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Les Troyens at the ROH

1 Jul

“Tiens, la doulour  c’est rien”, sings Cassandra as she stabs herself at the end of Act II of Troyens.  Just occasionally in opera, the way a single phrase is sung captures the imagination and imprints itself on your mind – I remember Janet Baker in Alceste singing “Non, ce n’est pas une sacrifice” and capturing a sense of liberation that will always stick in my memory.  So, with Cassandra’s line, Anna Caterina Antonacci made you realise the sheer heroism of the women, not be any grand gesture, but singing it absolutely naturalistically, almost as if it were spoken.  It crowned an outstanding performance by Antonacci who, disdaining grand gestures, sang with an intensity and quiet despair miles away from the usual barnstorming that you associate with this role.  And if there was one reason which justified this entire project, it was her performance.  Why do we see her here so rarely?

I feel ambivalent about Troyens generally.  There are some wonderful things in it – Casssandra, the death scene for the Trojan women, much of Act IV, particularly the love duet, and much of the final Act.  You have here a composer who has a wonderfully individual vision of how Virgil should be on stage and he achieves what he wants fitfully: you don’t sense someone who is complete command of his material and there are plenty of passages, particularly in the ballet music when I, at least, wonder whether there is much to be proud about performing every note of the score.  In each act there are passages where I just wish he would get on with it.

At this performance, this was less of a problem than it can be, largely because of Pappano and the orchestra.  Some complained his tempi were slow.  They sounded fine to me, making the music sound beautiful, a and drawing sinuous beauty from the orchestra where it was needed, together with the grandeur of the ceremonial and public scenes.  The man is a genius.  Antonacci apart, I thought the cast was good, if not great.  There were no obvious weak links but, possibly damagingly, no native francophones either.  I’m a huge admirer of Eva Maria Westbroek and she conveyed a generous, open Dido, but I didn’t get the intensity that, say, Sarah Connolly brought to the role.  Bryan Hymel was perfectly fine as Aeneas.  He didn’t make me actively wish for Kaufmann, which is probably as good as you could hope for.  Ed Lyons was were good as Hylas but no-one else particularly stood out.  It was a strong, solid cast for an opera that needs just a bit more.  Perhaps some native French speakers might have helped.  The chorus was on fabulously good form.

I thought the same was true of David McVicar’s production which seemed well within his and the audience’s comfort zone (apart from those people behind me who felt that a representation of the Trojan Horse in metal rather than wood was the end of civilisation as we know it).  The problem is that Berlioz, least of all in this opera, was never within anyone’s comfort zone.  He challenged and his reach permanently outstripped his grasp, but there are flashes of such genius there that a production has to try and engage with them.  Here, we had a sensible, capable staging.  He landed himself with a monumental semi-circular set, reminding me of what Zambella provided for Don Giovanni and Carmen here.  In one sense it was flexible – one side provided a distressed set of Troy’s city walls; the other a sun-baked North African city.  But we were stuck with it for the entire evening and the scenes which cried out for an airy openness- particularly the fourth Act felt cramped and overshadowed.  The dances said nothing to me about the piece and I missed,  particularly in the Dido/Aeneas relationship the sort of tension that you have when two people are attracted to each other and falling in love.  There were some splendid special effects – particularly the fire coming out of the horse’s nostrils at the end of Act II but I wondered if all the rehearsal time had been spent in coping with these effects and moving the crowds (has there been a larger set of chorus, dancers and extras ever that the ROH?) rather than in really exploring what you can make of the piece.  It felt like a decent solution to the problems of staging a very difficult work rather than a means of grappling with what the work might be saying to us today.

It feels mean to complain.  It’s nearly 40 years since the ROH last did the work and they had thrown everything at it and taken it as seriously as you would hope.  Even if they do manage to revive it (surely doubtful in this climate), it’s unlikely that we’ll have a new production for another couple of decades.   It’s just a shame that they think that what our generation needs for Troyens is a high quality, safe, conservative production that brings the work down to its level, rather than one which aims at the height of what Berlioz was attempting.

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