Thu, Oct 18, 2007 - Page 14 News List

Classical DVD and CD reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Yo-Yo Ma
The Silk Road Ensemble
Sony Classical 88697-10319-2

Les Troyens (The Trojans) can be relied on to be a headache for anyone who opts to take it on. It represented Hector Berlioz's bid for operatic immortality, but in reality it contains long stretches of considerable boredom. He conceived it on a massive scale, but only the last three of its five acts were performed during his lifetime, and heavily cut at that. New York's Metropolitan Opera decided to mount it to open their centennial season in 1983, but even this was a re-staging of their production 10 years earlier. It's this version that finally arrives in DVD format from Deutsche Grammophon this month.

The opera retells the story told in Books Two and Four of Virgil's Aeneid - the fall of Troy and Aeneas's subsequent love affair with Dido, Queen of Carthage. You begin with dazed Trojans celebrating the departure of the Greeks, and wondering what that bizarre wooden horse they've left behind is all about; and you finish with Dido stabbing herself on her funeral pyre as Aeneas, leaving her loveless and middle-aged, sails away to found Rome.

Jessye Norman sings Cassandra, the young clairvoyant who's the only Trojan to foresee what's about to happen and the dominant character in the first two acts. Tatiana Troyanos takes on Dido, singing at the end what Berlioz called the saddest music he'd ever written. As for the youthful Placido Domingo, he reportedly tried to persuade the Met to find somebody else to sing Aeneas after studying the part and finding it impossibly high. As one wag remarked, they probably didn't try very hard.

The result is a mixed bag at best. The ballet sequences are truly awful, with dancing that was old-fashioned even in the 1980s, though not inappropriate to the unimaginative production style. In addition, the director expects the audience to be satisfied with a mere horse's head to represent the wooden horse (for which the Met's vast stage would have had plenty of room) and the royal hunt, during which Aeneas and Dido first become lovers, is left un-staged and simply a musical interlude.

Even so, there are some fine things. Jessye Norman, in her Met debut, is outstanding. The final 45 minutes, too, are very strong - Domingo trembling at the prospect of the inevitable goodbye scene, and Troyanos utterly convincing as she moves towards her final moments.

But Les Troyens as a work is uneven at best, and Berlioz was no match for Wagner (who some believe he was trying to emulate). If you want great opera, this doesn't really make the grade. Nevertheless, if you genuinely want Berlioz's largest-scale assault on eternal fame featuring internationally-known names, you'll have to consider this version.

It's well-known that Glenn Gould recorded Bach's Goldberg Variations twice, once in 1955 when he was 23, then again in 1981, a year before he died. The first version made his name, while the second provided a yardstick to assess how far this by now strange, reclusive odd-ball had traveled.

A DVD from Sony Classical shows him playing the whole set in the latter year. You begin by seeing him chat with the filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, but most of the DVD has him simply playing in close-up - beating the rhythm in the air whenever one hand is unoccupied on the keyboard, singing quietly (or not so quietly) to himself, and the whole time in a kind of trance.

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