache’s laying a wreath on Hector’s tomb, holding the child Astyanax by the hand—one of the purest gems of the score and superbly done in this production—one is led to suspect that another “idea” presided over the persistent anti-dynamism of the staging. That idea is: “the classical world.” In classical times, everything was beautiful and calm; people moved stately. True, there were wars and such things, but they differed from ours in forming a series of posed tableaux.
Surely, no other scheme accounts for the directing of Cassandra, the prophetess whom none believes, and her fellow victims, the Trojan women. Miss Jessye Norman was making her debut here in the role, and her magnificent voice was on full display, but neither her temperament nor her motions suited her words. Berlioz writes above her part égarée (distracted) almost from her first entrance, and when she pleads with whoever will listen not to trust the Greeks, the gods, or anybody else, she should become frantic. Yet no indignant shudder or shriek of fury escaped her till within a couple of minutes of her end.
Likewise with her sisters. They stood in oratorio formation on a raised part of the turntable system and sang admirably. But the equally admirable actions that Berlioz devised for them—their attitudes, poses, and movements; the joy of the willing martyrs who take up lyres and start singing; the small group of cowards, whom Cassandra denounces and who are finally driven off by the rest—all this operatic stuff, you might say, went for naught with the management. The Greek soldiers, too, had evidently been warned backstage not to interrupt the music; they stood there, armed cap-a-pie, a solid mass listening politely, instead of molesting the women in twos and threes and uttering the unseemly thoughts that the naturalistic Berlioz invented for them. And of course, the “tornado of fire” in the city behind them, the crash of the collapsing towers of Ilium, were missing.
One could fill a small book with similar refusals to be dramatic. Near the beginning, to give but one instance, the Trojans’ athletic games include a gladiatorial combat. Games and combat were replaced by a ballet. Between Symbolism and Classicism Berlioz’s realistic romanticism was blandly eliminated.
Before the public ever had a chance to buy tickets last fall, it was treated in the newspapers to a suspense story three weeks long: would Placido Domingo sing Aeneas? The tessitura, he said, was too high. Then it was reported that he had attended a dress rehearsal. “I’m planning to take the risk.” Finally, he was “almost convinced” that he would sing four out of the six scheduled evenings. One reporter wondered why the Spanish tenor was given “such a problematic role.”
To herald a once-a-century celebration in this way was not in the best professional style and it indicated a piece of miscasting. For Aeneas, who appears briefly in “The Fail of Troy,” is a mainstay of “The Trojans at Carthage,” half again as long as “The Fall.” And mainstay Mr. Domingo was not, in voice or bearing. Having arrived at Dido’s court disguised as a shipwrecked sailor with his mates, Aeneas discloses himself in resplendent armor when he is needed to defend the city from barbarian attack. This effective bit showed him diffident and the ensuing farewell to his young son perfunctory.
Nor could the diffidence be due to high tessitura by itself. In the event, Mr. Domingo transposed some half a dozen pages. There was no harm in that; Berlioz has marked in the score a couple of places where Dido may sing some alternative high notes and where the basses may do the same if their voices require. What may have contributed to the timidity of Mr. Domingo’s Aeneas was his thick, uncertain French, which acted as a distorting factor in a work where words and music are fused and where the recitatives need the assurance of a regal delivery. The masterly John Vickers showed in earlier productions that there is nothing “problematic” about the part. And I am told that when William Lewis took over the role, the heroic stance did get established. With Jessye Norman shifting to Dido, for which her voice is ideally suited, the whole second part was brought closer to its proper presentation.
Like the first, the second part opens with a people in its glory. Carthage is in the seventh year of its existence and the whole city turns out to fête the capable, inspiring queen. She, in turn, sings the praises of her industrious citizenry and rewards the builders, sailors, and farmers whose labors have created the new commonwealth. This pageantry calls for a parklike setting full of flowers, a dais with a throne, a grandstand for the people, and a pathway for the parade of the three guilds. For them, Berlioz has written three short marches that are little masterpieces of psychological depiction. But at the Met there was no grandstand and no procession. Serried glee-club ranks replaced a shouting populace and the makers of the Gross National Product were turned into a ballet of boys and girls in white tights. Why they should wind up at the queen’s throne and receive small golden objects—sickle, oar, etc.—remained a mystery.
