The most anticipated opera production of this summer in London (aside tenuous connections to the dreadful 2012 Festival) a new production of this operatic behemoth. The signs were bad when the stalwart tenor Jonas Kaufmann had to withdraw and Brian Hymel took on the role of Enée. A lot of concerns were voiced and predictions of doom and gloom. Of course what opera fans should have worried about was the dead hand of David McVicar who proved once more to lack both a revelatory insight or even an unshakable overarching vision. The production is patchy and doesn’t really serve the material well.
In a work with considerable longueurs courtesy of Berlioz a bad production can make it from uncomfortable in length to unbearable. McVicar seems to only care for the first two Acts who were crowd managed to perfection and the set by Devlin was handsome and sleek. The problem of course is why would anyone think moving the action to the 1850s was a good idea. This looks more like a bourgeois gathering at the Cafe Royal than the desperate inhabitants of Troy under a ten-year siege. Why the mechanistic look dripping with rusty metal? Why the by the meter long flowing dresses and lace and trims everywhere one looks? Making Anna Caterina Antonacci look like the mad woman on the scrapheap of twisted metal is such a mindless degradation of the intentions of Berlioz and the gravitas of the persona, making the viewer instantly weary of what’s up next. The arrival of the horse is indeed impressive and its movement as sleek as we would demand. The vivid image of its fiery presence dominating the floored Cassandre is a wonderful moment of almost cinematic power. Of course one has to wonder why did the horse need to go up in flames? It seems pyrotechnics are the last refuge of desperate directors trying to capture the attention of indifferent audiences…ahem let’s not recall the disastrous Don Giovanni (that has thankfully been scrapped for ever).
Unfortunately his Carthage Acts look so disconnected and romanticised, there is no obvious timeline connection to Troy. The stepped “apartment block made of mud” set attracted applause on the first night I saw it, which made a lot of us present cringe. More obvious this failing is when Enée and his soldiers walk in, disrupting the entertainment and love in of Didon and her subjects. Eva-Maria Westbroek is dressed in full on odalisque costume, matt gold dress and a relaxed off white robe, a Bedouin meets Parisian fashion look in total contrast to the 1850s military uniform of the Troyans. Their appearance makes both Didon and her setting look even more shabby. She also sits on a model of the town which later on becomes airborne in the manner more appropriate to Star Wars: A New Hope than a Berlioz opera. If McVicar wanted to say anything through the set costumes and the truly dreadful dancing is beyond me. The programme may dismissively informing us that audiences can’t accept men in skirts any more but somehow ignores that a more classical approach serves the material better, but of course is less of an ego boost for the director.
This production managed to go through the motions professionally and kept stage interest active but lost on the way to crowd pleasing the dramatic core of Berlioz’s complicated and multifaceted epic. It is a tragédie lyrique after all and any flippant choices for relocation of the action to another time period take a toll on the effective staging of the work. The current cult of the director being imposed on a tricky work like Les Troyens creates a hollow construct that does much of the sublime music and singing no justice. A particularly ridiculous example was Ed Lyon being pulled up in the flytower like a housewife would collect her washing in Napoli…dragged up on a rope, after singing a most sublime aria of longing. Why not go for a more conventional rope ladder to come down from the mast? It was just complication for the sake of complication with no apparent thinking behind it.
Had the chance to see it twice and the most diametrically opposite parts of the auditorium, a third row Orchestra Stalls seat at a cost of £183 and an Upper Slips bench seat for £15. The experience was thoroughly illuminating and very, very different. At Stalls one can be tantalizingly close to the singers and orchestra but the sound can suffer at times, while at the extremities of the gods the sound is surprisingly warm and immediate but a pair of binoculars comes handy!
The cast was uneven but with some great rewards to be had.
