Berlioz - Les Troyens

ONP Bastille, Tuesday February 12 2019

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production and sets: Dmitri Tcherniakov. Costumes: Elena Zaytseva. Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky. Cassandre: Stéphanie d'Oustrac. Ascagne: Michèle Losier. Hécube: Véronique Gens. Énée: Brandon Jovanovich. Chorèbe: Stéphane Degout. Panthée: Christian Helmer. Le Fantôme d'Hector: Thomas Dear. Priam: Paata Burchuladze. Un Capitaine Grec: Jean-Luc Ballestra. Helenus: Jean-François Marras. Polyxène: Sophie Claisse. Didon: Ekaterina Semenchuk. Anna: Aude Extrémo. Iopas: Cyrille Dubois. Hylas: Bror Magnus Tødenes. Narbal: Christian Van Horn. Deux Capitaines troyens: Jean-Luc Ballestra, Tomislav Lavoie. Mercure: Bernard Arrieta. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Talking about Les Troyens the other day, a colleague remarked that none of the Paris Opera’s new productions under Stéphane Lissner’s management have been outstandingly successful. As usual (though the phenomenon continues to puzzle me) the hoo-ha that initially greeted Tcherniakov’s stab at Les Troyens had died down by Tuesday’s dernière. There was a brief murmur of bad temper at one point, when the stage was dark and nothing was happening, but at the final curtain not even the extras, the usual proxy in the director’s absence, were booed. On the contrary, the applause was loud and long enough to turn rhythmic, according to French custom, with repeated bows taken by all.

Tcherniakov is certainly a professional director: the action is all well managed, and in detail. I understand he's good at convincing and motivating his cast. And he designs some spectacular sets, which is a bonus at the Bastille, where the huge stage can handle them. But sometimes even the best directors' ideas don't seem to play through convincingly, and that was, to me at any rate, the case with Les Troyens.

Berlioz
His Troy was a gloomy dictatorship and Priam a stiff, Pinochet-style dictator in an oversized military cap - over an equally stiff hairpiece - sky blue uniform and cape. In silence, he was joined by his stiff family, also in stiff wigs, the stiffest of all being Hecuba's on Véronique Gens, who looked wonderfully snooty and pained in a skinny blue gown, raising her hands in despair at Cassandra's pig-headedness. One by one they filed into a bland, panelled room with a few pale Louis XV chairs and an oval ring of 70s crystal lighting on the ceiling, visible to us in section on the right. Above it, a news ticker flashed up the context for us (as it would later keep us up-to-date with the action) and above that, a screen gave us the characters' names as they entered. To the left, drab, grey office buildings formed a rather narrow public space, with a scattering of flowers and votive candles in the forefront, where the hoi polloi congregated for unenthusiastic rejoicing, coloured balloons notwithstanding. Advancing at a snail's pace through the space cleared for them by guards in black woollen bonnets and fur-hooded anoraks, the royal family looked - apart from the bright colours of their clothes - like the Addams Family on a particularly catatonic day.

Cassandra, in an ample mustard-yellow trouser suit, made her opening address to a TV news crew. We learned from snippets of black-and-white film up on the screen that she had probably been abused by Priam, and hated him for that: her predictions were wishful thinking, and once Troy had fallen she would blame herself for bringing it about. We also learned that Aeneas had had enough of the old dictator, and when the Greeks invaded the square he shook hands with their leader with a nod.

After a fairly stiff (again) and static first hour, at last the buildings manoeuvred to form a different, more open space and some striking images appeared: Hector's ghost shrouded in flames, shuffling across the stage dripping gobbets of smouldering tallow; an armed soldier charging towards us full tilt from the full depth of the stage, a breathtaking reminder of how deep it actually is; Cassandra’s suicide, dousing herself in petrol and applying a spark. Did Hector’s ghost set fire to Troy? Or Cassandra? Did one presage the other? The directorial tweaks inevitably upset some people (I heard a gasp of shock from a man behind when Aeneas shook that Greek hand). And it seemed to me that retailing the action on the news ticker and characters' thoughts on the screen was - and in a good production should be - superfluous. But this was a plausible and at times, once the sets got moving, spectacular staging.

Carthage
Carthage was farther-fetched. Instead of Dido's usual starry-eyed utopia, it was a different kind of la-la land: a post-traumatic rehabilitation centre for military personnel, realistically reproduced on stage in all its soul-destroying cheerfulness: big, coloured picture windows on the left looking out on a video forest trembling in the wind (and later tossed by a storm); blue-painted tubular school chairs with plywood seats and backs (later, neutral-coloured rockers); pale tangerine walls with the plainest of plain, round wall lights; double, hospital-ward doors at the rear; a glassed-in office with a clock; and on the right, a whole, vast wall of photographic mural showing a tropical beach with palms, and on it, a flat-screen TV.

