Unlike Wagner, when Berlioz wrote Les Troyens he was not writing his ideal opera. His ideal subject certainly, but the structure of the opera is heavily dependent on the French grand opera which developed in the earlier parts of the 19th century. Berlioz was no particular admirer of Meyerbeer, but to do justice to his subject he needed the resources of the Paris Opera. And if the Paris Opera was to perform Les Troyens then it had to conform in some ways to what grand opera was expected to be. So we have a work in five acts, substantial, long even, but not wildly ridiculous when compared to Halevy's La Juive. There are ballets, grand ceremonial scenes and public events against which private emotion can be put.
You can press the comparison only so far, but with any staging of Les Troyens, if you ignore the work's grand opera background then you will lead yourself into difficulties. For the new production of Les Troyens at Covent Garden, director David McVicar and designers Es Devlin (sets) and Mortiz Junge (costumes) seem to have been conscious of this and gone for a self-consciously, extravagantly grand production. In terms of the sets, you did wonder whether their had gone a little too far and let grandeur develop into unnecessary excess.
The opera was re-set to the 19th century, to the period of the Crimean war, which took place in Berlioz's lifetime. Act 1 opened with the populace appearing on and in front of the walls of Troy. Costume wise, everything was pitch perfect but the walls of Troy were a huge convex metallic structure made of gantries, doors and such. It had a number of advantages, the thrust forward with the reflective surface gave a good boost to the choral sound and rendered it quite brilliant, and the galleries meant that McVicar could get a goodly number of chorus onto the stage without clogging the acting area, which is always a consideration with big ensemble operas. The drawback was that the sheer surface area of metal gave the setting a strange, Wellsian time-machine sort of aura and, dare one say it, Les Mis.
This is the third time that we have seen Anna Caterina Antonacci in the role of Cassandre, we first saw her in the role at the Chatelet, under John Eliot Gardiner, in 2003 and then subsequently in the David Pountney production in Berlin, conducted by Donald Runnicles. She remains one of the great Cassandre's of our day, conveying the heroine's tortured intensity and madness whilst never having to resort to bizarre tics. I am not certain that Antonio Pappano's conducting always did Antonacci the favours that it ought. Covent Garden is quite a big house for Antonacci's voice in this role, and there were times when Pappano could have been a little more sympathetic. As it was he revelled in the luxury of Berlioz's orchestration as created by the Royal Opera orchestra on terrific form.
Her Chorebe was Fabio Capitanucci, darkly grained of voice, substantial of physical presence, he sang with a nice sense of line. A little bit solid at first, he gradually relaxed during the duet and the long scene between Cassandre and Chorebe was one of the most profoundly satisfying and touching accounts of it that I have heard.
For the scene with Priam (Robert Lloyd) and Hecube (Pamela Helen Stephenson), the walls opened to reveal darkness within and a rather dim video of the sea on the back drop; the video developed into crashing waves during the Lacoon narration. The gap in the walls brought forth a procession, priests, an altar and thrones. Visually the costumes were perfect, when Priam's daughters (in crinolines) gathered around the throne it looked just like a Winterhalter painting of middle-European Royalty. It's just that this historicsm looked a bit odd against the metallic walls (looking rather more like Les Mis now that they were open).
Wth the arrival of Robert Lloyd, it is perhaps time to mention the odd synchronicity which accumulates around the casting of this opera. We should have seen Antonacci as Didon under Davis at the Barbican but she cancelled and so we saw Michelle de Young in the role; de Young went on to sing Didon at the Met when we saw the opera there in 2003. We saw Robert Lloyd as Narbal in 2003 at the Chatelet and at the Met. As I have said, this was the third time we had seen Antonacci's Cassandre. And when we saw the opera in Amsterdam, Eva Maria Westbroek (Covent Garden's Didon) was Cassandre; also in Amsterdam Enee was played by Bryan Hymel, a role he took as Covent Garden.
The choreography for the athletic ballet in front of the altar was some slightly embarrasing horseplay between soldier and children, but then I have never seen this scene staged perfectly. At least the use of lively children formed a nice contrast to the dignified entry of the grieving Andromache (Sophia McGregor) and Astynax (Sebastian Wright).
Bryan Hymel managed Enee's tricky opening entry with bravura. He has a spinto voice rather than a full blown heroic one, which means that he is not quite as loud at times but has a degree more lyric facility. Enee is a role which requires stamina certainly, but also the ability to move the voice around. Hymel also has a nicely focussed voice which suits French opera well; though he sings Rodolpho, I can't help hoping that he keeps adding the French heroic roles to his repertoire. He will be singing again at Covent Garden next season in Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable (huge cheers).
McVicar's staging was admirably unfussy, he tended to let such moments as the Lacoon ensemble happen without the need to impose unnecessary fiddly staging, keeping to simple dignity. With the arrival of the Trojan Horse we came to one of the production's coups de theatre, a huge horse's head made from abandoned weapons, quite stunning to look at especially in the way it nodded and moved. But was it too much, you have to wonder how much was compromised in order have the huge walls (some of the heaviest kit ever used on the Covent Garden stage) and the elaborate horse; would less have been more.
In all the grand ceremonial scenes there was one major disappointment, the extra brass remained firmly off stage. Having seen the Chatelet production where much use was made of the extra brass on stage, I found this rather disappointing; the processional marches almost seem to call for on-stage bands.
