Welcoming the second production of Hector Berlioz' magnificent Les Troyens to the Met stage provides the chance to underline the importance of Rome and Italy (the idea and the experience of both) to his life and work. His love of Virgil animated his whole creative life; and it was his great tragedy never to witness the sprawling masterpiece which he based on Virgil's epic Aeneid, even after he consented to split it into two parts, The Fall of Troy and The Trojans at Carthage.
Born near Grenoble, France, in the shadow of those Alps that his Dido's foreseen Carthaginian avenger ("Annibal! Annibal!") was to traverse with elephants in the Punic Wars, Berlioz was conscious all his life of the overlay of Classical, and specifically Roman Imperial, culture on that of France and Western Europe. Foremost in his Latin education and his Roman pantheon was Virgil, on the first, second and fourth books of whose twelve-book epic he was to base Les Troyens.
Virgil is mentioned on the first page‹in the second sentence of the first paragraph!‹and on the last page of the composer's astoundingly compelling Memoirs (1865)1, and alluded to at many points in between. He is endlessly quoted and cited in letters to Berlioz' most respected and trusted associates. Life was to bring Berlioz an equal idol: Shakespeare (who in turn "brought" him his tragic first wife, Harriet Smithson, whom the young musician loved more as Ophelia and Juliet than as Mme. Berlioz).
Shakespeare's works with Italian settings and/or characters had a tremendous influence on his musical output. Some of Berlioz' most heartfelt responses to Shakespearean Italy come in the "dramatic symphony" for orchestra and soloists, Roméo et Juliette (1839). During the 1850s he considered writing grand operas based on both Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra, but desisted due to the lack of time (his duties as a musical journalist kept him busy if ill-compensated) and the sure knowledge that the French musical establishment would in no way support such endeavors.
Contemporary post-colonial readings tend to interpret The Tempest in terms of Jamaica, but its characters are Italian (Prospero is the exiled Duke of Milan); ironically on November 7, 1830, the night Berlioz' choral "dramatic fantasy" on the play had its premiere, Paris was hit with its worst storm in 50 years and the audience was miniscule. Perhaps after Kenneth Branagh's recent Tuscan olive oil-steeped screen adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing, audiences need no reminding that this play also takes place in Italy. The uneven but delightful Béatrice et Bénédict, which stresses Much Ado's romantic plot, gave Berlioz a welcome triumph in Baden-Baden in 1862 during a lull in his efforts to get Troyens produced.
As is well known, verses from another Italian-set play found their way into Troyens' ravishing Love Duet; fewer commentators note that the original Lorenzo-Jessica exchanges from The Merchant of Venice actually treat on Dido and Aeneas:
LORENZO: In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow upon her hand
Upon the wild sea banks, and waft her love
To come again to Carthage. (V.1)
Berlioz also wrote some Italian-themed works not connected with Shakespeare: most notably Harold in Italy (1834), an orchestral near-concerto for viola in tribute to Byron, and the early opera Benvenuto Cellini (a colorful, fascinating piece the 1838 failure of which made the Paris Opera leery of mounting Troyens). Even the oratorio L'Enfance du Christ (1855) sports Roman characters, minor soldiers (Polydorus and a Centurion) commenting ironically on the action as the Trojan guards do in the last act of Troyens.
The composer's idiosyncratic musical training and development was marked profoundly by his virtual obsession with Classical heroines and stage conventions as envisioned by Gluck. Although Gluck set Roman-themed works (including Ezio and La Clemenza di Tito), the scores Berlioz studied and heard played as a worshipful medical student on his way to abandoning medicine were the Greek-derived Orphée, Alceste and the two Iphigénie operas (one of which, Iphigénie en Aulide, portrays events that led to the ten-year siege of Troy). Armide, though, has an Italian source in Tasso; and Gluck's great heroines unmistakably set the pattern in range and declamation for Cassandra and Dido.
Berlioz greatly esteemed Gasparo Spontini (1774-1851), the composer of such classically set operas as Olympie and La Vestale, whom he viewed as carrying on the traditions of his revered Gluck. In the Memoirs Berlioz describes the command of stage effects and dramatic structure which gave point to Spontini's sometimes ponderous music; in places in his own oeuvre‹for example, the potentially heartbreaking, non-sung pantomime of Hector's widow, Andromache, and doomed son Astyanax in The Fall of Troy ‹ he is clearly working with Spontini as a model.
The youthful Berlioz' journey to the actual Italy was accomplished via the Prix de Rome, a prestigious fellowship that served as a rite of passage enabling many French creative artists, including Gounod, Bizet, Massenet and Debussy among later composers, to live, study and work at the French Academy in Rome. Such a stage was almost as de rigueur as for young Americans of artistic talent and ambition to head for Paris in the decades before, and for a few years after, World War II. Berlioz got the nod only on the fifth try; his fourth entry, the cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre (1829), with its odd harmonies and declamative grandeur, serves as an archetype for the parallel scenes of ritual suicide by Cassandra and Dido in Troyens.
His Prix de Rome years (1831-32) counted as among the most impression-filled of Berlioz' professional life: surrounded by the very extant artifacts of ancient Roman culture ‹ and indeed, in his fellow laureates at the French Academy, by the "poets and artists" envisioned in Dido's apotheosis‹his hopes were high. However, he soon missed Paris ("the center of civilization") and (unlike his sculptor and architect colleagues) found little around him to stimulate his art. He deplored the state of Italian musical life ("mediocre ideas and shoddy traditions") and was particularly outraged by Vaccai and Bellini casting women as Romeo ("Moses or Othello discharged in a piping treble would hardly be more incongruous than a female Romeo.")
