Monday 9 July 2012

Les Troyens, Royal Opera, 8 July 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Cassandre – Anna Caterina Antonacci
Chorèbe – Fabio Capitanucci
Enée – Bryan Hymel
Didon – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Narbal – Brindley Sherratt
Anna – Hanna Hipp
Ascagne – Barbara Senator
Priam – Robert Lloyd
Hécube – Pamela Helen Stephen
Ghost of Hector – Jihoon Kim
Panthée – Ashley Holland
Hélénus – Ji Hyun Kim
Greek Captain – Lukas Jakobski
Trojan Soldier – Daniel Grice
Iopas – Ji-Min Park
First Soldier – Adrian Clarke
Second Soldier – Jeremy White
Hylas – Ed Lyon

Sir David McVicar (director)
Leah Hausman (associate director)
Es Devlin (set designs)
Moritz Junge (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Andrew George (choreography and movement)

Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

It would be difficult not even to feel a little grateful for one’s first opportunity to see The Trojans in the theatre. By the same token, save for the very fact of that experience, it would be difficult to come up with a single instance in which Sir Colin Davis’s 2003 Proms performances were not superior. The Royal Opera’s new production is alleged to have some connection to the Olympic Games; the only connection I can think of is of large sums of money being ill-advisedly spent.

The chief villain here, for the performances are certainly not without merit, is the director, Sir David McVicar. Whether the knighthood has gone to his head, whether he is overworked, or whether he simply has no interest in Berlioz’s opera, something has gone terribly wrong here. Or perhaps better, nothing has gone right. Some of McVicar’s earlier work was very good indeed – I think especially of his Turn of the Screw for ENO – but more recently, it has been difficult to discern much beyond bread and circuses, an alleged theatrical imperative ‘to put on a show’, ‘to entertain’, taking precedence over any tedious requirements to have an idea or two. (In an opera of the scope and length of The Trojans, a dizzying three might be thought advisable.)

There is, I suppose, a ‘concept’ of sorts, namely setting the work – though would one know, if one were not told? – at the time of the Crimean War. Yet that is it, and I cannot for the life of me work out what the mere setting – an old, increasingly tired McVicar updating to the time of composition – tells us about the work, nor even what The Trojans tells us about the Crimean War. The set for the first part looks like something designed for a West End musical, doubtless testament to a great deal of skill on the part of Es Devlin, but to what end? There is, of course, a great deal of ‘theatrical’ busy-ness, unnecessary extras all over the place, children in particular making an unpardonable noise over the score, as if the cast were not large enough already. As for the horse and the bizarre iron man at the end, there is something quite repellent about the resort to pointless and doubtless extremely costly ‘special effects’; the ghost of Francesca Zambello’s hapless Don Giovanni, which we had all believed put out of our misery for good, is summoned in the silly use of fire at the end of the second and fifth acts with respect to the two ‘machines’. McVicar seems to have far more in common with Meyerbeer’s ‘effect without cause’ – at least if one believes Wagner – than with Berlioz’s world of fantasy, let alone the nobility inherited from Gluck. Indeed, I cannot imagine an approach less suited to an heir of Gluck. As for the mismatch between pseudo-realism and the requirements of myth, it was well-nigh impossible so much as to discern that the problem had even registered with those responsible. Carthage is vaguely ‘ethnic’. Perhaps the intention – I am being charitable – was to criticise orientalism; what we see instead is as clear an instantiation of orientalism as one could imagine, ‘exotic’ pageantry a poor substitute for sympathy, let alone engagement. Even theatrical expertise is thrown out of the window in the fifth act, when, following the departure of Enée, Didon’s outpourings take place in front of a dismal curtain, to enable extensive scene-changing to take place. And then, there are the horrors of Andrew George’s choreography. I am not sure I have ever seen anything quite so catastrophically inept, certainly nothing so insultingly unfitted to a musico-dramatic masterpiece, as the all-purpose writhing on the floor to which the ladies – and we – were subjected. I can readily imagine greater dramatic tension in a ladies’ sewing circle than George and McVicar were able to summon up for the followers of Cassandre. It seemed of rather more interest to them, if hardly of any greater dramatic import to us, to ensure that comely male dancers would display more flesh with their every appearance.

Singing, may the gods be thanked, fared better. Pick of the bunch was for me Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandre. I can imagine others thinking differently and thinking her portrayal over-acted. However, the wild intensity of her account, seemingly quite dissociated from the trivia elsewhere on stage, pointed to the possibilities another production might have brought. Had a director been serious about engagement with an Oriental ‘Other’ and its strange – to us – world of prophecies and rituals, Antonacci’s Cassandre would have been the perfect place to start. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Didon was heartfelt, sympathetic, accomplished, if not quite on the level of some past assumptions of the role. Hanna Hipp, after a slightly uncertain part, grew in stature as Anna, the heroine’s sister; there are a voice and a stage presence here with great potential to go far. Ed Lyon has little to do as Hylas, but what he does, in that gorgeous fifth-act song, is delectable to a degree; there was also a sense of French style here far from ever-present elsewhere. Brindley Sherratt’s Narbal and Ji-Min Park’s Iopas made impressive contributions, the former an excellent demonstration of strength in a character role. Likewise, the stars of Pamela Helen Stephen and Robert Lloyd shine brightly if briefly as the royal pair of Hécube and Priam. Lloyd’s French, both linguistically and stylistically, put to shame the dismal efforts of Fabio Capitanucci as Chorèbe. (French is a notoriously difficult language to sing, but I cannot recall hearing worse than that.) Bryan Hymel’s Enée fared little better in that respect, sorry though one felt for him in a situation when everyone was doubtless ruing the absence of Jonas Kaufmann. His tone was often dry, often strangulated, but there were moments when something freer emerged, even if the style sounded far more appropriate to nineteenth-century Italian repertoire than to Berlioz.

For much of the first part, the same could have been said of Sir Antonio Pappano’s conducting, despite the magnificent efforts of the orchestra. Indeed, the emphasis on display, seemingly ignorant of or uninterested in the legacy of Gluck, fitted all too well with McVicar’s production, and was often mercilessly hard-driven. There was undeniable skill, yet it was misplaced. However, from the third act onwards, and particularly during the fourth, Pappano showed himself far more sensitive to the delicacy that is at least as much a hallmark of Berlioz’s orchestral writing as his grander statements. The enchanted love-music at the close of the fourth act was, if not a match for Sir Colin’s performances, ravishing on its own terms.  The chorus, if on occasion a little rough-hewn, was for the most part a powerful music and dramatic presence.

Alas, the strengths of many of the musical performances could not distract one from the emptiness of the staging. Were it not for the half-hearted ‘updating’, the mindlessness of the production might have ‘Made for the Met’ stamped upon it. As it is, Vienna, Milan, and San Francisco will have to share the co-production woes of this crowd-pleasing extravaganza. (By the way, someone should inform McVicar that Mercury’s wings should be on his helmet or his shoes, not his back.) Is it not time perhaps for someone who has become almost a house director at Covent Garden to be used a little more sparingly? Imagine what a director – Stefan Herheim, for instance – more willing to engage with a work’s intellectual concerns and context might have done with The Trojans, and then ask whether this glorified pageant, with 'movement' that travelled so far beyond embarrassing that English vocabulary has yet to catch up, were more deserving of association with the vulgar, hubristic nonsense of the Olympics than with the fantastic subtlety of Berlioz.