BERLIOZ Les Troyens
It’s Covent Garden, more than any other company in the world, that deserves the credit for restoring – or, rather, creating – Les Troyens’ place in the pantheon of operatic masterpieces. The pioneering version of 1957, sung in English under Rafael Kubelík, can be heard live on Testament (10/09); its 1969 successor, conducted by Colin Davis complete and in French, was recorded in the studio with several cast changes (Philips, 5/70). Only now, though, has a Covent Garden production made it to DVD. It is magnificent.
Es Devlin has designed a memorable Troy, with its grim, metallic wall and the Horse studded with weapons and shields. Carthage, laid out in miniature on the stage, is less successful. ‘Set at the time of the opera’s composition’ can be a tiresome cliché but Moritz Junge’s 19th-century costumes, and the sabres and muskets, are borne with such conviction as to seem completely appropriate. David McVicar marshals his huge forces with a sure hand and shows an impressive concern for detail. For instance, he puts Priam and Hecuba – characters who usually pass unnoticed – at the centre of the stage in the second scene; and when Aeneas is bidding farewell to Dido we see Panthus comforting Ascanius. However, McVicar miscalculates in Act 2 scene 1, where the music indicates precisely where the boy should enter.
Antonio Pappano also misses one or two tricks. The duet for Dido and Anna lacks wistfulness, and the septet in the garden scene fails to conjure up the magic of a Mediterranean night; scenes that Colin Davis handled to perfection. But there is plenty of fire and passion, and the chorus – wobbly semi-chorus sopranos apart – and orchestra are in fine fettle. Anna Caterina Antonacci repeats her Cassandra from the John Eliot Gardiner production, clad here in black rather than virginal white. Every phrase, every gesture, is mesmerising. Fabio Capitanucci is odd casting for Coroebus, inclined to belt, and with poor French. Eva-Maria Westbroek as Dido is so heartbreaking in the final scenes that you forget how dramatically inept they are; and Bryan Hymel is a match for Davis’s Jon Vickers in Aeneas’s searing ‘Inutiles regrets’. First-rate performances, too, from Hanna Hipp and Brindley Sherratt.
The DVD competition shouldn’t be overlooked. The Met production will please traditionalists: a fine Dido from Tatiana Troyanos and a characteristically forceful Aeneas from Plácido Domingo, but a nasty jolt when the allegro agitato of his aria is transposed down. Gardiner has, as well as Antonacci’s superb Cassandra, the regal dignity and warm mezzo tones of Susan Graham. We are fortunate indeed to have the choice.