Only one kind of music encountered in Rome appealed to Berlioz: that of the pifferari, rustic musicians ("a relic of antiquity") with oboes and pipes who came down from the mountains to play ancient traditional tunes for festivals and religious holidays. He was terribly moved and haunted by their music, especially when he later encountered them in rustic settings that gave his historical imagination free rein: "When the scene also included some great Cyclopean mass of masonry, monument of a vanished age, and shepherds dressed in rough sheepskins with the whole fleece worn outside (the garment of the Sabine herdsmen), I could almost believe myself back in the time of the ancient people among whom Evander the Arcadian settled, the liberal host of Aeneas."
Throughout his career Berlioz would intercut the loud concerted stretches that made his name famous (indeed, infamous) in his own time with passages in an elegiac pastoral mode, often (as in "The Shepherds' Farewell to the Holy Family," the seed from which L'Enfance du Christ developed) suggesting the clarity and simplicity of ancient ways. The lovely 1834 song "Le jeune pâtre breton" ("The young Breton shepherd"), with its gently mounting strophes and rural, wind-caressed nostalgia for an unseen beloved, seems (musically and textually) like a golden mean between the two wonderful arias for Troyens' two lyric tenors, Dido's court musician Iopas and the homesick Trojan sailor Hylas. ("Vallon sonore," sung by Hylas in the masthead as the waves rock him to sleep, draws both on the figure of the helmsman Palinurus from the Aeneid and on Berlioz' anguished love for his hapless sailor son Louis, who rarely could return home.) These lyrical moments‹another such is act two's danced Entry of the Farm-Workers‹provide important contrast to the passionate outpourings of the lead characters. (Notably, there are no such pastoral moments amidst what Julian Rushton has termed the "romantic chaos" of The Fall of Troy). Dido and Aeneas find themselves singing in this pastoral mode only once: in act two's magnificent sustained Septet and Love Duet, the ravishing idyllic glow of which has been frequently and aptly compared to the crepuscular Classical-themed landscapes of Claude Lorrain. The rapturous span is shattered only by the voice of Mercury calling Aeneas to his destiny with three cries of "Italie!"
When (as increasingly often) exasperated by modern Rome and the French Academy, the young Berlioz would escape to the country around the village of Subiaco:
Sometimes, when I had my guitar with me instead of my gin, I would station myself in the midst of a landscape in harmony with my mood, and some passage from the Aeneid, dormant in my memory since childhood, would come back to me, set off by the character of the country into which I had wandered. Then, improvising a strange recitative to still stranger harmonies, I would sing of Pallas' death [and other events from the Aeneid]. Under the combined influence of poetry, music and association I would work myself up into an incredible state of excitement. The triple intoxication always ended in floods of tears and uncontrollable sobbing… I longed for those poetic days when the heroes, sons of the gods, walked the earth in glittering armor… Quitting the past for the present, I wept for my own private disappointments, my uncertain future, my interrupted career; until, collapsing in the midst of this maelstrom of poetry, and murmuring snatches of Shakespeare, Virgil and Dante‹Nessun maggior dolore…che ricordarsi… Oh, poor Ophelia… Good night, sweet ladies… Vitaque cum gemitu… fugit indignita…sub umbras ‹ I fell asleep.
Such passages suggest not only Berlioz' intense imaginative interpenetration by his artistic idols, but the emotional stakes he faced, late in a career and life in which passing triumphs and happinesses (and these never in "the center of civilization," but chiefly in Russia and Germany) were outweighed by sorrows and frustration, in trying to bring his "Shakespearized" Virgilian masterpiece‹his greatest tribute to those idols‹to the Parisian stage.
His dedication to this cause rather paralleled that of his opera's hero. Aeneas' whole trajectory in Troyens is to fulfill his destiny and lead the remnants of Troy to what Virgil patriotically figures as their ancestral homeland: "Italie!" Hector's ghost in the first act's dream scene is first to enjoin flight to "Italie" on Aeneas. Cassandra in her prophetic "Tous ne périront pas!" sees clearly that the Trojan future lies in Italy. Later, her last word as she wills Aeneas to save Troy's legacy‹and also the last words of The Fall of Troy ‹ is "Italie," repeated three times as she commits suicide (foreshadowing Dido's three-part cry at her suicide after Aeneas leaves her for his destiny). Mercury's intervention has been noted; it should not be hard to guess the very last word sung by Aeneas and the Trojan chorus at the end of act three's first scene ("Italie!"). Dido's theatrically overwhelming death scene ends with (and the last solo line of the opera is): "Rome... Rome... immortelle!" Then, as per the stage directions, we see an incredible vision of Roman cultural history: "One sees in distant glory the Roman Capitol, on the pediment of which shines the word 'ROMA.' Before the Capitol some legions file by, and an Emperor surrounded by a court of poets and artists. During this apotheosis, invisible to the Carthaginians, one hears in the distance the Trojan March, transmitted to the Romans by tradition and adopted as their triumphal song."
In the opera's comparatively tardy and limited production history this grandiose apotheosis has (for quite understandable reasons) never been rendered onstage as per the composer's vision. Perhaps current computer technology such as that deployed to recreate Ancient Rome cinematically in Gladiator could produce a film projection suitable for stage use. But one can hear the contrasting effect in the score.
When Berlioz wrote the Memoirs he despaired of ever seeing Les Troyens as he envisioned it, and of ever seeing the Troy-set scenes at all. In the famous passage where he recalls his great grief at Dido's death as a 14-year-old construing Latin ("I had to pronounce the despairing utterances of the dying queen, thrice raising herself upon the elbow, thrice falling back"), he does not say what, on some level he perhaps hoped we readers of the future would know: that, with three rising cries of "Ah!" and all, it's all there in the music. The composer's Dido, in her sad, glorious death, ensures both her own and his immortality. With Les Troyens, Berlioz' lifelong Italian destiny was, in fact, fulfilled.