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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Berlioz The Trojans Soloists and Chorus of English National Opera/Paul Daniel, Coliseum, Sunday October 3rd, 2004 (CC)


Having heard (if not reported on) earlier incarnations of Berlioz’ epic Trojans at ENO, it was interesting to hear the entire work. Inevitably Daniel is to be compared with Colin Davis in his fairly recent Barbican performances (now enshrined on LSO Live for a giveaway price,) as well as with his earlier self. The good news is that Daniel’s interpretation has grown in stature and depth as time has passed. Of all composers, it is perhaps Berlioz who most of all suffers in unsatisfactory performances, and who shines brightest in an inspired one. If Daniel was not the noonday sun, at least the celestial appeared sporadically in his reading.


A reading that was helped no end by the casting of the astonishing Sarah Connolly as the heroine, Dido. Connolly impressed while ENO resided at the Barbican, in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia and as Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi (both Autumn 2003.) In both she was sublime, and here at the Coliseum she loses out to no one in her assumption of Dido. Her curse in Act V plainly came from the heart; her pain as she asked for a funeral pyre to be raised was visceral. She was mesmeric throughout. Not only does Connolly possess great stage-presence, she holds a liquid legato and an interior expressive world that revealed all of the heroine’s desolation as she gave her noble farewell. Right from her entrance (Act III,) dressed elegantly in black, Connolly made every word, every nuance count, exuding an appropriate regalness. Happily, she was matched in excellence by her sister, the mezzo (although she sounded more contralto) Anna Burford. Although Burford’s resumé reveals an artist who has not yet strayed far from these shores, I predict great things for her. It was quite amazing to hear such burnished lower-range power from someone so appealingly compact. Her actions reflected the feisty youth and energy of her character, and every inch of the way she was entirely believable.


Enter Aeneas, then. John Daszak has a big, but not huge, tenor voice (he’s apparently previously taken on Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, on present evidence a brave step.) Daszak needed more confidence to convince; his acting abilities similarly were short. He came closest to melding with his part in the Act IV duet with Dido, heard though an effective star-gauze, yet even here there were moments of vocal strain.


Susan Bickley was an impressive Cassandra, her diction true and her phrasing beautifully shaded. Her Chorebus, Robert Poulton, has a lovely warm, rounded voice. Act I, Scene 1 houses opportunities for both to shine, and so they did. Christopher Gillett’s Iopas was light and musical if somewhat bleaty up top; Mark Padmore’s Hylas was lovely and pure. Clive Bayley’s Narbal (Dido’s minister) was large of voice and commanding.


Two points shone through - Daniel’s new willingness to give space when required, and the over-riding certainty that Trojans is infinitely better in the original language. English just sounds clunky in comparison to that beautiful language. Staging was bare (part of a fuselage littered a generally dark stage.) Modern dress forced us to speculate about what concept we were undergoing this time and would it illuminate (to recontextualise a timeless myth - it is timeless for a reason - and to anchor it to a particular historical time and/or personage is necessarily to weaken the universality of its message.) So the black-and-white projection in Scene 2 of US-style presidential goings-on (a speech with an emblem of a horse draped over the lectern,) impressive though it was technically, seemed like so much gimmickry.


Containing some of the action in a box (the production is big on boxes of various kinds) was an interesting ploy, but again one with limited mileage. The dead Hector was to be found reclining in what looked like a dentist’s chair. The dances that accompanied the Royal Hunt and Storm (against a backdrop of splashy paintings) seemed more redundant than anything else; the succession of paintings were typical of production values that strive for effect that is at best transitory in the memory.


If there was an element of short-changing in the staging, then, musically there were sufficient triumphs to act as recompense. The spectacle of the huge horse was impressive, true (as was the - dispensable, lovely though they are - footage of dolphins); the film of the ‘Kennedys’ was effectively optional and easily forgotten. Richard Jones returned to recreate his production (his Lulu returns in Spring next year.)

Despite many impressive moments (and whole spans, thanks primarily to Connolly,) this account did not fully convince me of the greatness of this work. Trojans needs an inspired conductor to fan Berlioz’ flames into life. Daniel is not this conductor, despite the improvements heard (just like his improving Ring cycle is still some way off, from a conductor’s viewpoint, from a mature interpretation.)


Colin Clarke




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