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Les Troyens - review

Ambitious storytelling is vital to our culture, writes James Naughtie

Les Troyens

Royal Opera House

Perhaps it is coincidence but I don’t think so. When I was limbering up for Les Troyens, the thundering epic for the operatic stage that makes the case for Berlioz on its own, I was also reading this year’s Orange Prize winner, The Song of Achilles. And, at the same time, a novel from Iceland – The Whispering Muse by Sjón – that fuses the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece with Nordic sagas, and retells them below deck on a ship in the 1940s, poetry reeking of oil and fish.

A happy conjunction of old stories, coming back all at once. Their grip is still there . . . classical fairy tales that draw you in and lift you up. Sadly they’ve had a bad press in recent times and have often been locked away for spurious and irritating reasons. First of all, that they are difficult – presumably because it all happened a long time ago and we have no need to be interested in all that Greek and Roman stuff – and, even worse, that they represent part of our culture that is divisive because it hints at elitism attached to a classical education, or awareness.

The arrival of Les Troyens at Covent Garden, in cinema relays and at the BBC Proms on 22 July – is a good moment to hit back at this nonsense. The Berlioz opera is vast, running to five and a half hours, and at times in its history has been thought unstageable because of its sheer scale. But no one now doubts that Berlioz did succeed in his adaption of parts of Virgil’s Aeneid in capturing the tragic sweep of one of the great sagas of the ancient world, ending with Dido’s suicide, the approaching doom for Carthage and the Roman triumph.

Anyone who submits to the richness of the score, and the composer’s understanding of the epic dimensions of the story, will understand why it matters that the case for this opera is made again and again. Despite the technical challenges – it rivals The Ring in that respect, with elephant traps waiting in every act for a timid director – Les Troyens, even in concert performances such as those given by Colin Davis, and his sublime recording in 2001, has the quality to lift you out of the world.

Thinking about this when I was reading Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which is her reworking of the story of the siege of Troy seen through the prism of the friendship between Achilles and the exiled, weakling prince Patroclus. Miller’s passion for the sweep of the story – its intimacy and its grandeur – means that she can render Homer in the form of a modern novel without seeming to hit a single wrong note. As a first book, it is a dazzling star turn.

In the course of it, she explains, simply by her poetic response to the story, why it is such an engrossing tale. Heroes tangle with the world’s weary ways and transform lesser lives – ecstasy and tragedy intertwined. A story from somewhere else, with a boldness that is thrilling.

We’ve talked a good deal about the recovery of storytelling in recent years. The explosion in good-quality writing for children has helped, with narrative invention much more cherished than it was a generation ago, but there is much more to be done. Schools where stories are read aloud – even to pupils with advanced reading skills, say at 10 or 11 – are doing everyone a service. The tilt back towards narrative history is another happy swing of the pendulum – so that it isn’t the Egyptians and the Nazis with nothing in between except Henry VIII’s wives. And what of poetry?

You couldn’t invent an odder couple than Michael Gove and Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s Makar or national poet. She is resolutely of the left (and neither is she a unionist, having performed at Alex Salmond’s launch of his pro-independence campaign) and by temperament and outlook she and the Education Secretary are in quite different orbits, separate Scots. Yet they share an objective: that schools should encourage young pupils to learn poetry, preferably by reading it aloud.

Why shouldn’t such an enthusiasm be common to people who might disagree about much education policy? Of course it should. She would like schools to throw some Byron and Shelley and Auden at kids, as well as Benjamin Zephaniah or Wendy Cope. For two generations “learning by rote” has been an insult, as if it guaranteed mindlessness. Sometimes it did but in the many schools where they haven’t allowed themselves to be distracted by that assumption, the results are extraordinary.

Not long ago I ran into a distinguished former BBC producer, who’d spent much of his working life with drama and who is now doing some university teaching. “They don’t know much, do they?” he said, wearily. He was confronted with big brains, considerable enthusiasm, but too often a cultural wasteland stretching behind them. They were trapped in a modern-day bubble. What had they read? What had they heard? What had they seen? Too often, not much – and it probably wasn’t their fault.

Bring back great poetry and the best stories. In Sjón’s terrific novel the protagonist Caeneus, who sailed with Jason and the Argonauts, tells stories below deck to a fishing inspector – and mega-bore – as they plough along. The skipper’s chief preoccupation is “the link between fish consumption and the superiority of the Nordic race,” about which he’s written 17 volumes. The real stories win.

They always do. Listen to Les Troyens and you will remember why; read Madeline Miller and recover a lost world and its heroes; pick up your favourite poems and read them again, preferably aloud. Isn’t it all so obvious? Think of what the Simón Bolívar Orchestra has done with Venezuelan child recruits by capturing their enthusiasm and talent, and then revealing the secret: that it’s all about quality.

It’s good to remind everyone at the start of the Cultural Olympiad that it’s no accident that the best stories, like the best music, last. The legacy? Just don’t forget it.

James Naughtie presents Today on BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis