Michael Tanner

Troy story

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Les Troyens

Royal Opera House, In rep until 11 July

In the late 1970s the Royal Opera announced that it would be performing Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Wagner’s Ring in alternate years, the idea being that the two great 19th-century operatic epics would prove equally popular. We never found out whether they would have done, since while the Ring cycles continued, Les Troyens never got off the ground, and has not been performed complete at Covent Garden for 40 years.

My hopes for the new production were extremely high, and only moderately dashed by Jonas Kaufmann’s withdrawal from the role of Enée, one of grand opera’s least rewarding: as a character he is no less unsympathetic than Aeneas always is, and most of his music, especially his big aria of remorse and self-justification, is strenuous and unconvincing. Bryan Hymel made a decent job of it, but his voice was no more appealing than any of the others on offer in the main parts. Memories and recordings testify that in the postwar period Jon Vickers has been the only great performer of Enée: his utterly idiosyncratic mode of singing and acting exactly suited the character, or even created it.

The new production by Sir David McVicar compels attention first by the sets of Es Devlin, conspicuous consumption on the grand scale. The curtain rises on Troy as a great metallic fortress, grey and impenetrable, except by the Trojan horse, a terrifying, huge construction of armaments, breathing immense streams of fire; let’s hope we see him/it again in Siegfried, after a mild biological makeover. The period seems to be more or less that of the Crimean War, which was contemporaneous with the composition of this work. It’s hard to see why, but I’m resigned.

The opening scenes, with the brainless jubilations of the Trojans that the Greeks have left, Cassandre’s useless prophesying, her scene with Chorèbe, the devastating appearance of Andromaque and her son Astyanax, a scene so powerful that it alone would justify the opera’s eternal survival, the arrival of the Horse — all these are managed satisfactorily, though McVicar seems content to let things progress without interference, which is fine but makes me wonder why his job is considered so important. Cassandre is taken by Anna Caterina Antonacci, giving a grand histrionic performance, very much as one imagines Berlioz would have wanted. Her voice is only just large enough, and lacking in colour, but commitment is there in plenty. Chorèbe is Fabio Capitanucci, of whom we need to see more. The chorus is on great form.

On to Les Troyens à Carthage, where the opera’s problems begin.  Such a mixture of beauty and sublimity and lengthy stretches of intolerable tedium is not to be found anywhere else in opera. The only thing to do is to cut an hour out, and it’s obvious which hour should go; but with our shibboleth for completeness and our regrets about the treatment that Les Troyens has usually received, it’s an act of pious duty to perform every note — the only reason, I believe, for the rare performances of this noble work. The set for Carthage is eye-catching, a baking semi-circle of rock and buildings surrounding the acting area, and a model of Didon’s city, worthy of several hours’ attention from the Führer and Speer. McVicar still leaves us to make up our minds about the characters, or perhaps feels that Berlioz wasn’t interested in individuals, which seems largely right. A vague notion of Destiny makes intermittent appearances, and is the arbiter of what people do, or at least sometimes is.

The dances and other diversions are campy and unimaginative; finally Enée sings ‘Chère Didon’, and from then on almost everything is wonderful. Eva-Maria Westbroek looks mature, and the quality of her voice has declined over the past few years, but she makes a considerable amount of her great role, and her raving, grief and resignation after Enée has walked out of Carthage and into history are vividly realised, in front of a lowered curtain. This is opera’s most complex and moving death scene, and much of the complexity is there with Westbroek. The final minutes, as she ascends the pyre and has her vision first of Hannibal and then of Rome immortal, are superbly staged and sung.

The smaller roles are taken well without exception, but that is the rule at the Royal Opera. So a good evening, but not yet a great one. Antonio Pappano takes a leisurely view of the score, so the evening lasts for five and three-quarter hours, of which four and a half are music. That’s half an hour longer than Colin Davis, Troyens’ master-conductor, or anyone else I have checked on. Transitions, not Berlioz’s strong suit, need to be tightened, and if Act III and the first half of Act IV aren’t cut, they should at least be speeded up. Cuts would release the score’s true grandeur, while at present the production is weighed down by digression and pomp.