Notes and Editorial Reviews
Note: This set does not include a libretto.
It is a tribute to the quality of Sir Cohn Davis's pioneering set of Berlioz's epic opera that it has remained unchallenged by any rival on record for a quarter-century. On CD it has emerged more clearly than ever as the centrepiece of Davis's Berlioz cycle, with the 1969 sound still superbly focused, giving a vivid sense of presence. Now comes Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, who over the last 15 years have established themselves as second to none in the French repertory, not only because of their idiomatic responsiveness to the music, but because of the consistent warmth and richness of their sound. Add to that here a largely French-speaking cast, on balance even more sensitive and tonally more beautiful than Davis's, plus two minor but valuable textual additions, and the advantage of the new over the old is clear. This is the swan-song of Decca's veteran record producer, Ray Minshull, and he could not have a more glorious monument to celebrate his career.
The 28 hours of recording spread over two and a half weeks were linked to two concert performances of each of the parts of the opera, "La prise de Troie" and "Les Troyens Carthage". The church of St Eustache, the orchestra's regular recording venue, was not big enough to accommodate all the separate ensembles and choirs in the Trojan March at the end of Act I, and to synchronize everything they needed 64 tracks. As Minshull explains in his notes, some off-stage groups had to be recorded first and then dubbed in over the rest, with the chief engineer, John Dunkerley, brilliantly masterminding the complex operation. Other special effects which Berlioz asked for involved such percussion instruments as the sistrum (a sort of rattle), six of which were specially created for the recording. Also a tarbuka, a drum based on an Egyptian design. The spectacular range of the modern digital recording, richly detailed, allows the many tummy-wobbling low trombone notes to be heard with thrilling effect; in addition, the bass-drum beats regularly add a sinister threat, even in lyrical passages.
Interpretatively, the contrasts between Dutoit and Davis are quickly established at the very start of "La prise de Troie". Dutoit launches in at high voltage, more volatile than Davis, conveying exuberance, consistently preferring faster speeds. Davis may be marginally less exciting, but he often compensates in the extra crispness and clarity of the playing of the Covent Garden orchestra. The advantage of Dutoit's faster speeds—reflecting the metronome markings, as Minshull explains— comes not just in thrilling Allegros, but in flowing Andantes. So Cassandra's first solo is more persuasively moulded at a flowing speed, with Deborah Voigt far warmer than Bent Lindholm for Davis, both in her beauty of tone and in her espressivo phrasing. Lindholm is accurate, but her tone too readily becomes raw and throaty under pressure, where Voigt's portrait is far more feminine and movingly vulnerable. Nor is it just in lyrical passages where she has the advantage, for the vein of hysteria in Cassandra's character is more clearly established, and she crowns her performance at the end of Act 2, triumphantly leading the final ensemble of defiant Trojan women, more impetuously than her rival. Interestingly, the timings I took at Davis's live performances of the opera with the LSO at the Barbican in December 1993 suggest that his speeds too have grown faster, and have latterly become close to those of Dutoit.
In "La prise de Troie" such a moment as the clash of arms within the Trojan horse comes over more dramatically with Dutoit thanks to his timing, and there is more mystery before the arrival of Hector's ghost at the beginning of Act 2. For completeness Dutoit includes the brief prelude that Berlioz wrote for the garbled 1863 performances of the second part of the opera, but not intended to be given in the full five-act version. In sequence here, one immediately registers the drop in inspiration, but on CD the track is easily programmed out.
The other textual addition I mentioned comes in Act I. After the Andromache scene—with a clarinet solo of breathtaking gentleness from the Montreal player—there is an extra scene lasting six minutes which the Berlioz scholar, Hugh Macdonald, editor of the Barenreiter score, has orchestrated from the surviving piano score. In what he describes as "a somewhat breathless episode" Sinon, a Greek spy, convinces King Priam that the horse is a gift to Pallas Athene and must be brought inside the city. Not only does the scene give an individual role to King Priam, it provides a motivation for the disastrous decision to take in the horse. Berlioz ripped the scene out of the full score at a late stage, simply to shorten Act 1, which as we now appreciate was not needed. The minor disadvantage is that the entry of Aeneas with his dire news of Laocoon and the serpents is not so dramatic when it follows another busy scene rather than the stillness of the Andromache scene.
The role of Cassandra's lover, Choroebus, in the first part of the opera is very well taken in both sets, by Peter Glossop for Davis, by Gino Quilico for Dutoit, both in rich, firm voice, though I am sorry that, unlike Davis, Dutoit does not get his soloist to match the piano marking for the instrumental accompaniment in the last phrase of each stanza in Choroebus's lovely cavatina. Strictly speaking the score doesn't ask for it, but merely implies it, and it is a beautiful effect.
