Wednesday, July 26, 2017 — Berlioz’s epic two-part opera, Les Troyens (The Trojans) is always a major event. The composer himself never saw it performed in its entirety and, running for more than four hours, it demands huge musical forces (including six harps!) and, in the opera house, a staging that can do justice to the story of the Greek army’s capture of Troy and the subsequent encounter of the Trojan hero Aeneas and Dido, Queen of Carthage.
This new Erato recording of the complete, uncut score of Les Troyens is drawn from two concert performances that took place over the Easter weekend in April 2017 in the city of Strasbourg in eastern France. A magnificent cast of singers, predominantly Francophone, assembled under the baton of John Nelson, an acknowledged master of Berlioz’s music who has conducted Les Troyens more frequently than anyone else over a period of more than 40 years; he made his name with the piece when he led performances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1974 and enjoyed great acclaim for a production at the Frankfurt Opera shortly before the Strasbourg concerts.
Taking the three central roles were Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Cassandre, Michael Spyres as Énée and, in her debut as Didon, Joyce DiDonato. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg (praised by John Nelson for combining “Germanic discipline with the élan and beauty of the French sound”) was complemented by the combined choruses of the Opéra National du Rhin, the Philharmonique de Strasbourg and the Badischer Staatsopernchor. With the total number of performers on the stage of the Salle Érasme at nearly 250, it is hardly surprising that Forum Opéra described Les Troyens as “the musical event of the year”.
As Forum Opéra also wrote, “It would be hard to imagine a better cast,” while the critic of Die Welt wrote of a “gourmet cast” that featured such French singers as mezzo-soprano Marianne Crebassa (as Ascagne), tenors Stanislas de Barbeyrac (Hélènus, Hylas) and Cyrille Dubois (Iopas), baritone Stéphane Degout (Chorèbe), and basses Nicolas Courjal (Narbal) and Jean Teitgen (Ombre d’Hector, Mercure). Among the other singers were the Polish mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp as Anna and the Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly as Panthée.
After the performances Joyce DiDonato said: “It has been an absolute highlight of my musical life, and I am honoured to have been a part of this incredible team of orchestra, chorus and superlative soloists. This is a recording I will treasure – for the music-making and for the beautiful souvenirs of these days in Strasbourg.” Her interpretation of the complete role of Didon is echoed in her Gramophone Award-winning solo album In War and Peace, which includes the heartbreaking lament from Purcell’s take on the story the Carthaginian queen and the Trojan hero, Dido and Aeneas.
Bachtrack described the concert performance of Les Troyens as “a triumph ... It was a thrill to share the experience,” and described Joyce DiDonato as “a great tragedienne”. ResMusica found her “majestic,” praising her “absolute breath control and evenness of emission from her vibrant, incisive top notes to her substantial chest register” and finding her interpretation “multi-faceted … and intensely lived.” The distinguished French critic André Tubeuf spoke of the concentrated quality of Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s timbre as an impassioned Cassandre, and of the way “each word was alive with its own poetic meaning”. He described Michael Spyres as “a marvellous Énée”, suggesting that the only possible criticism could be that, in comparison to the less lyrical tenors who have often sung the role, he made the challenging music sound too easy! “Bravo five times to him for so much subtlety allied to such achievement,” he added.
The audience in Strasbourg greeted the performances with lengthy standing ovations. As predicted by Forum Opéra when the concerts were announced in the middle of 2016, this was “The Troyens of the century”.
Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres & John Nelson launch Les Troyens in London and on Medici.tv
Sunday, November 26th at 16:30 (UK time)
To mark the release of the complete recording of Les Troyens, a public event with Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres and John Nelson will take place on Sunday, November 26th at 16:30 (UK time). The venue is London’s most famous bookshop, Foyles, and the host for the occasion is James Jolly, Editor-in-chief of Gramophone magazine. The event will be streamed around the world on Medici.tv