Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Trifonov/LSO/Rattle - Rameau, Ravel, Poulenc, and Jolas, 17 February 2019

Barbican Hall

Rameau: Les Indes galantes: Suite
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Betsy Jolas: A Little Summer Suite
Poulenc: Les Biches: Suite
Ravel: La Valse

Daniil Trifonov (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

An evening of French delights from Simon Rattle and the LSO? Certainly, even if some – not necessarily those one might have expected – delighted more than others. First among not-quite-equals stood the earliest and latest works: a dance suite from Rameau’s Les Indes galantes and a parallel Little Summer Suite, composed in 2015 by Betsy Jolas for Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

One silly, at least borderline offensive, newspaper ‘article’ and a host of tedious imitators notwithstanding, Betsy Jolas and her music have not recently been ‘discovered’. Her music deserves to be better known, more frequently performed; that, however, is a different matter entirely. The best response to such nonsense is to do what Rattle and the LSO did here: perform it – and perform it with such excellence. Seven vividly etched miniatures abound with echoes and correspondences, but does not all music when one is acquainting oneself with it? A few Messiaenesque harmonies, even the odd marriage of rhythm and instrumentation recalling Boulez’s Notations, speak not of overt ‘influence’ but perhaps of kinship – and what kinship. The scoring is much sparer than that for the latter. Although the orchestral forces are relatively large – certainly not so large as Boulez’s – the writing is more often ensemble-like. Four of the movements echo – consciously, I presume – Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. ‘Strolling’ movements – ‘Strolling away’, ‘Strolling about’, ‘Strolling under’, and finally, ‘Strolling home’ – they offer continuity and connection; a dark, menacing, almost nineteenth-century Russian bass suggests that honoured predecessor, before taking in Ligetian ‘Knocks and clocks’, responsorial (to that) ‘Shakes and quakes’ and similarly post-liturgical ‘Chants and cheers’, suspended, it seems, in musical mid-air. Succinct, witty, with a nonchalant sign-off suggestive, as noted in Jeremy Thurlow’s booklet note, of Debussy’s Jeux, one was left wanting more, yet admiring of the taste and judgement that had the music end when it did.

The very opening of Jolas’s suite had, at least in context, intriguingly echoed the chains of Rameau’s opening ‘Air pour les esclaves africains’. If Rameau’s (relative) battery of percussion veered in danger of the wearisome, taken out of dramatic context (for a review of a Munich performance of the entire work, click here), the relief of such enlightened Baroque music-making was eminently worth the slight wait. Each of the five movements danced with colour, grace, and a refreshing lack of doctrinaire ‘authenticity’. String vibrato was withdrawn at the opening of the ‘Air pour l’adoration du soleil’, but with good reason, that anticipation prefiguring sunrises in Haydn (both The Creation and The Seasons). The most celebrated number, the ‘Air pour les sauvages’, proceeded with splendid swing. It may be problematic to our postcolonial minds, yet it is far from unprogressive by Enlightenment standards. The closing Chaconne stood, rightly, worlds away from our one-sided notions of the dance, too influenced by Bach and his Romantic successors. The world of Les Indes Galantes, not unlike the Tiepolo frescoes for the stairwell of Würzburg’s Balthasar Neumann Residenz, present a Eurocentric world, to be sure, but one that attempts to embrace, even in small way to elevate, other cultures as surely as did Montesquieu and Voltaire. Trumpets and drums rejoiced, without effacing a tenderness that spoke both to Rameau’s age and our own. For all Rattle’s evident, longstanding belief in ‘period’ performance practice, this did not sound so very distant from the Rameau of forebears such as Raymond Leppard and Jean-François Paillard – and was all the better for such kinship.

