Traditional and Bold
Berlioz's Les Troyens,
heard by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
heard by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
The staging of Hector Berlioz's Les Troyens (in the full unabridged critical edition) is a challenge rarely taken up by opera theatre administrators. The five act opera requires a huge orchestra, twenty one soloists, a double chorus and a corps de ballet. In addition, the opera calls for special effects: the Trojan horse, the burning of Troy, the Trojan vessels reaching Carthage, a royal hunt, a major storm and finally Dido's holocaust on a fiery pyre. Strictly speaking it is not longer than certain Wagnerian operas, but the frequent changes of scene during its five acts need intermissions. Thus, the audience is kept in the theatre for nearly six hours. While Berlioz was alive, only the second part was staged in a secondary theatre and with the title of Les Troyens à Carthage. In the nineteenth century, the full opera (ie including the first two acts dealing with the fall of Troy) was performed mostly in German and Austrian theatres, in drastically shortened versions. In short, only in 1957 was a full critical edition was available, and with that came the fear of opera administrators to cope with the high investment needed to produce it.
La Scala has staged it merely three times before the current production. I saw and heard the 8 April 2014 opening night. In 1960, a somewhat abridged production (in Italian) was presented; in 1982 and in 1996 it was in French and uncut. The current production is the effort of four major opera houses: in addition to La Scala, Royal Opera House, Weiner Staatsoper and San Francisco Opera. A DVD — based on the London performances a few months ago -- is already available. Agreements have been made with cultural television channels and movie theatres to provide for a very large audience and have box office proceeds higher than normally provided by opera house ticket sales.
Even though, since the 1969 centenary of Berlioz's death, several theatres have shown more or less complete versions of Les Troyens, this production is likely to be considered a landmark for the major effort and strict cooperation between the four opera houses co-producing it.
The most distinctive element of the musical direction (Antonio Pappano) and the dramaturgy (David McVicar as stage director, Es Devlin as set designer, Moritz Junge as costume designer, Wolfgang Göbbel responsible for lighting, Lynne Page as choreographer) worked hand in hand to challenge the deeply rooted myth whereby Les Troyens would be one of the most juicy fruits of French grand opéra. Berlioz was, of course, French, and several grand opéra conventions are in the work — the five act structure, ballet and special effects. Berlioz, however, abhorred grand opéra in the Meyerbeer style (and disliked Wagner's music drama as well). His models were the heroic imperial operas by Gluck and especially Spontini: extended musical numbers, orchestral interludes, pure singing bordering on bel canto). In short a tragédie lyrique that followed Gluck and Spontini's heroic approach but that fully incorporated all the musical innovations of the first six decades of the nineteenth century, including those introduced by Richard Wagner, even though Berlioz much disliked the Saxon composer.
Pappano, McVicar and their collaborators chose the singers, dances and colors (both on stage and in the orchestra) with the tragédie lyrique in mind, and provided a marvelous rendering. To begin with, the staging is at the same time traditional (as required in some of the theatres producing this edition) and bold. There is no attempt to give an actual political meaning to Les Troyens — as in Graham Vick's production seen some ten years ago in Florence and Amsterdam. Neither are we in a Hollywood historical movie setting in the style of Quo Vadis or Cleopatra. The plot in placed in Berlioz's own times. In the first two acts, sets and costumes recall the French-Prussian war. In the remaining three acts, we are in a Northern African / Middle Eastern town of a colonial city roughly in the same period. The action is quick, and the acting great and effective.
On the musical side, Pappano gives a heroic pace to the reading of the score and keeps the tempos very tightly. The orchestra is magnificent in the interludes and the chorus grand in the mass scenes. The only weak point is the length of the ballet in Act IV, but here Berlioz is to blame, not the performers. A similar comment can be made about Verdi's ballet in the third act of Don Carlo, often shortened or cut out altogether in many performances.
Pappano and McVicar could rely on an excellent cast of singers who are superb actors too. Gregory Kunde is a heroic Aeneas, in love with Dido but aware of his mighty responsibility towards mankind — to lay the foundation of a new Troy. From his center register, he ascends to very high acute. Anna Caterina Antonacci is a highly dramatic Cassandra with the capacity to descend to the very low register, nearly of an alto. Daniela Barcellona (Dido) has a taxing impervious role, nearly always on stage in the last three acts, especially in the grand duet of the fourth and in the final holocaust scene. Among the others it is worth mentioning Fabio Capitanucci, Giacomo Prestia, Paolo Fanale, Maria Radner and Elina Zilio — normally they sing as protagonists in important opera houses, even though in this production they have secondary roles.