Uniquely Spectacular: 'Les Troyens,' by Berlioz

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The single, most popular and familiar work by Hector Berlioz is almost surely his "Symphonie Fantastique," or "Fantastic Symphony" -- and it truly is fantastic. Bold and brash, its range of non-traditional elements makes it unlike any symphony written before, or since.

Yet, that was hardly unusual for Berlioz. Many of his greatest compositions don't fit any ready-made categories. For example, his "dramatic symphony" Romeo and Juliet, and his "dramatic legend" The Damnation of Faust, both seem to hover in an odd realm somewhere between the concert hall and the theater.

It wasn't that Berlioz had an aversion to traditional musical forms. The "Fantastic Symphony" is, after all, a symphony. It simply defies comparison to what we normally think of as a symphony. And he also defied the norms in another traditional genre for which he had a lasting affinity: opera.

When Berlioz was still in his twenties, he made a trip to Italy. While visiting Florence, Naples and Milan he got a grand introduction to Italian opera, seeing productions of Bellini's La Sonnambula and The Capulets and the Montagues, plus Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, among others. Inspired by the experience, he returned home to France with the stated goal of "battering down the doors" of the Paris Opera -- and he gave it his best shot.

Berlioz produced only about half-a-dozen operas, but he spent a great deal of time on them. They span nearly his entire career, written over a period of almost four decades, and they're brilliant, strikingly original scores. So, why don't we hear them more often? Well, for one thing, they don't really fit any established, operatic genres. Perhaps more importantly, they present musical and technical challenges that make them extremely difficult to perform. The opera featured here is a prime example -- Les Troyens (The Trojans) is a complex, five-act spectacle with elements ranging from gentle sentiment to bombastic special effects.

Along with his lifelong love for opera, Berlioz also had a longstanding passion for the epic poetry of Virgil, and in particular for the Aeneid. So it was natural that the composer would eventually combine the two interests in an opera. He began the score in the mid-1850s, writing his own libretto. The opera was completed in 1858.

Getting it to the stage was a different matter. Parts of the opera were heard as early as 1859, and the final three acts were performed in 1863 as an independent piece, called The Trojans in Carthage. But when Berlioz died, in 1869, his publisher had never even printed the complete score -- which didn't appear until 1969, when it was finally published in a Berlioz centennial edition.

All along, the opera has been widely praised as one of the composer's most accomplished and effective scores. Yet performances of it are still unusual. Along with its technical difficulty, the full, five-act score creates an awfully long evening at the opera house -- even when judicious cuts are made -- which means featuring the drama here on World of Opera is a rare treat.

Host Lisa Simeone presents Les Troyens from the Hamburg State Opera. The stars are mezzo-soprano Elena Zhidkova and tenor Torsten Kerl as Dido and Aeneas, in a production led by the company's newly-appointed music director, the American conductor Kent Nagano.