Friday 29 August 2014

EIF 2014 – Mariinsky's Les Troyens, or, Failing to Really Catch Fire

In advance of this performance my hopes were for another evening of the intensity of the same company's 2011 Die Frau ohne Schatten where a superb production and Gergiev's driven account of the score offset vocal weaknesses. But it was not to be. There were good things about this performance, but too many problems for it to qualify as a vintage evening.

As in 2011 the production is cast from the depth of the company. Unfortunately, most of them just aren't sufficiently suited to the roles to really bring them off. The finest solo performance for me was Alexey Markov's Chorebe who showed a vocal flexibility coupled to real presence which others lacked (though some of the responsibility here is clearly the director's). Although the match with Mlada Khudoley's Cassandre was not perfect, and I thought Gergiev didn't quite have the last ounce of drive in “Quitte nous des ce soir” their duet as a whole was one of the most satisfying portions of the evening. Elsewhere Khudoley was capable of powerful moments but lacked the richness in the lower register the part really needs, and as with others, there were issues with the direction. Ekaterina Semenchuk's Didon was generally also of a high standard. She has a thrilling intensity in her lower voice which packs a real punch and was capable of rising to the necessary heights elsewhere. But she did disappear under the orchestra in the softer moments and tenderness, which the part does sometimes need, especially in the great love duet, is not really her thing. Finally, and most disappointingly, among the principals we had Sergey Semishkur's Enee. He was anonymous in his Act Two encounter with Hector's ghost. By Act Five it was clear he'd been saving himself and there he could at least do the high notes, but they were barked rather than ringing and he was often not very pleasant to listen to. Like others tenderness was not something he was really capable of, contributing to the flatness of the love duet. Ultimately, he really doesn't have the heft or the flexibility for the role. Among the supporting parts the best performances were Yevgeny Akhmedov's Hylas and Ekaterina Krapivina's Anna (though the latter did not erase the memory of Hanna Hipp's marvellous performance at the Royal Opera).

Yannis Kokkos's production struck me as either half baked or under rehearsed. The stage is generally rather bare with a huge mirror at the back for Acts One, Two and Five onto which images are sometimes projected and which otherwise is presumably intended to create the effect of a much larger arena. Generally I didn't find the portions when it acted as a mirror terribly convincing – mainly because the resulting geography is so odd. Kokkos also likes to lower a cardboard cut out like building facade at various points to create the effect of rooms looking out over the city. This does produce some nice images but it also becomes distracting, and performers have a tendency to wander in and out through the doorways in a rather confused way. The minature models of Dido's new buildings are a nice touch though, as is the fleet. The projections don't really create anything like the effect of the real fire and horse of McVicar's production for the Royal Opera when Troy falls. They're at their best in the Royal Hunt and Storm scene, until the sudden appearance of a bafflingly large white horse. A further problem with the production is an indecision about whether to be literal or not. Generally it is, which makes it simply confusing when characters clearly ought to be holding swords or other items and haven't got them. There is also some typically ill-advised substitution of guns for swords. Finally, from where I sat in the low number side stalls there was a level of backstage carelessness which really shouldn't happen in a performance at this level. On far too many occasions (most conspicuously during the unfortunate business of getting Hylas's cage back to ground level) I could see backstage personnel going about their business, or dancers and other performers warming up (someone should definitely tell the dancers in Act Four that they shouldn't start making shadow images even if they are bored while waiting for their cues).

However, the biggest problem with the production was the quality of the acting and the management of personnel. Either this performance was under-rehearsed or Kokkos had not given enough thought to the interaction between his principals. There was far too much stand and deliver coupled with repeated attempts at dramatic gesture which increasingly failed to give the necessary sense of intense drama. If the principals are first class you have a better chance of getting away with this, but the singing was too often just not strong enough to compensate. The worst culprits though were the chorus. They rarely looked convincingly in character, often seemed to be wandering about aimlessly (why on earth Kokkos brought them all on at the back to meander about just before the love duet in Act Four was beyond me) and relied on the same unconvincing stock gestures. Musical relations with the pit were not of the appropriate precision either.

In the pit there was some very fine playing and thrilling passages from the Mariinsky Orchestra, but it didn't pack the same punch overall as in Die Frau. The responsibility here is clearly Gergiev's. His reading of the score was disjointed both as a whole and in particular passages – the building of the description of Laocoon's death for example could have been better shaped. Nor were these issues compensated for with enough of the excitement and intensity which made Die Frau so thrilling.

Les Troyens may not be seen on a Scottish stage again for quite some time (given the state of Scottish Opera) and this performance does have enough merits to make it worth seeing but it didn't get close to the intensity and thrill of Donald Runnicles's concert performance (albeit split into two parts) at the 2001 Festival. A reminder at the last of one of the great missed opportunities of Mills's eight year tenure.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Sorry to hear this was not up to snuff, but (still) grateful we'll have The Man Himself for Troyens in SF next June.

Andrew R. Davidson said...

The DVD of this production in Paris was on my Amazon wishlist. After seeing the opera in Edinburgh, I have deleted it. The show was good but not very good, and certainly not worth owning on disc, even if the performances themselves differ in quality.

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