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Sunt lacrimae rerum

12/03/2000 -  and 6 (part 1), 7 (part 2), 9 December
Hector Berlioz: The Trojans
Ben Heppner (Aeneas), Petra Lang (Cassandra), Peter Mattei (Corebus), Tigran Matrossian (Panthus), Alan Ewing (Priam), Isabelle Cals (Ascanius), Orlin Anastassov (Ghost of Hector), Guang Yang (Hecuba), Mark Stone (Greek Captain), Leigh Melrose (Soldier/Mercury), Bülent Bezdüz (Helenus), Michelle DeYoung (Dido), Sara Mingardo (Anna), Stephen Milling (Narbal), Kenneth Tarver (Iopas), Toby Spence (Hylas), Andrew Greenan, Roderick Earle (Trojan Sentries)

London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus
Colin Davis (conductor)

If you have a less than precise grasp of history, Berlioz’ Les Troyens, a tragic reflection on the destruction of a beloved city and on the human cost of national ambition, seems to reflect the misery of the Franco-Prussian war and the siege of Paris. If you have a clue, you know that Les Troyens was first produced (in a heavily truncated form, without the sack of Troy) in 1863, and that Berlioz died in 1869, the year before the war started. His powerful and disturbing treatment of Virgil's Aeneid is the result of passionately engaged imagination, not experience. The effect is perhaps more like a Rubens mythological painting, rambunctious pastoral threatened by looming clouds, than like one of David‘s or his peers‘. The music seems similarly to look back to the previous century in some ways, for example in the "Dorian" martial music that inevitably recalls the Marseillaise these days.

This concert performance, the final part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s year-long Berlioz Odyssey programme at the Barbican, was on an epic scale, overflowing the platform and on-stage bands appearing at the sides of the auditorium. Abandoning any attempt at staging seems a particularly good idea in this case, because the theatre of the imagination (helped by stage directions and the memory visual treatments of the story) has far more room for grandeur and doesn’t risk falling short of your expectations.

Colin Davis and the orchestra gave a wonderfully rich performance of the music, bringing out the Shakespearian characterizations and rhetoric as well as the heroic sweep of the crises. The singers were all excellent, down to the smallest roles, though Ben Heppner’s singing wasn’t quite on the scale required. (It didn’t help his romantic-hero image that he was wearing what looked like a fuddy-duddy black waistcoat with his white tie.) Petra Lang was completely immersed as Cassandra, and very moving in her fear and despair. Michelle DeYoung (bumped up from Cassandra by the indisposition of Olga Borodina) was a regal, coherent Dido, perhaps not deranged enough at the end, but terrific to watch and listen to. Sara Mingardo sang Anna with great style and beauty, though she and DeYoung were about as implausible a pair of sisters as you could find. Isabelle Cals was cute though a bit colourless as Ascanius.

Orlin Anastassov was striking and resonant as the ghost of Hector, closing his second act monologue with a truly spooky pianissimo. The two tenors who had included songs -- Kenneth Tarver as Iopas and Toby Spence as a last-minute substitute for Hylas -- were both delightful. Peter Mattei as Corebus and Stephen Milling as Narbal were both powerful in roles that could be rather functional.

As with other concerts in the series, a recording will be available later. The audience was requested to turn off things that make noise and not to cough. It’s a shame some of them didn’t realise that talking during the music is a bad idea as well.

H.E. Elsom



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