The imperial destiny of the Trojans

The goddess of my life, Artemis Leontis, and I made sure last month to catch one of only five performances of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens (1856-58) in a fittingly grandiose new production at the Lyric Opera.

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I have been exploring with special interest this Shakespearean grand opera since its revival in the 1960s but, until we saw it live in Chicago, I had not fully realized how directly it rewrites Virgil’s Aeneid (in Berlioz’s own libretto!) as a prophecy of Napoleon III’s Empire. This five-act, five-hour work of imperial scope and ambition stages imperialism as historical destiny. From beginning to end, every episode and motif points explicitly to “Italie!” as the preordained destination of the Trojans, and the lavish orchestral and choral writing reiterates it in a myriad of extravagant colorations. I cannot think of another opera in the repertoire that is so blatantly imperial in both size and ideology.

So what was Katina Paxinou, one of the greatest tragedians of the 20th century, doing on the cover of the Lyric’s program? It didn’t say, and we couldn’t think of any connection to Berlioz or Virgil. Perhaps she represented the archetypal tragic heroine of classical myth, like Cassandra and Dido in Les Troyens. Indeed the director, Tim Albery, tried to introduce some tragic intimations of the fall that is the ultimate destiny of all empires but I found them unconvincing. As Edward Said stressed in his review of the Met production, Berlioz admired the ongoing expansion of the French Empire in North Africa. Like the Parisian stage of the 1850s, this opera can amply accommodate melodrama but remains impervious to tragic insight.

December 8, 2016

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