Anna Caterina Antonacci (downstage) as Cassandre in David McVicar's new production of Les Troyens at Covent Garden
© Bill Cooper 2012
Antonacci with Fabio Capitanucci as Chorèbe
© Bill Cooper 2012
Eva-Maria Westbroek as Didon, Bryan Hymel as Énée and Barbara Senator as Ascagne
© Bill Cooper 2012
The biggest throw of the Royal Opera's 2011–12 season, Berlioz's epic Les Troyens, opened on June 25 in a two-knight production directed by (newly knighted) Sir David McVicar and conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. Toward the end of May the keenly anticipated staging suffered the withdrawal (as have some other recent events) of star tenor Jonas Kaufmann, due to sing Énée. He was replaced by American tenor Bryan Hymel, whose star is in the ascendant. The other main cast members remained as announced — Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Didon.
Four decades have passed since the company last presented Berlioz's entire five-act epic; Covent Garden had previously inscribed its name on the Berliozian annals by becoming the first house to stage the piece virtually complete in one evening (1957), an English-language production by John Gielgud that played under the baton of Rafael Kubelik. Subsequently, the work had become a speciality of former music director Colin Davis, in both the theater and the concert hall, as well as on disc. The current production had a lot to live up to.
It was certainly a partial success. McVicar and his designers, Es Devlin (sets) and Moritz Junge (costumes), provided a visual reference point in Berlioz's own time, the French Second Empire, when Napoleon III pursued a policy of national and colonial aggrandizement that ended with the almighty crash of the Franco–Prussian War of 1870 and the terrors of the Paris Commune of 1871. (Berlioz, who composed the piece in 1856–58, died in 1869.) Military uniforms and opulent period dresses distinguished the formal wear of the Trojan court as it paraded in to the strains of the famous Trojan March in Act I. Throughout the two acts of the drama's Trojan section, played in front of and within a mighty semi-circular metallic wall protecting the city of Troy, which was fatally prized open to allow the entrance of a monumental horse constructed from used weaponry, McVicar's stagecraft and direction were assured and incisive.
Both benefited from the outstanding individual performance of the evening, Antonacci's Cassandre. Grand and intense, her smoky, wide-ranging voice amply fleshed out the Trojan princess's baleful visions, her skilled use of physicality embodying the character's terrified isolation. She was strongly supported by Fabio Capitanucci's forthright Chorèbe, a portrayal boldly etched and sustained in a formidable, martial baritone. Adding to the evening's visual distinction, the dumb-show of Hector's widow Andromache and their son Astyanax was beautifully acted by Sophia McGregor and Sebastian Wright.
When the production moved on to Carthage after the first interval, McVicar's touch became altogether less assured. Initially, a use of warm Mediterranean colors in both the costuming and the vast layered cityscape representing the North African locale brought welcome contrast to the dour, dark-toned look of the developing Trojan disaster. But the stage picture became fixed at this point, varied only by the use of a plain drop curtain for Dido's great final scene that rose to reveal a rather meager-looking pyre for the queen to ascend. Episodes such as the Royal Hunt and Storm — a crucial moment in the narrative — and the ghostly reappearance of Énée's former fellow citizens, urging him on to Italy, were ineptly presented. The decorative Act IV ballet, poorly choreographed by Andrew George, seemed otiose. The reappearance of the Trojan Horse at the end of the final scene, now crowned with a semi-human head, was mystifying.
Westbroek's Didon, too, failed to match the all-round excellence of Antonacci's Cassandre. The part sounded low for her, its emotional warmth and dignity only partially realized in a presentation that registered as nervous and small-scale. She had able support from the engaged Anna of Polish mezzo Hanna Hipp and the lordly bass of Brindley Sherratt as her chief minister, Narbal. German mezzo Barbara Senator's lithe vocalism gave her Ascagne grace and charm.
The only character to sing in all five acts of the opera is Énée, in which role Hymel proved to be a more than creditable replacement for Kaufmann — an artist who now probably ranks as the opera world's favorite tenor. With high notes placed expertly and delivered with security, as well as a keenly focused overall approach that took on all the tension and drive of the character with complete confidence, Hymel came through with flying colors.
Pappano steered the music along with care and attention, if not quite the constant fire and electricity Berlioz demands. The result maintained excitement during the first two acts but fell short in the last three, which felt tepid and occasionally becalmed. Despite this, the standard of choral singing and orchestral playing remained high throughout the long evening.
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