Berlioz’s Les Troyens has fared relatively well on disc since the first commercial recording, conducted by Colin Davis, released in 1969 by Philips. That milestone event was recorded in tandem with an acclaimed production at the Royal Opera House. John Nelson’s version has all the benefits of being taped live, for there is strong immediacy and theatricality, and the orchestral/vocal balance is near ideal. Most importantly all the blazing originality of Berlioz’s scoring emerges clearly. Nelson, a great Berlioz interpreter, ensures space in the more romantic passages, thrilling spontaneity in the dramatic ones, and sometimes dazzling pacing.
This is apparent within minutes – the brilliance of the woodwind- and trumpet-playing that accompanies the chorus of Trojans sets a tone that is sustained throughout. The other orchestral set-pieces, including ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ are all given due weight and care. What Nelson really brings to the fore is the composer’s cunning use of strings, particularly the lower ones, in an almost overlapping fashion to generate alternate senses of warmth or menace. The percussion effects also make their mark without feeling spot-lit.
However, this is grand French opera and needs grand French-sounding vocalists, comfortable with the language and the idiom. Nelson and Erato have pulled off a real coup by assembling probably the most convincing francophone cast yet assembled. Many of the voices are a touch leaner and lighter than those on other recordings. Michael Spyres is not a regular singer of roles like Tristan as were counterparts Vickers, Heppner and Lakes on the two Colin Davis and Charles Dutoit versions. Spyres’s honeyed and lyrical timbre suits Énée the romantic lover well, yet he still sounds credibly heroic, the voice marvellously fluid and exciting, and blends well with Joyce DiDonato’s warm and buttery mezzo-soprano with its highly distinctive tone when they sing in duet.
Elsewhere she’s extraordinarily vivid in her use of the words and this culminates in the two final scenes which capture the bleak despair and then the prophetic predictions of the advent of Hannibal to challenge Rome’s dominance. This mirrors the equally compelling conclusion of Act Two in which Cassandra, in her dying moments, presages the rise of Rome. Marie-Nicole Lemieux dominates – she is simply the most idiomatic Cassandra, presenting the character in all its volatile complexity. She colours and sings off the text wonderfully, and also has a great partnership with Stéphane Degout’s valiant and uncomprehending Chorèbe.
Smaller roles and vignettes are cast from strength, too, and in that roll-call the committed choruses are an important group-protagonist throughout. It's a compelling listen – everyone is a winner here, especially Berlioz. The booklet includes texts, translations and photos.