‘A peach of a recording’ is how I signed off my original review of this account of Berlioz’s Les Troyens last December – ‘a thrilling new benchmark for this epic opera’. I completely stand by that assessment today – this set from Erato is an absolute stunner. I attended the second of two concert performances in Strasbourg last year from which the recording was taken (along with a patching session). Not only was it my outstanding concert of 2017, the resulting set was easily my disc of the year too.
Recordings of Les Troyens don’t come along every year, or even every decade. At four hours, it’s not on the scale of The Ring (although Wagner splits his cycle across four evenings) but is still a massive undertaking for any opera company to put together a cast capable of doing it full justice. This season, for example, just two companies – the Wiener Staatsoper and the Opéra de Paris – take up the challenge, and both productions feature singers who appeared on this winning recording. Perhaps this is one explanation of why Erato’s set is such a great achievement: no opera house could possibly field such a splendid cast.
The surprising thing is that – with the exception of Hanna Hipp, who sang Anna at Covent Garden in 2013 – all the singers were making their role debuts. The first half, ‘The Fall of Troy’, is dominated by the French-Canadian Marie-Nicole Lemieux, whose burnt-caramel contralto and dramatic flair make for a wild, unhinged Cassandre, partnered by the stylish baritone Stéphane Degout as Chorèbe. Michael Spyres is a colossus as Énée, in gripping, inexhaustible voice with thrilling top notes that have real ping. In Carthage, he falls for Joyce DiDonato’s noble Didon – and who can blame him? The American mezzo sings with tender ecstasy in their ‘Nuit d’ivresse’ love duet, yet summons up a vehement response to Énée’s desertion. Then take a look at the ‘minor’ roles: Marianne Crebassa, Cyrille Dubois, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Philippe Sly … a true embarrassment of riches assembled by Erato’s Alain Lanceron with John Nelson.
But the highest accolade is due to the man on the podium. John Nelson told me he’d picked the Strasbourg Philharmonic, on the Alsatian border, for its combination of French colour and German discipline. Nelson has conducted more performances of Les Troyens than anyone else in the past four decades and that experience is vital in this truly remarkable recording.