Enee's scene with the ghost of Hector (Jihoon Kim) took place, not in its own space, but simply in the shadow of the walls (one of the compromises perhaps). But the scene was dramatically effective nonetheless, with the very boyish Ascagne of Barbara Senator. The final powerful scene with the suicide of the Trojan Women took place in the same interstitial space, but when the distant Trojan Horse burst into flames itself then you forgave the production everything.
|The Royal Opera in Act 3 of Les Troyens|
For the next act we moved to North Africa. The set, now concave not convex, was similarly huge forming a substantial amphitheatre-like backdrop. Evoking a North African adobe townscape, it also brilliantly captured the differences between Troy and Carthage. Like the set for Troy, the chorus appeared on the balconies of the city scape, leaving the stage area generally clear.
For the first Carthaginian act the central area was taken up by a huge model of Carthage that the celebrations took place on and around. (Yet more synchronicity, as this must be the third or fourth time we've seen a model used in this scene). Eva Maria Westbroek was a radiant Didon, easily commanding and generous of tone, Hanna Hip was her sister Anna and the two blended nicely in the duet. The following drama with the entry of the Trojans and Iarbas's attack neatly captured the nascent interest between Didon and Enee.
For the Royal Hunt and Storm we remained in the city-scape amphitheatre but with a gap opened up so that we could see the trees beyond. Andrew George's imaginative choreography admirably followed the libretto, thus showing that sticking to Berlioz's instructions really does work (David McVicar and Richard Jones are the only directors to have stuck to the libretto here, out of a total of five productions seen so far). One of the curiosities of the way the Royal Opera House mounts big productions is that the dancers, all admirable, were freelance and not members of the Royal Ballet.
Brindley Sherratt as Narbal and Hanna Hip made their duet (or double aria), work dramatically as well as musically. Sometimes this piece can feel as if the director thinks it unnecessary, but there was no hint of that from McVicar. For all its faults, one of the admirable things about this production was the way that it took the opera as Berlioz wrote it and then staged it, rather than trying to turn the piece into something else.
We had some suitably erotic and exotic dance for the ballet sequence (choreography by Andrew George), followed by Ji-Min Park's glorious performance of Iopas's lovely solo. Ji-Min Park used his beautifully even, strong lyric tenor voice to great effect here. The addition of lanterns and the dimming of lights rendered the space more intimate and more exotic. The ensembles were neatly and effectively staged, with the chorus simply wandering on (and off) when needed and not getting in the way. Then as night fell, just leaving the lanterns and the windows of the city scape lit, McVicar and Devlin (with lighting designer Wolfgang Gobbel) provided a magical backdrop for the love duet. Using relatively simple stagecraft, McVicar elegantly followed the music so that the singers discreetly evaporated after they were needed just as the music's focus turns from the ensemble to the two protagonists on their own. (A moment that I always think sounds like a musical re-creation of the couple walking out onto the terrace into the stars, leaving the court behind). Perhaps one little carp, the city model now suspended upside down above the stage was lit in such a way as to seem almost like a descending space-ship.
Hymel and Westbroek were in lovely voice here, blending and balancing beautifully, creating a real frisson in their singing. It helped that Hymel has a good, substantial stage presence so that the two looked good as a couple. They also created a believable electric connection between the two of them, something that had been clearly building during the preceding acts.
The advent of Mercury at the end was, I think, a mis-step. Voiced off stage by Daniel Grice, a dancer appeared as a huge winged figure that looked more Star Wars than Greek mythology.
For the final act, the city-scape was fractured and the model of Carthage lay in pieces. Ed Lyon sang Hylas's solo suspended in a cage high above the stage; the height not affecting the great lyric beauty of Lyon's solo. Adrian Clarke and Jeremy White were similarly effective as the two soldiers.
Throughout much of the action, but never spotlighted, we had the Panthee of Ashley Holland. Holland provided an intelligently supportive role, fitting in appositely; never an overly dominating figure, but always just right.
Inutiles regrets is the great killer of the opera. Having kept his hero alive over the preceding four taxing acts, Berlioz gives him his biggest challenge. Hymel sang it with passion, commitment and stupendous stamina, complete with a ringing top note. The role is clearly a stretch for him but not too far, and the benefits from hearing his nicely flexible but firm tones in this type of role were admirable. In terms of the open quality of his voice he reminded me not so much of Ben Heppner as of Jon Vickers.
The final scene between Hymel and Westbroek was as dramatically passionate and as musically apposite as you could wish for. It was followed by Westbroek's heartbreaking solo scene. The final funeral pyre was perhaps a little underwhelming, but the musical contribution at the close was very strong indeed. Westbroek is a fine Didon, both commanding and generous of tone, but with the closing scenes she was dramatically superb and swept everything away.
During the final chorus the Trojan horse re-appears, re-configured as a huge figure which loomed over the chorus. An effect which was meant to be grand, but seemed frankly naff, a little too much like the Citroen car advert.
The chorus, at full strength with extra chorus, were on terrific form throughout the opera. There is a lot of varied chorus work, grand opera expected that, and the Covent Garden chorus seems to have really relished the opportunities. The orchestra were on similarly impressive form. Much of the musical depth of the piece comes from Berlioz's orchestral commentary and Pappano and the orchestra ensured that this received maximum attention. Pappano commanded both the sweep and the detail, his way with Berlioz's score was at times vividly exciting, but the more intimate scenes were not swept away either.
The Royal Opera last performed Les Troyens in 1972 (Though there were performances in the 1990's by Scottish Opera of Tim Albery's production). Let is hope we don't have to wait such a long time for their next performance.