A production of Berlioz’s Trojan epic is always a special event, but Les Troyens
at the Royal Opera House in 2012 was particularly so, for two reasons. Firstly, it was a centrepiece of the house’s celebrations for the London Olympics and had a special billing in the programme for the nationwide Cultural Olympiad of that year. I remember reading somewhere a comment from Sir Antonio Pappano - the Royal Opera’s music director and conductor of this production - that the two most challenging things an opera house could stage are Les Troyens
and Wagner’s Ring
and that it spoke volumes for Covent Garden that they were staging both within a couple of months. The second reason is that Covent Garden has a particularly special place in this opera’s performance history. During Berlioz’s own day the opera was chopped in two. Berlioz himself never saw the first two acts, renamed The Capture of Troy
. Instead, the Théâtre-Lyrique
put on the last three acts as The Trojans at Carthage
, making a nonsense of the Grand Opéra
tradition in which the composer was writing, and even then playing around with the text and score. It was assumed that the opera as originally written was unperformable, until the Royal Opera House gave the first, nearly complete performance of the five-act version in 1957, directed by John Gielgud and conducted by Rafael Kubelik - a recording now exists on Testament SBT41443. Colin Davis’s equally legendary performance of 1969 led to a recording for Philips (E4756661), and this, together with his LSO Live performance of 2000 (LSO0010
), remains the yardstick against which other performances have since been judged. All of which is to say that the Royal Opera House has unique history with and pedigree in this work, so a new production is a special event.
The production consequently had a huge amount of anticipation surrounding it, dimmed only slightly when Jonas Kaufmann - who was due to sing the role of Aeneas - had to withdraw due to illness. I attended the last night of the run, and the excitement was palpable, evidenced by the special, double-size souvenir programme the ROH produced. I also remember noticing that this is the only production I’ve seen at Covent Garden where the entire
proscenium was used, even removing the royal crest at the top so as to allow even more of the vast set to be seen. It was epic to behold, exciting to listen to and exhilarating to be a part of, and a lot of that excitement comes through when you watch it on DVD.
That sense of the epic is the first thing that hits you when the curtain goes up and, indeed, Es Devlin’s set designs are brilliantly realised and effectively done. She gives a brief explanation of them in an extra film, by the way. The stage is dominated by a vast, metallic, convex wall, symbolising the walls of Troy which dominate the story of The Iliad
. It’s more than three stories tall, filling the height of the stage, and it opens up to reveal the processions of the people as well as the horse itself. The horse, whose picture appears on the DVD cover, is composed of material that the Greeks would have left over after ten years of war, the detritus of battle, primarily. Its large scale is very impressive, even more so on the screen than it was in the theatre because of a more comprehensive sense of the human perspective alongside it. Director David McVicar appears to set the Trojan acts in the time of the opera’s composition: the 1850s. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for this, but at least it’s a unifying trope that doesn’t get in the way. The first two acts are dark, metallic and monochromatic. The Carthaginian acts, on the other hand, are full of bright colours and washed with Mediterranean sunshine. The set for these acts is the other
side of the drum and, drawing inspiration from the description in the Aeneid
, it depicts Dido as the Queen Bee at the centre of the honeycomb of the city.
The sets, and the contrasts of the settings, are key to the staging’s success because McVicar and Devlin are not afraid to embrace the all-important sense of epic that sets this opera apart as something special. The more intimate moments also work very well, too, most notably the nocturnal scenes of Act 4, lit ever so delicately and flushed with dark shades of blue to depict the ravishing beauty of the night of love. In this scene in particular the music and the visuals fit one another absolutely perfectly. The only two misfires occur in Act 5. Firstly, the second scene, with Dido’s reaction to the Trojans’ departure, occurs at the front of the stage before a blank backdrop, a rather reductive effect in the company of all else that has gone on. Secondly, and rather bizarrely, during the final chorus of the Carthaginians, after Dido’s suicide, we see a humanoid iron giant, clearly a relative of the horse, appearing at the back of the set. It’s incongruous, unnecessary, and somewhat out of place. It actually took me entirely by surprise: I must have blanked it out after the evening in the theatre. Two mistakes in a huge work like this is entirely forgivable, though, and McVicar and Devlin deserve credit for managing to pull the whole thing off so successfully.
