Berlioz - Les Troyens

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Sunday July 8 2012

Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Production: David McVicar. Sets: Es Devlin. Costumes: Moritz Junge. Lighting: Wolfgang Göbbel. Choreography: Andrew George. Cassandre: Anna Antonacci. Chorèbe: Fabio Capitanucci. Enée: Bryan Hymel. Didon: Eva-Maria Westbroek. Narbal: Brindley Sherratt. Anna: Hanna Hipp. Ascagne: Barbara Senator. Priam: Robert Lloyd. Hécube: Pamela Helen Stephen. Ghost of Hector: Jihoon Kim. Panthée: Ashley Holland. Hélénus: Ji Hyun Kim. Greek Captain: Lukas Jakobski. Trojan Soldier: Daniel Grice. Iopas: Ji-Min Park. First Soldier: Adrian Clarke. Second Soldier: Jeremy White. Hylas: Ed Lyon. Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

I’d intended this season to go out with a bang. To get tickets for Les Troyens with Kaufmann, Antonacci and Westbroek in the new, McVicar production, I pulled out all the stops. Against all odds, as I’ve never actually liked the place, I became a "Friend of Covent Garden" to gain access to priority booking. Dead on opening time, I spent an hour and twenty minutes online (I was over 1,600th in the queue), not to mention an arm and a leg on the most expensive seats ever in my exotic and irrational opera-going career.  Then there was the weekend in London to book, with Eurostar, a hotel, restaurants...

In the end, it wasn’t exactly a damp squib – there were even real flames on stage, several times – but my late, lamented friend’s dictum that if you expect nothing, you’ll never be disappointed would nevertheless have hit the spot: my hopes were high and only fulfilled in part.

It was mainly Ana-Caterina Antonacci who fulfilled them. I wrote a paean to her a few weeks back after Rossini’s Otello in Brussels (see report), so I don’t need to repeat myself here. Her singing was perhaps even more natural and “speech-like” than (to look further back) her Carmen, verging on Sprechgesang. At Covent Garden she was also able to whisper pianissimi you couldn’t possibly get away with at the Bastille, still with that fascinating timbre, and diction that had French listeners (there were lots of French people over for the afternoon) reaching for bigger and better superlatives: she was the only person for whom you didn't sometimes glance at the supertitles to check what was going on. Dramatically, Antonacci was so outstanding she, in a way, stuck out like a sore thumb, as if beamed in from a different, more intense, less conventional production (more of that later). She was more "histrionic" in her acting than in Paris (Anglo-Saxon attitudes came to mind; so did Sarah Bernhardt). I initially put that down to the director; then, seeing he did so little later, wasn't so sure: perhaps she’d decided to throw caution to the winds and do her own thing… She certainly scored a triumph.

But Eva-Maria Westbroek flung herself about with commitment too, towards the end, i.e. once abandoned, so either she was her doing her thing as well, or McVicar’s directing was "en dents de scie" – up and down through the long (four-and-a-half hours of music plus two intervals) piece. She was in great voice, I must say, though not looking especially stately either in folk embroidery or, later, in her “standard antique” dress and tressed wig. She might, my neighbour thought, have let rip more often.

As everyone knows, Jonas Kaufmann has had an infection for some time, and cancelled his appearances as Enée. Bryan Hymel, his replacement, was very good indeed in this difficult role, though, live on a Sunday afternoon (with all that may imply), not quite as good as he sounded online. He has a bright, heady voice. Too heady, in fact, for the famous singer I chatted with at the second interval, but perhaps that was just professional jealousy, or pique at not seeing Kaufmann. Nevertheless, those critics who claimed we were not only not short-changed by Kaufmann’s illness but actually emerged better-off were making a virtue of necessity. Hymel is very good indeed, but you wouldn’t impoverish yourself to become a Friend of Covent Garden and fork out for seats, trains, hotels and restaurants specially to hear him, even in Les Troyens with Antonacci*.

