Les Troyens - Royal Opera House, 25 June 2012 (first night)
Covent Garden’s new production of this difficult opera falls short of an unblemished triumph, with a tendency to emphasise the work’s inherent weaknesses. But some high-quality singing and a couple of stunning coups de théâtre did much to compensate for a shortage of musical and visual coherence rooted in the score itself.
Visually speaking, the first half, the sack of Troy, provides most of the highs. Best is the impressive Trojan horse, a gigantic head made of discarded weapons. The mighty beast rocks and rolls its path through the gullible Trojans, bursting into impressive flames at the end of Act 2. Troy itself is a hive of 19th century industry, sternly monochrome, filled with prim Victorian dames and be-whiskered soldiers. Quite why remains unclear. A critique of Second Empire colonialism seems to be on the cards, but nothing that ambitious is eventually provided.
Didon’s Carthage is no more than a visual contrast, a sandy polyethnic Kasbah glittering with sequins and sari fabric. McVicar is interested only in the relationship between Didon and Énée, dismissing the political pressures bearing down on her domain. We do discover the reason for those leather aprons though – the handsomely muscled natives have been welding a metal Wicker Man together from the leftover bits of Trojan horse. On it rolls in the closing bars to impressed gasps all round.
Pappano struggled to find much more structure or narrative clarity than McVicar. Though the orchestra played very well, the pace sagged here and there early on, with the final two acts proving the most rewarding musically.
Anna Caterina Antonacci was the pick of the singers, writhing and rolling as she delivered her terrible warnings with her immaculate diction, clearly mad as snakes. Eva Maria Westbroek was in top form vocally, and it was a pleasure to listen to her, but style is not her strong point, and ultimately her Didon lacked the musical authenticity that singers like Janet Baker and Susan Graham have brought.
It has been said that the part of Énée is so impossibly written that it needs three different tenors. Bryan Hymel provided one of them – Act 4’s lyrical love duet fell in his comfort zone and highlighted his strengths. His heroic money notes were also spot-on. Elsewhere, he fell back on a pinched, reedy tone to raise his smallish voice above the might of the orchestra. And, it’s been said before, but he’s fatally short on charisma for a leading man.
The smaller roles provided some of the nicer surprises. Hanna Hipp’s Anna was little short of sensational – her dark, velvety mezzo marks her as an Elina Garanca in the making. Ed Lyon sang Hylas’s song with exquisite beauty and Brindley Sherratt was an authoritative Narbal. But it was the expanded Chorus, splendid and indefatigable, who emerged from the five and three quarter hour marathon with the most glory.
Some practical points if you're going. The sets are built high, but all the principal action takes place centre front. If you're in a restricted view seat, what you're missing is not that important, trust me (though those on the left may have to lean forward to spot the horse). Programmes are magazine-sized and cost £10, perhaps one reason why they'd run out of free cast sheets when I arrived (replenished at the first interval). Intervals were extended way beyond the published 30 minutes, and we didn't get out until 10.45 - I don't know if they intend to repeat that.
production photos (above) Bill Cooper / Royal Opera House
curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com