As Aeneas Gary Lakes may not have so richly heroic a voice as Jon Vickers for Davis, being rather more easily stressed at the top, but among today's tenors he is the most experienced of all in this role, having sung it close on two-dozen times on both sides of the Atlantic. His big advantage over Vickers, most of all in the great love scene with Dido in Act 3, is that he shades his voice far more subtly. It has always been a disappointment to me in the Davis set that Vickers trumpets out at a fullforte through even the gentlest, most intimate passages, not least in that duet. Not so Lakes, and in his Act 5 monologue he conveys genuine remorse, bringing out the equivocal contrasts of mood, leading up to the contradictory last line, "Je pars, et je vous alme".
Though the role of Dido very often goes to a mezzo—Josephine Veasey in the Davis set, Dame Janet Baker in EMI's set of excerpts with Sir Alexander Gibson conducting (11/88)—here Decca firmly opt for a soprano, Francoise Pollet. One of the most exciting French singers to have appeared in years, she is in many ways an ideal choice, for as she points out herself: "The tessitura is medium-high, and there is the question of vocal colour as well. Dido is a loving woman, and hence a lyric approach is essential until the end, when she becomes embittered and dramatic." Very much attuned to the idiom, she sings consistently with full, even tone, so that, matching Dutoit's expressiveness and the richness of the Montreal sound, she brings out the feminine sensuousness of the role more than a mezzo normally would.
Such a passage as the central section of the Dido/Anna duet in Act 3 inspired her to legato of velvet beauty when, persuaded by Anna, she lets herself think of new love. That is one of the few passages in either half of the opera where Dutoit is significantly slower than Davis, and the tender beauty of the number is all the more intense, one of the loveliest passages of all. Anna is very well taken by another French singer, Helene Perraguin, with her firm, rich mezzo providing a clear contrast with Pollet. Where there is a disadvantage in having a soprano as Dido is in the darker passages. Pollet has a formidable chest register, but at the start of Dido's final monologue, "Je vais mourir", she does not convey the heartaching desolation that Veasey or Baker achieve with their tonal shading. I suspect that that relative reticence may be deliberate, for she takes great care in contrasting the different sections of Dido's final solos. In "Je vais mourir", she sounds purposeful instead of resigned, and the lyrical section that follows, "Adieu, fiere cite" brings a tender contrast, with the reference back to the love duet most poignant. Then in the final solo Pollet portrays the distraught Dido, with all purpose gone in the disjoined recitative. Throughout the opera Dutoit's degree of rhythmic freedom, notably in heavily syncopated passages, intensifies the controlled frenzy behind much of the most dramatic writing, and here Dido's hysteria, like Cassandra's earlier on, is most tellingly conveyed. She may not have the dark colourings of a Baker or a Veasey, but her dramatic power is just as intense.
There is barely a weak link in the rest of the huge cast. Catherine Dubosc makes a breathily boyish Ascanius, and Gregory Cross sings with sharp clarity in the tenor role of the spy, Sinon. John Mark Ainsley, though not quite so free of tone as usual on top, makes a sensitive Hylas in the sailor song of Act 5, though the high tessitura of the other tenor role of lopas strains Jean-Luc Maurette uncomfortably at the top, bringing unsteadiness. As recorded, Michel Philippe as Pantheus sounds unsteady too, but that is very much the exception. As for the chorus, Minshull in his notes pays tribute to the singers' involvement, and that comes out from first to last in what in many ways is as much a choral opera as Boris Godunov or Meistersinger, with passages of challenging complexity. Though on balance the Covent Garden Chorus for Davis sing with even crisper ensemble, the passionate commitment of the performance matches the fire of Dutoit's whole reading.
This is a thrilling set to have one marvelling afresh at the electric vitality of Berlioz's inspiration, and marvelling too that the formidable problems of recording so massive a work have been accomplished so confidently. It is a tribute to the performance and the beauty of the recording, as well as to Berlioz, that this massive four hours of music seems so short, with no longueurs whatsoever. This is a historic set that takes its place among the great Berlioz recordings and it is good news that Dutoit will now be tackling more major Berlioz works, including other operas. As a welcome incentive, Decca are for a limited period offering the four discs for the price of three.
-- Edward Greenfield, Gramophone [12/1994]
reviewing the original release, Decca 443693