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A History of Les Troyens

Episode 3 — By Charles Alexandre Creton

This is the final instalment of the saga which Octave is devoting to Les Troyens to mark the major new production conducted by Philippe Jordan and directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Opéra Bastille. This time, we are taking a look at Cassandra the emblematic heroine to whom Berlioz gave a voice. “The most beautiful daughter of Priam” for Homer, cursed by Apollo for rejecting him, the prophetess misunderstood by Troy is a character that has evolved since Antiquity according to the literary genres given over to her. When Berlioz began composing Les Troyens in 1856, he seized on the ancient story to create the central character for The Capture of Troy. Although cut from the production’s premiere at the Théâtre lyrique in 1863, the two acts in which Cassandra appears are testimony not just to the composer’s command of the ancient texts but also to an affective commitment towards a character who would upend the codes of the legend and the theatre. From Virgil’s epic through Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and on to Berlioz’s opera, each work offers a certain degree of freedom and fulfilment to Cassandra’s words until she is finally liberated from the divine yoke which muzzled her.    

With Virgil

Cassandra never features in Virgil’s Aeneid as a character. Her words are evoked in the story of the capture of Troy which Aeneas recounts to the Queen of Carthage in Book II. This gives rise to a twofold deprivation of Cassandra’s words. She is mentioned for the first time in these terms:

“Even then, Cassandra opened her lips for the coming doom—lips at a god’s command never believed by the Trojans.”

Cassandra is deprived of a singular voice. Through her, an entire chorus of prophesies are expressed which discredit her in the eyes of Trojan society.

Even so, another passage qualifies that point of view. The character’s silence is not total in the epic. If, indeed, she does not speak at the moment of the action, she has spoken of what we will anachronistically call the “horizon of expectation” of the protagonists and the premonitions revealing the future: “Let us yield to Phoebus and, advised, follow better things.”

If, once again, the voice of Cassandra is reduced to that of the god who cursed her, one can note, however, a slight evolution in the acceptance granted to her prophesies. In the same passage, two verbs of speech are used to evoke Cassandra’s past actions: “canebat” from the verb “cano” which means “to sing” and “vocare” which literally refers to the act of invoking an object or an event. “Vocare” reminds us of the special relationship that the voices of the prophets maintain with the future, but it is here that the verb “to sing” seems to give meaning to the entire passage. It is indeed song that makes Cassandra’s voice and her relationship with time unique. Already with Virgil, the sung dimension of the discourse lends a specific status to the character of Cassandra and for her becomes a factor of emancipation even after her death.

Before we look at how Berlioz grasped the postulate of the transfiguration to come of Cassandra’s character for the first part of his grand opera, we should examine how Cassandra’s character was treated dramatically from Antiquity to 19th century opera.    

Les Troyens, Acte I, scène du duo de Cassandre et de Chorèbe / A. Casse
Les Troyens, Acte I, scène du duo de Cassandre et de Chorèbe / A. Casse © BmO / BnF

The status of song in Greek tragedy

Ancient theatre, and more precisely, Greek tragedy, made use of multiple voices. Recent studies on the subject concur as to the musical nature of theatre performances in that era. If Aristotle in his work Poetics considered that tragedy was first and foremost a text, he nevertheless mentions the art's musical specificity: “I call a highly seasoned language” one that has rhythm, melody and song; and I mean by “seasonings of a specific species” that certain parts are executed simply with the aid of the metre, whereas others may use song” The sung dimension of Greek tragedy needs to be placed in the religious context of its performance: the great Dionysia.

The first level of voices belongs to the characters or “the authors of the performance.” That is to say they are involved in the plot and responsible for the action. This first level of voice is itself twofold. According to researchers like Claude Calame or Florence Dupont, Greek tragedy is based on alienation techniques. The first among them is the mask. The character, be it male or female, is played by a man. The other medium of singularization for the characters is the voice. Each actor may play several characters: only the modulation of their voices makes it possible to identify between fictional beings. The second level of the voice is the chorus which “as a compact and unified voice is there to remind us that harmony is the aim of all discourse.” (Pierre Judet de la Combe). The chorus' vocal unity is also intended to guarantee the unities of time and place characteristic of Greek tragedy. The voice of the chorus in Greek tragedy thus marks the junction between two temporalities. It participates in the action performed on stage by means of exchanges with the characters yet, through this “there and then” aspect of the sung performance, it also reconnects with the temporality of the performance, the spectators, and the cultural and ritualistic dimension of the tragedy.
    

