British Restraint vs. Gallic Passion

I am applying analgesic liniments to my ass, having spent six hours yesterday at the Met movie-house broadcast of Berlioz’ Trojans, which is something like doing a LOTR marathon while listening to all the Mahler symphonies simultaneously. Few opera houses ever produce this thing. The director and orchestra need the chops required for Wagner operas, the hundred-plus chorus members are either on stage or changing frantically into costumes of yet another nation, the corps de ballet dance until you are bored to extinction you marvel at their stamina, and the dramatic soprano has to sing almost continuously for two hours before leading the women of Troy to mass suicide. This is, by the way, a Gallic interpolation. Cassandra is clearly reported in the mythic canon (I consulted my classicist Engineer on this point) as surviving the sack of Troy to become the slave of Agamemnon. Here she is more of a Jim Jones, with better high notes.

Troyens follows Vergil’s Aeneid, more or less; as the Greeks ravage Troy, Aeneas escapes with a fleet, to fetch up at Carthage just in time to rescue its Tyrian queen Dido from an impudent tribal king seeking to force a territorial marriage with her by might of arms. The classic Older Woman (already widowed before fleeing Tyre), she falls in love with Aeneas, who initially (and in the opera, interminably) succumbs to her ripe charms but then repents of his failure in duty to the Gods and his family dead. They want him to go to Italy and found Rome and by gum he will do it. Distraught and abandoned, Dido makes away with herself. Pity and Terror, as Aristotle said.

Berlioz did something which probably would have annoyed Vergil: he made the Carthaginians far and away the most appealing of the nations represented, from the warlike Greeks and pious Trojans to the conquest-obsessed Romans that would eventually descend from them. In her first scene, Dido honors the builders, farmers and  laborers of Carthage. Would you rather live there or someplace that was preoccupied with subjugating everyone else in the general vicinity? Just askin’.

I pondered, after the gong wore off, on the role that national character plays in interpretation of the great myths. Henry Purcell gave us Dido and Aeneas, whose finale is one of the great mezzo arias of all time. (Old broads are always mezzos.) “When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast,” sings Dido. “Remember me! but ah, forget my fate.” The butler will show you out.

Dido channeled by a Frenchman was slightly fierier.

I have my own theory about Dido. I keep meaning to write the play. Aeneas says farewell and sails off, full of stout obedience to his people and his Gods, and Dido loses it but good; throws things, weeps, calls him names, and invokes various curses; then, when the adrenalin has worn off, she goes up to the palace, chucks out all the dirty underwear and dogeared issues of Trireme and Rower, orders a big dish of couscous (we are in North Africa, after all), and spreads out across both sides of the bed again.

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8 thoughts on “British Restraint vs. Gallic Passion

    • I have to plump for Berlioz. Having been a devotee of the Symphonie Fantastique for years, I was surprised at how few tuneful moments there were in “Troyens”, but the ones there were, were good. I am afrai dthe Baroque sensibility just misses me. I know people will swear up and down that it is the sexiest and most passionate music in the world, yada yada, but I still love a good broad melodic sprawl and climax. Does that sound rude? Probably.

  1. Never say that to my friend Zeus, who, after I turned him on to Monteverdi (whose Poppaea is arguably replete with character, anguish and irony), supplied me with the choicest bits of Baroque opera.

    Still, I like music to kick my feet out from under me and the Baroque is always… just a bit polite.

    • I wonder if singing groups have a garlic rule the way they have a perfume rule (you’re not supposed to come to rehearsals or performances smelling of anything that might clog someone else’s pipes). That would be a shame because I can relate too.

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