I love this opera, though I’ve never actually seen it staged. The first time I heard it live was in two halves at a couple of Proms concerts in 1982. It was conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and starred Jessye Norman as Didon, Felicity Palmer as Cassandre and Richard Cassilly as Enée. I didn’t know the opera as well then as I do now, but I remember even then I loved it. People often moan that it is too long, hence why it is often split into two parts, but it’s no longer than some of Wagner’s operas (and shorter than one or two). Subsequently I heard it twice at the Barbican under Sir Colin Davis, for whom Berlioz was something of a lifelong passion. Indeed without him it is quite possible that Berlioz would still be underappreciated today. I’ve also long enjoyed both Davis’s first pioneering recording for Philips, with Josephine Veasey and Jon Vickers, which was based on performances at Covent Garden, as well as his later recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded at concerts at the Barbican, with Ben Heppner, Petra Lang and Michelle DeYoung.
It is a magnificent score, Berlioz’s greatest achievement, and it is a terrible shame he never got to hear it performed in its entirety. According to the Berlioz scholar, David Cairns, it is
an opera of visionary beauty and splendour, compelling in its epic sweep, fascinating in the variety of its musical invention… it recaptures the tragic spirit and climate of the ancient world.
As always with Berlioz, the orchestration is superb and he writes brilliantly for major and minor characters alike, one of the most haunting moments in the score being given to the young sailor Hylas, as he laments for his homeland at the beginning of Act V.
This recent set has garnered some great reviews, so I was keen to hear how it measured up to the Davis recordings. From an orchestral point of view it is certainly very fine, but the singers are all a little light of voice for my taste. I heard Michael Spyres singing Berlioz’s Faust at the Proms not so long ago, and I found him a wonderfully musical and intelligent singer. I wonder though whether his voice might be a tad too small for Aeneas. There were times at the Proms that I thought his lyrical voice a little too small even for Faust. Maybe I’ve become too used to more heroic voices like Vickers and Heppner, but the role of Enée was in the repertoire of the great Georges Thill, who also had a rather more beefy voice than Spyres. Lemieux is also a light voiced Cassandre, though she’s a great improvement on Lindholm, who is on the first Davis recording. I wouldn’t prefer her to Lang on the second Davis recording, nor Deborah Voigt, who sings Cassandre on the less successful Dutoit recording and also on a live Met recording, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Didon.
DiDonato is probably the most successful of the soloists. Some find her vibrato distracting, though it doesn’t bother me unduly, and she is thoroughly inside the role. However she doesn’t evince the sort of innigkeit you find in Janet Baker, who can be heard in incomparable versions of the final scenes conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson, and also in a couple of live performances under Davis, nor of Hunt Lieberson, who can be heard in the live Met performance under Levine, mentioned above. That said, I don’t know of anyone else around today who could sing it better.
Nor do I wish to be too picky about a recording that is a considerable achievement for all concerned. It gets a cautious thumbs up from me; certainly the best since Davis I and II, with my preference, marginally still being for Davis I.