Les Troyens, the Royal Opera House for a horse

At least the horse is good. But the Royal Opera House’s straightforward new production of Les Troyens isn’t nearly as exciting as it should be. The cast and their singing are the best of it, and both Anna Caterina Antonacci and Eva-Maria Westbroek are well worth seeing, but somehow it underwhelms. David McVicar’s production is, for the most part, not bad, but it’s not much more than average, and the whole affair never coheres enough to rise to the occasion–the occasion, in this case, being a vague Olympics tie-in and the eternal “we’re putting on a quasi-all-star uncut Les $#!&ing Troyens, the biggest opera around that isn’t in four parts.”

Berlioz, Les Troyens. Royal Opera House, 7/1/2012. New production directed by David McVicar, sets by Es Devlin, costumes by Moritz Junge, lights by Wolfgang Göbbel, choreography by Andrew George. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cassandre), Fabio Capitanucci (Coroebus), Bryan Hymel (Aeneas), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Dido), Hanna Hipp (Anna), Jin-Min Park (Iopas), Brindley Sherratt (Narbal), Ed Lyon (Hylas).

David McVicar is a smart and slick director, but rarely a profound one and over the past few years his productions seem to be losing more and more intellectual weight. (I think his Faust is legitimately brilliant, and I love his Zauberflöte, both at the ROH, but his more recent Anna Bolena and Trovatore, both at the Met, are adequate at best.) For Troyens he pulls one of his favorite tricks, setting the opera in the time in which it was composed, here around the 1850s. But that’s about the extent of his Konzept, which never creates a compelling reason for why this siege and escape happen. Who are these Trojans, Greeks, Carthaginians, or future Romans? (This exposition is something McVicar achieves with model efficiency in his Giulio Cesare, seen nearly everywhere already and coming to the Met next year). It doesn’t have to be a historically specific definition–though since he sets the piece in a historically specific milieu that might be the most satisfying–but it has to be something dramatically convincing. Here too much is left empty, with familiar-looking nineteenth-century images that do little to define the setting or characters. Nor did the cast seem to be on the same wavelength as this setting, or for that matter with each other.

The Troy acts are far easier to stage and the production works best here. The Trojans have holed up in a vaguely steampunk setting of industrial detritus surrounding a giant metal tower. Why the industrial stuff? I thought momentarily of the broken machines in Heart of Darkness, but that’s all I got. For people suffering under a long siege the Trojans look damn good, the women in beautiful dresses and the men in elaborate uniforms. (While I’m not sure why it was there, much of the design in this half is very striking.) Swooping through all of this is Anna Caterina Antonacci’s old school Cassandra, with the dramatic postures and oversized gesture of, maybe, the 1850s, or a visitor from Planet Sarah Bernhardt. Eyes painted on her hands lets her tell people’s fortunes–based on her reactions, most of them aren’t getting happy endings. If there’s anyone who can pull this kind of thing off it’s Antonacci, and she’s great fun, but Gesamtkunstwerk it’s not.

The set piece effects in Troy work well. While the Horse might seem a challenge I’m pretty sure that as long as you produce something very big and equine it’s going to be a hit, and this one, welded of abandoned weapons and snorting fire, is no exception. It looms large and is very exciting. McVicar does a good job with the ceremonies in this act as well, coming up with something convincingly ritualistic and appropriate to the music. The dancing, however, made me decide that if I ever run an opera company I will ban the use of cartwheels, somersaults, handsprings, back handsprings, backwards somersaults, and any other gymnastics in all of my productions. (The dances in Carthage made me want to expand this ban to all dance entirely–more on that in a second.)

While the Troy acts are all dark excitement and desolation, Dido’s Carthage is a land of plenty and peace and sunniness. The dark metal tower turns into a multi-tiered sandstone city, as well as a model of a tiny city that variously sits on the stage and hovers above it to no clear purpose. Unfortunately McVicar gives into a wide variety of tired Orientalist cliches out of an unironicized Ingres painting (without the nudity, surprisingly enough). Like in many other productions of Troyens, the Carthaginians have built a glorious city but not yet discovered chairs, and prefer to languish on cushions while wearing robes and shiny jewelry. The dances are more frequent and far more annoying, with lousy slinky choreography, some horribly tacky rainbow costumes and, during a typically McVicarian naiad abduction in the Chasse royale, a tree that bursts into flames. Presumably it was struck by lightning, but the effect is that Aeneas and Dido’s love is signaled by a burning bush, Old Testament style.

