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Grand opéra in five acts
Libretto by the composer, based on Virgil's Aeneid (29-19 BC)
First performances of Acts 3-5: November 4 1863, Théâtre Lyrique, Paris
Acts 1-3: December 7 1879, Théâtre du Châtelet & Cirque d'Hiver, Paris (in concert), December 6 1890, Hoftheater Karlsruhe (staged).
1st fully staged performance May 3 1969, Scottish Opera, Glasgow
ca. 5 hrs (including intervals 1: 30 mins, and 2: 20 mins)
Sung in French with German surtitles
34 years since this monumental work was last staged in Frankfurt
Hector Berlioz viewed the times he lived in with the eyes of a outsider driven by visions for the future. His half-hearted attempts to pay obsequious tribute to a Zeitgeist sworn to progress, expansion and claims of imperial world power, and narrow-minded Louis Napoleon, in order to ensure that his works were performed at all, were short lived. He had a passion for ancient subject matter and the works of Virgil, which he discovered in childhood and whose predilection for great historical genre he shared. Nothing for him, in opera, could be big enough. He wanted to »fit out a ship, set off with an orchestra and build a temple of sound at the foot of mount Ida.« This five act grand opéra – which could be seen as just this sort of ship - about the surviving Trojans fleeing to thriving Carthage, only to have to leave it again in order to fulfill their task, the founding of the Roman Empire and the sad fates of the two lead female figures: the Trojan Cassandra, cursed with the gift of prophesy, and Queen Dido, who was deserted by her beloved Aeneas. Les Troyens is the operatic equivalent of Tolstoy's War and Peace.
The size of orchestra and chorus and demanding nature of the lead roles are the reasons why this 5+ hour evening is not performed more often. Berlioz, sadly, never saw the work, in its entirity, on stage.
Act I The Greeks have abandoned their camp in front of Troy after a ten year siege, leaving behind an enormous horse which the Trojans, besides themselves for joy about their new found freedom, take to be an offering to Pallas Athene. They pay no heed to Cassandra, daughter of Priam, who is horrified by the people's unwariness. She foresees the destruction of Troy, not even her lover Chorèbe will believe her when she begs him to leave the city. Celebrations are interruped by the grieving figure of Hector's widow Adromache. Then Aeneas rushes in, describing the death of the priest Laocoon; mistrustful of the horse he wanted it burned; whereupon two serpents appeared from the sea and devoured him. The Trojans cheer Aeneas' decision to have the horse brought into the city to appease the goddess. Cassandra's warnings fall on deaf ears. Act II Hector's ghost tells Aeneas that Troy is in flames - the enemy are in the city. Those who still have a chance to flee should rescue Troy's sacred idols, take them to Italy and found a new kingdom. The priest Pantheus brings terrible news: Greeks who were hidden in the horse have opened the gates of the city. Cassandra prophesies that Aeneas will build a new Troy in Italy. She, whose beloved Chorèbe has already been killed, longs only for death. When the Greeks storm in the women cry out »Italy«, and kill themselves. Act III Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her people celebrate: it is seven years since she, an emigrant, whose husband was murdered, founded the city of Carthage. Dido asks her people and for their support against King Jarbas, who wants to conquer her country. Dido is determined to be true to memories of her dead husband, but is overcome by a strange sense of unease. The poet Iopas announces the arrival of an unidentified fleet, driven to Carthage's shores by a storm. Dido grants the strangers refuge. Aeneas' son, presents her with gifts. Pantheus explains that it is Aeneas' mission to found a new Troy in Italy. Narbal, a minister, hurries in with news that Jarbas and his troops are invading. Aeneas reveals his identity and leads the Trojans and Carthaginians into battle. Act IV Royal Hunt. Dido and Aeneas take refuge from a storm. Narbal, sensing their love, is worried about the future of his country. Dido's sister Anna is sure thatlove will be victorious over Aeneas' sense of duty. Narbal contradicts her: is it right that Aeneas stay longer in Carthage, putting the queen and people on hold in the expectation of a wedding? Aeneas tells Dido about Andromache, a widow like she, who has finally given her hand in marriage to Pyrrhus, who abducted her from Troy. Dido is unsure: »Everything conspires that I be absolved from the guilt of infidelity.« That night Dido and Aeneas consummate their love. Mercure appears, strikes Aeneas' shield and calls out »Italy« three times. Act V Pantheus instructs the Trojans to prepare to set sail: the gods are angry about the delay. Aeneas' awareness of his devine mission does battle with his emotions. He resolves to depart; but wants to see Dido once more. The ghosts of Cassandra, Choroebus, Priam and Hector appear. Now nothing that Dido can say can make him stay. When she is brought news of the Trojans departure she curses Aeneas and orders that all objects that might remind her of him be gathered together. Left alone, she decides on death and bids farewell to life. Priests call upon the gods of death and oblivion. After predicting the arrival of a powerful conqueror in Carthage – Hannibal – her avenger, she stabs herself with Aeneas' sword. Her last vision is of eternal Rome. The Carthaginians swear: »War will rage between us far into the distant future. Those not yet born will wreak bloody revenge.«