Wednesday 27 February 2019

Berlioz - Les Troyens (Paris, 2019)

Hector Berlioz - Les Troyens

L'Opéra national de Paris, 2019

Dmitri Tcherniakov, Philippe Jordan, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Brandon Jovanovich, Véronique Gens, Stéphane Degout, Cyrille Dubois, Paata Burchuladze, Sophie Claisse, Michèle Losier, Christian Helmer, Christian van Horn, Aude Extrémo

ARTE Concert - 31 January 2019

Dmitri Tcherniakov may not to everyone's taste as an opera director, but he is still highly regarded in Paris, by the director of the opera house Stéphane Lissner at least if not by the vocal traditionalists in the audience. He's certainly highly enough regarded to be given a prestigious event like the full version of Berlioz's Les Troyens on the 150th anniversary of Berlioz's death, the 350th anniversary of the Opéra de Paris and the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Bastille theatre. Whatever you think about Tcherniakov, he certainly rises to the big challenge and occasion and doesn't compromise on his own vision (playing a little safe only perhaps at La Scala with La Traviata in 2013).

The director's strength is often in harnessing and clarifying the undercurrents that drive an opera and present them in a modern way, but his direction of singers to be capable actors and persuade them to come on board with his ideas is also superb. That doesn't mean overriding the intentions of the composer, and in fact Tcherniakov's approach to Les Troyens is a measure of trust in Berlioz's work itself. It can be updated, it's not just a historical work - either in mythological or musicological terms - but a work that confronts human fears about war and terrorism on the one hand and love, healing and security on the other.

Is there anything more to Les Troyens than that? Well, of course there is. As it stands, Berlioz's masterwork doesn't need to be 'filled out', 'clarified' or 'updated', but that doesn't mean that you can't read between the lines and interpret human actions and motivations. Not everyone will like the interpretation that Tcherniakov has proposed and the professional boo-ers at the Bastille certainly don't (which makes you wonder why else they continue to go, since creative modernisation has been the case at least since Gérard Mortier's period in charge of the Paris Opera), but it's valid to interpret and see the work as more than just a grand spectacle.

Part 1 of the work, La prise de Troie, does indeed present a very different spin on Virgil's epic account of the siege of Troy, Tcherniakov placing it in a Russian or Soviet setting that is much more familiar and easier to elaborate on the underlying tensions and reality of war. He marks a strong distinction straight off between King Priam and the royal family in their wood-panelled mansion and the ordinary people fighting on the streets, taking the time with large titles to ensure that the audience know who each member of the legendary Trojan family are and what the relationship is that lies between them, while a running commentary on the developments of the coming to an end of the ten-year long siege are rolled out on breaking news TV ticker-tape reports.

Cassandra addresses her premonitions then to a crew of shocked news reporters who are expecting a more positive outlook from the royal family, which is a nice touch but it's not exactly new (Krzysztof Warlikowski did something similar with his Princess Di lookalike Alceste for Madrid in 2014). Where Tcherniakov dares to go further than most however is in projecting the imagined thoughts of the royal cortege and the elements of distrust that lie between them during the solemn ceremony for the Trojan dead. Contributing to that - much more controversially - is the suggestion that Cassandra has been abused as a child by her father Priam (perhaps accounting for her being something of an outsider), and Aeneas is seen collaborating with the Greeks (which accounts perhaps for feelings of guilt and trauma later).

In terms of spectacle and the sheer horror of the war that you expect to find overwhelming in this part of Les Troyens, the Paris production is effective on every level. Philippe Jordan finds the dark undercurrents in Berlioz's music and there's a fine cast of singers to play out these deeper undercurrents that lend it additional weight. More often associated with opéra-comique and Baroque opera, you wouldn't expect Stéphanie d'Oustrac to carry that necessary dramatic weight as Cassandra, and she does sound a little light in places, but it's a strong performance of great conviction and it's supported by the likes of Stéphane Degout as Chorèbe, Brandon Jovanovich as Énée and Véronique Gens as Hécube. It makes the fate of Troy more present. Or maybe not 'more' since Berlioz's composition has been proven to work effectively as long as it has scale, grandeur and conviction, and it certainly has all those elements, Tcherniakov's direction in no way diminishing the impact.

Which, of course is only half the story, since Les Troyens à Carthage has even more of a spin placed on it. Rather than arrive in Dido's Carthage, the displaced survivors Aeneas and his crew spend the second half of Berlioz's epic end up in a PTSD centre for victims of the war. Énée is almost catatonic from the trauma and guilt for his part in the downfall of Troy, hearing voices in his head calling 'Italie!', with only occasional moments of lucidity and spurring into action coming through group therapy role play battles and relaxation yoga sessions that bring about that "nuit d'ivresse et d'extase infinie' with Dido, who has also been dealing with loss and bereavement and is also looking to find peace.

It all perhaps takes away from the romanticism of the work in favour of psychological realism, and perhaps romanticism is actually more in keeping here for Berlioz. For a modern audience too perhaps an escape from the brutal reality of the world outside wouldn't be such a bad thing. So we really need to see the contemporary world reflected and imposed upon Les Troyens? Well that would depend on what you want to get out of the work, whether you see it (and Latin epic poetry) as having contemporary relevance, or whether it's just escapist grand opera musical entertainment and spectacle.

Tcherniakov nonetheless is successful in tapping into the undercurrents (even if he has to invent some if it to fit) and in how they are relevant to today. The spectacle is there too in La prise de Troie, even if it the glamour is undercut by Les Troyens à Carthage, but I'd argue that all the romanticism and escapism is there still in the music. Philippe Jordan is mindful of Berlioz's musical sensibilities and influences and he plays to the works melodic colours and dramatic strengths. Brandon Jovanovich and Ekaterina Semenchuk also bring a new colour to the royal couple with soft lyrical sweetness that taps into their sensitivities and their past suffering, very much humanising the characters in line with Tcherniakov's direction and purpose. After an effective La prise de Troie however, Les Troyens à Carthage becomes repetitive, lacking in ideas and consistency, its purpose increasingly distant from the grander vision of Berlioz.

Links: L'Opéra national de Paris, ARTE Concert