Daniil Trifonov joined the orchestra, post-Rameau, for Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. He appeared transfixed at the opening. Whose spell? Ravel’s or his own? It was unclear, as was much of the rest of his performance. There were delights aplenty in such pellucid pianism, but much of the first movement was indulgent, lacking line and, on occasion, connection with Rattle’s – and the LSO’s – able accompaniment. Harp-led washes of sound were duly gorgeous, likewise woodwind solos seemingly harking back to the Rameau we had just heard, but Trifonov appeared oblivious, pursuing instead, so it seemed, his own rêveries. The slow movement nevertheless proved bewitching. Here, Trifonov’s exquisite modulation of dynamics, silken touch, and above all, endlessly long-breathed phrasing were quite the match for Ravel’s not entirely un-self-regarding writing. There was here a chamber intimacy, pent up with emotion that never quite dared speak its name that revealed darker undercurrents than I can hitherto recall: a tragic Tombeau de Rameau composed before our ears. If only the first movement and an often oddly-balanced – at least from my seat – finale had matched such extraordinary music-making. Still, Trifonov’s closing exuberance reaped its own rewards – even if he again occasionally parted company from the orchestra. What I believe to have been his own transcription from Rachmaninov’s cantata, The Bells, made for a richly exploratory encore.

Poulenc’s Les biches, here given in suite form, has its admirers. Love much of Poulenc’s music though I do, I cannot help but find much of this ballet music somewhat thin gruel. At any rate, it is very much a period piece. Rattle and the LSO did what they could to point up Stravinskian correspondences, the opening of the ‘Andantino’ very much a case in point, likewise the Pulcinella-like writing of the ‘Final’. (If only the latter benefited from Stravinsky’s – and Pergolesi (attrib.)’s – concision. At its best, for instance in the opening ‘Rondeau’, there was a charming air of an imaginary vieille France: not Rameau’s, but why should it be? Ravel’s La Valse proved a similarly mixed bag: not, of course, as work, but as performance. Rattle certainly captured the dark strangeness of the opening, likewise a later, hallucinogenic nausea to the strings. I was less convinced, though, by the driven, almost vulgar quality to climaxes and other passages. A militaristic subtext? Perhaps; this, however, sounded close to Shostakovich. An odd performance, discontinuities to the fore, was played as well as one would expect; it certainly had me think.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Bavouzet - Haydn, Schumann, Boulez, Ravel, and Prokofiev, 10 Feburary 2019

Wigmore Hall

Haydn: Piano Sonata in E-flat major no.49, Hob. XVI/49
Schumann: Piano Sonata no.3 in F minor, op.14
Boulez: Twelve Notations
Ravel: Jeux d’eau; Miroirs: ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ and ‘Alborada del gracioso’
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor, op.28

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

Any half-decent performance including works by Haydn and Boulez will prove a success. This Wigmore Hall recital from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was no exception and was rather more than half-decent. If I am unsure that I discerned a guiding thread in the programming, the ear and mind in any case always make their own connections; mine certainly did so here.

Haydn’s late-ish (1790) E-flat major Sonata, Hob. XVI/49 (not to be confused with that of four years later) retained some of the composer’s early quirkiness under Bavouzet’s hands: not in a self-conscious way, but seemingly through letting notes, phrases, paragraphs speak for themselves. (That may be an illusion, but more often than not, it is a necessary illusion.) A fastish yet flexible tempo for the first movement probably helped in that respect; this was a living, breathing performance, not Haydn as a classical or classicising monument. The first repeat – Bavouzet took both – was anything but a mere ‘repeat’; reinvented in the light of experience, the music sounded closer to a first development. The counterpoint of the development proper spoke clearly, beautifully of Haydn’s recent interest in Bach – until, of course, the writing changed. Whatever the discontinuities, they were, as in Beethoven (and Bavouzet’s Beethoven) predicated on and communicated with a sense of underlying continuity. One experienced rather than simply heard – or knew – different elements of construction, above all motivic. A grand, passionate, not un-Beethovenian Adagio e cantabile followed: Romantic without anachronism, close to Beethoven because Beethoven stands so close to Haydn. Bavouzet showed himself equally alert to the vocalism of the right hand part and to what ensures that this is unquestionably keyboard music. The third and final movement was boldly sculpted, anticipations of Schubert relished without exaggeration. Again, whatever the illusions and delusions of the claim, the sense was of Haydn’s score speaking for itself – quite without pedantry, very much in the moment.

