John Nelson rehearsing Les Troyens
© Gregory Massat

There’s nobody on the planet who’s conducted Berlioz’s epic opera The Trojans more than John Nelson. The most recent was last Easter in Strasbourg when, in his own words “I had the privilege of performing it with the best cast imaginable”. He’s not wrong. A stellar cast headed by Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres and Marie-Nicole Lemieux gathered for what was undoubtedly my operatic event of the year… and this was without a staging! With the resultant recording just released, I caught up with Nelson to reminisce.

It’s Berlioz’s originality that the American conductor most adores. “There’s nobody who sounds like Berlioz. There are composers who sound like Bach, who sound like Beethoven, who sound like Brahms. But Berlioz had an individual, original voice and that fascinates me. Considering he was writing at the same time as Beethoven, who wrote with twelve, maybe thirteen different instruments in mind, Berlioz wrote with about fifty! His sound palette is so enormous and so original. He was the first man to really use the English horn, the bass clarinet, the saxhorn.”  That sound palette is put to good use in Les Troyens, where Berlioz writes for a massive orchestra which includes valve cornets, ophicleide, saxhorns, thunder machine, tenor drum (caisse roulante), tam-tam, antique cymbals and a phalanx of six harps.

John Nelson and Charlotte Juillard in rehearsal
© Gregory Massat

The Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg is Nelson’s favourite French orchestra. “They’re Alsatian, on the border, so I think they have the colour of the best French orchestras and the discipline of the Germans. They have a beautiful attitude.” Reviewing the second concert performance, I was impressed by the satin sheen of the violins and the warmth of the cellos and basses. The players obviously relished discovering Berlioz’s music. “They have a new concert mistress [Charlotte Juillard] who is a marvel! I will always carry the image of the string players and their faces when they were playing this music – the smiles, the curiosity, the astonishment on their faces.”

I remark that the French haven’t exactly been Berlioz’s greatest champions in the past, which draws guffaws from Nelson. “It’s you Brits who’ve championed him the most!” Heading the crusaders was the late Sir Colin Davis, who Nelson acknowledges as the “standard bearer” before telling me how their paths first crossed. “It was in 1972 when I did my concert version of Les Troyens at Carnegie Hall. It was the US première of the entire work, but Sarah Caldwell upstaged me by three months and put it on with her Boston company – incomplete – so I went along to see it. And there, in the third row, sat Colin Davis who was then conductor of the Boston Symphony. I introduced myself and he said ‘Young man, you are conducting The Trojans. How old are you?’ I told him I was 31. ‘You have no business conducting this music at that age. Do you know what it’s all about?’ And he gave me hell! Bless his heart, he was right. I had no business doing it at such an early age, but I was lucky to do it.

John Nelson holds aloft the score of Les Troyens
© Gregory Massat

“We got fantastic reviews because the reviewers didn’t know the piece, so I got all the credit for doing it. Ten years later, I listened to the recording for the first time and I was embarrassed. It was not good at all.” Nelson feels he got Troyens under his skin two years later, when he assisted Rafael Kubelík, who had just taken up the music directorship at the Metropolitan Opera, on his first new production. “I spent three months watching the master doing it with some great singers – Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers, Shirley Verrett, Judith Blegen – an incredible cast. By the time I conducted it (when Kubelík fell ill), I was much more comfortable. And then, one thing led to another and I made my debut in Europe (in Geneva) and now, 45 years later, there I was in Strasbourg.”

Nelson collaborated with Alain Lanceron, Warner Classic’s President, on casting, choosing Joyce DiDonato as Didon and Michael Spyres – “the perfect voice for this role” – as Énée, both making their role debuts. He reserves special praise for Marie-Nicole Lemieux, in voluptuous voice as Cassandre, also making her debut. Indeed, the entire cast – with the exception of Hanna Hipp, who had sung the role of Didon’s sister (Anna) at Covent Garden – were singing their roles for the first time. “You wouldn't think for a major performance that you’d use people who didn't know the piece, but it was beautiful because they all started from the same level playing field. There was a real French quality to it – 13 out of the 16 singers are francophone – plus the French orchestra and two French choruses, while the third, from the Staatstheater Karlsruhe, was the chorus which did the world premiere of the entire piece in 1890.” The strength of the luxury casting digs deep, with baritone Stéphane Degout as Chorèbe and rising star mezzo Marianne Crebassa – "surely a Didon in years to come" according to Nelson – as Ascagne. 

The opera is written in two parts: The Fall of Troy and The Trojans at Carthage, yet the 75-year old Nelson bridles at any suggestion of performing it over two nights. “Conducting Les Troyens is not an experience you have too many times in your life, so when you do it, you have to do it right. It has a sweep to it and even though it's in two parts, those two parts are connected by the thread of Aeneas. There’s never a dull moment in it.” In Strasbourg, Nelson had a stool on the podium… not that he used it. His only concession to comfort was to remove his shoes for Acts 4 and 5!

The results were truly astonishing. Warner’s recording – drawn from both concert performances and a patching session – has just been released. Further critical adulation awaits.


This article was sponsored by Nicky Thomas Media.