Berlioz – Les Troyens

ONP Bastille, Tuesday October 24 2006

Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling. Production: Herbert Wernicke, staged by Tine Buyse. Cassandre: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet. Ascagne: Gaële Le Roi. Hécube: Anne Salvan. Enée: Jon Ketilsson. Chorèbe: Franck Ferrari. Panthée: Nicolas Testé. Le fantôme d’Hector: Philippe Fourcade. Priam: Nikolai Didenko. Un capitaine grec: Frédéric Caton. Helenus: Bernard Richter. Andromaque: Dörte Lyssewski. Polyxène: Carole Noizet. Dido: Yvonne Naef. Anna: Elena Zaremba. Iopas: Eric Cutler. Hylas: Bernard Richter. Narbal: Kwangchul Youn. Deux capitaines troyens: Nikolai Didenko, Frédéric Caton. Mercure: Nicolas Testé.

The Bastille’s current production, brought in from Salzburg, is monumental in many respects. For a start, it has been presented as a “monument” to the late Herbert Wernicke, whose work it originally was. Second, it is monumental in style: one big set, grand gestures, broad strokes and bold images (not always good ones). And third, the performance, rather than looking back to Gluck (the last time I saw Les Troyens was under Gardiner in the HIP Châtelet version now out on DVD), which I prefer, blew the work up to Wagnerian proportions.

This makes it even harder, I think, to find singers who can handle it, but we were exceptionally lucky with our two leading ladies, Cassandre and Didon. Their voices were contrasted in an unexpected way: it was Jean-Michèle Charbonnet who, though in the slightly higher range, had the darker, plummier, tone: a huge, resounding Brünnhilde of a voice; and Yvonne Naef who had the brighter, clearer sound and easier diction to follow. Both, in any case, were superb.

What happened to Jon Ketilsson, however, as Enée I don’t know. French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné must have seen him on October 17th, and said he “put the bravura back in Enée.” Was he, then, ill on 24th? The only part of his voice intact and audible was the middle range. The top notes were pinched almost to extinction, and twice his voice simply collapsed in a strangled, blood-curdling gulp. OK, Enée may be simply an impossible role for all but a handful of tenors (Heppner can do it) but this was a catastrophe.

Other members of the cast deserving a special mention were Eric Cutler, who has a very fine, high, tenor voice, excellent for French roles (and possibly suitable for Enée in a HIP performance) and Kwangchul Youn, as good here as he was a couple of weeks back in Lucia. Both got lots of applause. Elena Zaremba was very grand in War & Peace not all that long ago, but her voice has now gone totally Russian: all volume and vibrato. I don’t mind that, but if she carries on this way that vibrato will turn to outright wobble.

The production, as I mentioned, takes place on a single set: a large, white, semi-circular enclosure with a giant vertical breach of raw bricks at the rear, through which we could see e.g. a crashed fighter jet, the wooden horse passing by, a colossal statue, a column, etc. Across the white floor ran one diagonal crack, making it possible to raise or lower the two parts, e.g. for Hector’s ghost to appear out of the ground.

The colour scheme was simple and sober: the Trojans, a people at war, were in plain black dresses for the women, black great coats and ARP tin hats for the men, and red gloves for all; Dido’s subjects, a prosperous society at leisure, were in black evening dresses and dinner jackets, with blue scarves and gloves. Indeed, as the curtain went up on Carthage, they were having a cocktail party.

There was one main image per scene, more or less successful, e.g. (more) the Trojans surrounding Cassandra with a “wreath” of rifles and red roses, or (less) Dido’s palace, looking, with its plump blue velvet sofa, vaguely oriental screens and distinctly oriental lantern, like the lounge of a 70s middle-eastern Hyatt. The lighting was stark and beautifully handled. Only once was the set not basically white, when, instead of the royal hunt and storm, scenes of a violent urban bombardment were projected around the walls – welcome relief from 5 hours of one simple set.

So, an easy production to “read,” but, perhaps because Wernicke is no longer with us to do better, the acting and chorus movements were rather stiff – and there was too much singing from the rear or clinging – in anguish, I suppose – to the wall.

There was no sign, in the pit, of the bad blood supposedly – according to web gossip – ruining the relationship between Cambreling and the orchestra. But the modern instruments, when you still have Gardiner’s sound in mind, smooth away any “fear factor” (there are times when they ought to scare the hell out of you) and a wealth of detail is blended into a sort of noisy, Wagnerian soup rising from the pit. There was no sign, either, of the bad blood supposedly ruining the relationship between the chorus and their new master: they raised the roof.

A long evening and quite a good one, but the Aeneid without an Aeneas is obviously lacking.

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