Hector Berlioz (1803–69)
Les Troyens, Op. 5 (1856–58)
Berlioz capitalized on earlier “experiments” in his opera Les Troyens, op. 5 (1856–58). According to Berlioz’s Memoirs, he was encouraged to undertake the project during a visit to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, aunt of Prince Eugène de Sayn-Wittgenstein to whom Berlioz had dedicated Tristia:
Something led me to speak of my admiration for Virgil and of an idea I had formed of a grand opera on the Shakespearean model, to be founded on the second and fourth books of the Æneid. I added that I was too well acquainted with the necessary difficulties of such an undertaking ever to attempt it. “Indeed,” replied the Princess, “your passion for Shakespeare, combined with your love of the antique, ought to produce something grand and uncommon. You must write this opera, or lyric poem, or whatsoever you choose to call it. You must begin it, and you must finish it.”1
According to David Charlton, “the work is, on probably every level, the finest French opera composed during this period.” Charlton also states that, “The most brilliant stroke was the dance pantomime inspired directly by Virgil (the ‘Chasse royale et orage’).”2 The description of this scene in Virgil’s text is as follows:
Dido and Troy’s chieftain found their way to the same cavern. Primeval Earth and Juno, Mistress of the Marriage, gave their sign. The sky connived at the union; the lightning flared; on their mountain-peak nymphs raised their cry. On that day were sown the seeds of suffering and death.3
Berlioz expanded this simple scenario into a complex structure, one capable of expressing the intense dramatic concept he had in mind:
The theater represents an African forest in the morning. At the rear, a very high rock. Below and on the left of the rock, the opening of a grotto. A small brook runs along the rock and is lost in a natural basin bordered by bulrushes and reeds.
Two naïads are glimpsed for one moment then disappear; then they are seen swimming in the basin. Royal hunt. The fanfares of a horn resound far off in the forest. The frightened naïads hide in the reeds. Tyrien hunters pass by, leading dogs on leashes. The young Ascagne on horseback crosses the theater at a gallop. The sky is obscured, the rain falls. Growing storm . . . Soon the tempest becomes terrible, torrents of rain, hail, flashes, and claps of thunder. Repeated calls of the hunting horns in the middle of the tumult of the elements. The hunters disperse in all directions; lastly Dido appears, dressed as Diana the Huntress, bow in hand, quiver on her shoulder, and Aeneas in a semi-warrior costume. Both of them are on foot. They enter the grotto. At once the wood nymphs appear, scattering their hair over the summit of the rock, and come and go while running, crying out, and making disordered gestures. In the middle of their clamors, one can hear from time to time the word: Italy! The brook grows larger and becomes a noisy cascade. Several other waterfalls are formed on various points of the rock and mix their noise with the crash of the storm. The satyrs, sylvans, and fauns carry out grotesque dances in the darkness. Lightning strikes a tree, breaks and ignites it. The remains of the tree fall on the stage. The satyrs, fauns, and sylvans collect the ignited branches, dancing while holding them in their hands, and then disappear with the nymphs into the depths of the forest. The scene clouds over. The tempest calms. The clouds rise.4
The numerous phantasmagoric effects in this description—mythical beings, a raging storm with lightning strikes, waterfalls—are strikingly similar to those in Weber’s “Wolf’s Glen” scene. The chorus (nymphs, sylvans, and fauns) sings “A-o a-o” at the climax of the scene, when the storm is at its full fury and Dido and Aeneas consummate their love.
Berlioz, Les Troyens, “Chasse royale et orage,” mm. 242–45
Les Troyens was first performed on 4 November 1863 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, where it received twenty-one performances before closing. However it was only acts 3 through 5, appearing under the name Les Troyens à Carthage that were actually performed. Berlioz wrote in his Memoirs regarding his frustrations with the production, and the “Chasse royale” in particular:
The mise en scène, which Carvalho insisted on arranging, was quite unlike what I had directed; it was absurd in some parts and ridiculous in others. At the first representation, the scene-shifter came nearly spoiling everything and upsetting the whole piece by his awkwardness in the hunting scene. At the Opéra, this tableau would have produced a strikingly wild and beautiful effect; here it was contemptible, it took fifty-five minutes to make the change to the next scene, and the result was that the whole scene in which the storm and the royal hunt take place was suppressed at the second representation.5
And again shortly after the previous passage:
The mise en scène of the hunting interlude was wretched. Instead of a real waterfall, there was a painted one; the dancing satyrs were represented by little girls of twelve, and the blazing branches which they ought to have waved were forbidden for fear of fire. There were no disheveled nymphs flying through the forest crying “Italy!” The chorus-singers who represented them were placed in the wings, and could not be heard in the theatre; the thunderbolt was scarcely audible, notwithstanding the weakness of the orchestra. And always after this contemptible parody, the scene-shifter took at least forty minutes to change the scene. I myself therefore requested that the interlude might be suppressed.6
In addition, Berlioz added a handwritten note in the autograph manuscript as follows:
Avis pour l’intermède: Dans le cas où le théâtre ne serait pas assez vaste pour permettre une mise-en-scène animée et grandiose de cet intermède, si l’on ne pouvait obtenir des choristes femmes de parcourir la scène les cheveux épars, et des choristes hommes costumés en Faunes et en Satyres de se livrer à de grotesques gambades en criant: Italie! si les pompiers avaient peur du feu, les machinists peur de l’eau, le directeur peur de tout, et surtout si l’on ne pouvait faire rapidement le changement de décors avant le 3me acte, on devrait supprimer cette symphonie.7
[Comment on the interlude: If the theater is not vast enough to allow an animated and imposing mise-en-scène for this interlude; if one cannot obtain female choristers to cross the stage with their hair scattered, and male choristers dressed up as Fauns and Satyrs devoted to grotesque leaps while shouting: Italy!; if the firemen are afraid of fire, the machinists afraid of water, the director afraid of everything, and especially if one cannot quickly make the change of scenery before the third act, this symphony should be suppressed.]
The difficulties of such extraordinary stage effects are the same as those encountered in the case of Weber and Wagner earlier.
(Nauman 2009, 39–43)