There is some lazy stagecraft in the last act, with a large portion of Dido’s final scene played extreme downstage in front of a black curtain, presumably as the pyre is set up behind it. While this got Eva-Maria Westbroek right down to the apron, it’s more than a litle anticlimactic and out of character for the rest of the production. The final step, however, is a mistake not of economy but of opulence. Perhaps skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to be “spoiled” but a giant head with a pointing hand enters at the curtain, looking like a man version of the Horse, presumably pointing Italie-wards. Maybe it’s Hannibal. Whatever, it’s embarrassingly like a last-minute cameo from the Terminator (not, strangely enough, pictured in any of the official photos).

McVicar knows how to create engaging Personenregie, but the staging fails to provide a larger vision, and the weirdness in the design and especially the dance unwelcomingly recalls the commodity elements of the grand opera genre. It’s a luxury buffet of what we purportedly want to see, unfortunately all the dishes don’t work together. I must say the lighting is gorgeous, though.

The cast ranged from decent to excellent. Antonio Pappano’s conducting was straightforwardly exciting and quickly paced, but tended to shortchange Berlioz’s quirkiness. I missed the orchestral detail, unusual timbres, and rapid changes of mood of Colin Davis or John Eliot Gardiner. The orchestra sounded absolutely excellent until the end, when the brass began to tire. The chorus sounded super the whole way through, and with this opera’s number of choruses that makes a big difference. The aforementioned Antonacci was surely the highlight, out of place as she was, she can declaim with such conviction and vivid presence that you forget anyone else is onstage. It’s a shame Cassandre is only in the first few hours of this epic–and only Antonacci managed to transmit a sense of the epic.

Antonacci also held a monopoly on gravitas among the cast, the rest of whom were lacking in this department. I like soprano Didos, and Eva-Maria Westbroek’s shimmering tone suits the part. She sounded lovely despite a certain lack of French style. But I wasn’t entirely convinced on a theatrical level. In roles like Sieglinde her down to earth, big sister stage persona is a great asset, but it worked against her here. Her Dido began insecure and worried and only gradually gained in stature (as her voice tired)–but it was too late, in my opinion. This interpretation could have worked had the production fit it, but as it was the second half lacked a strong center.

As Aeneas, Bryan Hymel sang some spectacularly powerful high notes, and his super technique kept his smallish voice even and consistent through the entire long role. But despite really throwing himself into it, both he and his sound are severely lacking in glamour and charisma–the voice is basically monochromatic and plain, particularly in the lower register, and like Westbroek he seems like a guy you’d hang out with rather than an ancient hero. (I have little doubt he sang the role far better than Giordani is likely to do at the Met in December, however.)

The supporting cast was solid, highlighted by Hanna Hipp’s Anna, who was slow to warm up in the duet with Dido but whose rich tone sounded absolutely lovely in the duet with Narbal. Fabio Capitanucci was a stiff but authoritatively-voiced Coroebus, Brindley Sherrett a first-rate Narbal, and Ed Lyon one of the few cast members who sounded French-ish as Hylas.

After around four hours of opera, I peered into the pit to see a cellist flipping to the back of his part, counting the pages remaining. I hate to say it but I could kind of see his point. This was a missed opportunity.

Les Troyens at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Photos copyright Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

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  1. Thanks for the evocative post; sorry it was disappointing. I'd hoped for critique of imperialism from the production, not unironicized Ingres. To be a Virgil Nerd for a moment: the helmet (winged I presume) and hand must belong to Mercury who appears to reprimand Aeneas for making sweet love to Dido and enjoying her civilization instead of founding his own. Not sure about the tree except that fire is a motif used throughout their love affair, and the lightning is referred to as a witness to their lovemaking in the cave (IV, 167.) It could also work as a reference to Jane Eyre! but probably isn't.

  2. I havent seen it yet but I Love both leading ladies and Antonacci is my favorite Cassandra based on the DVD. Have you seen it

  3. I would just like to point out that the burning tree is not McVicarian, it's Berliozian. It's clearly indicated in the score when exactly he, Berlioz, wanted the tree to be struck by lightening and burst into flames. Whether or not one is happy with the result (I for one was deeply impressed by the production), the one thing you can't discredit McVicar for is the fact that he knows the scores he's directing. To me it really came across that a lot of love and care was lavished on this marvelous score.

  4. I have no classical education but I maintain that the tree as executed here looked totally idiotic. Following stage directions literally offers no protection against looking silly.