Berlioz - Les Troyens

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Saturday 18 October 2003

Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner. Production: Yannis Kokkos. Didon: Susan Graham. Cassandre: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Anna: Renata Pokupic. Chorèbe: Ludovic Tézier. Panthée: Nicolas Testé. Narbal, Le Grand Prêtre: Laurent Naouri. Iopas: Mark Padmore. Ascagne: Stéphanie d'Oustrac. Hylas, Hélénus: Topi Lehtipuu. Le Fantôme d'Hector: Fernand Bernadi. Priam, Mercure: René Schirrer. Hécube: Danielle Bouthillon. Monteverdi Choir, Chorus of the Théâtre du Châtelet. Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Sax…

“October 11 2003 will be remembered as a historic date both for opera and for Hector Berlioz, the date, quite simply, when Les Troyens was first performed complete in Paris. […] Meeting the challenge, the Théâtre du Châtelet neared perfection, with an exceptional cast, staging and orchestra […] possibly the most sumptuous production since Jean-Pierre Brossmann took over the theatre.” (Concerto.net)

“Unlike the Amsterdam cast, which was mediocre and sang in execrable French, the Châtelet’s was faultless: Gregory Kunde’s Enée was ideal both in full force and in half-tints […] more impressive and more moving than Petra Lang and Yvonne Nef, Anna Caterina Antonacci and Susan Graham were a Cassandre and a Didon of the first order.” (Le Monde)

“Has Sir John Eliot Gardiner done anything finer in the theatre?” (The Financial Times)

“As soon as the curtain rises, Gardiner sets a fever pitch that grabs the listener and never lets up. The orchestra marks the action closely or anticipates it, enriching it with various sonic discoveries, leaving the soloists and chorus to express pure joy, stupor or mourning.” (Altamusica.com)

Were the critics inebriated by the exuberance of their own verbosity, or just by hearing a “complete” HIP-performance of Les Troyens? The danger, having read them before the show, was of course, of a massive let-down. That wasn’t the case, but a production this long (6.30 to 11.45) would have had its work cut out to be absolute perfection from start to finish.

Musically, it was strong indeed. The cast, however, pace Le Monde, was not absolutely faultless. The Financial Times’ judgment is most representative of what we heard: “Anna Caterina Antonacci's Cassandra, a classical catwalk goddess in virginal white, was as lyrical as she was vehement: a potent combination. Susan Graham's Dido, initially kitted out in a bun and black trouser-suit, had regal dignity, physical stature and Gluckian elegance; but her top lacked bloom, and she never developed the intensity to take us beneath the skin of the jilted lover. Gregory Kunde had the style, the notes and the presence for Aeneas, but not the heroic edge. Mark Padmore made a radiant Iopas, Ludovic Tézier a virile Chorèbe. Donald Palumbo's chorus was simply superb.”

That's right. Antonacci was even more potent a show-stealer than in Agrippina a few weeks ago. I think I'm becoming a fan. Graham has a gorgeous, burnished bronze medium that projects well from the apron, less so from the rear of the stage, but the top notes lack éclat and in the final act she was really at her limit. Kunde was elegant but sometimes pinched and underpowered.

The score is, of course, a torrent of musical invention worthy of a successor to Rameau and Gluck. The sounds the HIP orchestra made all brought to mind visual, rather than sonic, metaphors: bright, brilliant, radiant, colourful… True to Berlioz’ wishes, we were treated to an impressive display of antiquated plumbing on stage – Saxhorns, six-valve trumpets, etc – as well as four harps up in the gods and disembodied soloists and choruses dispersed around the theatre (plus an exhibition on Sax and his inventions in the foyer).

The problem, really, was the production. In the first half, it was very fine, with clever use of mirrors, stairs, projections (including, once, a Macintosh window: oops!) and architectural engravings. But, as usual, as soon as the ballets arrived (for The Trojans in Carthage), things went to pot. Suddenly we were plunged into a Kitsch 80s aesthetic, an apotheosis of the Greek National Tourist Board style. To show how-very-much-in-love she was, our heroine twirled, barefoot and arms outstretched, at the back of the stage, like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Jugglers, circus acts... we even had dancers in white dresses with seagulls on sticks. Those who’ve seen Greek postcards of the lighting of the Olympic flame will know what I mean.

The only solution was to close your eyes or look at your knees. This kind of silliness can drag a musically fine performance down, and that was the danger here. But it was a musically fine performance, and the audience proved as enthusiastic as the critics. Roses showered down from the balconies…

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