There was, by contrast, rightly an element of Romantic classicism to Bavouzet’s Schumann sonata (mostly given in its 1853 revision, but with a few elements retained from the first, 1836 edition). The sound – not just the Yamaha’s sonority, but harmony, attack, everything that combines in our eyes and ears – was indefinably Schumann’s from the outset: a very different world from Haydn’s, even if not so distant chronologically. How much changed so quickly during this time! The first movement, as elsewhere, showed no want of flexibility, but structure sounded more given – a nineteenth-century ‘received’ sonata form – than created. Such was the challenge of writing in such forms after Beethoven – or, for that matter, Haydn. Technical virtuosity required was of a different order too, not that that was any problem for Bavouzet. In the scherzo, rhythms were nicely sprung, vehicles of harmonic motion that rightly placed us somewhere between Mendelssohn and Brahms. This may not present Schumann at his most fantastical, but there was still a keen element of that quality: winning and highly convincing, in a work often thought problematical. The third movement variations flowed like a wayward, yet ultimately directed river, their transformations surprising yet never arbitrary. Of all four movements, the finale stands most clearly in the line of the original publication title (in three-movement form), ‘Concert sans orchestre’. It certainly sounded so here; indeed, one might have been forgiven for suspecting three hands at work, two for orchestra, another – or should that be another two? – for solo instrument. Once more, virtuosity unleashed a flow of unmistakeably Romantic poetry.

After the interval came Notations, treated to a spoken introduction by the pianist, who had worked with Boulez both on this work and others. (I recall hearing him give three of these twelve-by-twelve jewels as an encore to the three final Beethoven sonatas, shortly after Boulez’s death in January 2016.) An impression of thinking and rethinking, of taking no mere ‘tradition’ for granted – very much, be it noted, in Boulez’s own line, or day I say, tradition – was once again present. The first piece was full of contrast, yet perhaps warmer than expected; the second and other toccata-like pieces dazzled with all the éclat one could imagine – and then some. Bavouzet clearly relished Boulez’s craftsmanship and pent-up, post-expressionist emotion alike. For there was inwardness too, as in the third and fifth pieces; in the former, I even cast an aural glance back to the Bachian counterpoint of the Haydn first movement, heard as if through a Debussyan gauze. Number play was vividly communicated; so too was a highly-developed – even at this age – sense of instrumental theatre, especially at the close.

Three pieces by Ravel followed. The opening figures of Jeux d’eaux seemed to emerge, even if they did not, from Boulez. Voicing was exquisite yet purposeful – never a mere diversion in itself – both here and in the two pieces from Miroirs. ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ sounded related to the former piece, yet whereas in that, we were the beholders of a static scene, the water glistening according to the sun, now one sensed movement – of that boat – upon the waters. Post-Lisztian virtuosity effected a volatility subtler than that required for Gaspard de la nuit, yet no less for that. ‘Alborada del gracioso’ was taken quite without indulgence, its hauteur suggestive of the lands south of the Basque country, whatever the provenance of composer and pianist. It was precise, yes, but meaning lay in that precision and in its unspoken connections and connotations.

Integrative and disintegrative qualities were held in equal account in the closing performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Sonata. In context, it sounded as if risen from the ashes of the music heard earlier in the evening as much as from Liszt and Scriabin, though their presence was also undeniable. Diabolicism suggested the Fiery Angel to come. Side-slipping melodies rose from the material when least expected, yet with an inevitability in retrospect that brooked no dissent to their often surprisingly ‘white’, diatonic twists and turns. Virtuosity was again a necessity as starting point, but only as that. Here was to be experienced a stream of consciousness in the proper, modernist sense, inexplicably (as yet) coherent.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Katya Kabanova, Royal Opera, 9 February 2019

Royal Opera House
Tichon (Andrew Staples) and Katya (Amanda Majewski)
Images: Clive Barda/ROH

Katěrina Kabanova – Amanda Majeski
Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanicha – Susan Bickley
Varvara – Emily Edmonds
Boris Grigorjevič – Pavel Černoch
Váňa Kudrjáš – Andrew Tortise
Tichon Ivanyč Kabanov – Andrew Staples
Savël Prokofjevič Dikoj – Clive Bayley
Kuligin – Dominic Sedgwick
Glaša – Sarah Pring
Fekluša – Dervla Ramsay
Woman – Amy Catt
Passer-by – Luke Price

