BBC Proms reviews

Prom 64 review – Les Troyens in concert at the Royal Albert Hall

3 September 2023

A meticulous approach and thrilling results from the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir.

Prom 64

Prom 64: Les Troyens (Photo: Andy Paradise)

Hector Berlioz composed Les Troyens between 1856 and 1858, but never saw a complete performance in his lifetime. Part II, under the title of Les Troyens à Carthage, did appear at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1863, but the cuts and compromises that were made in order to ensure it was performed at all left the composer far from satisfied. Difficulties concerning the accessibility of various editions of the work distorted perceptions of the opera for a long period after Berlioz’ death in 1869, leading to suggestions that it was a ‘noble white elephant’. However, following the publication in 1969 of the full score in a critical edition containing all of the material left by the composer, it has become easier to appreciate it as a genuine masterpiece.

Productions are still quite rare because of the resources required to stage the piece, with the last at Covent Garden being in 2012. Concert or semi-stagings can be less costly, but any performance of such an epic work is still a major undertaking. This makes the achievement of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir, in touring a concert version to five European locations over August and September, particularly remarkable. The project was conceived by John Eliot Gardiner, although the majority of the performances have been led by Dinis Sousa after Gardiner’s withdrawal. 

Sousa’s conducting of this final outing at the BBC Proms was superb. With a strong attention to detail, and a consistent focus on balance across the forces as a whole, his meticulous approach was the means by which drama could be generated at every turn. The duet between Dido and Aeneas at the close of Act IV was consequently as engaging  as the Trojan March that ends Act I was overwhelming, as the sound generated always felt so appropriate for the occasion. If a first rate staged performance remains the ideal for Les Troyens, this style of concert performance is not only the next best thing, but also preferable to any staging that does not get everything exactly right. Being able to concentrate solely on the beautiful music in, for example, the Dance of the Slaves trumps having the mood disrupted by choreography that does not hit the mark. Similarly, with the Entries of the Builders, Sailors and Farm Workers, it is so easy for the presentations of axes, rudders and corn to feel obvious and hence glib, that it is safer to leave these to the imagination.

“…any performance of such an epic work is still a major undertaking”

Prom 64

Dinis Sousa (Photo: Andy Paradise)

If props and certain routines were absent, however, movement director Tess Gibbs ensured there was no shortage of drama. The chorus remained offstage as the first note was played before coming on in rowdy clusters as they celebrated the Greeks’ departure, only latterly retreating to stand in neat rows behind the orchestra. When Alice Coote’s Cassandra appeared she worked her way through the orchestra, while her mezzo-soprano possessed the scope to reveal the character’s anguish to the full. As Coroebus, Lionel Lhote’s baritone was highly pleasing and effective, and the interaction between the pair highlighted their relationship extremely well. Their actions, such as an embrace, were those of two people who loved each other deeply, yet were unwilling to back down because each was so certain they were right that to do so made no sense.

While it would have been easy to have kept the chorus still for the vast majority of the evening, their movements were not infrequent and often quite subtle. If it was not strictly necessary towards the end of Act I to have half of them exit only to come on again shortly afterwards, it helped to build up the drama in the Trojan March as the return of everyone ‘coincided’ with the offstage brass itself becoming visible. In Act II when the surviving Trojan Men departed for the citadel, the Trojan Women could become more prominent by moving across to occupy the space that they left. They then came to the front for the mass suicide, which was especially moving, and the fact that this was a concert performance gave it another advantage over a fully staged one. Cassandra dismisses some of the women, who she deems cowardly, and normally they would need to exit. Here, by making the reluctant women those who then cry ‘Cassandra, we will die with you!’, as if they have changed their minds, everyone could be retained for what followed to ensure maximum impact.

The set-up also made it easier at least for the chorus to switch from playing Trojans to Greeks Soldiers to Carthaginians, and the Monteverdi Choir, under chorus master Sam Evans, was a revelation all evening. Particularly notable was the final chorus ‘Haine éternelle à la race d’Énée!’, where the ‘inversion’ of the Trojan March to imbue what was once proclaimed with triumph with such vengeful venom felt particularly skilful. Paula Murrihy’s Dido was a relatively subtle presence, but this was the making of her performance as she oozed elegance and set herself up in stark contrast to Cassandra who had preceded her. With her voice being both sensitive and nuanced, her final demise was particularly emotive, while her duets with Michael Spyres’ Aeneas felt divine. Spyres was on wondrous form as he shaped his warm, smooth tenor to perfection and revealed some masterly phrasing.

There was not a weak link in the cast, which included Adèle Charvet as Ascanius, Ashley Riches as Panthus, Rebecca Evans as Hecuba and Graham Neal as Helenus, but special mention should go to Alex Rosen, who was impressive as Hector, Narbal and the Second Trojan Sentry. As Anna, Beth Taylor’s mezzo-soprano was possessed of infinite depth, while Laurence Kilsby delivered Iopas’ ‘Ô blonde Cérès’ and Hylas’ ‘Vallon sonore’ with such beauty and tenderness that they could not fail to stir the heart.

Prom 64 can be audio streamed from BBC Sounds.

• Details of the 2023 BBC Proms season can be found here.

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Prom 64 review – Les Troyens in concert at the Royal Albert Hall