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Hector Berlioz

‘The Trojans’, Covent Garden 1957

1957. Royal Opera House, London
One of the earliest staged performances of Berlioz's epic masterpiece, this production at Covent Garden was a breakthrough event. Sung in English.
Composer Hector Berlioz
Conductor Rafael Kubelík
Singers Amy Shuard, Blanche Thebom, Jon Vickers
Ensemble Covent Garden Opera
Genre Opera


If one had to mention one production to epitomise Kubelík’s regime it would be
‘The Trojans’ in summer 1957…it was enterprising in the sense that the work
was one which we all believed in strongly but which had in effect never even
been given before in anything like so complete a form; and it relied on no
gimmicks… In its way, ‘The Trojans’ was an astonishing achievement precisely
because the work’s problems of length, complications, cost, lack of previous
box-office attraction, were overcome entirely without recourse to over-
dramatic expedients – a star-loaded cast, a ‘trouvaille’ of staging, publicity
gimmickry. The achievement lay not only in the musical performance, which
was considerable, but in proving honestly and convincingly that the work was
viable for a big company in a big house and could not only be staged complete
with relative economy…but without seeming unreasonably long to the
audience – a danger in an epic of this kind as opposed to a Wagnerian music
drama where motifs and their development make for a close-knit whole…
Kubelík made a great contribution to music in London. With his ability to give
unstintingly to colleagues, company, audience and, above all, to music, he was
a pleasure to work for and with. In thinking of his own career, he might easily
not agree with me, but I know that, if I were asked, I should find it hard not to
nominate his three years at Covent Garden as the best of my life.

Thus, Lord Harewood recollected his time working at Covent Garden 14 years
later in the catalogue for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition Covent
Garden, 25 Years of Opera and Ballet. From my childhood, I recall that Ernest
Newman, doyen of music critics, devoted three consecutive Sunday Times
columns to preparation for the great event in May and June 1957. I missed out
on the premiere but caught the production when it was revived in June 1958
with almost identical forces. This recording, preserved in Harewood’s own
collection of tapes, brings back the frisson of discovery which engulfed me, and
so many others, 66 years ago.

That its creator Hector Berlioz never experienced a complete performance of
the masterpiece to which he dedicated his life is one of the most painful
tragedies of musical history. In the mid-20 th century, the English were more
appreciative of Berlioz than the French, who were curiously disdainful about
their greatest composer. Thomas Beecham was a powerful advocate, and his
concert performances for radio in 1947 had opened ears, but a fully staged
production was another matter and represented a significant risk for the
cautious David Webster and his Czech Music Director. What’s more, the
multiple roles of the opera were cast, with one important exception, from the
resident ensemble; and it was to be sung in the English translation by E J Dent.
It was a defiant assertion of belief in the quality of the company. The staging
was entrusted to the great actor John Gielgud, who shared with Berlioz a deep
love of Shakespeare. Both Georges Wakhevitch, who had designed Kubelik’s
Otello, and the painter John Piper, who had designed Glyndebourne’s Don
Giovanni as well as Britten operas, were approached as designers, but the
eventual choice was the Spanish painter and sculptor Mariano Andreu, who’s
Much Ado about Nothing with Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft, had entranced
audiences. Newman was critical of the staging, but I remember it as broadly
traditional with striking scenic pictures and an individual style.

The guest Dido was the Metropolitan Opera stalwart Blanche Thebom, who
had sung Dorabella at Glyndebourne under Fritz Busch and was Brangäne in
the legendary Flagstad/Furtwängler recording of Tristan und Isolde. She had
stage presence, as well as spectacularly long natural hair (!), to complement
her sumptuous mezzo. But the hardest role to cast in this double-opera is
always Aeneas, who must be heroic but also capable of sustaining a soft line,
and Covent Garden’s trump card was the emerging Canadian Jon Vickers in his
first season with the Company. He was to return to the role for the Berlioz
centenary production of 1969 (in French), preserved on the magnificent Philips
recording, and again at its 1972 revival. No one in my experience has come
near to matching Vickers in this role. Maturity may have brought greater
refinement, but in 1957 there is a raw, open-throated honesty that is
irresistible. Listen to his startled terror when Hector’s ghost appears; to his
farewell to his son Ascanius when entrusted to Dido’s care before the battle
with the invading Numidians; to him wrestling with his soul in the great Act 5
scena. The impression is indelible. But, if Vickers is the hero, this Trojans is
above all a testimony to the virile company built in little more than a decade.

Nicholas Payne
20 June 2024

Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869)

The Trojans (Les Troyens)

Track 1: Act 1

Track 2: Act 2

Track 3: Act 3

Track 4: Act 4

Track 5: Act 5

This recording was made from a relay of a performance at the Royal Opera House on 20 June 1957.

The recording comes from the Harewood Collection at Music Preserved.

Remastering by Paul Baily.

  • Jon Vickers
  • Blanche Thebom
  • Amy Shuard
  • Jess Walters
  • Joan Carlyle
  • Michael Langdon
  • Joseph Rouleau
    The Ghost of Hector
  • Lauris Elms
  • David Kelly
  • Richard Verreau
  • Dermot Troy
  • The Covent Garden Opera Chorus
  • The Covent Garden Opera Orchestra
  • Rafael Kubelík

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