Richard Jones (director)
Antony McDonald (designs)
Lucy Carter (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Janáček is surely the perfect, or at least a perfect, composer with whom to introduce someone to opera. Starting with From the House of the Dead or The Adventures of Mr Brouček might be a little odd, if hardly disastrous. However, Jenůfa, The Makropulos Case, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Katya Kabanova all boast compelling, readily comprehensible stories, strong characters (especially female ones), and textbook demonstrations of what might be accomplished by musical drama, even in something that might superficially seem close to a sung play (in itself no bad thing for a beginner). Last but not least, they are not a second too long, showing unerring mastery concerning what need be depicted, even lingered over, and what may be assumed or suggested, without the slightest chance of having anyone wonder ‘when will this be over?’ Loving them, one might wish that they were longer, but one also knows that they should not be. For devotees of late-nineteenth-century literature, Jenůfa and Katya would seem the most obvious choices. (Not that Wozzeck would do any harm: it gripped this sometime schoolboy for life…!) Setting, narrative, and character stand in well-nigh perfect relation to one another: familiar, yet fresh.

Kabanicha (Susan Bickley) and Katya

Why, then, have London houses seemed so reluctant recently to stage these operas? Xenophobic audiences, bizarrely lacking in curiosity? Most likely, alas; we live, after all, in the age of ‘Brexit’. Whatever the reason, we have all the more reason to cheer the Royal Opera’s commitment, following years of silence, to staging a number of Janácek’s works. Last year’s From the House of the Dead, in a striking, duly provocative staging by Krzysztof Warlikowski, was unquestionably a highlight of the London musical year. (If, later in the year, Munich’s offering from Frank Castorf went further, all the better for us. How fortunate we were to have both.) Richard Jones’s new Katya is not at that level: a ‘safer’ choice, no doubt; nor is it so well conducted. Nevertheless, a cast as strong dramatically as vocally brought out the best in work and production alike.

Varvara (Emily Edmonds)

Without really getting in the way, Jones’s staging is mildly puzzling: a mix of good ideas, oddly undeveloped ideas, and all-purpose Richard Jones, almost as if it were an early sketch rather than a finished production. We begin and end with a portrait of a girl, Katya presumably, and there is something intriguingly doll-like to her appearance onstage, even to some of her gestures. Three men from the community – beyond that, it is barely a community – leer through the windows at her. It is sketchy, though: neither subtle nor thought through. The 1970s Eastern bloc setting is fine, if hardly original, but not much is done with it. Nor is it clear why abstraction is occasionally the order of the day: budget limitations seem more plausible as an explanation than dramatic motivation. Auditorium strobe lighting for the storm that opens the third act is an odd touch: neither in keeping with what has preceded and what will follow it, nor productively in contrast. A degree of stylisation on stage works much better, cinematic ‘still’ moments suggestive of contrasting chaos and a moment of fateful decision. That particular aspect of the setting, too, is excellent – a wonderfully ‘real’ bus shelter, which again has much to offer in metaphorical suggestion. More along such Brechtian lines might work well; all too soon, however, it is gone.

Boris (Pavel Černoch) and Katya

Sadly, Katya’s talk – song – of sin is left to fend for itself. It still moves, of course, but would have done so far more in a production that deigned to notice it. For, despite the ‘updating’ – the slightly retro term seems apt here – socio-cultural context is barely present, at least as anything more than backdrop. It is perfectly possible, I am sure, to present a Katya Kabanova with something to replace the theology, just as it would be with Don Giovanni. Whether it is a good idea remains an open question, for here, as so often with Mozart’s deeply Catholic opera, the issue is simply ignored – or, worse, is not even noticed. Likewise, Kabanicha’s terrible words of thanks at the close could hardly fail to register; they could – should – nonetheless readily register far more strongly, set in social and theological context; or, alternatively, in its provocatively avowed absence. As Schoenberg once noted, it is only the middle road that fails to lead to Rome.

That such crucial moments did register was the cast’s achievement (as well as Janáček’s!) Amanda Majeski’s Katya was a towering performance: fearful, compassionate, human, with as impressive and moving an emotional as a dynamic range. Pavel Černoch fully lived up to the expectations I had from his Munich Makropulos Case (as Albert Gregor), his romantic ardour as genuine as his courage was but flickering, a properly compromised portrayal. Andrew Staples drew out the still more compromised, indeed downright cowardly nature of his not-even-rival, Tichon. Susan Bickley rescued her Kabanicha from mere caricature, hinting at a constraining force of social propriety that might – just might – explain or at least contextualise a little of her monstrous, constructively murderous behaviour. Clive Bayley’s Dikoj offered a quality cameo as Dikoj. If only the sado-masochism in his relationship with Bickley’s Kabanicha hinted at here had been taken further by Jones, there might have been illumination such as that gleaned from Christoph Marthaler’s production for Paris. Emily Edmonds and Andrew Tortise gave lively performances as Varvara and Váňa respectively, the latter’s second-act song winning in its diegetic naïveté.