The rest of the cast, to be brief, was strong. Ed Lyon’s Hylas, in particular, was as good as you’d expect (but still not as obviously striking as the young Lehtipuu under Gardiner). The chorus was excellent and the orchestra had drive (and admirable accuracy) under Pappano; but I’m afraid if you did hear Gardiner’s Troyens, long ago though that now was, you miss the bite of old instruments and regret the plumminess of modern ones.

Now, the production. McVicar’s Agrippina was one of the best Händel productions I’ve ever seen. His A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Brussels was magical. His Poppea, also in Brussels, was a bit of a rehash of Agrippina, but you might say (as I did at the time) that was logically plausible. So I looked forward to Les Troyens, but was disappointed. This was one of those productions that rely heavily on large, fancy, expensive gadgets on stage; it showed surprisingly little sign, in the conventional acting and crowd movements (I think, for example, of the totally conventional way, as much so as in a Romantic ballet, the dancers and children grouped together admiringly at Dido’s feet), of a strong and inventive director’s hand.

You may have seen production photos. The Fall of Troy was set in and around an industrial-looking steel cylinder, much like an old gasometer, with galleries for the chorus. It split apart to allow through the royal cortège, a magnificent reconstruction, in mid-19th-century crinolines and uniforms, complete with feathered hats, and on authentically ugly thrones (just like the one now in the Louvre), of the Second Empire court, with Priam an elderly Napoléon III and Hécube/Eugénie in magnificent black and a tiara. The strikingly mobile Trojan horse, nodding as smoothly as a toy dog in the back window of a car, was a giant filigree construction of scrap weapons: guns, cannons, wheels and tortured metal,… with flames ablaze inside. These über-props took up a great deal of space, somewhat restricting chorus and ballet movements.

The same was true in Carthage. Here we were inside a crescent of Moorish terracotta terraces, again forming (visibly tight) galleries for the chorus. On the stage in front, our old friend the (similarly Moorish) model city. The costumes were now North African folk patchworks and embroidery in shades of deep red, orange and yellow. With Didon beaming and everyone falling at her feet (in a most familiar way, highly unlikely in the presence of a real queen of Carthage, I thought), it looked like L’Italiana in Algeri. As I said before, the directing was purely conventional and the ballets were, however enthusiastic, hopelessly unconvincing (what’s new?) and we could have done without much of act four altogether, as the famous singer remarked at the interval before act five.

The terracotta terraces also opened up and the model city, having taken to the night sky to become a twinkling ceiling, its buildings reproduced as brass oriental lanterns below as things turned even Kitschier, later came to earth, split in two with a symbolic sea between, for Hylas to sing from his bosun's chair or bucket in the rigging. The abandoned Didon was left alone, in front of a blue silk curtain, in her grief until the final scene. I’m not sure her being abandoned by Enée was good enough reason for the director to do likewise; it seemed to me we (and more to the point, she) would have been better off, dramatically, if she'd sung in front of the scene change, which could surely, at Covent Garden, have been managed silently enough.

Finally, as she died, a second giant construction rose impressively to its feet, this time a monstrous scrap-metal man, once more ablaze. So, I thought as we clapped, maybe the idea here was that one war machine was simply replaced by another, as Enée left to found an Empire that would crush others just as the Greeks had crushed the Trojans. I wondered if the arrival of the horse in Second Empire Troy was a reference to Sedan and the idea was for us to look ahead and see the First World War coming. But maybe that’s far fetched. No overarching idea came through clearly, and what we'll remember is Antonacci's Cassandre, and the giant, flaming sets.

I did, however, pick up some shirts in the sales, so thanks to"Anacat", as the famous singer called her at the interval, and these bargains, the weekend was not a total washout. The show is, by the way, on line.

*That was in 2012. I would now (2017).

Boulezian seems to have enjoyed it even less, but Classical Iconoclast liked it.

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