Speaking of white tights, a word must be said about the costuming. At Troy, Priam and his dignitaries wear a pair of stiff panels that makes them look like the “sandwich men” who used to walk the streets encased in advertising placards fore and aft. Cassandra and Aeneas are in nondescript garb, and it was too dark to see if Hector’s ghost was properly unkempt in bloodstained tunic and armor. At Carthage, despite prosperity, the queen is reduced to but one dress for the fête, for dalliance in her gardens, and for her funeral pyre. And when the three genuine ballets are performed, the white tights come on again—for the Hindu, the Nubian, and the native slaves.
The scene that follows the jubilee and the Trojan alliance is the famous “Royal Hunt and Storm,” familiar to concertgoers but certainly not imagined by them as the essential portion of an opera. The producers of this revival did not conceive it so, either. They played the music curtain down and houselights up. That sufficed to spoil the pastoral opening of the piece, for the audience, taken aback, began to buzz with conversation. It soon ceased, and the abdication of the producers did show one thing to those who did not know the music: it can stand alone, a tight-knit form.
But aside from the incongruity of playing half an act of opera without the required actors, the omission was something like leaving the play-within-a-play out of Hamlet: the royal hunt is the episode in which Dido and Aeneas become lovers, having taken refuge in a cave from the storm that scatters the hunting party. What is more, the wood and river sprites and their cries, regrettably absent, represent the forces of nature at work in the event, while the storm serves as an analogue of the love passion. The warring gods, too, join their voices to the glorious hullabaloo with the word “Italy,” to remind Aeneas of his duty.
The storm serves as an analogue of the love passion.
Of course, the mise-en-scène written out by the composer would have required recognizable pieces of scenery; a reed-fringed stream and a cave; some gear or other for the naiads and satyrs; Ascanius and other hunters in suitable attire; and Dido herself dressed as Diana and carrying a bow and arrow (to mark her chastity when she first appears). No doubt such an outlay ran counter to the austerity decreed for the public-spirited queen; and so would the thunder, darkness split by lightning, and the tree struck and catching fire.
The next situation is embowered in Dido’s gardens by the sea, at sunset. After a duet between the queen’s sister and the chief minister expressing political and moral anxiety, Dido and her lover, his son, and the court poet, sing a sequence celebrating nature and the sea (in the magical septet). These and other peaceful feelings work up to the great scene of love and tender reproaches when the royal pair is left alone. By that time it is moonlight. Hence the lighting should progress from sun to twilight to the glowing moon. All this may have been provided; it was not observable. What could be discerned in the bluish haze was the unrestful posture of the principals singing as in a concert, where the luxury of couches and state furnishings would be out of place. And the one “operatic” touch was jarring: Dido asks her poet to sing about the charms of rural life “something simple and soft.” The lovely melody is accompanied piano and pianissimo to the very end. Yet as rendered, the close of the last stanza rang out with the volume of a song of triumph.
From this serene midpoint, the drama moves toward the tragic denouement in sharply contrasted scenes. First, Mercury appears (supposedly in a ray of moonlight) and strikes Aeneas’s shield to recall him to his duty—to sail for Italy and found Rome. But in the harbor, the Trojan soldiers and sailors do not see the necessity. Hylas, the young sailor on watch in the rigging, is homesick and utters a heartrending plaint that matches in pathos the Andromache music of “The Fall.” Unfortunately, Hylas could hardly be heard: he was singing offstage. Clearly, the symbolic all-metal ships (prows only) had only symbolic rigging, which even a young sailor could not climb. The result was poor coordination between the muffled song and the orchestra and the spoiling of the tapering close, when Hylas falls asleep before finishing. Instead of fading, the voice just stopped.
The darkness, though, was very well done. What it lacked was the army’s lights and the tents from which Aeneas is supposed to rally his forces; he has been roused to action by a small committee of shades, headed by Priam. As they gang up on Aeneas, the old king’s head should glow with a quivering aureole that vanishes as he redescends to the netherworld. Of all this, nothing. Aeneas stomps about calling “to arms” toward the wings and the aluminum ships behind him. But do not despair: the one moment of action granted us is at hand. The martial chorus with cries of “Italy!” troops off and the semicircle of five ships slip their moorings visibly and back away—in five different directions.
