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Les Troyens

Berlioz, a total genius

An interview with Philippe Jordan

By Marion Mirande 30 January 2019


© Elisa Haberer / OnP

Berlioz, a total genius

Les Troyens marks the end of a Berlioz cycle that enabled us to hear Philippe Jordan conduct La Damnation de Faust in 2015 and then Béatrice et Bénédict and Benvenuto Cellini in 2017 and 2018. The Musical Director of the Paris Opera looks back on a voyage that took us into the world of the most revolutionary of the 19th century French composers.

The programming of Les Troyens is symbolic since it was the first opera performed on the stage of the Opera Bastille, and we are currently celebrating the 30th anniversary of the theatre!

Philippe Jordan: Yes, Dmitri Tcherniakov's production is the third at the Opéra Bastille, after the Pier Luigi Pizzi and Herbert Wernicke productions, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung and Sylvain Cambreling. From a musical point of view, it was important to schedule this work at the end of the cycle, after La Damnation de Faust, Béatrice et Bénédict and Benvenuto Cellini. Les Troyens is a remarkable piece in the Berlioz catalogue. It is his major work, his grand opera. Benvenuto Cellini was already a large-scale work, but a comedy. Here, with this tragic subject, Berlioz was moving closer to French grand opera in the vein of Meyerbeer. Les Troyens reveals a total command of his technical and aesthetic means.

Inspired by Virgil’s The Aeneid, Les Troyens recounts the epic story of Aeneas, the Trojan prince and legendary founder of Italy. Could you tell us a little about Berlioz’s quest for an ancient ideal?

Ph.J.: From one work to another, I am struck by Berlioz’s fidelity to a flamboyant style, combined with a desire to create a unique world for each subject. For La Damnation de Faust, based on the work by Goethe, he turned to a German style influenced by Weber and his Freischütz, Schumann and Mendelssohn, as the student songs suggest. In Benvenuto Cellini, which refers to Italian history, one hears a great deal of Rossini and a touch of Bellini and Donizetti as well. Béatrice et Bénédict, which also evokes Italy, subtly reflects southern atmospheres. With Les Troyens, he sets out in search of an ancient style. However, at the time, very little was known about that style. So, Berlioz went ahead and invented and created a sound. Aware that in Ancient times there were no stringed instruments played with bows, he used woodwind, brass, kettledrums and ancient flutes ( today replaced by oboes)—particularly in the first choral— in which the people of Troy express their joy—in order to obtain a strange and archaic sound. Aside from the arrival of Cassandra, supported by an entrance of strings that lends a sudden sense of tragedy, and aside from a few pizzicati on the cello and the viola, the strings are conspicuously absent.

This taste for antiquity reminds us of his passion for Gluck’s music which was a staple during his youth…

Ph.J.: Indeed, his search for an ancient aesthetic led him to borrow from Gluck, one of the composers who, with his mythologically-based operatic tragedies, worked the hardest to revive that musical past. Berlioz treated the voice in the same way as the German master and composed accompanying recitatives whose prosody resembled that of Alceste. The principal female roles in Les Troyens were not written for sopranos. Here again, the aim was to approach Gluck’s style which favoured deeper voices. With the latter, the great heroines were mezzos, which would also be the case with Berlioz.

What are the vocal requirements of the work’s principal roles?

Ph.J.: Cassandra is a role with some beautiful high notes, however its interpretation requires an extremely good medium. Compared to Dido, the role is more theatrical and requires a singer who is also a proficient actress. It’s more recitative and more expressive. With Dido, who sings all the great lyrical phrases, beauty comes before expression. Aeneas, like the great male roles with Meyerbeer, or Rossini with Guillaume Tell, requires a heroic tenor who can sing opera with extraordinary high notes and a vocal flexibility which few performers possess. The chorus for its part, plays a major role, as is always the case with grand opera. In the first part, Berlioz exploits it for dramatic effect magnificently: it personifies Troy and its people. It remains active in Carthage, but it is more in the background and thus becomes more a commentator. And this works to highlight Dido and Aeneas the principal characters.

The influence of Gluck is evident in Les Troyens, but there was another composer who was also important for Berlioz, if not more so, and that is Beethoven. Could you tell us a little about what he brought to the art of the French composer?

Ph.J.: Beethoven’s influence over the young Berlioz was major. The obvious relationship between the Symphonie fantastique and the Pastorale attests to this. They share the presence of sung parts, the same key and a similar orchestration. While owing a great deal to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Berlioz’s operatic work is also influenced by Fidelio. Later, after his contact with Italy, his composition would further evolve. The discovery of Italian opera and the history and artistic heritage of transalpine culture in general would lead him along new stylistic paths.

You mentioned the orchestration. Berlioz himself was the author of a treatise on instrumentation and orchestration...

Ph.J.: Clearly, Berlioz is all about orchestration! In Les Troyens, each number has its own sound thanks to a remarkable work of orchestration. He develops colours of great finesse. But here, his musical expertise goes beyond the mere field of orchestration. The treatment of the melodies also contributes greatly to the uniformity and general harmony that characterises the work.

Berlioz was a composer, a theorist, a critic, and also a dramatist. What can we learn from him about the relationship between text and music?

Ph.J.: Yes, Berlioz was not just a great composer, he was also a great author who, like Wagner, wrote his own librettos. It is not an exaggeration to say that both men were musical geniuses and genuine poets. They were artists who were open to all the arts. The literary quality of their works can be discussed, yet one has to recognise the real synergy that exists between their texts and their music. Berlioz, again like Wagner, sought totality in art. He was a great visionary who wanted to develop original forms. Already, with his Symphonie fantastique, that wish was expressed in his desire to compose a symphonic poem, to discover new compositional avenues along the lines of those initiated by Beethoven with his Ninth Symphony, in terms of orchestration and the use of text and chorus.

There is an emblematic figure of 19th century music who forms a link between Berlioz and Wagner. And that is Franz Liszt who helped to promote the art of the French composer and have his music played…

Ph.J.: The back and forth between all those artists was systematic and fruitful. They shared the ambition to revolutionise their art and compose the music of the 19th century. Berlioz’s contribution to the field of symphonic music is considerable. Without the Symphonie Fantastique, the music of Wagner, the symphonic poems of Liszt, and later, those of Richard Strauss would not have been what they are. Strauss also complemented Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation, which he was especially familiar with. I hear a lot of Berlioz in his Don Quixote. Not only from the point of view of the means used to give form to a musical idea taken from a subject, but also in the orchestration. Certain flourishes of Strauss’s symphonic poem are highly reminiscent of Les Troyens. It is also interesting to note that Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Les Troyens were composed at the same time. In the treatment of the voices, the orchestration and the harmony of G Flat Major, the duet between Dido and Aeneas is noticeably evocative of O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe, the love duet in the second act of “Tristan”, which nevertheless uses more modulation. So, all these masters were fascinated by, understood by, and sometimes criticised by each other. However, we cannot deny the reciprocal influences they exerted on each another. Without their encounters, music would never have been able to evolve. Battles are never won alone!    

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