Back in 1973, 32-year-old conductor John Nelson took the stage at Carnegie Hall.
He was leading his first-ever performance of Berlioz’s monumental opera “Les Troyens.” Little did he know at that moment that the piece could come to become one of the most important of his entire career.
“I was a kid back then,” the conductor told OperaWire in a recent interview regarding the conductor’s long association with the Berlioz masterpiece.
After that Carnegie Hall performance, which was also his New York City Opera debut, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut leading a performance of the noted opera.
It was Oct. 30, 1973 and the conductor was collaborating with Rafael Kubelík on the production. The Czech maestro had led the opening two performances of the opera and was expected to lead the entire run, but Nelson was called in at last minute to lead the Oct. 30 showcase. It was his Metropolitan Opera debut and he was leading a cast that included Jon Vickers, Shirley Verrett, Christa Ludwig, Judith Blegen, and Louis Quilico. On Nov. 2, he came back to lead the fourth performance of the run, the last time he would conduct the opera at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Those performances would, in a way, launch his career as he would go on to become music director of such organizations as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Opera Theater Saint Louis, the Caramoor Festival, and the Orchestra de Chambre de Paris.
All along the way, he would continue his work on Berlioz’s Virgilian epic, leading another six staged productions of the work. Interestingly, a journey that started with a concert version of the full work in Carnegie Hall is now coming full circle with the conductor’s most recent performances of the work, also in concert form, being released on CD by Warner Classics. It is quite a culmination to a 45-year love affair with the opera.
And as one might expect, 45 years learning a work will only lead to deeper insight, which Nelson undeniably sustains.
“My interpretation has matured to the point where every note in that piece is natural. For me it’s completely natural,” he noted. “I think for a lot of my colleagues Berlioz is an enigma and difficult to understand and they back away from him. But I’ve spent a lifetime doing all of his music and his language, while very original, is completely natural. It is the masterpiece of French operatic repertoire. ”
He noted that one recipe for success with the piece is understanding the French language and “being French.”
“I put myself in that category because I’ve lived in France for most of my life.”
Casting For Success
Undeniably, a piece as massive as “Les Troyens,” with 18 or so roles will bring about major challenges. For Nelson, the biggest one comes down to casting.
“You have to find the right cast that is comfortable with the language and style,” he noted, explaining that many recordings on the market lack a cohesive or strong cast.
“I don’t really have a favorite recording of this opera, even though I find some of them to have wonderful elements,” he explained. “I love what John Eliot Gardiner does with the instrumentation and Susan Graham’s performance in it. But all the other recordings out there have problems because casts are not French and not comfortable with the language or style of Berlioz.”
So in taking on this endeavor, he knew that he needed to find the ideal cast. HIS ideal cast.
For that part of the process, which took around one-and-a-half years to plan, he worked alongside Warner Classic President Alain Lanceron, emphasizing comfort with the French language and style in the choices.
“Alain chose everyone except for Cassandre, Enée, and Didon,” Nelson noted. “I cast Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Michael Spyres, and Joyce DiDonato. Those three were my choices and I don’t think they could be bettered.”
It is quite a statement, considering that every cast member singing in the performances was taking on the opera for the first time. But Nelson stands by his choices, heaping praise on his two leads in particular.
“Michael [Spyres] has one of the most beautiful, elegant lyric tenor voices in the business. But he also has an edge and comfort in the high range which produces a heroic sound,” Nelson enthused regarding the tenor who has made his career singing rather lyric roles in the bel canto repertoire. Interestingly enough, it is precisely because of that quality that Nelson feels Spyres is the perfect choice for the Virgilian hero. “John Vickers, Gary Lakes, Gregory Kunde, all those guys who recorded it have heroic voices. But few have that lyrical combination the way Michael does. It’s a truly gorgeous instrument.”
He had similar praise for DiDonato, who has delved deeper and deeper into the world of French opera in recent years, taking on such works as “Werther” and “Cendrillon.”
“Joyce is the mezzo of our time,” proclaimed Nelson. “She’s probably one of the most famous voices and she’s also the most all-encompassing career. What she does in prisons is incredible. Who does that in the opera world?”
He felt that her demeanor and personality made her the ideal Didon because “her spirit is so generous and so real and so powerful. And for Dido, this beautiful widowed queen, a person who commits suicide, you need a powerful personality like that. And Joyce has all of that. I think her performance is one for the ages.”
One More Casting Challenge
Nelson noted that the casting challenge wasn’t only limited to the lead singers.
“The same goes for the orchestra. It’s actually hard to find a group that doesn’t look at the work with twisted eyes.”
In the Strasbourg Philharmonic, he believes that he has found that very ensemble.
“They have the combination of the French style with German discipline. They live on the cusp of the two countries. That makes the group the ideal orchestra to work with.”
Nelson enjoyed his collaboration with ensemble so much that he has already declared that he intends to collaborate on other Berlioz projects in the future. Among those are “La Damnation de Faust” in 2019, “Roméo et Juliette” and the Symphonie Fantastique.”
“And if we do ‘Damnation’ and ‘Roméo et Juliette’ we will also be performing with Joyce [DiDonato] and Michael [Spyres],” he revealed.
And while Berlioz is set to continue playing a major role in his career, the 75-year-old did have one confession to make.
“I doubt I’ll ever do ‘Les Troyens’ again because this recording, I think I can clearly say, was the highlight of my career and I can’t imagine doing it any better anywhere else.
“So this is the end of the road for me.”
It’s been a great run for sure.