I wonder whether grand opéra really takes war as seriously as this year’s Edinburgh Festival wanted it to. These vast works, written to exploit and reflect the power, resources and tastes of mid-19th-century Paris, tended to favour history and its battles for the scenic opportunities they afforded rather than for the lessons they taught. It was the cross-cultural love stories in the foreground that were the dramatic focus; whatever the context, the obligatory ballet always had to be shoehorned in.
Berlioz provided a work that ostensibly fitted the formula with his Troyens, fashioned from Virgil’s Aeneid during the 1850s, painstakingly, obsessively and with minimal reward. It was rejected by the Paris Opera and for many decades performed only in truncated, bisected versions. As tended to be the case with this composer, the rules were followed only partly. Classical subjects were more the domain of an earlier operatic era, and the score — fusing Gluck-inspired restraint with the composer’s characteristically brilliant, pointedly unrestrained musical imagination — has tended to be damned with faint praise as ‘uneven’ and ‘sprawling’.
The resources of Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky Opera, recently beefed up by the addition of a glitzy second opera house, are far from modest, and can just about keep up with the ambitions of its famously overstretched maestro. And for an opera company to be able to rustle up a Troyens cast from its ensemble is impressive in a way. But what might have been passable as a revival in St Petersburg is hardly good enough for an international festival. With heavily accented French, rudimentary acting, and far fewer great voices, especially after multiple cast changes, than it seems the Mariinsky used to be able to call upon, this Troyens was decidedly provincial — imported provincial, perhaps, but provincial nonetheless.
The production, by Yannis Kokkos, originates in Paris more than a decade ago and presents a sensible mixture of the suggestive and the abstract, making a feature of projections and a large angled mirror at the back of the stage, designed principally, it seems, to create the illusion of grandeur and scale. But the direction of the cast here was essentially non-existent, while the smallish chorus milled about uncertainly. They often sang uncertainly, too, and I’m pretty sure that I could hear a prompter hurling lines at the principals. There was little evidence of much rehearsal, with botched lighting and other sundry mishaps and wobbles.
As Didon, Ekaterina Semenchuk sang vibrantly in an impressively projected mezzo but, without the necessary nobility, she tended towards the kind of ferocity that suggests she’d have made a better Cassandre. In that role, in turn, the soprano Mlada Khudoley did what she could, but her voice was simply too high-set, lyrical and soft-grained. As Enée, Sergey Semishkur was grating and entirely graceless; Alexey Markov’s Chorèbe was marred by poor intonation. There were better performances from Yuri Vorobiev, a smooth-voiced, if overly placid Narbal, and Ekaterina Krapivina, dramatically engaged and touching as Anna.
The Mariinsky orchestra had several heartening moments of conviction, and its sound is often thrillingly lean and muscular, the quality of much of the solo playing outstanding. Gergiev’s conducting drifted in and out of focus, though, and there were large swaths of the score where the tension and level of execution were allowed to drop. This was not a good night for Berlioz, or, I fear, for the festival as a whole.
Musically, the Teatro Regio di Torino’s one-off concert of Guglielmo Tell, the Italian version of Rossini’s great grand opéra of 1829, was on a completely different level. Coming off the back of a run of staged performances in Turin in the early summer, it showed precisely the care and attention that was lacking in the Mariinsky’s show. Gianandrea Noseda had clearly worked hard with his terrific orchestra to bring out the score’s details, its symphonic sweep and its drama, which, in the predominantly lilting, picturesque first act in particular, does take a little bit of drawing out. The result was thrilling and provided, in case anyone needs it, an eloquent explanation as to why we should celebrate the fact that the work is suddenly in vogue. This season it is being staged, in the original French, by both Welsh National Opera and the Royal Opera.
There haven’t always been singers able to tackle the piece either, and the tenor role, Arnold, is especially taxing. Here John Osborn was fearless, and also found space for plenty of nuance. Angela Meade sang Matilde in a shining, voluminous soprano, but both she and Dalibor Jenis — strangely diffident and slightly underpowered as Tell — were short on temperament and dramatic engagement. The fact that they all relied on their scores was forgivable, perhaps, but can’t have helped.