Towering Achievement

Berlioz – Les Troyens.

Cassandre – Christine Niessen.

Énée – John Treleaven

Chorèbe – Armin Kolarczyk

Panthée – Lucas Harbour

Ascagne – Stefanie Schaefer

Didon – Heidi Melton

Anna – Ewa Wolak

Narbal – Konstantin Gorny

Iopas – Eleazar Rodríguez

Hylas – Sebastian Kohlhepp

Priam – Luiz Molz

L’Ombre d’Hector – Avtandil Kaspeli

Polyxène/Hécube – Veronika Pfaffenzeller

Hélénus – Sebastian Kohlhepp

Badische Staatsopernchor, Extrachor des Staatstheaters Karlsruhe, Badische Staatskapelle / Justin Brown. Stage director – David Hermann.

Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe. Sunday, January 13th, 2013.

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Photo: © Markus Kaesler and Jochen Klenk

This was possibly the greatest production of Les Troyens I have ever seen. Since being switched on to opera by Charles Dutoit’s concert performances of the work two decades ago, I have seen eight staged productions and one more concert performance of the work. Yet this one, at the Staatstheater Karlsruhe, is really hors concours. David Hermann’s staging is imaginative yet always stays true to the sprit of the work. It does not go for simplistic obviousness (à la McVicar at Covent Garden) nor does it drown the work under the weight of its own visuals (as did la Fura dels baus in València), rather it offers a show that brings Berlioz’ chef d’oeuvre to life and makes it relevant for today.

Troy is set in a grey wasteland, where the ghosts of the past are a constant presence. These are characters who walk around in blue paint and as Cassandre and her ladies face death they daub themselves in this blue paint. Hermann also made full use of the auditorium. The chorus was established around the theatre, bringing the audience into the work and perfectly setting up the conflict between the public and the private inherent in the piece. When we met Didon for the first time, she sang from a balcony before descending to greet her people who were ranged around the front of the stalls. There was one omission though – the ballets. This was a shame because the quality of the whole production meant their presence was missed.

It also says a lot for Karlsruhe that they cast the show from their own ensemble. Christine Niessen’s Cassandre was not the raving crazy that one would cross the street to avoid of a certain Italian diva at Covent Garden last year. Rather, she offered a much more contained and effective character but one still racked with foreboding over her visions. Vocally it was perhaps not the best fit for her but she channelled her energy to produce singing of incredible commitment ranging from great vulnerability to sneering defiance. Armin Kolarczyk’s Chorèbe was superb – an easy legato combined with golden tone. Then there was Konstantin Gorny’s huge-voiced Narbal and Ewa Wolak’s beautifully raspy contralto as Anna. Eleazar Rodríguez gave us a ravishingly silver-voiced ‘o blonde Cérès’, the tessitura holding no terrors, beautifully phrased – one of the finest I’ve heard. Heidi Melton’s Didon was simply exceptional. She is a young singer but also a complete one. She has the amplitude to ensure that she never tired through act 5, she also has a glorious chest register but she also has the essential vulnerability the character requires. She also used the words wonderfully – her diction was crystal clear. Her ‘adieu fière cité’ was stunning, the legato even, the extremes between resolution and resignation beautifully present. The confrontation with John Treleaven’s Énée, a point at which most Didons start to flag was heart-wrenching. Indeed, her cry of ‘je maudis tes dieux’ is still ringing in my ears.

John Treleaven used his long experience to get him through the punishing role of Énée. There were times where he fought against the music and the music won but there were also times when he tamed it and produced some highly musical singing. It wasn’t always elegant – there was much Gwyneth Jones style swooping up to notes – but there was also real passion and spirit and he didn’t crack which is more than can be said of many exponents of the role. It was also sung in perfectly acceptable French. Indeed the diction of the vast majority of the cast was very good (with some exceptions) and it was a pleasure to attend a production of Troyens where the text was relatively easy to follow.

The Badische Staatsopernchor and Extrachor had been phenomenally prepared by Ulrich Wagner. They produced singing of power and commitment. Indeed they are one of the two finest choruses I have heard in the piece (the other was in València). Ensemble (with the exception of the opening chorus, which is always a tricky one) was tight, blend was very good and amplitude was certainly there. Justin Brown’s conducting brought out things that I had never heard before in the score and the orchestra played like heroes.

This was an exceptional performance of a work that tests an opera house to its limits. Yet it was more than that. It was a human one. Berlioz may have written about heroes but he never lost sight of the human aspect of his characters, especially his leading ladies. The greatest achievement of David Hermann’s production is to bring out the humanity of the work, the conflict between the public and the private. It is an exceptional piece of theatre and anyone who loves this work really should see it.

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