Edward Gardner’s conducting had its moments. They tended, though, to be moments – at least until the third act, undeniably possessed of great narrative thrust. The intricate, complex relationship between continuity and discontinuity in Janáček’s score is not at all easy to bring off. Mark Wigglesworth did so magnificently at ENO nine years ago. Here, whatever its warmth, there was something soft-focused to too much of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House’s playing. Rhythmic bite was not quite what it might have been, nor were underlying harmonic motion and tension. If the achievement of that final act could have been read back into the first two, something more taut and stark in its tragedy could well have resulted. In a way, then, it complemented Jones’s staging. Vocally, however, this was the real thing.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Rusalka, Opéra national de Paris, 29 January 2019

Opéra Bastille

Prince (Klaus Florian Vogt), Foreign Princess (Karita Mattila), Rusalka (Camilla Nylund)
Images: Guergana Damianova /Opéra national de Paris

Prince – Klaus Florian Vogt
Foreign Princess – Karita Mattila
Rusalka – Camilla Nylund
Vodník – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Ježibaba – Michelle DeYoung
Huntsman’s Voice – Danylo Matviienko
Kitchen Boy – Jeanne Ireland
Nymphs – Andreea Soare, Emanuela Pascu, Élodie Méchain
Gamekeeper – Tomasz Kumiega

Robert Carsen (director, lighting)
Michael Levine (designs)
Peter van Praet (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreography)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Alessandro di Stefano)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Susanna Mälkki (conductor)

And so, the third and final opera from my long weekend in Paris: Dvořák’s Rusalka. Whilst the first two, Il primo omicidio (an oratorio, albeit staged) and Les Troyens, garnered their principal interest from their respective productions and, in the latter case, singing too, Rusalka, once over a problematical first act, offered largely musical riches and little enlightenment from the director. To be fair, Robert Carsen’s production is old, dating from 2002. Age, however, does not really seem to be the problem. It does not look tired; indeed, it looks ‘stylish’, ‘beautiful’, etc., fresh too, so that it might have been premiered today; it just does not seem to have anything particular to say.


It is not exactly ‘traditional’, although it is difficult to imagine ‘traditionalists’ minding it, their ideology and practice often proving not quite so consonant as they imagine. Indeed, so long as ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ designs are present, they are unlikely to notice a Konzept one way or another. Credit where credit is due: Michael Levine’s designs and the lighting from Praet and Carsen himself are splendidly realised. If you like large, ultra-minimalist hotel bedrooms, furnished in exquisite silk and satin – or fabric that resembles them from afar – you may be happy. (I should happily stay in one, but that is a different matter.) There is a coup de theatre, a literally blinding flash of fire, at the moment of fateful transformation; it promises a great deal, yet alas, that is that. What instead we have is an oh-so-elegant paddling pool as the setting for the first act; in the second, the bed that has been suspended in the air find itself in that hotel room, reflected in a mirror image. Ježibaba install herself in that bed, newly suspended in mid-air for the third, with the return of water perhaps – if we are to be charitable – also suggesting a visual dissolution of themes; that scene is followed by a return to the hotel room, after which presumably the Prince and Rusalka will die – or perhaps not. Is that a directorial twist, a feminist criticism? Perhaps, although it does not seem to be presented as such. It seems more a matter of simply not listening to either words or music, without actively attempting to criticise them.  

There are likewise mild, ‘stylish’ confusions in the second act. What to make of that mirror image (until someone neglected to replicate a gesture, presumably by accident rather than on purpose)? I assume it was intended as a play on the bifurcation of human and spirit world, yet the placing of different characters, the Foreign Princess and Rusalka dressed identically, seems merely arbitrary in that respect. Is the lack of sense the point? It could be might be; again it does not seem to be. Much of this could readily contribute to something more interesting; it is a genuine pity that it does not, remaining more at the level of opera as a ‘luxury product’ that barely registers as drama. If, for instance, at ENO, you favoured Carsen’s similarly ‘beautiful’ Midsummmer Night’s Dream, with a not dissimilar bed centre-stage, to Christopher Alden’s gripping piece of theatre with the same work, this will certainly be for you. By contrast, Barrie Kosky’s brilliant production for Berlin’s Komische Oper truly penetrates to the dramatic heart, in more than one way, of the work.

