End of the Century: Les Troyens at the Semperoper Dresden

Berlioz – Les Troyens.

Cassandre – Jennifer Holloway
Chorèbe – Christoph Pohl
Panthée – Ashley Holland
Hélénus – Simeon Esper
Ascagne – Emily Dorn
Hécube – Ute Selbig
Priam – Chao Deng
Énée – Bryan Register
Hector – Alexandros Stavrakakis
Didon – Christa Mayer
Anna – Agnieszka Rehlis
Iopas – Joel Prieto
Narbal – Evan Hughes
Hylas – Simeon Esper
Un capitaine grec / Sentinelle I – Jiří Rajniš
Un soldat / Sentinelle II – Matthias Henneberg

Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Sinfoniechor Dresden – Extrachor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden, Kinderchor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden / John Fiore.
Stage director – Lydia Steier.

Semperoper, Dresden, Germany.  Saturday, October 21st, 2017.

In an interview in the program book, tonight’s director, Lydia Steier, mentions how she sees in the Trojans and Carthaginians very similar traits to today’s society: “The people, the Trojans, just like the Carthaginians, even like us, have a kind of amnesia about history.  They have unrealistic hopes believing that they are more intelligent and the dark times are in the past” (my translation).  In that respect, Steier sets her stall that Les Troyens is an extremely relevant work to the time in which we live.  Yet, from her production, I’m not quite convinced that that is what we actually see.   The work is given fairly complete – the ballets are almost all cut and regrettably also was the Act 4 septet which was a real shame.

Photo: © Forster
What Steier gives us, is a very visual production – there is constantly action on stage, whether characters moving in slow motion while Cassandre sang her prophecies, or later her ghost perambulating around the stage as Didon sang ‘adieu fière cité’, or a troupe of extras walking on and lying down during the ‘nuit d’ivresse’.  The net result felt like an unwillingness to allow her singers to drive the narrative forward.  Taking her lead from the opening stage instructions of ‘Danses, jeux divers’, Steier had the chorus dancing in formation in the opening chorus, all jazz hands and colourful costumes.  And yet, it fell strangely flat – could these people, in all of their finery, really just have emerged from a ten-year siege?  There was very little of that sense of PTSD, that omnipresent still hovering danger that Bieito brought out in Nürnberg last week, for example.  We got a good show, the stage was constantly full of action, yet I longed for something more penetrating, something that would grab me and fill me with dread in Act 1.  It always felt, at least in the first two acts, that we were one step removed from the characters and their emotions.  This isn’t to say there was an issue with the execution – both the chorus and the principals were fully committed to the production concept, taking to the constant movement with aplomb and incarnating a multitude of characters.  It did, however, feel hyperactive.  Costumes (Gianluca Falaschi) reflected the fin de siècle of the nineteenth-century.  It certainly looked attractive, yet it was hard to discern why the staging was updated to that particular period.

Photo: © Forster
Another aspect that I found Steier failed to resolve was the behaviour of the Trojans in Carthage.  It was clear that they were unruly houseguests, with a brawl threatening to break out as they openly mocked Iopas as he sang his ‘blonde Cérès’.  Énée, both in Troy and Carthage, was seen as something of a ladies’ man – certainly in Troy more interested in spending time with his lady companion than going out and fighting off the Greeks.  Yet I wasn’t convinced as to why, given how unpleasant the Trojans were in Carthage, did Didon – this strong independent woman – fall for Énée and give up on her oath of fidelity to engage with him.  Consequently, it was hard to believe in Énée’s remorse at having to leave Didon and in Didon’s sacrificing of her role as responsible leader of a flourishing society, to a gang of thugs.  Her heartbreak was entirely believable, thanks to Christa Mayer’s searing vocal and dramatic portrayal of the Carthaginian queen.  How she got to that point, however, was something I felt was missing from the narrative of the staging.

