The Five Greatest Trojan-War Operas

The Five Greatest Trojan-War Operas

A magnetic influence upon the whole of human culture, both through Homer’s texts and through Virgil’s, it remains: the Trojan War. Just to take one recent example of its pull: Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain (2003) begins with a classroom discussion of The Iliad, and specifically of the reason for the wrath of Achilles.

Here, then, is a list of what I have deemed the five greatest operas that work from the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Aeneid as their source material. For this purpose, I am the judge – though I am a subjective judge, I allow no appeals. If you disagree, if you think I’ve neglected an opera that qualifies and that deserves to be ranked with or above these – I’d love to hear about it, whether you’re a musicologist, a classics scholar, or just a crazy beatnik.

In the meantime, here are my five choices, in ascending order of cultural-historical significance:

John Gay: Achilles.

Gay is best remembered for his Beggar’s Opera, which was “more an anti-opera than an opera,” as Allan Kozinin has written. Gay may have invented the satirical burlesque as a form of theater, and due to his influence it became all the rage on London stages in the 18th century.

Achilles was his effort to backdate that burlesque sensibility to the very beginning of civilization. Sadly, Gay himself did not live long enough to see this opera performed. This might still be considered the favorite opera of the cynics and drop-outs of the world, though. Peter Lewis has congratulated Gay on his “considerable originality in finding new burlesque weapons.”

Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas

Purcell’s Opera dates from an earlier period in English history than Gay’s – Dido and Aeneas was first performed in 1689, just as the Stuart monarchy was coming undone amidst a “Glorious Revolution.”

Purcell works from Virgil’s Aeneid, which purports to tell the story of a brave band of Trojans who escaped the conflagration of their city and sailed/wandered the Mediterranean looking for a new home. In time, they found Italy, and become the founders of a city even greater than the one they had lost.

Before that day, though, they had washed aboard the North African shore, and Aeneas proved a love-em-and-leave-em sailor, at the expense of Queen Dido of Carthage, thus providing a mythic explanation for the long deadly enmity of the cities of Carthage and Rome.

Purcell introduces an element that he didn’t find in Virgil. He brings witches into his plot. Indeed, witches here play much the role they had played in Shakespeare’s MacBeth – both as a chorus and a driver of the action, advancing the plot while commenting thereon. You can see how one (2008) performance handled this bewitching scene: here.

Jacques Offenbach:(La Belle Hélène)

Like Gay, Offenbach and his humorous take on the matter of Troy are very much of the 19th century. Like Gay, too, Offenbach employs the older fictive frame of Homer’s work, not Virgil’s Roman re-write.
Offenbach is intrigued by the nature of the monarchy at Sparta – the court into which Paris, the Trojan prince, snuck in order to abduct Hélène, wife of King Menelaus. Offenbach’s story ends just where one might have expected the curtain to open: Paris and Hélène are gone, and Sparta – by implication all of Greece – understands that there is nothing to be done but to prepare for war. Early on, Offenbach’s casual waltz, “Au Mond Ida” (On Mount Ida) — which achieved popularity as a stand-along tune for concert performance and recitals – indicates that Offenbach is headed for parody, although it is parody of a rarefied sort.

Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens

In our brief list we have been alternating between comic looks at the war according to Homer and sentimental looks at the aftermath according to Virgil. So we are back, now, to the latter.

This is a rarity among great operas in that the same man, Hector Berlioz, both composed the music and wrote the libretto of Les Troyens Berlioz completed his work in 1858, though it was not performed until five years later. It was both prepared and performed, then, under Napoleon III, under what French historians call the “Second Empire,” at a time when Berlioz was widely seen as one of the competing children of Beethoven. The great Ludwig had given rise to both Berlioz and Wagner, and they competed for his legacy – they competed to define the nature of romanticism itself as it was to be understood thereafter.

A sibling rivalry between spiritual sons of Beethoven?

As Berlioz’ work on the score came near a conclusion, he wrote philosophically to a friend in Brussels. “In two months it will all be done. Where shall I then find the theatrical manager, conductor, and singers that I need? The new opera will lie there like Robinson Crusoe’s canoe until the sea comes up to set it afloat – if there is such a thing as the sea for works of this nature.”

The sea of history has certainly carried Berlioz’ canoe along quite well.

Claudio Monteverdi, Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria.

The title of this work, in English, means, “The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland.” As that suggests, the plot of this opera was taken from Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses, the wily inventor of the hollow-horse trick that defeated Troy, finally gets back to his kingdom of Ithaca after a troubled ten-year voyage, only to find that villainous suitors seek the hand of his faithful wife, Penelope, and thus seek to usurp his throne.

This opera is fairly typical of the Venetian practice at the time in the sparseness of its instrumentation. A large orchestra was of course a considerable expense and the audience didn’t demand it, their focus was on the singers/actors and on the action on stage. A minimum of instrumental accompaniment could do the job.

Monteverdi (1567 – 1643) was in his early seventies when his Ulisse (with libretto by Giacomo Badoaro) was first performed, and it was part of an extraordinary late-life burst of output. Mark Ringer, a professor of theatre arts at Marymount Manhattan College, has written that Monteverdi’s music for this opera lets us see “an underlying beneficence in nature, an image of harmony and order.”

Monteverdi and Badoaro began their telling of this story with an allegorical prologue, in which the “spirit of human frailty” is roundly mocked by various cosmic and psychic forces. A YouTube clip of their beginning, in one recent production, gives us an appropriate close for this modest list of ours.

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