My essay on San Francisco Opera’s upcoming new production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens is now available online:
“For the last three years I have been tormented by the idea of a vast opera,” wrote Hector Berlioz at the end of the first edition of his Memoirs, in 1854. This oblique reference to the still-to-be-written The Trojans suggests that the composer, then just 50 years old, intuited the difficulties awaiting him. “I am resisting the temptation, and trust I shall continue to resist it to the end.”
It wasn’t birth pangs per se he feared. Within an astonishing two years (1856–58), Berlioz composed both the text and the music for The Trojans, working with intense focus as he sustained a high pitch of inspiration. What he feared was the agony of getting his work produced— a struggle that, sadly, turned out to be even more bitterly disappointing than he foresaw. Fortunately, the impulse to create The Trojans proved strong enough to override his early anxieties. However improbably ambitious an undertaking, Berlioz’s magnum opus at the same time represents the inevitable culmination of his life and thought as an artist.
If the stakes seemed impossibly high for Berlioz, the same could be said of his source material. Virgil himself allegedly complained to the Emperor Augustus that he must have been “mad” to have undertaken the Aeneid. According to tradition, the dying poet (he lived from 70–19 BCE) indicated that he wanted the manuscript to be burned, for it lacked his finishing touches. Not only was Virgil competing directly with the Homeric epics venerated as the foundation of literature (to his contemporary Romans, Homer was a quasi-divine poet, already several centuries older than Shakespeare is in relation to ourselves): with the Aeneid he attempted nothing less than to rewrite the national narrative. By depicting the sufferings and victories of the Trojans, Virgil’s epic aimed to make sense of a period of cataclysmic social and political transformation.
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