Nymphs (Andreea Soare, Emanuela Pascu, Élodie Méchain), Rusalka

As a framework for fine musical and indeed stage performances, the production nevertheless worked well. Susanna Mälkki started fitfully, rendering the first act somewhat puzzling. However, in the second and third acts, she came increasingly into her own, drawing a variety of tone and phrasing, not to mention formal dynamism, seemingly unimagined by Philippe Jordan the previous night in Les Troyens. For her, the third act was undoubtedly the climax, motivic development truly working itself out horizontally and vertically in ways that Brahms and Schoenberg would surely have admired.

Foreign Princess and Prince

Mälkki’s two compatriots onstage proved outstanding throughout, Camilla Nylund offering an unfailingly differentiated performance equally attentive to the needs of words and music. Nothing was taken for granted; everything sounded – and looked – fresh. Karita Mattila announced undefinable, unmistakeable star quality as soon as she strode on stage as the Foreign Princess. One was left in little doubt whose musical wiles would win out, at least in the here and now. It was interesting to hear voices one ‘knew’ from Wagner, moreover, in this music, not at all inappropriately. Michelle DeYoung proved a formidable Ježibaba in every way. Thomas Johannes Mayer and Klaus Florian Vogt are known quantities. The former impressed once again, rather as a Wanderer on location; whether one ‘likes’ the latter is largely a matter of taste, though I shall admit to feeling that that once ethereal – if highly controversial – Lohengrin voice wears somewhat thin nowadays. All other parts were taken with great musical and dramatic skill, the three nymphs, Andreea Soare, Emanuela Pascu, Élodie Méchain, worthy of especial mention.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Les Troyens, Opéra national de Paris, 28 January 2019

Opéra Bastille

Énée (Brandon Jovanovich)
Images: Vincent Pontet / Opéra national de Paris

Cassandre – Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Ascagne – Michèle Losier
Hécube – Véronique Gens
Énée – Brandon Jovanovich
Chorèbe – Stéphane Degout
Panthée – Christian Helmer
Hector’s Ghost – Thomas Dear
Priam – Paata Burchuladze
Greek Captain – Jean-Luc Ballestra
Soldier – Jean-François Marras
Polyxène – Sophie Clasisse
Didon – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Anna – Aude Extrémo
Iopas – Cyrille Dubois
Hylas – Bror Magnus Tødenes
Narbal – Christian von Horn
Mercure, Priest of Pluto – Bernard Arrieta
Créuse – Natasha Mashkevich
Andromaque – Mathilde Kopytto
Astyanax – Emile Gouasdoué
Polyxène – Francesca Lo Bue

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, set designs)
Elena Zaytseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Tieni Burkhalter (video)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: José Luis Basso)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

Home now to the greater number of the Paris Opéra’s opera productions, the Opéra Bastille opened, unfinished, with a gala performance on 13 July 1989, the bicentennial eve of the storming of the celebrated prison that had once stood on its site. The amphitheatre then had to wait until March of the following year for its first opera production: Les Troyens by Pier Luigi Pizzi. The appalling goings on, even by Parisian operatic standards, that had led to the dismissal of Daniel Barenboim from the Opéra’s music directorship before he had even begun have, touch wood, long been put behind the institution. At any rate, there could be few more fitting works to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Opéra than the crowning masterpiece of the French master the philistine Pierre Bergés of their day spurned as injuriously as they would Barenboim. If it were a pity that Barenboim were not granted the opportunity to set the record straight – imagine! – then it was a nice twist of history that the conductor would be his sometime assistant, now the Opéra’s Music Director, Philippe Jordan.

More importantly, Barenboim’s longstanding artistic collaborator, director Dmitri Tcherniakov, grasped the opportunity to stage and to rethink Berlioz’s opera in a fashion that will surely prove a turning-point in its chequered fortunes. A comparison with Carmen might seem bizarre. However unsuccessful that opera’s premiere, it can hardly be said thereafter to have lacked performances. Few productions, however, can be said to have done anything terribly interesting with Bizet’s opera: Calixto Bieito’s, yes, but also, still more importantly, Tcherniakov’s 2017 staging for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. I shall come a little to what they conceptually have in common; for now, I shall suggest that this most recent staging will prove as important a milestone for Les Troyens as his Carmen is now widely considered to have done for that opera.

