Performances of Berlioz's epic opera in two parts, Les Troyens, are rare events. Substantially shorter than Wagner's Ring, it is nonetheless staged far less frequently. Although there was no production to be had in the pretty city of Strasbourg this Easter weekend, a pair of concert performances with a stellar line-up had Francophile operagoers drooling in anticipation. Berlioz specialist John Nelson conducted the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg in the complete score – not a single note was cut – the result was a triumph.

<i>Les Troyens</i> in Strasbourg © Gregory Massat
Les Troyens in Strasbourg
© Gregory Massat

Nothing is better than when Berlioz ramps up the decibels. Why settle for three timpani when you can have sixteen (the Grande messe des morts)? In Les Troyens, brass players are gainfully employed, while Berlioz tickles the ear with his taste for exotic percussion. Six harps strumming together made a beguiling tintinnabulation and the bass trombone snarls to accompany the reports of the sea serpent swallowing Laocoon were ominous. Garrulous flutes and trilling piccolo chuckles enlivened the ballet. Most thrilling were the 'surround-sound' effects in The Royal Hunt and Storm episode, horns and chorus dotted around the auditorium, drowning out the torrential downpour outside.

The OPS is a very fine orchestra, especially its string section, with a satin sheen to the violins and plenty of warmth to cellos and basses. The concert was delayed for over 20 minutes as we awaited the arrival of the principal clarinettist, but his eloquently phrased solo in the episode featuring Hector's widow Andromache justified the wait. Nelson didn't use a baton, but conducted as if sewing with his right hand, the score never rushed. He failed to use the stool provided for him, his only concession to comfort being to remove his shoes for Act 5. Banked high in the garish red, Lego-brick interior of the Salle Erasmé, three choruses were involved – from the Opéra National du Rhin, the Staatstheater Karlsruhe and the Choeur de l'Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg – contributing plenty of volume to Berlioz's more boisterous numbers.

The deluxe cast delivered in spades. As Cassandre, Marie-Nicole Lemieux was in voluptuous voice, hardening her mezzo tone where necessary. Although there was no stage action, Lemieux really committed, stabbing herself with an imaginary sword to avoid the marauding Greeks at the end of Part I. If there had been any scenery, Lemieux would have chewed it to bits.

Joyce DiDonato and John Nelson © Gregory Massat
Joyce DiDonato and John Nelson
© Gregory Massat

Joyce DiDonato has a softer-grained mezzo than Lemieux, with a slight flutter as her tone whitens towards the top of her range. The consummate professional, she turned to face the chorus singing her praises in “Gloire à Didon”, a poised, regal presence as the Queen of Carthage. She spun mesmerising pianissimos in “Adieu citié” and was sublime in the ecstatic love duet “Nuit d'ivresse” with Michael Spyres, her Énée. DiDonato darkened her voice to summon up real vehemence at Énée's betrayal; she is a great tragedienne. Spyres, attired in a natty waistcoat, didn't always display his usual bright 'ping' to top notes in “Inutile regrets”, but was always exciting, with great nasal vowels. 

As Anna, Hanna Hipp's velvety mezzo blended well with DiDonato, while the evening's fourth mezzo, Marianne Crebassa – in white bow tie and impressive cuffs – had a crystalline, youthful tone as Énée's son, Ascagne. Stephane Degout's smooth baritone also had plenty of bite as Chorèbe, while Philippe Sly was a vibrant Panthée. Cyrille Dubois' honeyed timbre impressed as Iopas, “O blonde Cérès” beautifully contained, earning appreciative smiles from Spyres, who was possibly jealous that the “other” tenor gets the best tune! Stanislas de Barbeyrac floated head notes nicely as Trojan sailor, Hylas. The only disappointment in the cast was the cloudy bass of Nicolas Courjal's Narbal.

John Nelson, Hanna Hipp, Michael Spyres, Marianne Crebassa and Philippe Sly © Gregory Massat
John Nelson, Hanna Hipp, Michael Spyres, Marianne Crebassa and Philippe Sly
© Gregory Massat

There was a great sense that the singers were revelling in the whole thing, often listening with rapt attention. Spyres followed the score for most of Part I, singing along with the women's chorus at one point; in Part II, all turned to watch the percussion shimmy and slink through the Dance of the Nubian Slaves. There was a lovely collegiate atmosphere, as if they knew they were taking part in something just a bit special. It was a thrill to share the experience. 

 

Mark’s trip to Strasbourg was sponsored by Warner/Erato, who plan to release a recording of this concert.