Les Troyens - Deutsche Oper Berlin, 11 March 2011
Les Troyens is a masterpiece rarely perfomed in Germany, so you might imagine it would be a big draw. But this swift resuscitation of David Pountney's December 2010 production returned burdened with a shedload of negative reviews. Little surprise there were plenty of empty seats and 'upgrades' to be grabbed (though Wagner and premieres aside, that's usually the case at the Deutsche Oper these days).
It was a shame. The production is flawed and the performance was less than impeccable, but I've sat through much worse.
Its greatest strength was the two central female performances. Anna Caterina Antonacci's Cassandra is straight out of a bonkers Kate Bush video. She knits the future - we first see her emerging from a hole in the ground with a little horsey taking shape at the end of her needles. I suspect all the head-grabbing and hair-tossing would have come more naturally to the first round incumbent, Petra Lang, but Antonacci suggests the torment of the reluctant seer simply by the intensity of her performance. She's not the expected dramatic soprano either, but this hasn't stopped her in the past, and there was enough power in her slim voice to cut through even the heaviest orchestration.
Daniela Barcellona's full, expressive mezzo too found huge favour with what can be a very picky audience, and deservedly so. Her diction wasn't the clearest, but she made a passionate and regal Didon, as fresh at the end as she was at the start.
Énée is not an easy role to cast, and I wonder if the Deutsche Oper were thinking about a bonus Tristan cover when they picked Ian Storey. He had some truly fabulous, thrilling moments at the top of his range, but this part needs more stamina than he could provide. A lot of the time I had the impression he was conserving his vocal fire power if not actually technically marking. He did though give a thoroughly committed performance, providing the physical and dramatic charisma which Barcellona lacks, and is perhaps the reason why she's not a much bigger name.
With the big Tristan premiere (which he also conducted) coming up two days later, I suspect Donald Runnicles didn't get much rehearsal in. At any rate, two nights later, it was like listening to a different orchestra. Playing was often shoddy, with some particularly painful brass. The opening scene almost ground to a halt as orchestra and chorus slipped further and further apart. It got better, but Runnicles went for Wagnerian weight rather than Sir Colin's definitive classical crispness, and much of the unique character of the writing was lost. I'd quibble too with his cuts, made mostly towards the end to the detriment of the narrative.
Telling the story clearly seemed to be the main aim of Pountney's production. Its fantasy/period style was fairly literal - lots of swords and shields, and a real coup de théâtre with the horse, just an enormous head nodding down from the flies and a pair of huge hooved feet. The Carthage scenes were less effective with a design centered on Marigold gloves and endless daft, sapping ballets filling the acres of flat empty stage. Pountney controversially underlines the parallel fates of the two heroines by bringing Cassandra back in the final scene to sing Anna's lines to her sister Didon. However an opera that is the quintessence of excess is perhaps not the wisest choice for a cash-strapped house - cut-price execution and crude finishing lent a school play look.
Here's the promo video: