I have been a devotee of Berlioz’s Les Troyens since I first discovered the Covent Garden recording conducted by Colin Davis. Performed by a very strong cast—and one magnificent participant in particular;,the incomparable Jon Vickers—this was for a long time unchallenged as not only the best but  the only complete recording. 

In 1983 we got a televised Met performance with Jessye Norman, Tatiana Troyanos and Placido Domingo, led by James Levine. Even if the sets and costumes were repurposed 1970’s kitsch the singing was outrageously good and still is.

A decade later Charles Dutoit and the Symphonique de Montreal through their hat in the ring with an excellent, if slightly uneven recording. Dutoit’s superbly transparent reading changed the way conductors played the score only for the better and Davis and Levine were all steeling their forces to have at it again.

Davis struck first in 2001, with his private label LSO Live with the London Symphony Orchestra and a concert performance that, I believe, was part of The Proms that year. Banished from Davis’s baton is the Verdian bombast of the 60’s for a much lighter francophile touch. We also got a magnificent new Éneé in Ben Heppner who was brought over to the Met for their new production in the Berlioz Bicentennial year led by Levine.

This matinee radio broadcast of February 22, 2003, the document of that new production, was first released as part of the Levine 40th Anniversary box set. Now the Met has finally decided to start selling these DVDs and CDs separately. This album is only $21.00 for four CDs, or rather, four hours of some of the greatest music you’ll ever hear in your entire life. That alone would be reason enough to recommend it. But this performance is special on a lot of levels and I will try to do them all justice as best I can.

From the beginning the commitment from the orchestra and chorus is almost unparalleled. The sensitivity from the Met Orchestra far surpasses any other of their competitors on the other sets. The clarity of the playing in all of Berlioz’s moments of contrapuntal contrasts, which can come off sounding completely amateurish in the wrong hands, is especially well handled.

The ballet music is very gala in this recording, as well. “The Royal Hunt and Storm” is almost a complete performance in itself with great balance from the offstage chorus. The three-part Pas d’esclaves Nubiennes that follows, also delightful, leads directly into one of the trickiest parts of the score with the little solo by Iopas, segueing into the quintet “O pudeur! …tout conspire” which grows into the longer, hushed, ensemble that preludes to the duet for Didon and Énée, “Nuit d’ivresse” and the finale of IV. Here one is constantly aware of how Levine supports Berlioz’s musical structures, tempi, and his inventive orchestrations.

The Met chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Raymond Hughes, cover themselves with glory. No where is this more apparent than their Act I hymn, “Dieux protecteurs” which shows them at their mightiest both vocally and interpretively.

The cast could hardly be equaled then or now for that matter.  Deborah Voigt who made an exciting, but faceless, Cassandre on the Dutiot set actually knows what her words mean here and proves it. If some of her colleagues get more juice out of the French I still can’t fault her for trying. She’s especially good in the duet in Act I with Chorèbe, Dwayne Croft who is similarly inspired and gives as good as he gets. There’s a small part of me that wishes Ms. Voigt had done a bit more with her parlando phrases in the mass suicide at the end of Act II but it’s quibbling with vocalism this secure and pointed.

When it comes to a tenor who even attempts to sing Énée, many are called but few are chosen. His entrance in Act I is pure vocal hell it’s so ungainly written. I don’t know whom Berlioz had in mind to sing this role when he wrote it but his eventual genetic successor only seems to appear every couple of decades. Heppner makes the concession of losing that flicked at high B in his last act aria and chooses a lower alternative. I forgive him.

I wouldn’t mistake Mr. Heppner for a native French speaker either but he’s correct and he rings out with so many moments of real heroic strength to say nothing of some seriously poetic soft singing in the role that we should be grateful to have this document of his mature interpretation.

The supporting cast is completely gala as well. If Elena Zaremba, as Anna, sounds like Didon’s much older sister and sings with an overly fruity tone she makes up for it by being very strong in the ensembles as does Robert Llloyd as Narbal. I looked at the packaging to see who was the uncommonly, sweet voiced tenor Iopas and was surprised to see Matthew Polenzani that early in his career.

I’ve saved the controversial member of this cast for last. Initially the Didon was to have been Olga Borodina but she had to withdraw as she was in a state of expectation, as they say.  Lorraine Hunt Lieberson strictly speaking had no business taking on Berlioz’s doomed queen of Carthage at the Met, as the voice is a whole size too small for this part.  However, I think it would be a very rare person who appreciates this work and who wouldn’t be moved to the very of core of their being by her performance.

Yes, there’s a flutter on the very top when she’s really pushing for volume. But, I forgive her too. She’s fleet and fluid in her phrasing, a function of her immaculate musicianship.  She sings like an instrumentalist and her imbues every utterance with equal amounts of feeling and precision. Her French is sovereign. She’s not only correct, she’s regal. Ms. Hunt Lieberson is so connected to the text she is the text. Her depth of emotional focus is so preternatural in the last scenes that her performance takes on a messianic quality. I have no higher praise.

Maestro Levine leads an extraordinarily light, for him, and propulsive reading and you can hear him loving every minute of this score and this performance.  Digital mastering is excellent and it’s surprising how good the clarity and balance is between pit and stage with only a minimum of stage noise.  Nifty, cardboard accordion packaging with photos on every panel.  Seriously: 21 bucks ? I spend more than that at the gift shop at intermission.