With Aeschylus

       In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, it is on the basis of these language “seasonings” that Cassandra stands out as a character. Through language, the art of poetry illustrates the marginalisation the Trojan prophetess suffers in the legend. In Aeschylus’s tragedy, Cassandra indeed acts as a figure who disrupts the different unities through song. As a Trojan princess, Priam’s daughter acts like a barbarian (who does not speak Greek) at the gates of the palace of the Atridae. This is illustrated by Clytemnestra’s retort, which she addresses to the chorus as such: “Well, if her language is not strange and foreign, even as a swallow’s, I must speak within her comprehension and move her to comply.” Cassandra’s initial silence leads the chorus into a position that is both dramatic and hermeneutic and which ultimately evokes the use of an interpreter:It is an interpreter and a plain one that the stranger seems to need. She bears herself like a wild creature newly captured.”. Exchanging with the chorus alone, the Trojan prophetess in turn offers less a discourse of action and more a discourse of interpretation, provoking a break musically. In her exchanges with the coryphaeus, the prophetess rallies a significant portion of the choreutids to her side, thus leading to a harmonic rupture of that “compact and unified voice” on stage. This process would be repeated by Berlioz.
   

With Berlioz

One would have to wait for the 19th century and Berlioz’s opera for this song to truly have an effect and become action. If Berlioz portrayed Cassandra and Chorebus’s love scene in a duet where incommunicability reign, it is as a Trojan woman whose word is free that the composer manages to liberate the character from her divine yoke. We should look on the youngest daughter of Priam as a young woman who “refuses to accept any negation of her right to speak, nor the narrow margins of her place as a woman, because she persists in doing so freely and clearly. Furthermore, she does not speak of feminine subjects but of politics by suggesting what the city should or not do.1” Entering on stage, the prophetess, who has just lost her lover in battle, predicts Troy’s future in Italy:

“All shall not perish. The valiant Aeneas
and his troops, brought home after thrice being in combat,
have freed our hardy citizens
Imprisoned in the Citadel.
Priam’s treasure is in the hands of the Trojans.
Soon, in Italy, where fate calls them,
They will see a new Troy rise
`A Troy more powerful, more beautiful.
They walk towards the Ida.2

In addition to freeing Cassandra from her legendary charge in the finale of The Capture of Troy when the prophetess divides the chorus—excluding the “Thessalians”- and invites them to fight to “condemn the victory of the Greeks”, it is the operatic heroine whom Berlioz is liberating. The cohesion of the score of Les Troyens resides in the mirroring of the two parts and the conflict between the two heroines, Cassandra and Dido. If Chorebus died in combat, it is not grief that kills the Trojan princess for she knew that death hung over their wedding. The Capture of Troy makes no mention of Ajax coming to rape Cassandra, nor of Agamemnon dragging her in triumph to the door of the house of the Atridae where Clytemnestra will end up “tearing her to pieces”. Certainly, Cassandra commits suicide but that act is a gesture of glory to save Ilion from being sacked whereas the suicide of Dido is closer to that of a tragic heroine disabused and betrayed by love.

If Cassandra ultimately escapes Eros' fatal arrow and Apollo’s yoke, there is one person in the adventure of Les Troyens that neither love nor poetic inspiration would leave unperturbed until the end of his days, and that was Berlioz himself. For having freed the Princess of Troy, it seems that the composer in turn was subjected to the same curse to which she had fallen victim. Given the little recognition that Carvalho offered the first part of the work, Berlioz declared: “Ô my noble Cassandra, my heroic virgin, I must resign myself to the fact that I will never hear you!... And I am like the young Chorebus, “insano Cassandrae incensus amore.”


1. Dora Leontaridou: “Silences, métamorphoses de la parole et transcendance dans le discours féminin”.
2. Berlioz, Les Troyens Acte II air N°15 Recitative with chorus    

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