Ascagne (Michèle Losier), Énée, Créuse (Natasha Mashkevich), Hécube (Véronique Gens), Priam (Paata Burchuladze), Chorèbe (Stéphane Degout), Polyxène (Francesca Lo Bue)

The division of Les Troyens into two parts, historical, structural, thematic – which is not, of course, to say that it has no other divisions, nor that the two parts do not possess greater unity – is uncommonly clear in Tcherniakov’s production, just as it was, whatever else one might have thought of it, in Philippe Jordan’s conducting. The latter emphasised in the first part, ‘La Prise de Troie’, Berlioz’s debt to and inspiration in Gluck; if only that had been sharper, rather than a somewhat inhibited, woolly-round-the-edges ‘classicism’, then musico-dramatic unity and self-reinforcement might have been achieved. As it was, we had to rely largely on Tcherniakov, who plunges us immediately into a modern, yet still monarchical warzone, very much the concern of a Trojan royal family that yet breeds dissent from within. Rolling news headlines inform and doubtless deform the populace, in a manner we are used to: fact mixed with propaganda, so we are never quite sure what is what, or whether indeed the distinction still pertains. Just as the opening ‘information’, that the siege of Troy has finally been lifted sets the scene for what ensues, so too do Elena Zaytseva’s costumes: sharp and stylish in dress-uniform and trophy-bride fashion. Is there a reality behind the news, behind the clothes? Yes and no. It depends where one looks, what one seeks. I was put a mind a little not only of Tcherniakov’s Tristan but also of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Iphigénie en Tauride, surely one of the most important Paris productions of the Mortier years. Royal families are a curious thing, especially now; being curious, however, does not mean they wield no power, nor does their pretence that they do not.
Créuse, Ascagne, Helenus (Jean-François Marras) Hécube,Polyxène, Priam Chorèbe, Andromaque (Mathilde Kopytto), Cassandre (Stéphanie d'Oustrac)

However, politics of a broader, still baser kind gnaws at the monarchy’s foundation. Just as the war ranging offstage – with occasional threatening forays onstage – is both dynastic and, in a sense not so different from the nineteenth century’s or our own, national, so our alleged hero looks both ways. Énée appears to be compromised by relations with the Greeks. We know from his thoughts – relayed on film – that he fears Priam’s foolish pride in not negotiating with them will lead to everyone’s downfall. We see Énée (apparently) welcome them once they are in the city and it is perhaps too late, yet also then take up the fight once against them. We also see his wife, Créuse, in a silent role, take her life in shame at what they have done, her suicide note relayed to us – who are ‘we/us’? – on screen. Are we being lied to, though? Who is dispensing this ‘news’, both on stage and on film?


Cassandre’s truthfulness speaks for itself, though. Just as none will listen to her onstage, no one in the audience will doubt her. That is partly to be attributed to a performance truly powerful in its verbal and musical integrity from Stéphanie d'Oustrac, but also to Tcherniakov’s direction. He places the prophetess cursed by incredulity around her in a position of alienation. She distances herself and is distanced, even despised – most clearly of all by Priam, whose casual violence during Laocoön’s obsequies once again renders the personal political, and vice versa. (The atrocity itself, only reported, had nevertheless, in modern war-media style, proved both hyper-real and hyper-unreal.) When Cassandre ventures outside the glitzy and austere throne room – venue of military high command and Hello photo-shoot alike – so as to speak, to sing to the cameramen outside, she captures the attention of all spectators at once. She speaks to camera, she distinguishes with effortless style between recitative and aria, relating them too. It is a feminist moment, but in d'Oustrac’s hands, it was equally a masterclass in lineage from Gluck and Mozart. Film speaks of her unconscious, her childhood memories, her words and notes show alignment with them rather than the deception, the display, the death elsewhere. Where Laooön’s final rituals are a state event, the bravery of Cassandre and her virgins is the real thing – as, again with seeming uniqueness, had been her love for Stéphane Degout’s Chorèbe and his for hers. Indeed, the latter’s truthfulness and romantic ardour could not have contrasted more strongly with the tortured machinations of Brandon Jovanovich’s complex, quite outstanding Énée. Ghost, fire, parafin, immolation: all seem real rather than hyper-real. But who, ultimately, knows…?

