A few days ago I attended a Metropolitan Opera HD performance of Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens. About the production of the opera which is based on Virgil’s Aeneid, one can only say wow! Imagine a chorus of 110 singers. Sometimes they are Trojans; sometimes, Greeks; at other times, Carthaginians. the costume changes must keep everybody busy. The first two acts are set in Troy at the time of the Trojan horse and the sacking of the city by the Greeks. Cassandra, King Priam’s priestess daughter who can foretell the future, is the leading female figure. The drama is intense, and at the end of Act Two we could have all gone home, thinking it has been quite enough. Then came three more acts, set in Carthage with Dido and Aeneas. Cassandra was nowhere to be seen.
Cassandra does not go to Carthage – or to Greece either – because she dies at the end of Act Two. Cassandra had warned them about the horse, but of course nobody listened. Now the Trojan women gather to await their fate, presumably as slaves of the victorious Greeks. Cassandra proclaims that they must not allow the Greeks such a mastery. Some of the women protest that they do not want to die, and they leave. The remainder sing a defiant farewell and, led by Cassandra, commit mass suicide.
This not how Homer told it, or Aeschylus or Euripides. In The Trojan Women, Cassandra suffers not from not knowing her fate, but from knowing it too well. She will go to Argos as Agamemnon’s concubine, there to be slain by Clytemnestra, his wife.
And blessed am I about to be matched
With a king in Argos, yes, Hymen, you nuptial god,
While you my mother do nothing but moan and weep
for my dead father and dearest fatherland.
Hecuba sees this knowledge as part of Cassandra’s recognized madness.
Give me that light.
In your hectic gyrations you cannot hold it straight.
Our sufferings have not made you sensible:
You are the same as you always were.
As you always were? Cassandra’s curse is to prophesy truly but not to be believed. Her despair is seen as madness. The passages quoted above are from the Paul Roche translation. Richmond Lattimore renders Hecuba’s comment as
Let me take the light; crazed, passionate, you cannot carry
It straight enough, poor child. Your fate is intemperate
As you are, always. There is no relief for you.
What Cassandra prophesies is more than the delusion of a marriage.
I will be a far more lethal bride
Than famous Agamemnon king of the Greeks
Ever bargained for.
She goes on to compare the fates of the Greeks and the Trojans and to foresee her own role in “the annihilation of the house of Atreus.”
Cassandra accepts her fate, knowing she has no choice. This is the magic of Euripides: his understanding of women. Cassandra is a perfect metaphor for the position of a Greek woman, any woman. To the extent that she tells the truth, she is not taken seriously. Although, she knows her future, she can take no actions to control it. This is contrast to the operatic Cassandra who is a strong actor in her own behalf. Perhaps for Berlioz, a true heroine defies the will of the gods, rather than submitting to what should have been her fate. As the Greeks saw it, this was just not possible.