Berlioz – Les Troyens.
Cassandre – Anna Caterina Antonacci
Chorèbe – Fabio Capitanucci
Panthée – Ashley Holland
Hélénus – Kim Ji Hyun
Ascagne – Barbara Senator
Hécube – Pamela Helen Stephen
Priam – Robert Lloyd
Énée – Bryan Hymel
Hector – Kim Jihoon
Didon – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Anna – Hanna Hipp
Iopas – Park Ji-Min
Narbal – Brindley Sherrat
Hylas – Ed Lyon
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano.
Stage director – David McVicar
Royal Opera House, London. Thursday, July 5th, 2012.
I have probably mentioned several times in this blog about how much I love this work. In fact, this is the third production that I have reviewed since starting this blog and it certainly looked like the one with the biggest budget. Stagings of Les Troyens are always seen as an ‘event’ and in this Olympic year, this was the Royal Opera’s way of offering something seriously big. Yet, big isn’t always better and it is sometimes possible to throw massive amounts of money at a production yet achieve so much more with relative economy. David Herrmann’s production in Karlsruhe was a perfect example of this and on the whole, I felt that that production more than any others I have seen, with the exception of Richard Jones at ENO, did more to penetrate into the spirit of the work than many others.
I left the theatre this evening with a renewed sense of the fact that Berlioz’ magnum opus really is a masterpiece. Experiencing it uncut certainly reinforced that. It’s a piece that with the best will in the world can drag somewhat, especially in Act IV but tonight I felt that Pappano did a very good job of keeping things moving. There are a couple of exceptions though – Cassandre’s first aria and duet with Chorèbe were taken at a funereal pace (listen to Christophe Rousset’s tempo on Véronique Gens’ Tragédiennes 2 album for an example of how it surely should go). I also felt that sadly he let the tension drop far too much in Act V. This is the end of a long evening and I missed a sense of a force powering the drama to its inevitable conclusion. Otherwise, tempi were well chosen and Act IV in particular was a big success. The orchestra played like heroes but I felt that Pappano could have done more to bring out those subtleties in the scoring and the quirky, unusual aspects of Berlioz’ orchestration. Still it was a great achievement. Renato Balsadonna’s chorus gave everything to the piece and the men in particular were excellent. The ladies, I felt, lacked blend – far too many individual voices sticking out – and the excessive vibratos meant that tuning wasn’t always impeccable. I haven’t yet heard a chorus to match the Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana (which can be heard on the Gergiev DVD) in terms of blend and amplitude, although based on their recent Macbeth, I think the Geneva chorus could do a pretty good job.
For me the main limitation to this production came with the staging. It was far too obvious, lacked subtlety and brought nothing new to the work. As a west end musical it would be great value and it certainly told the story in an accessible way to anyone seeing the piece for the first time. Cassandre was perhaps the worst treated of the principals. The whole point is that she is cursed so that nobody would believe her. Here she was a raving lunatic who most people would cross the street to avoid. Anna Caterina Antonacci certainly entered into the sprit of the production but I felt that watching someone who looked like she was suffering from kidney stones failed to capture the essence of the personality – it was just a cheap, unsubtle shot at a very complex character. I really missed that sensible lady in a blue suit of Richard Jones’ ENO production. Vocally Antonacci to me felt far too small in scale for such a large house and she sacrificed vocal production and beauty to her need to portray as crazy a person as possible. She is a well-appreciated and acclaimed artist but anyone watching her for the first time tonight may well have not left the theatre with that impression.
Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Didon on the other hand was a complete triumph. Her diction was impeccable – she sang it better than most native francophones – and she was completely at home in the style. She came across well as a young queen who could inspire her people and she was a sincere stage presence. ‘Adieu fière cité’ was a real highlight (although it was lazily staged, stage front in front of a black curtain). Bryan Hymel’s Énée was decent enough and on occasion even better than that. His French needs some work though (words were not always clear) but he’s still young. He can pull out some electrifying top notes but my impression in the theatre was that tuning in ‘inutiles regrets’ went a bit awry as it felt he was forcing the tone. It’s a great achievement for someone with a medium-weight tenor but I really felt the presence of Jon Vickers in the house – I don’t know why, I could just imagine him singing the part in that particular theatre.
The rest of the cast was decent enough. Hanna Hipp’s Anna impressed as did Brindley Sherrat’s Narbal, Ashley Holland’s, Panthée and the veteran Robert Lloyd’s Priam. Fabio Capitanucci was a decent enough Chorèbe. Diction on the whole ranged from poor (Jihoon Kim’s Hector) to outstanding (Westbroek and Antonacci). There was a complete absence of francophone singers in the cast and while Westbroek proved that one needn’t necessarily need to have French as a first language to sing the work well, I really missed the attention to words native speakers could bring to the text. I can certainly think of at least three québécois singers who could have been cast in supporting roles and perhaps been even more impressive.
What let the evening down above all was the staging. It was unoriginal (Cassandre in a black shift – where have I seen that before?), obvious (Cassandre’s mania) and poorly choreographed (the ballets were appalling). There really seemed no point in updating the story to the time of the opera’s composition (other than to confuse audience members who thought they were watching Les Mis). Costumes were good (Moritz Junge) and it was certainly a handsome set (Es Devlin). Overall, it felt like a missed opportunity. It was well-conducted, decently cast and performed complete but let down by the staging. I sincerely hope that ENO has not scrapped the Richard Jones production and that they will one day revive it. I have seen more than a half-dozen productions of this work now and none of them (with the exception of Herrmann’s) have come close.
I left the theatre with a renewed sense of the glory of this piece and that it truly is one of the great operatic masterpieces. I enjoyed the show over all – I just feel that it could have been so much more.