Photo: © Forster
Mayer’s Didon was a triumph.  Hers is a big, voluptuous and juicy mezzo with a distinctive (and attractive) fast vibrato.  She caressed the language beautifully, with diction better than many native francophones, fully using the text to colour the vocal line with a fabulously smooth legato.  She kept plenty in reserve for the Act 5 confrontation, her ‘je maudis tes dieux’ was staggering, finding so much rage yet never compromising the fundamental beauty of the tone.  She rode the brass with ease in the subsequent peroration.  The voice opens up magnificently on top, seemingly without limits.  Her ‘adieu, fière cité’ was filled with pain, regret and longing as well as being beautifully sung.  Mayer is a major artist.

Photo: © Forster
Jennifer Holloway gave us an admirably sung Cassandre.  The text was always clear, the tessitura caused no issues with an ease on top and frequent recourse to a full and chocolatey chest register.  Yet I left with a somewhat anonymous impression.  Her singing felt generalized.  The words not fully coloured, leaving the sense that everything she sang sounded the same.  An impression that was reinforced by the direction that far too often had her staring intensely into the middle distance.  It was healthily sung though.

Photo: © Forster
Bryan Register’s Énée gave us all the notes, almost all the words and made it to the end without cracking.  His grainy heldentenor had a world-weary quality that made his hero perhaps less heroic than usual – but that also felt of a piece with Steier’s conception of the role.  It’s a big voice that needs a lot of heavy lifting to get up top and lacks the ideal ping up there that the role ultimately needs.  He sang ‘inutiles regrets’ with genuine, heartfelt remorse.  His might not be the most glamourous tenor but he made it through the night, was always musical and always delivered which, in a role as ungrateful as this, is no small achievement.

Photo: © Forster
Christoph Pohl was a wonderful Chorèbe, his ‘reviens à toi’ was lyrically sung, with seductive tone and a handsome line.  Again, everything he did sounded effortless, the repeated high Es well placed and even.   Evan Hughes was an implacable Narbal.  The role sits somewhat low for his bass-baritone but his textual awareness and resonant middle gave much pleasure.  Agnieszka Rehlis was a delightful Anna with a nice raspy contralto, good resonance at the bottom but opened up nicely at the top.  Joel Prieto despatched his ‘blonde Cérès’ with somewhat choppy phrasing and the words were indistinct.  He did have all the notes and the voice was even from top to bottom.  Simeon Esper’s Hylas sang an extrovert ‘vallon sonore’, missing perhaps the essential, what the Portuguese would term, ‘saudade’ of the number.  However, that also seemed to be part of the production concept as an extrovert sailor singing karaoke in a bar.

Photo: © Forster
John Fiore led a lyrical reading, one in which the evening fled by in a heartbeat.  Attack was somewhat flaccid but he was a supportive accompanist to his singers.  He also brought out the glory of the Staatskapelle’s sound – the warmth of the cellos in the Act 3 minor ‘marche troyenne’ was wonderful to hear.  The brass rang out splendidly throughout, particularly at the end, making a tremendous noise.  The sheer personality and warmth of the solo clarinet in the Andromaque scene was deeply haunting, marred only by the loud wailing of the actress playing her.

Photo: © Forster
I have left the chorus until last because the ladies and gentlemen of the Staatsopernchor and Sinfoniechor covered themselves in glory tonight – alongside Mayer’s Didon, they were the biggest heroes of the evening.  The sound is massive, rich and resonant, yet it’s also extraordinarily well blended, filling the theatre in a remarkable blaze of sound.  The tension on stage rose immeasurably whenever they appeared – the Act 1 ‘marche troyenne’ standing out for the overwhelming experience of having the sound coming from three directions as they were divided between the stage and the stage-side boxes.  Just like their colleagues in the band, they knew how to work the house’s magnificent acoustic – warm and rich.

Photo: © Forster
There was so much that was wonderful in tonight’s performance.  The choral work, the superb orchestra and Mayer’s superlative Didon – among the very best I have heard.  It just felt somewhat let down by a staging that was hyperactive, tried to do too much and, in doing so, blunted the impact of the work.  Still, I would go a very long way to hear performances as spectacularly good as I heard tonight.  It was well worth the journey and if you can get to Dresden, do go and experience it in the house.  There is nothing quite like getting to hear forces of this quality.

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