Eva-Maria Westbroek was a resplendent Didon, solemn sexuality paired with self-confidence, sense of purpose and demure deportment. Her singing started a big unsteady on the 5th but grew in confidence and dramatic power through the evening. Her final aria was truly fantastic, her Ah! Je vais mourir was so committed and forceful creating a compulsive atmosphere of empathy for the character. She sang the middle part of it straight at me, it was one of those unforgettable moments looking eye to eye with such a wonderful performer while she is on the final strait of the tragic trajectory of this most demanding role. The only constraint through the performance was the fairly stiff direction of McVicar who had her sitting a lot on top of toytown Carthage and on random cushions, creating a look of a dull odalisque in the Ingres mould. Westbroek is a physical performer that thrives in being able to engage more with the set and colleagues. So it was a relief to have her final scene played out against an off-black curtain instead of the set, thus liberated and being able to focus on the drama.
Brian Hymel may have lacked the stage charisma and the variety of colouring in his voice to be an ideal Enée but he surely made up in enthusiasm and eagerness to please with his technically accomplished and very well projected voice. On the two performances you could see him growing in confidence and the chemistry between him and Westbroek was there. Especially during the dire dancing in Act Four where she was getting very friendly with Aenee on a large pile of floor cushions (sounds downright dirty but wasn’t really). His stronger showing was during Act Five where he sang with great propulsion if not Gallic flair. He surely offered an impressive C at the conclusion of his Inutiles regrets which made for an exciting addition to the night.
The stand out performance of both evenings was Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandre, she was both stylistically appropriate with an intense stage presence and a vivid embodiment of the character. Also the only cast member that looked totally independent of the particular holds of this production, almost a mini production inside McVicar’s simplistic mush. Her very entrance on both nights sent shivers down my spine. Her total conviction and stylised acting may looked out of date to many, but had that been replaced with what nowadays? She deeply felt the drama and relayed it in her great dark voice and charismatic presence, isn’t that what opera is all about? She brought a touch of the golden age to this production that was worth the price of admission alone, she was exceptional in all her perturbed glory and archetypal painted eyes in her palms. Cassandre has some of the most individualistic music in Troyens and Antonacci managed to not just fulfill the requirements but to go far and beyond and make us all drank with her charisma and dramatic personification of a vibrant figure from Greek mythology. Her two big arias in Act One were such intense theatre and her attention to every word gave depth and stripped back all the clutter and junk this production acquired courtesy of director and set designer. A triumph by a great singer/actress.
Unfortunately she had to duet with Fabio Capitanucci, who just belted out his part clearly not being told this was Berlioz he was singing and not some verismo shocker. I am afraid his gifts were wasted on a bad fit with the material.
Brintley Sherratt offered a vocally solid Narbal with impeccable taste and good sense for the rest of the ensemble.
Hanna Hipp one of the young artists of the Royal Opera was a wonderful sister to Westbroek’s Didon, sang with power and conviction, one can imagine what a great experience it must have been partnering one of the greatest singers of our times. Looking forward in seeing her in the revived Otello in a week’s time.
Ji-min Park as Iopas was a lovely light presence in the middle of the Carthaginian section, he sang his song of the fields with laser like projection, if a bit too sharp on the first night I saw him.
Ed Lyon sang Hylas’ aria that kicks off Act Five with such great beauty, gleam, wistfulness and melancholy. He surely made a big impression on both nights adding a much needed and thoroughly enjoyable punctuation to a long evening at the opera. He did caress the words with such flair and understanding for the style that won us over near instantly.
The chorus of the Royal Opera was in good form on both nights and worked exemplary well with the soloists and orchestra, which played with verve on both nights, despite the too quick tempi adopted by Pappano for the first two Acts. On the last night the balance between speed and dramatic development was much more settled and particularly the hunt and storm scenes at the beginning of Act Four seemed much speedier and alive.
The performance of the Thurs 5 July was relayed live and available to view on demand for the coming months at The Space, they also recorded the performances on 1st and 8th of July, so expect a full blown Blu-Ray and DVD release come 2013 with all the best bits of the three nights spliced together. Lets hope some of the silly extravagances indulged in this outing will be more subdued/rethought for the upcoming presentations in Vienna, Milan and San Francisco before it returns to the stage at Covent Garden in the future.