Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Showing, not telling: Hylas yearns for home

The best five hours I ever spent in the theatre was at a performance by Scottish Opera of Berlioz' 'Les Troyens' at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. This massive opera is, understandably, rarely performed.

Based on Virgil's Aeneid, it tells the story of the destruction of Troy, and of our hero, Aeneas', destiny as the founder of a new Troy, to be known as 'Rome'. On the way there, the Trojan fleet is waylaid in Carthage and our hero (predictably) falls in love with Dido, Queen of Carthage.

This is terrible, because Aeneas knows full-well that the gods have already decided his future for him, and Dido isn't part of it. In fact, all through the second half, assorted characters from wood nymphs to the ghosts of other Trojan heroes take it in turns to appear to Aeneas, and give him a gentle prod to remind him of his divine duty to history.

Anyway, Act 5 (!) opens the night before the fleet's departure for Italy, and begins with one of the most haunting arias I have ever heard - 'Vallon Sonore'. Hylas, a young Phrygian sailor, leans against the masthead of his ship as it sits in the harbour. The gentle lilting of the music evokes perfectly the lapping of the water around the sides of the vessel.

This is such an intimate piece that we almost feel that Hylas is singing to himself, not to the audience. It is not a grand, noisy proclamation of this character's suffering (the sort which is usually followed with indecent haste by the character's death from a disease which would, in reality, render breathing difficult, let alone a solo aria projected into the back row of a massive auditorium. I digress.)

No, this is contemplative, quiet, and utterly heart-rending. Hylas remembers an echoing vale, with huge trees giving sweet-scented shade from the heat of the day. He recalls his humble cottage, and bidding farewell to his mother. He asks himself, repeatedly, if he will see his homeland again, but he already knows the answer to that question, just as we do.

The nature of this song reminds me of the idea that, as writers, we should show what is happening to our characters, rather than describing it. There is a sense here that we are almost intruding on Hylas' private grief, such is the intimacy of this moment. How much less effective it would be if he were to stand at the front of the stage and tell us how homesick he is!

The song also makes me think about the nature of yearning, so achingly depicted in this music. If we yearn for something which could happen, in time, there is a real sweetness to that sensation - imagine if Hylas knew that he'd get home eventually. But equally, we might yearn for something which we know can never be - a sensation akin to mourning, as I think Berlioz shows perfectly in Hylas' breathtaking aria.

Do click on the link above and have a listen. The aria is sung here, I believe, by the wonderful Toby Spence, on the LSO's award-laden live recording of 2000.

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