Commenting on the world premiere of Les Troyens, or at least the part of it that was presented, the composer Charles Gounod said of Berlioz that, "like his great namesake, Hector, he died beneath the walls of Troy." Not literally, the sixty-year-old Berlioz lived another six years and his international career continued. But there was a mortal agony in Berlioz as the run ended.
The last three acts of the opera, called The Trojans at Carthage, were presented at the small Theatre Lyrique on November 4, 1863. Berlioz had written, dreamed and intrigued for the Paris Opera, even importuning the Emperor, but after empty promises the usual intrigues and a shakeup in management he was forced to have recourse to the smaller theater. His first understanding had been that the opera would be presented as written but budgetary concerns caused the truncation.
The theater's convenience and the budget mandated many other cuts, the largest being the Royal Hunt and Storm after the first night. Berlioz also had to continually re-edit his music to paper over the deletions. From being thrilled initially, Berlioz plunged into despair and rage ‹expressing his anger in his Memoirs, "the work is too big, the theater is too small and badly equipped. I cannot and will not have anything to do with the world of directors… merchants of every kind disguised under different names."
The opera was something of a sensation at first and Berlioz collected sixty-four press reviews, many of them full of praise. All of musical Paris went, including the eminence grise Meyerbeer who went to twelve performances for his "pleasure and instruction."
But after a while there were only half houses and the run was shortened, the opera was given twenty-one times. The theater's next presentation, Verdi's Rigoletto, was such a sensation it almost erased memories of The Trojans at Carthage (which had been brought forward when Bizet's Pearl Fishers had failed). Berlioz refused to authorize revivals of any kind, "I would rather not be performed than performed like that," and he died without hearing the opera as he composed it.
Ironically, the rescue of the opera has been a largely Anglo-Saxon affair with a highly remarked broadcast by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1947, sensational stage revivals at Covent Garden (starting in 1957) and a highly praised production at the Met in 1973.
The huge opera was composed in only 20 months, finished in 1858. Practically, the idea of an opera on Virgil was born in 1851‹five years before the composer started work. But he resisted the urge, worried about his age and the practicalities of mounting a large opera. But Virgil had been a lifelong idol of Berlioz. The Aeneid was always with him in his mind. He had begun reading it during Latin lessons given him by his father. Of his obsessive steeping of himself in the epic as a young man, he wrote, "What madness many will say. Yes but what happiness … one's heart dilates, one's imagination soars, one exists with a kind of frenzy." To the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein (Liszt's mistress), whose mock threat not to see him again until he had begun the opera finally got him down to work, he wrote, "I have spent my life with this race of demigods, I feel as though they must have known me, so well do I know them."
Still, Berlioz made room for another of his passions, Shakespeare. He wrote, "Shakespeare! Where is he? Where art thou? I feel as if he alone of all men can understand me… Shakespeare! You were a man. You if you still exist must be a refuge for the wretched. It is you that are our father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven." The Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein told him, "your passion for Shakespeare combined with this love of classical antiquity would be sure to produce something new and splendid."
And that was Berlioz' process. His method in the libretto is reminiscent of the history plays, where there are juxtapositions of grand public scenes with profound personal intimacy, there are rich supporting characters to fill out the portraits of Aeneas, Dido, and Cassandra. The text for the great love duet is from The Merchant of Venice. Berlioz called the result "Virgil Shakespearized."
Only someone steeped in Virgil could have written the libretto. Though restricted for overall plot to books one, two and four, lines and images from the entire epic find their way into the opera, sometimes even as stage directions.
The development of Cassandra into the protagonist of Act One is the biggest change Berlioz made to the poem. Though she and Chorebus (who loves her) are mentioned by Virgil, Berlioz heightens the cruel irony of her clear visions, which she is unable to impart meaningfully to her people. Berlioz invented the great scene of Cassandra's death but it has a Virgilian sweep to it.
In the completed opera Berlioz offers an endlessly fascinating combination of classical poise and restraint with romantic warmth. He wanted to write a traditional French grand opera and the influence of Rameau, Gluck, Spontini and even Meyerbeer can be felt in the way the work unfolds, its unforced grandeur, its scope and theatricality.
For many years the work was considered impossible and unmanageably long. Berlioz insisted it was the same length as Meyerbeer's hugely successful Les Huguenots, but no one listened. One problem was the lack of a complete orchestral score before 1969, and the scarcity of reliable vocal scores. But in his lifetime the work also suffered because of Berlioz' own reputation as an often irascible critic (ironically, the truncated Troyens allowed him to retire from reviewing) and a writer of 'futuristic' music. Those drawn to the more radical elements of the younger Berlioz were disappointed with the conservatism of the opera. Troyens also lost out in the enormous eventual triumph of Richard Wagner.
Way back when Berlioz was trying to get Troyens on at the Paris Opera, they opted for Tannhäuser instead‹it became one of the great scandals of the time and only lasted three performances. Berlioz was called to the rescue not with his opera (as he hoped) but with first a revival of his version of Weber's Der Freischütz, then with a very successful mounting of Gluck's Alceste.
Berlioz was curiously ahead of his time but not in a wild-eyed way. It took almost a century for the opera to be seen as having something Mozartean in its delicacy and charm in its unique mixture of passion and detachment. And it needed a generation that looked to models other than Wagner for how large operas could be constructed.
The director of the Met's new production, Francesca Zambello, said, "I hope to create a sense of the grand scale of the Berlioz imagination‹how he reached back to Virgil's epic poem to create a work that is simply out of time. It's an eternal work, not of any period, but modern and old at the same time."
That impossible and paradoxical mixture of elements is what Berlioz (always a great romantic dreamer) wanted to achieve. That may make Les Troyens one of the most remarkable operas ever written. If Berlioz has joined the shades of Shakespeare and Virgil in some great creator's beyond, he would find it thrilling but appropriate that this opera was chosen by the Metropolitan to honor the 200th anniversary of his birth.