This setting allowed the director to deploy, once more, his "group therapy" approach to the action. I don't know enough about Tcherniakov to know if he believes in the power of therapy of this kind, or is questioning it as another daft modern obsession. It certainly worked, for me, in Il Trovatore, where the characters are, as his version made me realise, so often recounting what happened in the past. I was less convinced when I saw Carmen on TV, but people who were there seemed to like it and certainly, once again, he showed what total commitment he can get from his singers. Here, in Carthage, his smugly manipulative "carers" in red jerkins and white trousers - among them Anna and above all Narbal, who seemed to be in charge - taking notes on their clip-boards as they choreographed the role-plays, cleverly recalled the manipulative omnipotence of the Olympian gods. The disturbing setting undoubtedly lent unsettling undertones to the drama, and the acting was top-notch tragedy. Eventually (I should get a move-on, this is interminable...) the supposedly therapeutic manipulation went wrong: just as Dido and Aeneas seemed about to kiss, he heard his voices again - Italie ! - and stomped out robotically through the double doors. At the very end, Dido, in disarray, handed her regalia over to Anna, tore up the role-play card bearing Aeneas's name, and collapsed. Curtain.

The result was undeniably powerful but still, to me, not thoroughly successful as an overall concept. I had constantly to perform tricky mental gymnastics to reconcile the text with what we were seeing on stage. But I admit that, as I now think back and write about it, I wonder if seeing it again might change my mind. Poring over it at McDonald's this lunchtime, it occurred to me that this was the best-acted production of the work, overall, I've ever seen.

One thing did leave me puzzled. Dido's pale yellow hospital pyjamas and the yellow flower on her headband were an obvious reference to the yellow dress and identical floral headband worn in Troy by Creusa, Aeneas's wife. What were we to make of that? My boss, who's more intelligent than I am (which probably explains why he's the boss) and goes to the opera more often, thought Aeneas was projecting on to Dido his guilt at the death of his wife, one result of his having been in cahoots with the Greeks. I wondered if she actually was his wife, not dead at all, only they both had post-trauma amnesia. I discussed it by e-mail with a friend - who, incidentally, exactly like my boss, had found the cuts made or agreed to by Jordan far more scandalous than Tcherniakov's production. He said: 'I also wondered if she was his wife, radically changed after years on the antidepressants. But my biggest question was why Philippe Jordan thinks he can conduct Berlioz.'

Which brings me to the music. As usual, Jordan seemed determined to deliver something grand, highly polished and shiny, smoothing out Berlioz's asperities and with them much of the drama inherent in the music. To be honest, I thought it sounded like a Bruckner mass - what I could hear of it, at any rate: I was in one of the Bastille's acoustic blind spots (perhaps "deaf spots" should be the term) in the middle of row 13 of the orchestra stalls, so the sound was muffled. The chorus didn't come across well either, where I was sitting.

Even people who abhorred the production have agreed that the singing was, with few exceptions, excellent. Though the Bastille was not the place for her to be singing Cassandre and I wondered what people (much) further back could hear, Stéphanie d'Oustrac was impressive. She's developed and firmed up into a very engaging mezzo. Was I nuts to think (probably more for the intensity than the voice itself) even of the late Lorraine Hunt? Stéphane Degout was absolute perfection and I can't think of anything more to add. Michèle Losier and Véronique Gens were luxuries. I was surprised to see Burchuladze at all, and it was as well he didn't have much to sing.

As Iopas, Cyrille Dubois sounded as if he'd strayed in by mistake from a vegan-sponsored HIP production of Dido and Aeneas. But Aude Extremo's Anna and Bror Magnus Tødenes' Hylas were each, in their different ways, a real pleasure to hear.

Brandon Jovanovich and Ekaterina Semenchuk, both with rich-timbred, interesting voices, were a good match. Their "Nuit d'ivresse" was a beautiful reminder of how great an opera this can be, and individually they each threw themselves with full commitment into Tcherniakov's dramatically demanding conception of their parts. At such a level, Jovanovich can easily be forgiven for eventually showing signs of fatigue. And whether she's naturally, or by training, a good actress, or was transformed into one by his directing, Semenchuk, at the end, was without doubt the greatest Dido I've witnessed.

I couldn't find a clip of Maestro Wenarto singing Dido. Here, instead, as a meagre consolation prize, is Gwyneth Jones in La Mort de Cléopatre.

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