Opera Profile: Berlioz’s ‘Les Troyens,’ A True French Masterpiece

By David Salazar

Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” is not only his greatest opera but arguably one of the greatest not only in the French repertoire but the entire canon at large.

The work had its world premiere in three acts on Nov. 4, 1863, before surprisingly disappearing from the repertoire for decades. In fact, the first staged performance of the work didn’t even take place until 21 years after the composer’s death in 1890.

For much of the 20th century, the opera received intermittent performances before really establishing itself in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond.

Conductor John Nelsons has called the work, “the masterpiece of French operatic repertoire.”

Short Plot Summary

The Trojans celebrate the departure of the Greeks after a decade of war. They see a large wooden horse. However, Cassandra has visions of death.

Enée rushes in to tell everyone that the priest Laocoön warned everyone of the horse and was subsequently devoured by a sea serpent. He believes it be a sign of the goddess Athene’s anger at the sacrilege. The horse is brought into the city, but eventually, the Trojans are ambushed by the Greeks inside the horse. Cassandra resigns herself to death.

The ghost of Hector tells Enée to flee Troy for Italy to build a new Troy. Cassandre kills herself, summoning a cry of “Italy” before going for good.

The queen of Carthage Dido is thrilled that her people are experiencing prosperity but is afraid of her impending political marriage to the Numidian King.

The Trojans arrive at Carthage and are brought before Didon. Enée offers to help defend Carthage from the Numidian King.

Enée is victorious and he relates stories of Troy to Didon. The two fall in love, but Enée is called away yet again by the God Mercury who calls out “Italy” three times.

Enée decides that he cannot escape his fate and abandons Didon. She ultimately stabs herself with his sword and has one vision of Rome becoming immortal and destroying Carthage.

Watch and Listen

Here is a famed recording conducted by Sir Colin Davis that stars Jon Vickers as Enée.


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