For when we move to Carthage, things are both very different and yet ultimately the same. Tcherniakov’s Carmen took us to an expensive game of psychotherapy for Don José; his Troyens now moves to a war victims’ centre for ‘rehabilitation’, whatever that might (or might not) be, role play a common element. Is that not, after all, what singers, what opera, what drama do every day – generally whilst playing with the idea that they are not? Where are the boundaries, beyond the walls of the psychotrauma units on- and offstage? Again, as in Carmen, games of identity play themselves out, again not ever quite as one expects. Didon is lauded as Queen of Carthage. We and Énée initially see her acclaimed, an agent of his therapy, dressed in the very same yellow as Créuse. We may even occasionally wonder whether the latter’s suicide were real; is this therapy for a couple traumatised by betrayal on personal and political stages alike? Probably not, ultimately, although the possibility tantalises. The staging, despite or indeed on account of its specificity of direction in the moment, remains open: adaptable to our standpoints, as well as the characters’, the director’s. As Jordan at last summoned greater Romantic fire from the orchestra – still rather less than some of us might have liked – the work opened up in a fascinating way, at least to those open for it to do so. The path shown by therapists Anna and Narbal – elegant of line as of gesture in fine, collegiate performances from Aude Extrémo and Christian van Horn – infuriated onstage and off. Parts of an audience whose behaviour was often, even by opera house standards, truly appalling, erupted prior to the fifth act, booing only obliterated by one fascist’s interminable hurling of verbal abuse. Cries of ‘Silence!’ only served to encourage, so it seemed, until Jordan momentarily defused matters by holding up a white cloth from his baton in the pit.

Narbal (Christian van Horn), Didon (Ekaterina Semenchuk), Énée, Iopas (Cyrille Dubois), Anna (Aude Extrémo)

Transformation of identities in set-pieces such as the Royal Hunt – is that not precisely what the music portrays, indeed incites? – has led inexorably to moments of violence onstage too: for instance, at the close of the fourth act, Didon’s throwing the table across the stage in anger. Whilst we have mostly been following Énée’s story – Berlioz and Jovanovich alike ensuring that – we suddenly become aware of another. And if we are human, we feel the guilt that, to be fair, this Énée displays too, whatever his decision. By bringing plot mechanics, emotions, trauma into the open – not unlike, say, the framework of the Centre Pompidou – Tcherniakov and his cast highlight their manipulation, both passive (by other forces, be they of Fate or something more human) and active (of the therapy group, of the audience). Worlds collide; lies and truths alike multiply, courtesy not least of dedicated performances from Jovanovich and Ekaterina Semenchuk. Elegant simplicity of response from Cyrille Dubois (Iopas) and Bror Magnus Tødenes (Hylas) in their big moments served also to highlight the dramatic contrast of complexity elsewhere. We might sometimes wish to hear beautiful airs, beautifully sung – who does not? – but we know, or should know, that there is far more to musical drama than that. Didon ultimately loses out in more ways than convention might ever have imagined. Does she reprise Créuse's final sacrifice in a formal and dramatic recapitulation? Has she not been preparing that role all along? Jovanovich’s portrayal of trauma and caprice may endure longer in the memory, but is that not in itself testimony to our ‘values’, our exaltation of ‘heroism’?

What of that most elevated – or enervated – of truths, Werktreue? Cuts in the theatre are hardly the end of the world. Whilst I should happily see the opera complete, I can live, as here, without much of the fourth-act ballet music (which, if memory serves me correctly, was included complete at Covent Garden in 2012, with less than convincing choreographic results). There are more fidelities, greater fidelities than are dreamt of in dull literalists’ philosophy. Such fidelities will more often than not be unleashed by infidelities, be they in love, in war, or in art. That is very much the story of Les Troyens and of Tcherniakov’s engagement with it; it should also be the tale of our engagement with both. What form that takes, or does not, is up to us. The greatest sadness, however, would be if, playing the role of heirs to Bergé and his patronising anti-modernism, we did not so much as try.