Salzburg teaches the French a lesson
Berlioz’s Les Troyens in Salzburg
by Norman Lebrecht / August 3, 2000
BEFORE we all head off for Britain’s favourite holiday destination, let us briefly plumb the hidden depths of French insularity. The nimbus of musical obtuseness now hangs heaviest around Paris.
The Salzburg Festival opened last week with its first-ever staging of Les Troyens, the late masterpiece that Hector Berlioz neither saw nor heard and which, for nearly a century after his death, was held to be unperformable. Based on Virgil’s Aeneid and deploying the armies of Athens, Troy and Carthage, the epic lasts over four hours and costs twice the GNP of an emergent nation to stage.
Clearly conceptualised, as it was in Salzburg, Les Troyens can hold its own with the hottest Wagner and outwrench him on most emotional scales. Berlioz, when it comes to the wobbly bits, puts a clamp on his soprano and gives the lament to a solo clarinet and the eulogy to a double chorus – thereby avoiding those credulity-straining soliloquies and static quarter-hours for which Bayreuth is justly famed.
Nor does Berlioz bother with spectaculars. Battles are done out of earshot; what we witness is a race of heroes brought face to face with human dilemmas. At the end of a long evening you leave convinced that the work contains not a note too many.
It is wondrously singable. Deborah Polaski, as Cassandre and Didon, looked and sounded more imposing than she does as Sieglinde. As Enée, who loves and leaves her on the unforgiving African shore, Salzburg picked an immensely promising Floridan, Jon Villars. There were few weak links in a vast cast.
The laurels were taken by the combined choruses of the Vienna and Bratislava opera houses, topped by a Bavarian boys’ choir. But the great surprise was the performance of the Orchestre de Paris under the French conductor Sylvain Cambreling, fingering and breathing this music as if it were their birthright. The surprise was twofold. First, that any French band could emerge with credit from a pit the Vienna Philharmonic call their own. And second, because none of these Frenchmen had ever played this music before.
Astonishing as it may seem, Paris has yet to perform complete the greatest of French operas. It was Covent Garden in 1957 that proved Les Troyens could be staged intact and a German publisher that produced the first performing edition in 1969. Since then, Les Troyens has been seen at the Met, Los Angeles, La Scala, all over Germany and several times in Britain without reaching the stage of the Paris Opéra.
Don’t ask why. Among the many ironies of the Salzburg production was its personal subvention by Pierre Bergé, millionaire head of the Yves Saint-Laurent fashion empire and former boss of the Paris Opéra.
The French hate to be taught a lesson in their own culture. But they are also image-obsessed and unable to admit error. Their prejudice silenced Berlioz’s masterpiece for generations, but could not supress it for ever. With its every triumph, Paris is reduced to a petty province where personal rivalries take precedence over great art.
Salzburg, by comparison, has regained the summit of world affairs. In Herbert Wernicke’s restrained production, the fall of Troy, the flight of Aeneas, the refugees in Carthage and the death of love formed a understated commentary to the burning issues of the day: ethnic cleansing, Chechnya, the asylum debate, the fragility of relationships.
Gérard Mortier, the Salzburg director, has made Troy his swansong. Next summer, his last, will be constrained by budget cuts so severe that Les Troyens is likely to be unrevivable. Thereafter, the festival will be run by grey men with narrower agendas; a nominee of the far-Right Freedom Party has joined the supervisory board.
What Mortier and his co-director Hans Landesmann have achieved over the past decade is a total restoration of the Salzburg ideal. Under Herbert von Karajan, Salzburg served as a music-industry trade fair, plastering star portraits on cab doors and butchers’ windows. The programme was conservative, predictable, provincial.
This year, there was not a single star poster to be seen in town and the focus was on art and ideas rather than on tinny idols. Much of the art was new, the lectures were polyglot and even the opera surtitles were beamed in two or four languages. Salzburg, for the month of August, has become a world capital of the mind, while Paris is a province and London a congested transit camp.
24 May 2000: [UK News] £30,000 literary award for Berlioz biography
26 November 1999: The man who shone a light on Berlioz
Salzburg teaches the French a lesson