Any new Les Troyens is still an event, the more so coming from France. This Berlioz opera owes its present status chiefly to Anglo-Saxons, in particular the famous 1960s stagings by Scottish Opera under Sir Alexander Gibson, and Covent Garden under Sir Colin Davis, whose recording has dominated the field for half a century. John Nelson, however, claims to have conducted Les Troyens more often than anyone else, and his experience shows.
Davis is still subtler, more articulate, but Nelson drives the drama with unforced tempos but ample theatrical vitality and grandeur. Taken from two live concerts highlighted in the accompanying DVD, it doesn’t gloss over minor slips, duff entries and so on, but they’re hardly obtrusive and the whole expanse of the (garish red) Strasbourg hall is used to provide distant perspectives, offstage horns and so on.
Nelson also offers a strong cast. Marie-Nicole Lemieux is French-Canadian, a full mezzo apparently better suited to Dido than Cassandra, but she brightens her tone appropriately, showing occasional strain on higher notes but also unusual tenderness and vulnerability. Michael Spyres isn’t as heroic an Aeneas as Jon Vickers, and sometimes nasal, but sings with lyrical grace and spirit and decent if not perfect French. Joyce DiDonato sings Dido with characteristic security and expressiveness, though her rapid vibrato is noticeable and her French slightly over-precise; she isn’t as warmly natural as Susan Graham on John Eliot Gardiner’s DVD or as heartbreaking as Janet Baker on Warner/EMI’s excerpts. Cyrille Dubois and Hanna Hipp are attractive as Iopas and Anna. Most of the generally excellent secondary roles, the orchestra and two of the choruses are French, enhancing this recording’s idiomatic feeling. It doesn’t eclipse Davis, or Gardiner’s very special period-instrument original version, but it joins them as a strong recommendation.
Michael Scott Rohan