Tuesday 10 July 2012

Les Troyens at the Royal Opera, or, In Praise of the Textually Faithful Production

I've hesitated about writing up any thoughts from this performance. I suffer from time to time with a kind of anxiety and I was wrestling with that during parts of this performance which clearly makes me less able to judge it to my usual observatory standards. However, there is an issue about the best approach to operatic production which I think is raised by this production and by some critical responses to it which I feel strongly about. Because of this feeling I have decided to write up my thoughts on this performance, with the caveat that my observation may not have been as clear as I would usually hope that it is.

While freely conceding that this production is not the overpowering experience that McVicar's Meistersinger was at Glyndebourne last year it does do two things which I applaud in an operatic production because they are still not frequent enough. First, the settings are faithful to the stage directions and the text. We see the walls of Troy, we see the fabled horse, we see Dido stabbing herself on a funeral pyre. Second, though less successful here than in Meistersinger McVicar still demonstrates that he thinks about how characters are positioned in relation to each other on stage in order to more effectively bring out their relationships. Related to this second point I would also argue that McVicar is not afraid to allow his characters to be still and sing (something also in evidence in his Rigoletto and in contrast to the mad busyness of all too many operatic productions).

Now, having made those points I do concede the problems. There is perhaps more fire than strictly necessary. The appearance of a statue of Hannibal at the end of Act 5 is a bit overdone. The resetting to the Crimea doesn't really make sense (although it's hardly conspicuous). The less said about Andrew George's choreography the better, except that someone else should be got in to redo it if this is ever remounted. Yet, with the exception of the choreography none of these things seriously troubled my engagement with the evening as a whole, or roused in me that disconnection between work and staging which so often happens for me with modern opera productions.

My central contention about this production is this. McVicar has taken a valid approach which fundamentally works. I worry about the negativity towards this production and his Meistersinger because I fear that the alternative is the ghastly productions of such luminaries of other London opera stages as the Alden brothers where narrative coherance and meaningful characterisation are so often obliterated.

Turning now to the musical side of things where I have two benchmarks for this work. The most completely compelling recording on disc for me is Colin Davis's second recording on LSO Live. This is the only version I've listened to which makes a really electric case for Part 2 (Acts 3-5). However, I would also say that when I heard Part 1 live at the Edinburgh Festival with Donald Runnicles, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Petra Lang as Cassandre and Christopher Maltman as Chorebus it was superb (Part 2 in that pair of performances I thought less compelling). This performance was not quite in that class for various reasons. All three leads sang perfectly creditably. The best singing of all came from Brian Hymel in Act 5 where he took it up a gear (having I stress been perfectly solid up to that point) and gave a real heroic tenor performance of the kind that pins you to your seat. Eva-Marie Westbroek was an equally solid Dido, but tired a little towards the end. I had expected in advance to be blown away by Anna Caterina Antonacci's Cassandre. Her acting was excellent but I don't think the voice is actually quite big enough for the role. In Edinburgh Petra Lang was piercing and Antonacci does not have the punch in the crucial places – most notably the final moments of the great duet with Chorebus.

Away from the big three there were some strong supporting performances. Hanna Hipp really made something out of the part of Anna especially in the final scenes as she tries to reason with Dido, calls down curses on the Trojans and collapses in horror in the face of the final tragedy. She was well partnered in their scenes by Brindley Sherratt's Narbal. Fabio Capitanucci's Chorebus was not badly sung, but a poor actor – one didn't sufficiently believe in his passion for Cassandre. Particularly deserving of being singled out among the minor parts are Adrian Clarke and Jeremy White as the disgruntled soldiers in Act 5.

The other weaker link in this show is Antonio Pappano who as a Berliozian cannot be compared with either Davis or Runnicles. This showed for me most crucially in Acts 1 and 2. These should feel as if you have been hit by a train. That is from the moment Cassandre begins her great opening aria there should be no let up in the tension – you have to feel the doom of Troy coming at you inexorably and this didn't happen. Pappano did however finish things strongly in Act 5.

As I expect I've already made clear this is not quite the overpowering experience one would have hoped for – there are enough unevennesses in all areas to prevent this from being the case. But there are also plenty of moments of inspiration and power. I would not have missed it, I was emotionally engaged by it, and nothing had me grinding my teeth in fury (not even the choreography). These things are more important than perhaps they sound.

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