Berlioz (Les) Troyens

Polaski is the impassioned heart of this otherwise rather cold-blooded production

Author: 
hcanning

Berlioz (Les) Troyens

  • (Les) Troyens, '(The) Trojans'

This Trojans from the 2000 Salzburg Festival – a perhaps belated local première, three years before the bi-centenary of Berlioz’s birth – is a typical product of the much-debated Gérard Mortier era as opera supremo of the Mozart-Stadt. Conducted by his longtime friend and associate, Sylvain Cambreling – former musical director of the Brussels Opera when Mortier mounted Berlioz’s epic there 10 years earlier – and directed by one of his favourite men of the theatre, the late Herbert Wernicke, this is a clinical, would-be intellectual but, for the most part, not very involving gloss on this great operatic tragedy.

According to Alexandra-Maria Dielitz’s perfunctory and pretentious liner notes – which would have us believe that ‘the passionate Berlioz exegete (?) Colin Davis published a complete and definitive version based on the critical edition of the score’ in Glasgow! – Wernicke’s ‘lack of interest in that which is purely illustrative…opposes the representative spirit of grand opéra, yet at the same time succeeds in bringing out of the action an eternal, mythical level of interpretation – the feminine spirit which affirms love, life and peace is subordinated to the destructive male spirit of discovery conquest’. Hmm... All very politically correct, but Wernicke’s is just the kind of sermonising and theorising that can make deadly dull theatre even more of a trial on the small screen. He began as a designer and his set – a semi-circular whitewashed wall rent by a fallen missile visible through the gash – is a permanent fixture through which the Trojan Horse, a tree for the Royal Hunt scene and the Carthaginian seashore can be seen. If what went on within it were more exciting, it might make riveting television, but this is Wernicke directing by numbers in a well-worn style.

His costumes are contemporary: in Troy everyone wears black except for the uniform blood- red gloves and linings of the royals’ great-coats. In Carthage – where you get no sense of Dido as founder of a prosperous agrarian, artisan-led and artistic society (presumably that would be ‘merely illustrative’) – the Queen presides over a chic, prissy, champagne-quaffing and fawning court, again dressed in uniform black but with royal blue gloves. Wernicke was a fan of the opposition between red and blue (as his Royal Opera Tristan demonstrated): at the end of this Trojans the chorus comes on carrying red and blue flags which they tear up as the curtain falls.

Aeneas, as played by the strapping young American tenor Jon Villars, is portrayed as an idle, bored couch-potato in Act 4, while Wernicke reinvents Dido’s sister Anna as a comic character, tottering about with a glass of bubbly in her scene with Narbal. It’s all very facetious and unmoving and would hardly be worth the effort of sitting through 237 minutes, were it not for Deborah Polaski’s dignified and movingly sung Dido. She doubles as Cassandra and – surprisingly for an established Brünnhilde, Isolde and Elektra – she finds that dramatic soprano role less congenial vocally: her top notes sounds raw and squally and she is unflatteringly dressed by the director-designer.

As the abandoned Carthaginian Queen, Polaski’s warm middle-range sounds beautiful, she enunciates the text clearly and rises to heights of despair and passionate fury in her immolation scene, invoking Hannibal and cursing the Trojans with the rhetorical grandeur of a great classical heroine. Yvonne Naef’s Anna and Toby Spence’s Hylas – hauntingly beautiful in his homesick lament – are the only other singers who give consistent vocal pleasure (neither of them are mentioned in the partial cast-list printed in the booklet) and Cambreling is no Colin Davis. His conducting is workmanlike, effective enough, but he sanctions Wernicke’s cutting of the dance numbers with the exception of the Royal Hunt and Storm which the director stages, like the love duet in his Royal Opera Tristan, as an action-free set piece, Dido and Aemeas glaring at each other from opposite ends of the stage.

This Trojans will do, I suppose, as a stop-gap, until something more distinguished appears: no chance in the meantime of a DVD issue of the starrily cast Met performance conducted by Levine with Troyanos as Dido, Domingo as Aeneas and Norman as Cassandra?

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