The Enemy Within: Les Troyens at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Berlioz – Les Troyens.

Cassandre – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Chorèbe – Stéphane Degout
Panthée – Sam Carl
Hélénus – Armando Elizondo
Ascagne – Ève-Maud Hubeaux
Hécube – Emily Sierra
Priam – Martin Snell
Énée – Gregory Kunde
Hector – Roman Chabaranok
Didon – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Anna – Lindsay Amman
Iopas – Martin Mitterrutzner
Narbal – Bálint Szabó
Hylas – Jonas Hacker
Un soldat / Un capitaine grec – Daniel Noyola
Sentinelle I – Theodore Platt
Sentinelle II – Andrew Gilstrap

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Daniele Rustioni.
Stage director – Christophe Honoré.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  Saturday, May 21st, 2022.

Performances of Les Troyens are always an ‘event’ and a major undertaking for any opera house.  For a theatre such as the Bayerische Staatsoper, with its strong ensemble and excellent orchestra and chorus, it becomes a statement of intent.  This new production was confided to Christophe Honoré.  The only other staging I have seen of his was a Tosca in Aix-en-Provence back in 2019.  That was an unconventional yet stimulating evening, one that reflected on what it meant to be a diva.  I was interested, then, to see what he would do with Berlioz’ chef d’œuvre.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Honoré sets out his vision for the work in an interesting note in the program book.  He makes a clear distinction between the war-damaged world of Troy, and the sunny, devoted to leisure, world of Carthage – both reflected in the sets created by Katrin Lea Tag.  One, was a war-damaged, dark world, seemingly of endless night; the other, a sun-bleached concrete place of recreation.  There was a significant issue with the sets for Acts 1 and 2, in that they appeared to be acoustically dead towards the back, and with some action taking place upstage, voices did have a tendency to get lost in a way that they did not when characters sang at the front.  Direction of the principals also consisted of a fair bit of standing and delivering, but Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Cassandre and Stéphane Degout’s Chorèbe did what they could to inject tangible characterization and drama.  There was no horse, instead a sign indicated ‘Das Pferd’, perhaps reinforcing an idea that what damages us is our own fears and that by believing the worst it can come true.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Certainly, this was confirmed as Cassandre sang about imagining Chorèbe being pierced by a spear – she undressed him and saw the wound present, her visions becoming flesh.  And yet, these isolated ideas never felt like part of an integrated whole.  Instead, the five hours felt like a succession of isolated single ideas to the detriment of creating a long span that took us through the evening.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

One of the more controversial elements of the evening was Honoré’s staging of the ‘chasse royale et orage’.  This transpires to be a soft gay porn movie, complete with simulated masturbation, penetration and general orgiastic excess.  We don’t see the physical acts, but we do see writhing bodies, shaking hands, and facial expressions.  It was actually quite striking – the image of a man’s face climaxing as the chorus sang ‘Italie’ led one to reflect on the connection between sex and war, of that need to find the next conquest once the moment of climax has passed.  It’s an interesting take and extremely thought-provoking.  It just felt that it would have worked better as a film installation in an art gallery, and felt independent of the main narrative.  Of course, a number of conservative audience members booed following the end of the act – which was disappointing. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

