Rebelling Against the Divine: Les Troyens at the Oper Köln

Berlioz – Les Troyens.

Cassandre – Isabelle Druet
Chorèbe – Choi Insik
Panthée – Lucas Singer
Hélénus – Kim Seungjick
Ascagne – Giulia Montanari
Hécube – Dalia Schaechter
Priam – Matthias Hoffmann
Énée – Enea Scala
Un soldat/ Hector / Mercure – Cho Sungjun
Didon – Veronica Simeoni
Anna – Adriana Bastidas Gamboa
Iopas – Dmitry Ivanchey
Narbal – Nicolas Cavallier
Hylas – Kim Youngwoo
Sentinelle I – David Howes
Un chef grec / Sentinelle II – Christoph Seidl

Zusatzchor der Oper Köln, Chor der Oper Köln, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln / François-Xavier Roth.
Stage director – Johannes Erath.

Oper Köln, Staatenhaus Saal 1, Cologne, Germany.  Saturday, September 24th, 2022.

This year’s season opener for the Oper Köln sees it still based in the exposition centre, the Staatenhaus, based on the opposite bank of the Rhine from downtown Cologne.  By now, the company should have been well installed at their house on the Offenbachplatz, but it looks like we’ll still be visiting this ersatz venue for the foreseeable future. 

Photo: © Matthias Jung

What the venue does offer is a blank canvas for a director to use imaginatively for the staging setting, and this is what Johannes Erath, together with his set designers, Heike Scheele and Norman Heinrich, did tonight.  Erath places the orchestra firmly in the centre of the action, encircled by a rotating runway around which the principals, chorus, and extras, gave their performances.  Behind the runway were some tiered steps upon which the chorus was at times also grouped as a monolithic block.  Erath certainly gives us a busy staging, the action never stops, whether the runway circling or the extras performing.  We are invited to compare the dark and bleak setting of Troy, where the cast is dressed in black, with the much more colourful and carefree setting of Carthage.  Erath appears to want to make a point about what happens when people rebel against the gods – a group of individuals appear, dressed in renaissance costumes in ‘dieux protecteurs’, while in the ‘chasse royale et orage’ the crowd taunts them while they undress, as if able to take away their power.  It makes for an interesting starting point but I’m not convinced that Erath fully explores this, nor does he create a coherent, consistent narrative from this idea. 

Photo: © Matthias Jung

One reason for this is that the stage is just far too busy to focus on a single element.  He uses the entire width of the temporary Staatenhaus auditorium, which makes it far too easy to be distracted looking at one element that sits on the other side of the stage.  Similarly, Erath makes use of symbolism that remains opaque – Énée entering pulling ropes, the love duet sung over a disco globe, or the bath from which Cassandre first emerges and Didon ends her life in – that one spends more time asking ‘why?’ rather than focusing on the impact of the narrative.  Furthermore, having Didon and Énée making out right from the start of Act 3, completely negated Didon’s journey through Acts 3 and 4 culminating in the love duet.  Still, there were some arresting images – the horse as a muscular horse-headed man towering over Cassandre was definitely scary and seeing the orchestra revolving in the opposite direction of the runway was interesting, and the production had clearly been very fluently rehearsed.

Photo: © Matthias Jung

Musically, this was an evening that was dominated by the Gürzenich-Orchester on magisterial form, under François-Xavier Roth’s visionary conducting.  Roth not only has an implicit understanding of how this music should go, he can also transmit this to his players and inspire them to playing of remarkable musicality.  Roth also managed to keep the disparate forces, whether off-stage, behind us in the auditorium, or indeed revolving around him, fully together throughout the whole of the five-hour running time.  Indeed, the evening flew by, simply because Roth knew precisely how to phrase this music, making the entirety of the Berliozian aural tapestry seem utterly logical in its long lines, in the pointing of the rhythms, and in the various orchestras’ internal dialogues.  Getting his players to play without vibrato was a very welcome touch, but even more welcome was the accuracy of tuning in the strings.  We got six harps, countless off-stage brass, and augmented choruses.  The brass playing was superb and the solo clarinet phrased his big solo with haunting tenderness.

