When Berlioz’s “Trojans” reaches its last half-an-hour, with Dido’s rage, misery, and then calm acceptance of utter loss amid the final doomed realization of Rome’s triumph—one finds oneself on a level that shuns most other opera’s attempts at classical transcendence.
Based on Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, Hector Berlioz composed his four-hour Les Troyens in the style of French Grand Opera. Written between 1856 and 1858, the opera was not staged in its entirety during Berlioz’s lifetime, partly due to the expense of staging a work with so many leading roles and with a libretto that called for spectacular sets and special effects. In 1863, the second half of the opera, with some parts cut, was premiered under the title Les Troyens à Carthage and met with some success. But it was not until 1890, twenty-one years after the composer’s death, that the full opera was produced on stage, and it was not until 1969 that a recording of the complete work was made. “One wonders why this work is so underrated,” one critic writes. “When the opera reaches its last half an hour, starting with Aeneas’s departure for Rome, Dido’s rage, curses, misery, sudden accesses of calm, fresh outbursts, calm acceptance of utter loss and, the final doomed realization of Rome’s triumph—one finds oneself on a level that shuns most other opera’s attempts at classical transcendence.”
Part Two gives us the love story of Dido and Aeneas. Our hero is driven ever onward to found Rome and all its glory, with the occasional appearance of ghosts, ancestors and visions of heroes to come. These visions are completed with Dido mounting a funeral pyre (years before Brunnhilde), cursing her one time lover in vain. The scene is brought to a cinematic close with the historical procession of a Roman future unfurled in clouds above the city below in mourning, the fiery scene illuminated by Queen Dido’s immolation and the great closing aria “Adieu, fiere cite.” —Ron Moore, “Hector Berlioz’ Inspired Masterpiece, Les Troyens,” Texas Public Radio
I will die …
In my immense, submerged pain
unavenged! … Let us die however! Yes, may he shudder
In the distant light of the flame of my pyre!
If something human remains in his soul,
Maybe he will cry over my awful fate.
Him, cry me! …
Aeneas! … Aeneas! …
Oh! my soul follows you,
A love chained,
slave, she wins in the eternal night …
Venus! give me back your son! … Useless prayer
With a heart that tears apart! … Upon death,
Dido expects nothing more than death.
Farewell, proud city, that a generous effort
So quickly raised, flourished;
My tender sister who followed me wandering,
Adieu, my people, adieu; farewell, revered shore,
You who once welcomed me begging;
Farewell, beautiful African sky, stars that I admired
To the nights of intoxication and infinite ecstasy;
I won’t see you anymore, my reign is over!
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The featured image is a 16th-century painting by Dosso Dossi (c. 1489–1542, real name: Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.