Berlioz’s Les Troyens is one of the largest-scale operas in the repertoire – it has five acts, two parts with only one large role in common, not to mention it requires a large orchestra, large-voiced soloists and grandiose settings. The change of mood between the Trojan and the Carthaginian settings is particularly tricky for conductor and stage director.
In what regards musical values, the Dutch Opera has made the right decision in inviting John Nelson. The American conductor is an experienced Berliozian who never forgets to comply with the composer’s stylized classicism and who masters the art of setting the tempo that makes the music flow while keeping the necessary grandeur. I really did not feel the four hours and twenty-five minutes as something long during this performance. It is a pity, though, that the Nederlands Philarmonisch Orkest is not entirely at ease with this music. It worked hard to achieve nimbleness – strings smeared passagework and brass were a bit quacky and imprecise. In spite of that, the maestro could produce the right atmosphere with the means available and never fall short of the theatrical demands.
Although Pierre Audi’s staging is not really memorable, it is generally successful in producing large-scale effects with a limited number of scenic elements – three transparent bridges decorated with friezes that turn into columns for Dido’s palace. His vision of Troy is more convincing that his Carthage, which features too many basic colours at once plus neon and silly coreographies by Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn. As for the golden folding chairs, they really look cheap beyond salvation.
This was Eva-Maria Westbroek’s debut as Cassandre. The first thing I should say is that it is really refreshing to see such gimmick-free, no-tricks approach to dramatic singing. This is a voice honestly and healthily produced by the gift of nature and by means of good old solid technique. As a result, nothing sounded strained or pushed or forced. Her top notes are particularly round. She also has an intense stage presence and eschewed exaggerations. Her French is not exactly idiomatic, though, but it is not careless either. Some might have wished for more variety, but the role itself is basically emphatic – and the world of opera would be a paradise if one could overlook the impressive resources of a singer such as Westbroek in this repertoire.
When I saw Yvonne Naef as Cassandre back in 2008, I had the impression that Dido was her role – and I am not mistaken. The Swiss mezzo gave a most praiseworthy performance of that part this evening. She masters the style, enunciates the French impeccably, her mezzo has a light yet rich and penetrating sound, she is extremely musical and colours the text sensitively. She does have regal enough an attitude and worked herself up to a powerful yet dignified frenzy in Act V. Considering these important qualities, the occasional edginess is more than forgivable.
There seems to be a heroic tenor in Bryan Hymel, but his voice is placed too forwardly and too nasally to allow him true dramatic singing. Because of the nasality, his French vowels sounded indistinct and there was very little tonal allure in his voice. He does have stamina, though, and managed to balance his resources wisely to produce a forceful account of Inutiles regrets.
Jean-François Lapointe was a most satisfying Chorèbe, singing with firm voice and handling the text expressively. Considering this is a live performance and not a studio recording, minor roles were cast quite glamorously. Although Charlotte Hellekant and Alastair Miles were neither of them in splendid voice and not entirely comfortable with the language, they do have charisma. Greg Warren’s Iopas could do with a more dulcet voice, but his top notes are indeed easy and full.