TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 2012 | David McVicar, Antonio Pappano, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Fabio Capitanucci, Bryan Hymel, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brindley Sherratt, Hanna Hipp, Barbara Senator, Robert Lloyd, Pamela Helen Stephen, Jihoon Kim, Ashley Holland, Ji Hyun Kim, Lukas Jakobski, Daniel Grice, Ji Min Park, Adrian Clarke, Jeremy White, Ed Lyon | Royal Opera House, Cinema Season Live 2012/13

It’s ironic that Berlioz’s epic creation based on Virgil’s ‘Aeneid‘ was never performed in full during the composer’s lifetime, yet we’ve had enough opportunities now to view the work to realise that Les Troyens is unquestionably a masterpiece. Having had the opportunity to see several productions however, it’s also possible to see why the opera would have been such a tricky proposition to stage in the first place. It’s a vast, all-encompassing work, one that not only demonstrates the complete range of the composer, but one that also takes in the considerable musical studies, theories and passions that were as much a part of the lifework of Hector Berlioz. Written over two years (1856-58) for the Paris Opéra (the only house with the resources to possibly stage it), a deeply personal undertaking that drew from the composer’s childhood imagination-inspiring readings of the ‘Aeneid‘ and his love for the Shakespearean epic drama, Les Troyens proved to be too ambitious an undertaking for the city’s major opera house and, eventually, only a cut-down version of the second part of the five-act opera was performed at the Théâtre Lyrique.

Now we have Blu-ray releases of no less than two complete productions of Les Troyens to be able to judge the quality of the work - the revelatory 2003 Châtelet production in Paris (in an impressive account conducted by John Eliot Gardiner) and the rather less successful attempt to modernise the opera by La Fura dels Baus in the 2009 Valencia production. A comparison between the two suggests that if it’s not a case of less is more (that’s something that you couldn’t say about Berlioz’s writing here), it is nonetheless a work where it’s necessary - and difficult enough - to strike a balance between the extravagance of the compositional elements with a huge dynamic that is inherent within the division of the two parts of the work that represent the Fall of Troy and the Trojans in Carthage, while at the same time also living up to the epic grandeur that it represents. Trying to impose an alternative reading or concept on top of Les Troyens (much less one as misguided as La Fura del Baus’ Trojan Horse computer virus concept) is risky and likely to conflict with the intentions and tone of the work. David McVicar therefore had quite a challenge in this new major production of the work for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and while it didn’t exactly meet with universal critical acclaim at the time, the weaknesses in the production seem rather less pronounced when viewed on the screen in this fine recording made for the Royal Opera House’s Cinema Season 2012/13.

The fact that David McVicar and set designer Es Devlin went for their familiar industrial Steampunk style in the first act with weapons and military uniforms that were clearly not related to Ancient Greek mythology (or Roman in this case) proved neither here nor there. As ever with McVicar, the detail is less important than the overall impact, and both the Troy and Carthage scenes went for a mood and grandeur of scale that was commensurate with the work itself. The tone of the first half is inevitably dark, the celebrations of the Trojans at the departure of the Greek army after ten years of siege short-lived, giving way to ceremonial mourning for the loss of so many great warriors, dire premonitions of doom from an increasingly hysterical Cassandra, and the mass suicide of the Trojan women as the warriors flee for Italy, the city having been breached by the Greek soldiers through the ruse of the horse. It’s the huge mechanical construction of the Trojan Horse that is the imposing image of the first half and it’s suitably impressive. If the direction is otherwise fairly static in this section, it at least allows attention to be drawn to the magnificent musical construction of the first two acts, and it gives plenty of room for Anna Caterina Antonacci to dominate as Cassandra.

As directed for the screen, the frequent use of close-ups here went some way towards focussing on those strong points in the tone that was effectively established and in highlighting the qualities of Antonacci’s mesmerising performance, even if the actual staging and the power of the singing weren’t quite up to the demands of the music itself, superbly put across by the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Antonio Pappano’s direction. Fortunately, most of The Fall of Troy section relies on choral arrangements of celebrations and lamentations and these also came across wonderfully. The strengths and weaknesses within Les Troyens and the difficulty of coping with them in a staged production were emphasised here by the treatment of the rather different second half. The warmth of tone and presentation of the Trojans in Carthage section is in marked contrast to the darkness of the first half, but Berlioz’s arrangements are no less epic in his depiction of the utopian society of Carthage under the rule of their beloved Queen Dido. Even Bryan Hymel, who didn’t quite manage to rise above the dramatic power of the Troy section as Aeneas, seemed to find the North African climate more to his liking. The challenges of the second half of Les Troyens however lie in the presentation of those sentiments, and that wasn’t quite so well achieved as the first half.

Again, there is no faulting McVicar and Es Devlin’s approach to the stage design. Carthage is laid out in all the epic grandeur and warmth that is suggested in the score. While there’s much that’s beautiful about Berlioz’s scoring for these scenes, all the ballets and the celebratory love-fests can be a little bit too much - the rush into battle with Iarbas and the Numidians the only confrontational element in the first part and even that is given only a cursory treatment. The dances and celebrations can also be particularly difficult to stage in a way that retains the interest of an audience who has by that stage already had very nearly a full evening’s worth of Grand Opéra. As Dido, Eva-Maria Westbroek sang beautifully and was excellent at conveying the dilemma of the Carthaginian Queen over her feelings for Aeneas and her promise to remain faithful to the memory of her dead husband. Westbroek has a fullness of tone and sufficient power in her soprano, but not quite the necessary colour that the role - written for a mezzo-soprano - demands. This was particularly noticeable for the lack of sufficient and complementary contrast that ought to be there in her ‘Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie‘ duet with Hymel - a key moment in their relationship which never really came across here as it should.

Allowing for the longeurs in Act III and the inability of the director to make them sufficiently interesting, there was however still a lot to enjoy musically and in the singing during the final three acts. In addition to the strong performances of Hymel and Westbroek, there were some beautiful sounds coming from Brindley Sherratt’s concerned Narbal and Hanna Hipp’s devoted Anna, both providing the necessary counterweight to Dido’s mental disintegration in the closing acts. Masterfully orchestrated in musical and dramatic terms by Berlioz, Hylas’s song of longing for home at the beginning of Act Five, sweetly sung by Ed Lyon, the lure of the seas and the call of Italy urged by dark forces of the ghosts of the dead Trojans, combined well with the frisson of betrayal between Dido and Aeneas more strongly characterised than their romance, ensured that the conclusion at least was sufficiently tragic.