OPERA / Off the record: David Patrick Stearns on Les Troyens

NOW that Berlioz's Les Troyens is less of an aberration and more of a sensation in the world's opera houses, record companies can't help being more interested, and Decca is currently taking the plunge with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal. The recording was preceded by a performance at the orchestra's usual venue, Place des Arts, with the two parts of the opera given in successive weeks. That doesn't mean that last week's hearing of the longer second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, which depicts the ill-fated romance between Aeneas and Dido, was necessarily an accurate preview of the recording: the Place des Arts acoustics are as unflatteringly dry as its recording venue, St Eustache Church, is flatteringly resonant.

Amid such uncertainty, Charles Dutoit emerged as the right conductor for this huge piece. He is easily among the most sympathetic Berlioz interpreters anywhere, with his elegant sense of style and ability to find the right accents in the inner voices of the textures that give more shape and detail to the grandest gestures. And his sense of theatricality is particularly keen: he found the distilled kernel of Dido's anguish in the cello lines of her Act 5 scene in which she realises she has lost her pride. If a Beechamesque sense of joyfu1 vigour was particularly apparent, it was perhaps because Dutoit is working with the composer's own, unusually brisk metronome markings. As a result, his new recording may be nearly half an hour shorter than Colin Davis's on Philips.

The performance never seemed breathless; the famous love duet between Aeneas and Dido was appropriately languid as well as being rather quiet and intimate. Though Dutoit uses a smaller, more Beethoven-sized orchestra than one might associate with a score as huge as Les Troyens, the reading seemed, in some ways, even more Romantic than usual because of the greater tempo contrasts.

The decision to have as many native French singers as possible - and to serve the work above all commercial considerations - meant that Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman weren't even asked to sing the leading roles. While the cast was uniformly excellent, there wasn't a great deal that seemed immediately memorable, aside from mezzo-soprano Helene Perraguin's vividly projected, full-throated portrayal of Dido's sister, Anna.

Gary Lakes' Aeneas has grown immeasurably in comprehension and refinement over the last seven years since he began singing it. Indeed, the more lyrical passages are among the best singing this tenor has ever done. Francoise Pollet's Dido is a bit of a mystery. The Place des Arts acoustics are particularly hard on singers, and though her high notes are steely and soaring, other registers weren't always audible. However, in the crucial final scenes, she delivered numerous marvelously coloured moments, suggesting there may be a fine Dido hiding underneath those unflattering balances.

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