Dido, having learned the news, comes before us, wild with grief and fury. Her imprecations ended, she bids farewell to Carthage and to life; after which we are booked to return to the gardens, where a funeral pyre has been built and where two altars for the priests are also specified. Berlioz has written out the death scene in detail, to conform to the ancient ritual—the bared left foot, the hair undone, and so on. He even gives his sources, not alone in Virgil, but in Ovid and Horace. The strangeness of the procedure adds one more dramatic stroke, provided the heroine and the props are close enough to be seen, that the “greenish flames” flicker sinisterly, and that the blue horizon is there to keep us thinking at once of Italy and of the dying queen’s prophecy of revenge: Hannibal! Hannibal! We heard but had no chance to see, neither at this point nor at the very end, where the poem calls for a sky-bright vision—a mirage of the future Roma, showing the Capitol, the emperor and his legions, and his entourage of poets and artists.
To recite damaging deficiencies as I have done is a painful task, and it would not be justified if the work, the opera house, and the occasion were ordinary ones. Routine doings are flawed by their very nature but excusable by their modest claims. The present affair must be judged otherwise: a spokesman for the Met declared the production “as complete as has ever been given.” And since to the majority of opera-goers Les Troyens is a brand-new work, its systematic mutilation, however unwitting, is a disservice to the public, let alone to the creator. Here is a work replete with scenes, gestures, incidents, atmospheres unparalleled in the rest of the repertory, bringing to our imagination a new world of history and poetry, myth and ritual, and nearly every visual object and spatial arrangement designed to convey those artistic inventions is left out or dimmed by abstractions. It is the negation of art and of opera in one stroke.
“Ah, but if the music is so dramatically apt that it kept the work together as one whole, why does malproduction matter so much?” The answer is simple: pleasurable perception in the arts as in life depends on coherence in the mode and the means. Les Troyens is just as moving in a concert performance as it can be on the opera stage. Those who heard John Nelson conduct the work at Carnegie Hall years ago, when Beecham fell ill during rehearsals, will testify to that fact. But with the music by itself the imagination, receiving its stimulus through one sense alone, concentrates upon that. When a second sense is solicited by any staging whatever, the imagination is fed on two levels and these must be congruent, not disparate. Nor is it that in the concert hall one is busy mentally adding scenery, costume, and movement; the thought of them never occurs; the experience is complete without them. Thus one can admire the beauty of a woman and feel the force of her personality from a portrait in oils, a miniature, a black-and-white photograph; or again, from seeing her across the room or sitting next to her, hearing her voice and breathing in her perfume. But mix modes—put a real jewel on the painting or a voice recording behind the photograph— and you discompose the imagination.
That explains why the “Royal Hunt and Storm” is given concert-fashion shocks at the opera, even when the rest is staged “symbolically” or rather, halfheartedly. If anyone thinks Les Troyens presents insurmountable difficulties, the idea should be dismissed. Whoever can put on a full-blooded Aïda can put on Les Troyens. Nor is length an obstacle. The work is shorter than the uncut Tristan. Berlioz, who left nothing to chance, timed the whole, with four fifteen-minute intermissions, at four hours and twenty-six minutes. The current production is in three acts instead of five—a good plan, which should permit either saving two intervals or adding time to the remaining two. Besides, the second Carthage ballet could be done with fewer repeats at no loss to the work. Where then do the five hours go? One is surprised that the modern scene-switching machinery and the paucity of accessories do not make for quicker changes. They order these things better at Santa Fe.
At the other self-commemoration organized by the Met—a galaxy of stars singing famous arias—a woman of distinction who attended was quoted as saying that Les Troyens was “not everybody’s opera.” She was quite right. It is one of a small number—Orpheus and Eurydice, Don Giovanni, Fidelio, Freischütz—which in one way or another range beyond the postulates of regular opera; they are as King Lear to a well-made play. In consequence, these works cannot be assimilated instantly through the discovery of a pleasant mixture of fresh and familiar features. Les Troyens is beginning to be known and enjoyed, the music having won its audience by ear. It now remains to unfold the drama fittingly for the eye. The story, though a couple of thousand years old, is still worth seeing.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 7, on page 39
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