Hector 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
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
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), Les Troyens was 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. It proved however 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 three complete productions of Les Troyens to be able to judge the quality of the work. Previously we had 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 and dynamic of the distinct styles of the two parts of the work, 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 at home.
The fact that David McVicar and set designer Es Devlin go for their familiar industrial Steampunk style in the first act with weapons and military uniforms that are clearly not related to the ancient Greek setting proves to be neither here nor there. As ever with McVicar, the detail is less important than the overall impact, and both the Troy and Carthage scenes aim for a mood and grandeur of scale that is 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 goes 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 aren’t quite up to the demands of the music itself. Fortunately, most of The Fall of Troy section relies on choral arrangements of celebrations and lamentations and these also come across wonderfully. The strengths and weaknesses within Les Troyens and the difficulty of coping with them in a staged production are 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 doesn’t quite manage to rise above the dramatic power of the Troy section as Aeneas, seems 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 isn’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 sings beautifully and is 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 you would normally get from a mezzo-soprano in the role. This is 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 comes across here as it should.
Allowing for the longeurs in Act III and the inability of the director to make them sufficiently interesting, there is however still a lot to enjoy musically and in the singing during the final three acts and it's all superbly put across by the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Antonio Pappano’s direction. In addition to the strong performances of Hymel and Westbroek, there are 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 is 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, combining well with the frisson of betrayal between Dido and Aeneas that is more strongly characterised than their romance. That ensures that the conclusion at least is sufficiently tragic.
The Royal Opera House's Les Troyens is handsomely packaged for its 2-disc Blu-ray release. The two discs are contained in a digipak that is slipcased with a large booklet with several programme-length articles and a full detailed synopsis by David McVicar. The four and a half hour opera is evenly divided across the two discs, not according to the two distinct parts. Disc One has the first three Acts, which takes in Fall of Troy (Act I and II) the first act of The Trojans in Carthage (Act III). Disc Two has the final two Acts (IV and V). Antonio Pappano provides introductions at the start of the opera and during the 'interval' sections (Before Act III and before Act V). The opera can be played with these introductions included or without. There is also a featurette that looks at Es Devlin's set designs, an excerpt from Pappano's 'Insights' look at the opera and a Cast Gallery. The BD is all-region, subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.