Starry night: Les Troyens in Strasbourg

Berlioz – Les Troyens.

Cassandre – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Chorèbe – Stéphane Degout
Panthée – Philippe Sly
Hélénus – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Ascagne – Marianne Crebassa
Hécube – Agnieszka Sławińska
Priam – Bertrand Grunenwald
Énée – Michael Spyres
Hector – Jean Teitgen
Didon – Joyce DiDonato
Anna – Hanna Hipp
Iopas – Cyrille Dubois
Narbal – Nicolas Courjal
Hylas – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Un soldat / Un capitaine grec – Richard Rittelmann
Sentinelle I – Jérôme Varnier
Sentinelle II – Frédéric Caton

Chœur de l’Opéra national du Rhin, Badischer Staatsopernchor, Chœur philharmonique de Strasbourg, Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg / John Nelson.
Concert performance.

Salle Érasme, Palais de la musique et des congrès, Strasbourg, France.  Saturday, April 15th, 2017.

That performances of Les Troyens, with its enormous cast, are an ‘event’ goes without saying but with a cast as starry as tonight’s, expectations were stratospheric.  The Strasbourgeois assembled 350 performers tonight – a super-sized orchestra, including six harps, numerous off-stage bands, sixteen soloists and three choruses, including one placed off-stage and, at times, in the auditorium.  It was an especially nice touch to invite the chorus of the Karlsruhe opera, where Berlioz’ magnum opus was first performed complete, to participate.  Tonight’s performance, and a second on Monday, were recorded for Erato for release in due course.

Photo: © Pascal Bastien

For the vast majority of the cast, tonight consisted of role debuts and it must be said that there were definitely signs of first-night jitters with quite a number of wrong entries and perhaps a sense that the preparations weren’t quite complete.  These things happen but I also do think that those attending the performance on Monday are really in for a treat.

Photo: © Pascal Bastien

In this work, the chorus is as much a protagonist as the principals and tonight the massed forces gave us an absolutely massive, monumental sound.  It was so refreshing to hear the work sung so well – no unpleasant war of vibratos – with singing of great amplitude combined with integrated blend.  The chasse royale et orage really kicked up a storm with the audience surrounded by singers declaiming ‘Italie’ scattered around the auditorium.  The Act 1 ‘marche troyenne’ was like hearing that passage for the first time, the six harps dominating the texture and the enormous sound of the chorus filling the auditorium.  Ensemble was water-tight throughout the entire evening.

Photo: © Pascal Bastien

The opening two acts also had tremendous impact due to Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s thrilling Cassandre.  I’ll come right out and say that she is one of the very best I’ve heard in the role – and this is a work I’ve loved since I was a teenager and seen live over a dozen times on both sides of the Atlantic.  She did seem somewhat nervous initially but then hit her stride to give us a performance of commanding power and insight.  Not only was Lemieux a prophetic seer, she was also a tender lover to Chorèbe.  So much of the power of what she did was based in her use of text, bringing out so much in the words – her cries of ‘Thesaliennes!’ or ‘malheur’ registering fully.  The very top of the voice took on a little hardness but she integrated that into her reading in such an intelligent way, making it as much of a vocal effect as an insight.  In the past with Lemieux, I’ve found there to be a slightly intrusive register break – not tonight, all the registers were absolutely integrated and the legato was wonderfully smooth.  Lemieux is a stage animal, a true singing-actor, who gave us a total performance and I very much hope that a visionary director will cast her in the role on stage soon.  Stéphane Degout likewise gave us wonderful legato as Chorèbe – a warm, compassionate presence, whose imprecations to Cassandre were sung with honeyed beauty.  There was an energy on stage in Carthage that I found so overwhelming.

Photo: © Pascal Bastien

Joyce DiDonato was a youthful-sounding Didon.  She commanded the stage as much with her enthusiastic demeanour as with her vocalism.  Her sunny, soprano-ish mezzo made Didon a sympathetic leader who was first among equals to her people.  Her vocalism was brave – her damnation of Énée was dispatched with searing desperation and she wasn’t afraid to get chesty in places.  Her French is also excellent, easily as good as the native Francophones in the cast, and she brought out much in the text.  There was however, inevitably, a sense that she hadn’t quite fully worked the role into the voice.  Intonation was variable throughout, at times sharp at others flat, and a significant number of intervals were not judged cleanly enough, meaning that it wasn’t always easy on the ear.  Despite that, for a first attempt it was most admirable and I look forward to seeing DiDonato develop in the role.

Photo: © Pascal Bastien

Michael Spyres sang Énée with impeccable ease.  Where before him so many tenors have sounded in pain, he phrased the ‘nuit d’ivresse’ with loving beauty.  His bright, forward tenor is nicely placed and his absolute security throughout gave much pleasure.  His wasn’t the most heroic Énée – there isn’t quite that touch of metal in the tone that perhaps it ideally requires – but his vocalism was so seemingly limitless that one was struck with admiration for such grateful singing in a role that so often sounds like an endurance test.  His French is very good though there was a sense that in future performances he will bring even more insight to the role.

Photo: © Pascal Bastien

The remainder of the cast certainly fulfilled the promise expected.  Nicolas Courjal’s Narbal was sung in an inky, lugubrious bass that at times swallowed the words, but was a humane and generous presence.  Hanna Hipp’s Anna sounded somewhat small but her nicely raspy mezzo was also a positive presence on stage.   Cyrille Dubois sang Iopas with a crystalline tenor, his beautiful number despatched with a good line, although I wish he had varied the tone more, shading it with some more loving care.  Stanislas de Barbeyrac was luxury casting as Hylas, singing his number with robust, muscular tone and ease throughout the range.  Indeed, one wondered if this was an Énée in the making.  Jean Teitgen’s resonant bass and Philippe Sly’s oaky bass-baritone also made their presence known in their various interjections.

Photo: © Pascal Bastien

John Nelson brought out so much of the quirkiness of orchestral colour from his magnificent band.  He had an extremely sizeable string section and the carpet of sound that they offered was certainly luxurious.  At the same time, because of that depth of tone, attack felt a little flaccid and I did wish that he had asked them to play without vibrato to get a leaner, sharper texture.  The winds and brass covered themselves in glory, the off-stage forces ideally integrated and not a single slip was heard all night.  Nelson’s tempi did feel somewhat on the slow side and he did let the tension drop in the Act 4 Narbal/Anna duet but the way he phrased that heady atmosphere of the ‘nuit d’ivresse’ was indeed magical.

Photo: © Pascal Bastien

Having known this work for so long and seen it so many times, in many respects tonight was the finest I’ve heard – the sound of that superlative chorus, Lemieux’s thrilling Cassandre and the exceptional orchestra all combined to make it an unforgettable evening.  At the same time, it did feel not quite settled and I have no doubt that those attending the next performance will be in for an even more visceral experience.  Still, it was a glorious evening, one that really did bring this crazy, vibrant and overwhelming work to exhilarating life.

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