An admiring review in the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of a production of Les Troyens, conducted by John Nelson, earlier this year, said,
At present there are few conductors who, like John Nelson, can rightly be called ‘Berlioz experts'.
In an interview more than 20 years ago, Nelson called Berlioz his ‘patron saint in music'. Now, reflecting on that, he ups this to three patron saints:
Bach is first because he is simply the greatest composer our world has ever known; Schumann, because no composer warms my heart as he does; and Berlioz because I have been associated with him more than any other composer in my career.
I asked him what it is that attracts him to Berlioz's music.
His audacity, originality and white-heat intensity. There are lesser composers that can almost sound like Bach and Schumann but there is no one that sounds like Berlioz. His sound world is all his own.
A sound world that Nelson has become an expert in conveying to his orchestra and singers. Here's more from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:
The Museumsorchester was transformed under his conductorship. The realisation of the instrumentation was breath-taking… It was a joy to hear the choruses and singers being not only led, but lifted, transported. They seemed to be electrified, a current passing through them, from the triumphant opening notes to the final chord.
It is Les Troyens, more than any other work by Berlioz, that has become something of a leitmotif in Nelson's career. Soon after the Frankfurt performances he was in nearby Strasbourg, just across the French border, for two concert performances of the complete, uncut score of Les Troyens, recorded over the Easter weekend in April 2017. The resulting 4 CDs and 1 DVD will be on sale from 24 November.
So why Les Troyens?
It all began when I was teaching at the Juilliard school and looking to start a career as an orchestral conductor. Matthew Epstein, himself looking to start a managerial career, encouraged me to listen to Colin Davis' ground-breaking recording of Les Troyens: “You get the orchestral forces together and I'll get a cast and we'll do the American premiere of the whole 5-hour opera at Carnegie Hall.”
We did and that lead to my assisting Rafael Kubelik with the Metropolitan Opera premiere and to replacing him when he fell ill. That lead to my European debut conducting the work at the Grand Theatre in Geneva, Switzerland and to debuts at the Netherlands Opera and the Stuttgart Opera.
So this opera is also something of a good luck charm for Nelson, and with its 5-hour running time it has meant spending many hours in the pit with Berlioz.
Many of my colleagues find him inscrutable but my life-long association with him has given me the privilege of understanding his world and giving myself completely to it.
After decades of conducting performances of Les Troyens, there is a precise reason for this concert version and recording.
There are a number of recordings out there but none with a French cast and a French orchestra. This opera is in my opinion the greatest in the French catalogue and deserves to be in done in French technicolour. Twelve of the sixteen singers were French, the orchestra was French, and two of the three choruses were French. I had spent most of my professional life in France and had been privileged to soak up the language and culture. As a result, I think “French” is written all over this endeavour.
Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres and Marie-Nicole Lemieux lead the cast.
The cast was chosen by Alain Lanceron, president of Warner Classics and Erato, and myself. Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres and Marie Nicole Lemieux were my choice and the rest pretty much Alain's. I could go on and on about all these singers but let me just say a bit about the Dido, the Cassandra and the Aeneas.
Joyce is simply one of the greatest singers of our time. She is a force of nature with a standard of singing, acting and social influence second to none. This was her first time singing Dido, but you would never know it. Absolutely born to the role. Notice Dido in her name!
The role of Aeneas requires beauty of sound coupled with heroic heft and stamina to sing in all 5 acts and Michael had it all. The chemistry between him and Joyce was electric and their singing in the great love scene of Act four was simply stunning.
Marie Nicole Lemieux as Cassandra brought an intensity that was breath-taking. Her suicide scene brought the entire audience to its feet. Suffice it to say the rest was a dream cast.
The city of Strasbourg is close to the German border where French and German influences are intertwined. A New York Times article about Strasbourg was headlined: Too German for France, Too French for Germany.
The recording is with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg and maybe, I suggest, this culture mix comes through in the orchestra's sound and approach.
Absolutely. The orchestra has the perfect combination of French élan and German discipline. From the first rehearsal there was a naturalness to their playing this music. One could say this orchestra was “type-cast.” And yes, every orchestra reflects its environment.
I remember an article some years ago in the New York Times stating how American orchestras were mirrors of their city: the elegance of Boston, the aggressiveness of New York, the friendliness of Philadelphia and so forth. Fortunately, the French orchestras in general have kept their very French colour whereas American orchestras have always been basically international in flavour reflecting America's immigrant nature.
Now, after conducting various staged versions of the opera, Nelson comes to the work bereft of sets and costumes.
It allowed us all to concentrate on musical values. “Prima la musica!” as Toscanini said. In staged productions one has to adjust to the whims of stage directors. I once conducted a production where Dido was Angela Merkel!
There's a particular commitment and an investment in time when someone decides to attend a long opera and Les Troyens, especially without cuts, is long. It comes in at well over five hours, including the intervals — enough time for a Madama Butterfly followed by a Don Pasquale. The same stamina and concentration is required of the musicians including, of course, the conductor. Does this bring about a unique emotional connection among those present in the theatre? A journey shared?
Yes, Les Troyens is long, but not too long! I have yet to find anyone saying it is too long. There is a reason for every minute and if done well the evening goes by swiftly. “A journey shared” is a beautiful way of expressing it. But the journey is tragic as it encompasses the destruction of two civilisations, Troy and Carthage. Is there a message here for us?
Religious music has always been central to Nelson's career. Michael Tanner in the BBC Music Magazine, reviewing the DVD of Nelson conducting Beethoven's Missa solemnis, said,
John Nelson… succeeds in conveying the urgency of his view with gestures and expressions that are eloquent and undemonstrative. It seems unlikely that Beethoven's vision in this work will ever be more completely captured.
Nelson is a religious man.
I am a Christian, born into a missionary family in Costa Rica having spent a lifetime searching for the best way to live Christ-like. Not easy in my upper-crusty musical world.
Jesus spent his life with the poor, sick and downtrodden, not with the rich. Perhaps that's why I am drawn back to my missionary roots and am Principal Guest Conductor of the Costa Rican National Symphony in an attempt to give back.
Yet it isn't just the subject matter that draws him to this repertoire, but the musical value of these works.
I think every composer gave his very best when addressing the spiritual. Even Verdi, a professed unbeliever, wrote his best music in the Manzoni Requiem. What a privilege it has been for me to live in the likes of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Haydn's Creation, Brahms' Requiem and Britten's War Requiem!
More Berlioz recordings are on the way from John Nelson: Damnation de Faust, Romeo et Juliette and maybe the Symphonie Fantastique. In his mid-seventies, he is as busy as ever.
I have wonderful engagements with orchestras like the St Petersburg Philharmonic and the Czech Philharmonic.
I am indeed fortunate at age 75 to be doing what I love, and I have no intention of slowing down.
Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres & John Nelson launch Les Troyens in London and on Medici.tv
Sunday, November 26th at 16:30 (UK time)
To mark the release of the complete recording of Les Troyens, a public event with Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres and John Nelson will take place on Sunday, November 26th at 16:30 (UK time). The venue is London's most famous bookshop, Foyles, and the host for the occasion is James Jolly, Editor-in-chief of Gramophone magazine. The event will be streamed around the world on Medici.tv
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.