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BIG BERLIOZ 'LES TROYENS,' A TOWERING EPIC OPERA

"IT IS beautiful because it is Virgil; it is striking because it is Shakespeare. I have ransacked the gardens of two geniuses and cut there a swath of flowers to make a couch for Music, where God grant she may not perish, overcome by the fragrance."

Thus wrote Hector Berlioz to a friend who praised the libretto he had written for his epic music drama "Les Troyens" (The Trojans), composition of which consumed his creative juices from 1853 to 1858. The reference to Shakespeare, incidentally, was Berlioz' candid admission that he had adapted scenes from "The Merchant of Venice," "Richard III" and other of the Bard's plays for his own purposes in "Les Troyens."

But if Berlioz disclaimed credit for the text, the music was entirely his, which makes it one of history's bitter ironies that this acknowledged masterpiece has had such a difficult time finding its way onto the world's opera stages and even onto recordings.

The new 4-CD set conducted by Charles Dutoit is a major contribution to the Berlioz discography, and one of only two relatively complete recordings of "Les Troyens" ever made under the more controllable conditions of a recording studio. The other, conducted by Colin Davis on Philips 416432, is still in the catalog.

"Les Troyens" is a dramatization of Books II and IV of Virgil's "Aeneid." The complete opera, in five acts, contains about four hours of music. With normal intermissions added, total running time could be five hours.

Because of the opera's great length, Berlioz was persuaded to break it up into two parts.

Part 1, "La Prise de Troie" (The Capture of Troy), includes Acts 1 and 2 and covers Cassandra's prediction of the fall of Troy, and Aeneas' escape from the city as the Greeks pull their fabled wooden horse ploy, emerging from it to plunder the city as the Trojan women stab themselves.

Part 2 is "Les Troyens a Carthage" (The Trojans at Carthage). Aeneas and his Trojan legions are shipwrecked and arrive at Carthage, where he is entertained at the court of Queen Dido and falls desperately in love with her. Ultimately the pull of destiny is greater than that of love, and he leaves Dido to cross the Mediterranean and found the city of Rome. Feeling utterly betrayed and bereft, Dido kills herself.

Berlioz never saw the entire opera staged. In 1863 Part 2 was produced at Paris' Theatre Lyrique. The bad news is that the cast was mediocre and the score was mercilessly and tastelessly truncated. In spite of this, the countering good news is that both audience and critics loved it, and the 22 performances filled Berlioz's coffers to the tune of some 50,000 francs, freeing him from the need to write newspaper columns for a living.

Berlioz died in 1869. It was 1890 before the entire opera enjoyed a production, in Karlsruhe, Germany, and 1973 before the Metropolitan Opera presented the first substantially complete staging in the United States.

"Les Troyens" is an opera that requires work on the part of the listener. When Dutoit's new recording arrived I played it a couple of times while I was attending to other home matters on the assumption I could absorb a good deal of the character of the performance subliminally.

That didn't work with this opera. All I absorbed were troublesome feelings that "Les Troyens" is a more static, less immediately communicative work than such other Berlioz quasi-dramatic pieces as "La Damnation de Faust," "Romeo et Juliette," even the oratorio "L'Enfance du Christ" and certainly the incomparable, highly dramatic Requiem.

I was also of the initial opinion that Dutoit lacked assertiveness in spinning out many sections of this extraordinarily lyrical and dynamic work.

But it took only one traversal of the recording while armed with the libretto to prove those preliminary conclusions were dead wrong.

There may be a sense of spaciousness verging at times on distance in the recording, but Dutoit has a firm and knowing control over every minute detail of this grandiose yet eloquent score, full of Berlioz' long, singing cantilena lines, his brashly bombastic yet never strident or overloaded climaxes, and most of all his incomparably radiant, translucent writing for full brass choirs. And Dutoit's Montreal orchestra and chorus perform magnificently.

Tenor Gary Lakes has heretofore at times seemed like a huge but raw talent. His performance here as Aeneas reveals artistry I had hoped would develop and now seems to be coalescing quite satisfactorily. The demands of the role are enormous, and Lakes is hard put to cope with some of the upper register writing without a certain sense of strain. The general level of his singing, however, is warm, expressive, quite well focused, and abetted by a clarity of diction I hadn't expected.

Opposite him as Dido is soprano Francoise Pollet, whose passion in the final act as she senses death is her fate is superbly expressive and convincing. She also handles the other end of the emotional spectrum very well, singing very tenderly with Lakes' equally impressive responses in the magnificent, aerially ecstatic Act 4 love duet "Nuit d'ivresse," one of the most beautiful duets in this or any other opera.

Soprano Deborah Voigt sings the third major role, Cassandra, with a pointedly focused sound and emotional responses which cover an appropriately wide range, but on occasion seem more calculated than spontaneous. Since she appears only in Part 1 and Dido only in Part 2, Berlioz himself sanctioned the use of the same dramatic soprano for both roles, an option not exercised here. Other singers are of generally high quality, particularly a tenor unknown to me, John Mark Ainsley, who makes the opening aria of Act 5, "Vallon sonore," one of the unexpected delights in this supremely valuable, exciting and authoritative new recording. Rating: **** 1/2 .

BERLIOZ Les Troyens; tenor Gary Lakes, soprano Francoise Pollet, soprano Deborah Voigt, Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Charles Dutoit (London 443 693 -- 4 CDs).

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