Lloyd, Robert


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.

TraviataRichard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

De Nederlandse Opera, 2010 | Hartmut Haenchen, Martin Kušej, Robert Lloyd, Catherine Naglestad, Marco Jentzsch, Marina Prudenskaja, Oliver Ringelhahn, Juha Uusitalo | Opus Arte

If you like your Wagner staged in the traditional manner, then this production won’t be for you. If however you think that the themes in Wagner’s work – fatalistic romantic destinies, love, duty, power, suffering, the conflict between tradition and modernity – have a timeless quality and can resonate with its subject no matter what the setting, then you might be inclined to at least understand why a producer might want to relate those themes in a way that is relevant to a modern audience. The question with the De Nederlandse Opera production of Der fliegende Holländer however is whether they take it too far and perhaps take too many liberties with the opera.

Der fliegende Holländer however, is not a late Wagner work, the composition not conforming precisely to the musical standards that the composer would later set, nor indeed in the very specific manner in which it should be presented. Written around the same time as Rienzi, Der fliegende Holländer certainly points towards that direction and is a fascinating opera to examine the beginning of Wagner’s progression, but it is still curiously imbalanced between the newer style and the influences of old, more conventional Italianate opera practices, and the switch between them can be quite jarring in parts of the opera. Since we can’t go back however and consider the opera and its relevance afresh through the eyes of a 19th century audience – and since even Wagner used mythology to speak to a contemporary audience of modern ideas for a Germanic art and principles – we have no choice but to consider the opera from a modern perspective in any case.

Director Martin Kušej takes advantage of the somewhat schizophrenic split in the opera itself between tradition and modernity in order to present it meaningfully to a modern-day Dutch audience.  There are no longer sailing ships sailing the seven seas for years at a time - ship navigation, seafaring and commerce are all very different now, so if you think about it in modern terms, it shouldn’t really be surprising to see shipping in terms of cruises and ferries, the Dutchman here arriving on a Norwegian ferry, his crew asylum seekers, looking for a homeland, a place to settle after a lifetime of being tossed around as refugees on the seas of conflict and revolution.  It shouldn’t be difficult either to consider the arrival of these figures being perceived as a threat to those who enjoy a comfortable western bourgeois lifestyle.

Whether those multicultural subjects have any place in a Wagner opera is for the opera lover to consider (or not, should such interpretations not hold any interest for traditionalists), but it strikes me as a valid response to the themes of Der fliegende Holländer, and – most importantly – it’s presented here in a manner that doesn’t undermine or lessen the importance of the other eternal themes in the opera and the subjects that held meaning for Richard Wagner, namely the loss of one’s homeland, a consideration of what is a sense of homeland, and all the associated themes that go alongside it where love, family, stability and security count for more than richness and social climbing in a globalised society where money talks. Those subjects are treated with utmost reverence in this production, and the reason why they can be given a modern spin is because the opera is so powerful in its expression of them, tying them deeply into a mythology that does indeed hold mystique and attraction in the legend of the Flying Dutchman, but also in the use of the sea itself – a powerful symbol in any guise, but even more so here in the musical expression and embryonic use of leitmotif that Wagner employs so evocatively.

While I feel that the opera’s themes are done justice to in this production then – but I can quite understand why it might not work for everyone – what is just as important, and ultimately persuasive here is the performance of the opera itself. Quite simply, it is sung and played magnificently, and comes across particularly well in the stunning sound reproduction that is presented on the Blu-ray edition. Not only are the voices of Juha Uusitalo and Catherine Naglestad superb in their range, control and power, but they blend together most marvellously as a singers and as the couple of the Dutchman and Senta. This is totally a 5-star production in terms of performance and singing alone (as well as for the quality of the Blu-ray) – but it is also a sincere, interesting and fascinating attempt to relate the opera to modern themes. If the concept is perhaps a slightly imperfect fit, or slightly inconsistent with the original intentions of the opera, Der fliegende Holländer was always an imperfect opera in the first place – but, like this production, no less fascinating for those perceived flaws and inconsistencies.