The Trojans at Covent Garden

Having seen the dress rehearsal of Berlioz’s Les Troyens on 22 June, last weekend we got to see the final results of the epic effort that was put into this monumental work – and any niggles or carps didn’t detract from a pretty sensational afternoon.

Much has been written elsewhere about David McVicar’s presentation of the piece. The convex trash-metal set that forms the walls of Troy for the first act is brooding and broadly effective, as it parts to allow the huge, rearing horse’s head to roll through. The space that is formed in front of it for most of the action is a bit focus-less, but it works reasonably well.  I don’t have the gripes of some with the slightly indeterminate costumes of the mid-19th century. When we hit Carthage in Act 3, the curtain rises on an impressive, high gallery of chorus members arranged on levels in front of sandstone buildings, as though the town spreads out up a hill in front of you. In the centre, and slightly odd it has to be said, there is an oval model of the town which doubles up as seating and an opportunity for the obligatory David McVicar acrobat troop to do their thing. Being born in Beaconsfield, Steve’s immediate impression was of Bekonscot, the Buckinghamshire model village, a thought that also occurred to others.  As the Carthage acts progress, the central oval is hoisted and upended to form a violet, illuminated night-scene, complete with twinkling window lights in the little buildings. This leaves space for the interminable dancing.

The dances of Act 4 may have been intended to show off the prowess of the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1858 (although that wasn’t in fact to happen until 1921), but it has to be said that here they seemed endless and dull. Fewer than a dozen dancers brought a modern twist to perfectly pleasant, but nonetheless rather pedestrian music (once the Royal Hunt and Storm was – slightly limply – out of the way) and they seemed to go on for ever. When Didon interrupted the final dance with ‘Enough, my sister! This revelry leaves me unmoved!”, I wanted to burst into applause. Having surveyed the (of course) shirtless dancers with my binoculars, I may have chosen this passage to rest my eyes.

Even Pappano’s trademark dramatic emphasis couldn’t save the dancing for me, though his reading was fulsome and vivid throughout the rest of the work. He drew out many of the hefty score’s contrasting and imaginative details, such little touches as the rasping trombone that accompanies Enée’s description of the serpent rising from the waters to carry off the priest. The orchestra played miraculously over the whole afternoon, bring this enervating score to life thrillingly and satisfyingly: the chorus joined them on fine form for the monumental walls of choral sound.

The standout amongst cast members was undoubtedly the Cassandre of Anna Caterina Antonacci, who anchored the first two acts with fantastic stage presence and a strength and security of voice that never once detracted from beauty of tone. Her scene in the close of Act 1, with the jubilant choruses of Trojans set against Cassandre’s fretting at their fate must be Berlioz at his musical and dramatic best: vivid musical storytelling that Antonacci captured magically. The female lead of the Carthage acts, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Didon was also tremendous, much more so in the angst of the closing act than amidst the opening regal jubilation, those later passages making much better use of her heavyweight, orchestra-defying voice. Linking them both together, and (we would hope, by the fifth performance) with thoughts of being a ‘stand-in’ for Jonas Kaufmann long behind him, Bryan Hymel pulled off a remarkable feat as Enée. It must have one of the cruellest openings of any major tenor role, an entry full of urgency requiring an immediate start at full, high-lying forte, which he nailed absolutely. It was a wonderful performance which just got better as the evening went on.  There were no weak links in the many secondary and minor roles, with Ed Lyon a plaintive Hylas to open Act 5, Fabio Capitanucci a secure and resonant Chorèbe and, above all, a truly moving and beautiful performance by Hanna Hipp as  Didon’s sister, Anna.

Les Troyens programmes from 1972 and 2012

The 1972 Trojans programme dwarfed by the 2012 Les Troyens extravaganza – click to read about the 1972 performance in Ken Wills’ collection.

The production amply delivered the grandeur of this most grand of French operas, even if details could be picked at here and there: at least, as is customary with McVicar, there were details and they had clearly all been attended to and thought about. Prior to this run, so my £10 over-sized programme tells me, Les Troyens had not been seen at Covent Garden in my lifetime, the last performance being in 1972. I do hope that we don’t have to wait until 2052 for a revival.

I don’t know how long it will be kept available, but the whole thing (with the added ability to skip the dances) is available on from the live stream on 5 July.

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