One of the most important characters in this opera is actually the chorus.  Honoré uses them as a kind of passive observer.  They spend the evening in concert dress, watching yet not participating.  Indeed, in the opening of Act 3, they even sing their ‘gloire à Didon’ from offstage, and the following ballets are cut, the only cuts of the night.  The aim, as Honoré mentioned in his note in the program book, was to make us reflect on the chorus representing us as audience members.  And yet, the effect is to extract the context form the work, instead of giving us a cogent narrative, it leaves one wondering why, who, or where we’re seeing.  His staging is also illogical in that seems to contradict the libretto in Act 4, that idea of industrious Carthage given over to pleasure with the presence of the Trojans.  Here, Didon is clearly queen of a domain of leisure, while her male citizens sunbathe naked around the piscine.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate seeing naked men as much as the next guy, whereas in a staged opera one wants to be told a story, to believe in the characters, and to be taken on a journey – three things it felt that Honoré’s staging didn’t seem to achieve.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Musically, however, there was much to appreciate.  Lemieux gave us a staggering Cassandre.  Everything she did was communicated through the text.  I know this piece backwards, but Lemieux made it feel that one was living it for the first time – there were several moments where I gasped with the horror of what she was describing in her visions, for instance when she exclaimed ‘malheureux peuple’ with such force and frustration.  As a contralto, the role sits on the high side for her, but Lemieux has completely integrated the role into the voice, with effects always used to the service of the text.  Lemieux’s Cassandre was generously sung and intensely thrilling – one had no choice but to be moved.  Degout sang Chorèbe with an impeccable legato in that exceptionally handsome chestnut-toned baritone.  The voice is completely even from top to bottom, seemingly defying gravity in the way that he sustained those higher-lying lines.  As with Lemieux, his textual awareness made his assumption of the role truly mean something.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Twenty years after making his debut in the role in Paris, France, Gregory Kunde returned to Énée.  Tonight, his tenor defied the passing of the years.  Where so many before him having sounded in pain, he phrased the soaring ‘nuit d’ivresse’ with warmth and tenderness, the voice taking wing gloriously.  His ‘inutiles regrets’ was sung with staggering ping on high, seemingly revelling in all the challenges that Berlioz could throw at him.  His diction was always clear and he found real meaning in the text. Ekaterina Semenchuk sang Didon in her plush, generous mezzo.  She wasn’t afraid to pull back on the tone, even if the effect sounded a bit mannered at times.  Unfortunately, her diction was foggy, robbing her portrayal of impact, particularly regrettable given the lack of characterization and context of the staging.  She was given a very warm ovation by the public who clearly appreciated her generous vocalism. 

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

In the remaining and extensive cast, Ève-Maud Hubeaux was luxury casting as Ascagne, singing with her bright, claret-toned mezzo with glamourous sheen.  Her diction was impeccable and made one long to hear her Didon.  Bálint Szabó sang Narbal in an agreeably inky bass, full and rich at the bottom.  Lindsay Amman was somewhat waspish of tone as Anna, but she coped admirably with the low tessitura, exploiting a chocolatey lower register.  Martin Mitterrutzner sang Iopas generously, opening up with free vibrations on top.  Jonas Hacker found introspection in Hylas’ air, achieving just the right note of aching despair in his brightly-toned, handsome tenor.  The remainder of the cast reflected the exceptional standards of the house, but diction in several cases wasn’t always at a level one might consider comprehensible.  

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Daniele Rustioni led an orchestra on terrific form – a few split brass notes here and there understandable given the length of the evening.  He made interesting use of orchestral colour, particularly in the ghostly apparitions, where he asked the strings to remove vibrato to colour the sound.  That said, I found Rustioni’s tempi somewhat stately and over-romanticized.  The Trojan women’s suicide scene felt far too dainty, lacking in lacerating response to Lemieux’s coruscating command of the stage.  I longed for Rustioni to sharpen the attack, to tighten the rhythmic impetus.  Stellario Fagone’s chorus sang with strength, although the sopranos were frequently under the note and stage-pit coordination wasn’t always optimal.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

This was a mixed evening.  In Lemieux, Degout and Kunde we had performances that would be hard to imagine bettered – with Lemieux, Degout and Hubeaux in particular bringing the text to life in the most thrilling way.  Kunde gave us some truly phenomenal singing in an exceptionally difficult role.  Honoré’s staging was not without insight, at the same time it failed to give us a coherent narrative in Carthage that made us want to believe and engage with the characters’ journeys.  Other than those boos after Act 4, matched also with cheers, the evening was enthusiastically received by the Staatsoper audience.  Ultimately, despite my reservations, those who want to see a masterclass in how to sing in French, or witness a masterclass in vocal technique and longevity, will not want to miss the opportunity to see this show.  

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