Uniquely Spectacular: 'Les Troyens,' by Berlioz

ACT ONE begins near Troy, where the Greeks have departed after besieging the city for ten years. The Trojans are thankful, thinking the long war is over. The prophetess Cassandra, daughter of Troy's King Priam, is wary. But nobody listens to her warnings. Even Chorebus, her fiancé, refuses to listen when Cassandra predicts that they're both going to die.

As the Trojans give thanks to the gods, Aeneas announces the death of a beloved priest. The priest was suspicious of the huge wooden horse the Greeks left behind, apparently as an offering. But when he threw a spear at the horse, the priest was promptly devoured by a pair of sea monsters. As the first act ends, Priam and Aeneas accompany a procession, bringing the horse inside the city walls. Cassandra follows along sadly, knowing what's about to happen.

As ACT TWO begins, Aeneas is sleeping in his palace and dreams about ghost of Hector, the famous Trojan warrior. Aeneas’s son Ascanius appears, frightened by the sounds of battle outside. But things grow quieter, and he decides not to wake Aeneas.

As the battle resumes, Aeneas again sees Hector's ghost. The ghost says the Greeks will soon overwhelm Troy. He tells Aeneas to flee to Italy, where he'll found the city of Rome, and die a hero. Now fully awake, Aeneas rushes off to defend Troy.

Inside the palace, Cassandra prays with the women of Troy. She foresees the same future voiced by the ghost of Hector -- that Aeneas will flee to Italy, taking the treasures of Troy with him, to found a new empire. As the conquering Greeks approach, Cassandra stabs herself. She dies after a last cry of “Italy!"

As ACT THREE opens, Aeneas finds himself in Carthage, after his fleet was forced into port by a storm. First, we meet the Carthaginian queen, Dido. She was originally from Tyre, but fled when that city was sacked, and her husband Sychaeus was killed. By now, she has established a thriving new kingdom in Carthage, but she’s still in mourning for Sychaeus.

Dido's friend Anna senses that the queen is uneasy. Guessing why, she tells Dido that she will surely find love again, and that Carthage will have a king. The court poet Iopas then appears, to announce some new arrivals – they're Trojans, from the foreign fleet that just landed. One of the men is Aeneas himself, though for now he's in disguise.

Dido tells them they're welcome to take refuge -- but says there's trouble ahead. Carthage is expecting an invasion by the Numidans. Hearing this, Aeneas reveals himself, and offers his assistance. Dido recognizes the legendary hero, and gratefully accepts. Aeneas and his men join the Carthaginians and head for battle as the act ends.

In ACT FOUR, Carthage has defeated the Numidians. After a storm, the action begins in Dido's garden, where Anna and Dido's minister Narbal discuss the city's future. Narbal fears disaster, but Anna says now that the war is won, love will prevail.

Dido then arrives with Aeneas for the evening's entertainment. When it ends, Dido is anxious. She asks Aeneas about Troy. He tells her the story of Hector's widow, Andromache, who was taken as a slave, but later married her captor. Dido takes this as a sign to stop mourning for her dead husband, and embrace her love for Aeneas.

After a beautiful ensemble scene, Dido and Aeneas are left alone. They declare their love in a lustrous duet. But as the act ends, the god Mercury repeats the word "Italy" three times, reminding Aeneas that his true destiny lies in Rome.

ACT FOUR begins in a Trojan camp, near the harbor in Carthage. The sailor Hylas sings a mournful ballad. Panthus and some other Trojan captains are worried that Aeneas seems unwilling to continue their journey. They've seen ghosts, and various omens, all warning that it's time to leave Carthage and move on, to fulfill the prophecies.

Aeneas is torn. He knows what fate has ordained for him, yet he's deeply in love with Dido, and doesn't want to leave her. But now, he sees a series of ghosts: the spirits of Priam, King of Troy; of the Trojan warrior Hector and his sister, the Prophetess Cassandra; and of her fiancé Chorebus, who died in battle with the Greeks as Aeneas escaped. They remind Aeneas of his duty, and he orders his men to prepare the ships to sail. When Dido appears, Aeneas again declares his love for her -- but also says he has no choice but to sail for Italy. She curses him, and leaves.

Back at the palace, Dido orders her forces to pursue Aeneas and burn his ships. But deep down, she knows Aeneas is beyond her reach -- and she tells her attendants to build a funeral pyre.

In the final scene, the pyre is ready. On it are some of Aeneas's possessions, including his toga, helmet, sword and armor. As Dido climbs the pyre, she has a vision of vengeance. She sees a future Carthaginian hero, Hannibal, doing battle with Rome. Then she stabs herself with Aeneas's sword, and falls onto the pyre.

Dido tries to rise, but then has another vision -- this time of Carthage in flames, destroyed by Roman conquerors. As she dies, the people of Carthage curse Aeneas and his descendants. But as the opera ends, there's a vision of the Roman capital, appearing as a triumphant apparition in the distance.