Les Troyens, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, June 2012Posted on 26 June 2012
As the Euro crisis deepens, it is salutary to see Cassandra on stage — her foresight ever accurate but never believed.
In the first part of this grand opera, Cassandra is the main character, superbly sung and acted by Anna Caterina Antonacci. It all starts with the chorus happily expressing their joy that the Greeks have been routed, but then Cassandra appears and the music abruptly changes mood. Les Grecs ont disparu! … but what dread plan lies behind their departure she asks. The first part leads up to the destruction of Troy, and is the perfect start to this great tale — pity Berlioz never lived to see it performed! A complete five-act production was first seen in Karlsruhe in 1890, 21 years after his death, but even then it was spread over two nights. Yet the whole thing takes a mere five and a half hours, including two half-hour intervals. Productions are rare, but it’s not the length alone — we’re used to that with Wagner — the trouble is you need a quiver full of first rate singers, including two brilliant performers in the mezzo roles of Cassandra and Dido, a Trojan horse, a ship, two walled cities, open countryside … oh, and two dance interludes.
Fortunately, David McVicar has overcome all difficulties in this new co-production with the Vienna State Opera, La Scala, and San Francisco Opera. He places the action in an undetermined time that could easily be seventeenth/ eighteenth century, which is not a problem. After all, scholarly opinion and tradition places the Trojan War about 1200 BC, Dido in the late ninth century, the founding of Rome in the mid-eighth century BC, and Troy had not yet been discovered when Berlioz wrote his opera. Costumes by Moritz Junge are wonderful, sets by Es Devlin (who is also designing the Olympic closing ceremony) are super, and lighting by Wolfgang Göbbel is magical. For instance in Act IV when Dido and Aeneas fully express their love, the model city that was on the ground turns upside down and suffused with a violet glow, its buildings twinkle with light as if it were the starry sky. The model city was a clever idea, and at the start of the second half when the Carthaginians sing with happy grace to their queen Dido, I almost expected her to respond Euch macht ihr’s leicht (Hans Sachs) … just kidding, but Moritz Junge’s costumes for this act reminded me of the final scene in Meistersinger, where Covent Garden’s staging includes model houses. Here, Dido tells us it is just seven years since she left Tyre to escape the murderer of her husband, and with the myth and history so well explained in Berlioz’s own libretto, this opera is Wagnerian in conception.
The singing was terrific. Eva-Maria Westbroek was a gentle yet powerful Dido, Bryan Hymel gave a remarkable performance as Aeneas, and their rapturous duet in Act IV came over beautifully, enhanced by lovely changes of lighting. Hanna Hipp sang with great feeling as Dido’s sister Anna, and Brindley Sherratt was a striking vocal presence as her chief minister Narbal. Fabio Capitanucci came over strongly as Cassandra’s fiancé Coroebus, and Barbara Senator was entirely convincing as Aeneas’ son Ascanius. Excellent performances in all the solo roles, not just vocally but in terms of movement and stage presence. For example, Pamela Helen Stephen had huge presence as queen Hecuba of Troy, and Jihoon Kim was very effective as the ghost of Hector.
This massive team effort, with its magnificent chorus, was held together with consummate skill by Antonio Pappano in the orchestra pit, and as he said in a recent interview, this is just the sort of project the Royal Opera House should be undertaking. Quite right, and though there were some boos for the production team at the end, I didn’t understand why — it was a remarkable achievement. The Trojan horse’s head from the end of the first part was matched by a similar human torso and head at the end, which I took to indicate future battles between Carthage and Rome, brought on by Dido’s ritual curse of Aeneas and his descendents, and her foreknowledge of the mighty Hannibal.
McVicar’s production somehow manages to make sense of a world we have lost, where ghosts urge people on to great deeds, and gods issue commands. Perhaps some of our political leaders today would love to justify their actions as heeding urges of ghosts or gods, but in this remarkable story that’s what happens, and the production brings it to life. The Royal Opera have needed to score a goal, and they’ve got one here — it’s a beauty.
The performance on 5th July will be streamed live on The Space, available at thespace.org, or by viewing on TV (Freeview HD channel 117). It will also be broadcast live on French television — information at www.mezzo.tv .
Performances at the Royal Opera House continue until July 11 — for details click here.