Photo: © Matthias Jung

Of course, one of the main protagonists of this work is the chorus.  Erath had a tendency to park them on stage in Troy, but in Carthage they were a bit more active, not least the ladies who gave us a fashion show, working it around the runway, in the Act 3 ballet.  They sang with impressive amplitude, the immediacy of the sound overtaking the listener, and filling the space in a blaze of sound.  Again, despite the spatial complications of their on- and off-stage singing, ensemble was watertight all night.  They had clearly been exceptionally prepared by Rustam Samedov. 

Photo: © Matthias Jung

In Troy, Isabelle Druet gave us a very feminine Cassandre, sung in a bright, sunny mezzo.  She most certainly has the measure of the role, negotiating the passaggio expertly and has an easy top.  She made the text clear, yet it felt her Cassandre was passive.  I really missed that ability to truly bring the text to life that Marie-Nicole Lemieux brought to the role in Munich, where she obsessively made it sound like a thriller.  Here, Druet, almost felt far too nice and reasonable, due to the relatively limited palette of tone colours at her disposal and the lighter weight of her mezzo.  Still, it was agreeably sung.  Choi Insik sang Chorèbe in a compact and easily-produced baritone, with a grateful line.  The tone does tend to discolour at the very top, however, but he does have easy reach up there.

Photo: © Matthias Jung

Having seen her in the role in València over a decade ago, Veronica Simeoni returned to the role of Didon.  Her stage presence is undeniably regal and she incarnated the queen of Acts 3 and 4 with authority, if again, without a particularly extensive range of tonal colour.  She was unafraid to sacrifice beauty of tone to express Didon’s pain in Act 5, although I can’t say it made easy listening to my ears, the voice sounding dry and pressured and I did fear she wouldn’t make it to the end.  That said, I did appreciate her willingness to give all of herself to us.

Photo: © Matthias Jung

Making his debut in one of the most challenging roles in the repertoire, was Enea Scala, in the role of his namesake, Énée.  Scala dispatched ‘inutiles regrets’ like it was the easiest thing in the world, pinging out focused tone on high, revelling in everything Berlioz could throw at him – although I did wonder why Erath had him singing this number to Didon, only for her to show up again later surprised that he was leaving.  Perhaps the added pressure of the first night and role debut meant that Scala had a tendency to put a little too much pressure on the tone earlier in the evening – his opening entry was rather breathless, appropriately so given the subject matter, but the phrasing felt disjointed.  No doubt that later performances in the run will see this entry settle.  He phrased the love duet with generous beauty, again soaring with ease on high. 

Photo: © Matthias Jung

In the remainder of the cast, Adriana Bastidas Gamboa sang Anna with enthusiasm, although the role sits awkwardly for her, the register break consistently audible.  Nicolas Cavallier sang Narbal with a large, cavernous bass, paying full attention to the text.  Dmitry Ivanchey sang Iopas’s number with an easy top, phrasing with beauty, while Kim Youngwoo’s Hylas was extrovertly sung, I longed for him to shade it with more delicacy.  Giulia Montanari sang Ascagne in a bright, youthful soprano and excellent clarity of diction.  Lucas Singer offered a warm and substantial bass as Panthée, indeed I would like to hear him essay Narbal at some point.  The remaining roles with adequately taken, in line with the high standards one has come to expect at this address.  Diction, on the whole, was comprehensible, give or take a few diphthongs that were rather exotic. 

Photo: © Matthias Jung

As always, Troyens, is a major challenge for any opera house and the Oper Köln rose to it with aplomb.  Erath’s staging passes the time and gives a lot to look at, but it feels that he clutters the narrative with extraneous detail, which then renders this vision confused.  The singing was generally satisfactory, with Scala capping a major role debut with his thrillingly sung ‘inutiles regrets’.  Above all, this evening is a triumph for Roth and his orchestra, giving us playing that felt as one with this vision and brought out all the complexities and innovation of Berlioz’ orchestration.  The audience received the cast with a generous ovation, as indeed they received Erath and his team.

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