Thursday, July 5, 2012

Opera on a Grand Scale

The Trojan Horse

I was about to see & hear Berlioz' “Les Troyens” (The Trojans) at Covent Garden, and was flipping through the cast list and programme. The cast list showed 22 name singers, plus “Trojan people, Greek soldiers, Trojan soldiers, sailors, Dido's courtiers and servants, Carthaginians.” Then there were 52 people listed as “Extra Chorus”; plus 14 dancers and 6 actors/acrobats, and a dozen children. It lasts for 5.5 hours. I wondered if this was going to be a big one?
And in addition to the conductor (and orchestra of 104), director, associate director, set, costume and lighting designers, choreographer, chorus director and concert master, there are also five musical prep coaches, a French language coach, four associate & assistant directors, an assistant choreographer, four associate & assistant set designers, three video designers, and the guy that does the surtitles. Suddenly my ticket price looked very reasonable.
Then I read that the size and scope and “immense challenge” of this opera meant that the composer, Berlioz, never got to see it fully staged. I felt privileged already, and I was still sipping my pre-performance aperitif.

“Les Troyens” was Berlioz’ last opera, and it is so immense that it is generally said to be second only to a staging of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” in terms of scale. It is based on Berlioz’ beloved Virgil, and tells the story of the Trojan Horse, Aeneas’ flight from Troy, and -- after the first interval -- his washing-up on the shores of Carthage and and into the arms of Dido. After the second interval he heads off to found Rome, leaving Dido bereft. The evening ends with Dido committing suicide, which you might think is depressing enough; but consider that the story of Troy ends with a kind of Jonestown moment, with the mass suicide of the Trojan women, led by a now-frothing-at-the-mouth Cassandra.
Ah...Cassandra. The performance of the evening, by a long way. This reluctant prophetess, who brings bad news all the time and and is never believed (hence the phrase “she’s a real Cassandra”) is sung - and acted - quite superbly by Anna Caterina Antonacci. After she killed herself, the opera was never really as thrilling again (though she turned up again briefly towards the end, as a ghost).

Read the Guardian’s review here.   I very much agree with it.  Eva-maria Westbroek as Dido didn’t really grab me, though I’m a fan of this soprano. I partly blame the directorial decision to have her patting and hugging her subjects. I know she was a well-loved queen, but I would have preferred her to be a bit more regal. The character who appears in all five acts (and doesn’t die) is Aeneas, a big tenor role. It was to have been sung by the great Jonas Kaufman, generally agreed to be one of the greatest tenors singing today and right at the top of his form. Sadly, he has been indisposed for some months now. He was replaced here by Bryan Hymel, who IMHO did a competent though unspectacular job. I thought he flagged towards the end, too, on the night I was there. 

Cassandra...mad as a cut snake...glorious

But there was Cassandra...and, naturellement, the Horse. This was a huge fire-breathing metallic monster, which must have cost a fortune, but was worth every penny. And I'm serious about the fire: one several occasions, section of the set burst into flames. Wow!
There are few opera houses with the resources to stage an opera of this scale on this scale, and I feel privileged to have seen it.
Just for the record: the director was David McVicar, the set designer (wow!) Es Devlin. The costumes - think mid-19th century Crimean War, and Moroccan-inspired for the Carthage scenes - were by Moritz Junge. And of course all their many helpers. 

Here's  another review.

Here's Anna Catarina Antonacci singing Cassandra in a different production.

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