The singing cast is first rate. Berlioz himself was deeply moved by the figure of the doomed prophetess Cassandra and it pained him more than he could say that he would never hear her music sung. I am sure, though, that he would have been pleased with her portrayal by Anna Caterina Antonacci. She is a magnificent Cassandra, worthy to compare with the best of them. She is a very gifted tragedian as well as a superb singer, and her acting skills are helped by Rousillon’s careful but not excessive use of close-up. Her opening monologue is deeply moving, particularly the section where she sings of how she will never be married and never find happiness. Her apocalyptic utterance always stay on just the right side of hysteria. She then summons up true heroic grandeur for the great suicide scene of Act 2. It is obvious why so many of the Trojan women are keen to join her. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Dido, on the other hand, goes to the opposite pole. She is a quiet heroine: it is her humanity and vulnerability that impress most, right from her initial duet with Anna when she sings of her dead husband. It is very moving watching her give in to Aeneas during the fourth act, but when the moment of reckoning comes she sings “Je vais mourir” with determination, as a statement of intent rather than as a passive victim. Her farewell to her city is very touching, as is her ultimately futile suicide. Linking the two parts is the thrilling Aeneas of Bryan Hymel. Listening to him you are never in any doubt that you are listening to a hero
, right from the moment in Act 1 when he bursts onto the stage and tears breathlessly through the story of Laocoön’s death. He is right inside the role and, as in Robert le Diable
, none of the tessitura holds any problems for him. He is an electric presence in the battle cries of the second and third acts, and the heroic ring at the top of his voice is thrilling, even in his final act aria as he faces up to leaving Carthage. Only in the fourth act and the great love duet do you miss a touch of honey or the sensual allure that would have come from a voice like Kaufmann’s. No doubt Hymel will develop that with time, and it didn’t prevent the final sequence of Act 4 from being one of the finest moments in the opera.
The myriad other parts are all very well taken and they are never relegated to “mere” support. Fabio Capitanucci brings both Italianate warmth and French lyricism to the role of Coroebus. He makes a good deal out of the role, making you more than usually sorry that the character has so little future beyond the first act duet. Brindley Sherratt is a rich, sonorous elder statesman in Narbal, and the veteran Robert Lloyd adds gravitas to his few lines as Priam. Ed Lyon, normally a Baroque specialist, turns up surprisingly but fairly convincingly as the sailor Hylas. It is gratifying to see so many of the other roles taken so well by members of the Royal Opera’s own young artist programme. Hanna Hipp is a uniquely characterful Anna. Jihoon Kim booms his way convincingly through his brief appearances as Hector’s ghost. Ji-Min Park sings Iopas’ aria very beautifully with his ringing tenor.
The chorus are on cracking form throughout. Their grand invocation to the gods in Act 1 really sets the scalp prickling. It’s here that you also begin to grasp the epic vision that Pappano’s conducting brings to the score. It helps, too, that the quality of the DTS surround sound is very good, allowing every orchestral detail, down to the tinkling percussion, to be heard clearly in the overall texture. The subsequent Laocoön chorus is every bit as impressive in the precision and scale of its execution. The chorus then throw on extra measures of warmth for the Carthaginian celebrations at the start of Act 3 and add gentle balm to the twilit ensemble at the end of Act 4. Throughout, they act as well as they sing so that the close-up of the camera brings benefits rather than problems.
As befits the sense of a special occasion, Opus Arte have pushed the boat out with the packaging for the set. The discs are housed in a pull-out wallet and the booklet is more than usually lavish, containing plentiful photographs and three essays from the original Covent Garden programme book, all fitted into a glossy slip-case. I was a little disappointed with the extras, though, which consist of a cast gallery, a brief interview with Es Devlin and a short introduction to Acts 1, 3 and 5 from Pappano. He also features in a filmed section from the “Insight Evening” that Covent Garden ran in the run-up to the staging, but it isn’t much to write home about. You see Pappano put two singers through an aria each, but this teaches you very little about the music or the opera itself. I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t film the entire
Insight Evening and put that on as an extra. That would surely have been informative and eminently possible. Copyright restrictions, I wonder?
On the whole, though, this release is a triumph. It realises Berlioz’s vision and reproduces an excellent production very well indeed. I haven’t seen John Eliot Gardiner’s DVD from the Paris Châtelet
(also on Opus Arte and also featuring Antonacci as Cassandra), but the Covent Garden performance is infinitely more satisfying than the stultifyingly dull version from the New York Met or the space-age claptrap from Valencia
. If you want Les Troyens
on DVD, then you can buy this one with confidence.